'Disturbing' number of failings identified in body that investigates MSPs

A "disturbing" number of failings have been identified in the body that investigates complaints against MSPs and councillors.

Stephen Boyle, the Auditor General for Scotland, warned the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland (CESPLS) risks losing public trust.

Auditors highlighted an absence of openness and transparency, a breakdown in key relationships and a lack of effective scrutiny or challenge.

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CESPLS has since accepted 22 recommendations made by the appointed auditor.

Mr Boyle said: "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.

"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."

CESPLS assesses complaints about the conduct of MSPs, councillors and members of public bodies and decides which to investigate.

Mr Boyle's report said there had been failings in the handling of the majority of rejected complaints.

It added: “Furthermore, the auditor reports that, based on legal advice obtained by the commissioner’s office, the current operation of the investigation process (as amended in August 2020) and the assessment process does not comply with the required legislation.”

It concluded “significant improvements are needed for the commissioner’s office to provide effective strategic leadership, fulfil its statutory role and restore confidence in the effectiveness of this essential public office”.

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Scottish Labour MSP Richard Leonard, convener of Holyrood's public audit committee, said: “The catalogue of failings identified in this report are of deep concern.

“Our committee seeks to ensure the people of Scotland have confidence in the organisations they are ultimately funding by shining a light on those failing to live up to their responsibilities.

“It is essential that we get to the bottom of what exactly went wrong with the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland when we consider this report early next year.”

Ian Bruce, CESPLS’s acting commissioner, said a number of measures have been put in place.

He 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 [Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body] 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 believed to be on long-term leave.

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