Last night we got the statement Mr Sneddon read out at last Thursday’s council meeting. I am currently taking advice on this. I have also asked him for some clarification on points within it. At this stage I am making no comment but there are aspects of it I am very unhappy with. Here it is:
Members will be aware that four senior officers of the council took the exceptional step of submitting a complaint to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland in respect of concerns about the behaviours of Cllr Michael Breslin. The complaint was investigated by the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland who concluded that he had breached paragraph 3.3 and paragraphs 2 and 20 of Annex C of the National Code of Conduct for Elected Members. The Commissioner submitted a report on his findings to the Standards Commission for Scotland which decided to hold a hearing which subsequently took place on 20th September 2016 and on 19th October 2016. The Council received a written copy of the decision on 26th October 2016 and is obliged to consider that decision within 3 months of that date. The report is included within today’s agenda pack. The decision of the Commission was that Cllr Breslin had been found in breach of paragraph 3.3 and paragraphs 2 and 20 of Annex C of the National Code of Conduct for Elected Members in relation to one of the six allegations referred to it by the Commissioner and as required by the Ethical Standards in Public Life etc Scotland Act, 2000 imposed a sanction which was to censure Cllr Breslin.
There has been a level of interest in the hearing and its outcome and a significant volume of correspondence during and since the hearing process. For the most part officers have not responded to the majority of this correspondence whilst mindful that the due process is for the report to be considered by Council. However given the nature of the allegations that have been made and personal attacks targeting officers undertaking duties as employees of this council, as Chief Executive and Head of the Paid Service I need to address some remarks to council prior to its consideration of this matter.
Firstly, the steps taken by the four officers involved were not taken lightly but came at the culmination of a series of behaviours by the councillor that were viewed as undermining the proper conduct of the management of the council’s operations and that had resisted many attempts by officers prior to that stage to improve working relationships. My intention is not to seek to open up the specific matters cited in the complaint but rather to indicate why, at the end of a long process, these exceptional measures were considered. I wish to be clear and unequivocal that suggestions that the action was politically motivated or coordinated are inaccurate and untrue – any repetition of such allegations given this clear statement will be a deliberate misrepresentation. For the sake of clarity, no elected member was a party in the decision to submit a complaint or to drafting the terms of the complaint. Equally, any suggestion that it was linked to any prior political complaint is inaccurate and untrue.
Officers as employees of the council, your employees, are precluded from publicly criticising elected members even when to do so would be in defence of their own position. This is particularly difficult when they in turn are subject to public criticism by elected members – that is why the relevant sections of the Elected Members Code of Conduct were established. It provided a clear statement of expected behaviours and a recourse for employees who are subjected to behaviours or public comments to which they have no right of reply. It is a right for individuals including employees to
make a complaint to the Commissioner in such matters when all other attempts to resolve matters have been tested to submit a complaint. It is a protection for officers who otherwise would have no such protection as regards their reputation and wellbeing in undertaking their employment.
This system also provides protection to elected members against groundless complaints in that, before a matter can be put to the Standards Commission, it has to have been investigated by the Commissioner and determined by him that the Code has been breached. If the Commissioner is of the view there has been no breach, he has no basis to put a report to the Commission.
Recent communications have suggested that the outcome has been an exoneration of the elected member or a vindication of his behaviours. It has even been represented as a percentage of guilt as if that justified the behaviours. The outcome as recorded by the Commission in their findings is that a number of breaches of the National Code of Conduct put to them by the Ethical Standards Commissioner were not found to have been established and that one of the breaches put forward by the Commissioner was found and a sanction imposed which hopefully members will reflect on.
Recent communications have also called for the payment of compensation to Cllr Breslin which has been rejected by the four officers involved in the complaint. There are no grounds for any compensation to be paid by officers who exercised their rights in an attempt to secure protection from a procedure that ultimately confirmed a breach of the national code. There was no requirement for the council to sanction the making of the complaint and no such approval was requested. Indeed such a requirement would potentially remove the protection offered by the code. As such any suggestion that the Council should pay compensation to Cllr Breslin is equally not appropriate to these circumstances.
There have also been recent calls for an independent enquiry into the conduct of the four officers in making the complaint. Again, I would highlight that there are no grounds for any such action and to consider doing so would clearly penalise officers exercising their rights to protection under the code. To do so, would send a message to your employees that they can be subjected to threatening or intimidatory behaviours or public criticism which they are unable to answer and if they seek protection they would risk being the subject of investigation. This is not the message Argyll and Bute Council wants to send to its employees.
Yes this could have been avoided. Members will be aware from the exchange of correspondence copied to them that Cllr Breslin indicated a willingness to apologise to the Commissioner’s office and on being advised of this I contacted him. An offer to apologise was however caveated by a requirement for officers to apologise to him which was unacceptable in the context of the complaint. It is a matter of regret that this situation has been reached and the need for the good and effective working relationships that are enjoyed between the overwhelming majority of elected members and council officers to be extended to all has never been greater. Following consideration of this matter, I and the other officers in this council will continue to work towards that improvement with the hope that these efforts will be reciprocated by all members.
This is the only statement that will be made on this matter by officers. It is intended to clearly set out this position without any emotional reaction to statements that have been made in email or social media and does not allow for any misrepresentation. Copies of the statement will be circulated to all elected members and other parties for their information. I would now invite the council to consider the report from the Standards Commission before them.