Code of conduct to be brought in for Borders community councillors

Jedburgh councillor Sandy Scott.
Jedburgh councillor Sandy Scott.

A code of conduct is set to be brought in for the Borders’ community councillors following a series of complaints.

Though members of Scottish Borders Council are bound by a code of conduct, there is no formal equivalent for community councils.

Several members of the public, as well as councillors, have complained about issues such as the behaviour of community councillors and the constitutions of community councils, but the lack of a code to guide them makes it more difficult to hold them to account.

A report presented to Scottish Borders Council’s standards committee last Thursday, January 17, on the other hand, praised members of the local authority for their behaviour.

Just four complaints were lodged against members of the regional council last financial year, the lowest number since 2013.

Only one of the complaints has been referred to the commissioner for ethical standards in public life in Scotland, Bill Thomson, with the councillor in question being allowed to remain anonymous until the Edinburgh-based ombudsman publishes his ruling on the matter later this year.

The rest of the complaints were dealt with in-house, and although two cases were dismissed, the third resulted in Jedburgh councillor Sandy Scott apologising to a constituent for making a throwaway comment.

Presenting his report to the standards committee, monitoring officer Brian Frater said: “There has been an overall decline in complaints against councillors in Scotland as a whole over the last few years. It’s come down from over 200 in 2015-16 to just 134 in the year 2017-18.

“If you look at the nature of the complaints, there are three subject matters that stand well out above everything else.

“One is the issue of disrespect, either against a fellow councillor or officials or employees, another issue is breaching the key principles set out in the code of conduct, and the final issue is misconduct in individual applications. The majority of those are alleged misconduct in planning applications.

“I’d stress that these are complaints received. Not all of these would be judged to have been valid complaints.

“I’m very pleased to say that in the year 2017-18 there have only been a very small number of complaints against Scottish Borders Council members – just four complaints.

“That’s as low as we’ve been over the last decade.

“Two of those complaints were alleging disrespect of members of the public, and the other two are alleging that members hadn’t declared an interest when they should have done.

“We were able to deal with all of these matters internally. None of them was referred to the commissioner within the reporting period, but one has now been referred up to the commissioner.

“We’d ideally like to think we’ll never receive complaints, but the reality is we’ll always receive them from people who are dissatisfied or are concerned about members, but the numbers we have, at such a low level, is something to be really positive about.”

Councillors were asked to authorise work on a new code of conduct to take account of use of social media.

The new code will also include provisions for community councillors, currently not covered by the regional council’s code of conduct, after some councillors raised concerns over their behaviour.

Welcoming the report, Galashiels councillor and chairman of the standards committee Sandy Aitchison said: “I think it’s a compliment to the behaviour of members that so few complaints are outlined in this report.

“I haven’t spoken to councillors from other areas, but I think we have good behaviour at our community council, but some of the stories I’ve heard from other places are concerning.”

Although complimentary about the report, Mr Scott urged caution about introducing a code of conduct for community councillors, saying: “With regards to the community councils, we don’t want to be too hard on these guys while at the same time we don’t want them to beat up us councillors.

“It’s a fine balance really. It’s quite nice for someone to get passionate about something at the community council. It wakes us up.

“I know they’d have to abide by certain rules, but I don’t want to set the bar too high as otherwise we might put people off standing for election.”

Mr Frater replied: “We have to recognise these people are volunteers. They’re giving up their free time freely to participate, and we need to acknowledge that, but there have been some issues recently where there have been questions about whether community councils have been properly constituted.

“There have been issues around co-opted members and issues around the proportion of co-opted members to fully-elected members.

“Some members of the public have come to us complaining about the arrangements in some areas, so I think there’s a little bit of tidying up that we need to do here.

“There have also been one or two, and I don’t wish to overplay this, complaints about community councillors and some of the things they’ve said and the actions they’ve taken.

“We need to make sure we are able to intervene when it is appropriate to do so.”

Councillors unanimously voted to agree the recommendations of the report, including beginning work on a new code of conduct and one for community councils.