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Poor conduct on public boards may be going unreported says Standards Commission

14th February 2019

The problem of ‘disrespectful conduct’ is more widespread in local health boards and Integrated Joint Boards (health & social care) than in other types of public bodies, with nearly a quarter of board members responding to a survey, reporting having experienced it. (23 per cent in IJBs and 24 per cent in health boards).

And 16 per cent of board members of public bodies in Scotland, said they had come across ‘disrespectful conduct’ (which includes bullying, harassment or disrespectful language) by a fellow board member but formal complaints under the ethical standards framework  remain few and far between, the survey found.

The findings were published today by the Standards Commission for Scotland, which analysed nearly 300 responses to their Survey of Members of Devolved Public Bodies. The survey was sent to all 127 devolved public bodies in Scotland including national, regional, NHS boards, Health & Social Care IJBs, further education colleges and regional transport partnerships.

The survey also found that

  • Four in ten (43 per cent) of respondees would be ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ reluctant to make a complaint about a fellow board member with reasons for their reluctance including a fear of repercussions or concern that nothing would be done
  • A smaller number of female board members (25 per cent) said they would be ‘not at all reluctant’ to complain compared to male members (41 per cent)
  • Integrated Joint Board (IJB) members were more reluctant to make a complaint and nearly a third (33 per cent) said their board did not have a  culture of collective responsibility

While there are numerically more members of devolved public bodies than councillors covered by the Codes, the ratio of cases the Standards Commission has dealt with concerning breaches of the Codes by local authority councillors compared to members of public bodies, is 15:1.

None of the 11 public Hearings held by the Standards Commission during the year concerned a public body member.

To establish the reason for the low numbers of complaints from members of devolved public bodies, the Commission surveyed Chairs and Members to discover whether the lack of complaints was the result of a high level of adherence to the Codes of Conduct or whether instances of poor conduct were simply going unreported.

Speaking about the survey findings, Kevin Dunion, Convenor of the Standards Commission said, “We would expect that devolved public bodies which operate in a less adversarial political context than local authorities would generate far fewer complaints regarding conduct of members.

Nevertheless it is important to check whether the lack of complaints is due to exemplary conduct or whether members feel inhibited about complaining, where possible breaches occur.”

“It is good news that the majority say they are not aware of failings which could give rise to a complaint.

“However it is a matter of concern that a minority of members report having experienced or witnessed conduct that could be described as bullying, harassment or being dismissive.

“In such instances they should feel able to make a complaint if the matter is not addressed at source.

“But the survey shows that overall almost half of the respondents would be reluctant to submit a formal complaint.

“Their reasons range from impact upon relationships, concern that nothing would be done or the difficulty of challenging the Chair.

“In any case, about a quarter of members are not clear about how to make a complaint about a breach of the code.”

“I am particularly concerned about the responses coming from health boards and IJBs – which show the highest incidence of disrespectful behaviour, the lowest level of collective responsibility and the least satisfaction with training on the code of conduct, amongst devolved public bodies.”

“I will be drawing the results to the attention of Ministers and Board Chairs whilst, as a Commission, we will prepare specific training events and guidance to ensure members are better equipped to challenge and, if necessary, complain about poor conduct.”

The Standards Commission will now share the survey results with the Scottish Government to help inform their induction and ongoing training programme for board members and Chairs of devolved public bodies.

The Standards Commission will also highlight the concerns raised about disrespectful behaviour in discussions with the Scottish Government about whether a bullying and harassment provision should now be included in the Model Code of Conduct, to reflect a similar one recently included in the Councillors’ Code.

It is anticipated that later this year, both local authority and public body Codes of Conduct will be reviewed by the Standards Commission and Scottish Government, to ensure the Codes are fit for purpose.