The body that investigates complaints about the behaviour of Scottish elected representatives has a “disturbing” number of “serious failings”, according to the auditor general.
Key relationships at the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland (CESPLS) have broken down amid a lack of openness and transparency, a report found.
The organisation hemorrhaged staff while complaint numbers spiked.
Despite being responsible for assessing the conduct of MSPs, local councillors and public servants, the Commissioner’s Office itself has no effective scrutiny, Stephen Boyle, auditor general for Scotland, 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,” 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.”
The body receives hundreds of complaints each year with a huge increase of those against MSPs at the end of 2020 – just 109 were received in 2019/20, whereas 763 were received last year.
Between 2016 and 2021, the number of complaints against councillors that were not pursued rocketed from 43% to 84%.
No explanation for the change could be determined because so many staff had left.
The commissioner, Caroline Anderson, has been on an “extended period of leave” since March 2021. Ian Bruce has been acting commissioner since.
In October, he wrote that the organisation had continued to lose staff resulting in those still in position to perform duties in ways that he described as “at best, inappropriate”.
Audit Scotland has made 22 separate recommendations that have been accepted and are currently being addressed.
Mr Bruce 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.”