Auditors find ‘disturbing’ failings at standards in public life watchdog

Audit Scotland said there was a lack of transparency at the office of the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland.

Katharine Hay
Monday 20 December 2021 15:49
The CESPLS monitors the standards of public officials including MSPs (Fraser Bremner/Daily Mail)
The CESPLS monitors the standards of public officials including MSPs (Fraser Bremner/Daily Mail)

There have been a “disturbing” number of failings at an organisation that investigates public complaints about the behaviour of MSPs and councillors in Scotland, a report has found.

The office of the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland (CESPLS) assesses complaints about the conduct of MSPs, local authority councillors and members of public bodies and then decides whether to investigate.

In a report by Audit Scotland an independent public body responsible for auditing most of Scotland’s public organisations, CESPLS showed “serious failings” in how it was run, including a lack of transparency and poor management of complaints.

Stephen Boyle, Auditor General for Scotland, said the report made 22 recommendations, adding: “It is disturbing to see so many failings in an organisation, not least because it deals directly with concerns raised by members of the public.”

The auditor found key relationships between CESPLS and other public bodies that provide external oversight, namely the Standards Commission, the SPCB and Committees of the Scottish Parliament, had “deteriorated to a significant degree”.

Mr Boyle also said the CESPLS had “no effective scrutiny or challenge which might have flagged up the issues earlier”.

In the report, the Standards Commission said it felt it should make a formal complaint about CESPLS after finding there had been failings in the handling of “the majority” of rejected complaints about councillors and members of public bodies, with some never being investigated properly.

The auditor concluded: “I am concerned to note the substantial weaknesses in governance at the CESPLS, disclosed in the annual report and accounts and highlighted by the external auditor in their annual audit report.

“It appears these have had a direct bearing on the effectiveness of the key statutory functions which the commissioner’s office was established to perform.

“The overarching risk is a loss of public trust in the ability of the commissioner’s office to properly investigate and consider complaints made against the conduct of individuals in public life in Scotland.”

He said “significant improvements are needed” for CESPLS to provide effective leadership, fulfil its statutory role and restore confidence in its public office.

Mr Boyle said: “It is vital that progress underway continues and that the recommendations made by the auditor are implemented.

“The overarching risk is that there will be a loss of public trust in the ability of the commissioner’s office to properly investigate and consider complaints made against individuals in public life in Scotland.”

In response to the report, Ian Bruce, CESPLS’s acting commissioner, said: “I am grateful for the auditors’ work on the review and have welcomed their recommendations, the majority of which are addressed in our strategic and business plans.

“I have been grateful, also, to the SPCB and the Standards Commission for Scotland for their support since my appointment and their recognition of the many changes that I have already made.

“I and the entire team are dedicated to working in accordance with our new plans and the new values that we have adopted as an organisation.

“It is incumbent on me and on all of the staff to earn the trust of the public and the many stakeholder organisations that rely on our effective operation as an office. We are absolutely committed to doing so.”

Commissioner Caroline Anderson, who took up her post in 2019, is on long-term leave.

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