Welcome improvements made at ethical standards body, but significant challenges remain

31 January 2023

The body that investigates complaints about MSPs and councillors has made improvements to address serious failings at the organisation. However there remain significant challenges.

The Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland (the Commissioner's Office) assesses complaints about the conduct of MSPs, local authority councillors, lobbyists and members of public bodies, before determining which to investigate.

In late 2021, the Auditor General for Scotland raised concerns about a number of serious failings. Over the past 12 months, the Commissioner's Office has worked hard to re-establish the fundamentals that every public body needs to operate effectively such as an internal audit function, business plans and a risk register.

Significant challenges however remain. Alongside completing remaining recommended actions, the Commissioner's Office must address its growing backlog of cases. The number of outstanding complaints is higher than in 2020/21, and the expected time to conduct an initial assessment of a complaint can be up to nine months.

A previous organisational restructure, which intended to deliver cost savings, has been reversed, and extra funding has since been received to address immediate workload pressures. Building a governance and operational structure that is financially sustainable should now be a high priority.

Stephen Boyle, Auditor General for Scotland said:

Staff at the Commissioner's office have worked hard to address serious failings and it's clear that improvements have been made. But the dual task of meeting core business demands, alongside addressing all the concerns raised in 2020/21, means pressures on the Commissioner’s office will continue.

It is concerning that the outstanding caseload increased considerably, with a knock-on effect on how quickly claims are assessed. Further funding received for additional staffing will help, but it will take time to hire and train the people needed. It is vital that backlogs are reduced to help restore public confidence.

Improvement needs to be maintained and further progress made to address outstanding issues. I will continue to monitor this.