By Kevin Dunion

AN integral part of a representative democracy is that our public figures and professionals are trustworthy. We need to be confident that those who make decisions on issues that have a direct bearing on people’s lives do so with integrity and in the public interest.

It is 25 years since the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired by Lord Nolan, published its findings, following a number of scandals (such as MPs accepting cash for asking questions in Parliament) which undermined this public confidence. It laid out a number of principles which those in public life should adhere, which were adopted and expanded upon in Scotland. These principles which include selflessness, honesty, duty and respect are unashamedly high-minded and require strong commitment from anyone who steps into public roles.

The Standards Commission for Scotland was created to encourage high ethical standards in public life through the promotion and enforcement of codes of conduct, with which 1200 councillors and 1400 members of the boards of devolved public bodies must comply. For instance, they must register and declare interests which the public may reasonably perceive to affect their decision making, on matters such as procurement of goods and services or granting planning permission. It is true to say that throughout Scotland the vast majority of councillors and others in public life adhere to the standards expected of them.

But inevitably there are individuals who do fail the system. An increasing ground of complaint in the hearings we have held in the past few years has been lack of respect towards members of the public, employees or fellow councillors. This has included councillors making sexist, and homophobic comments in meetings and online; making unwarranted allegations of corruption against fellow councillors and staff, and inappropriate conduct female councillors and employees.

It is of the utmost importance that the victims of such behaviour have recourse and that the Standards Commission, working independently of Government and political parties, takes action to sanction those who fail to adhere to the codes. Not only does this help maintain public confidence and effective working relationships, it also helps ensure that individuals are not discouraged from standing for election and entering public life.

Invariably those who breach the code in this way will have a sanction imposed which ranges from censure , suspension and ultimately disqualification. Lengthy suspensions have been imposed but we had never disqualified a councillor from their duties, until last month, when a panel I chaired used this strongest punishment for the first time. This followed a finding that the councillor had subjected colleagues and council officers to unjustified allegations of wrong-doing and demeaning personal attacks over a long period of time. These went well beyond what might be considered normal or even acceptable in a party-political context and, instead, were found to amount to harassment.

The Standards Commission has worked hard to promote and enforce the ethical standards framework. As confident as we might be that the it has an impact is reaching those at levels of public life, it is not difficult to find examples of much more powerful public figures who seemingly flout the expectations of those they should serve. Covid-19 is changing the way we act as a society and how our representatives need to respond to the economic, social and health challenges. But the sacrifices and costs required make it even more important that high ethical standards, especially of integrity, leadership, objectivity, accountability, and openness, are not only observed but apparent to all.

Kevin Dunion is Convenor, Standards Commission for Scotland