Interpreting the new Code of Conduct for Councillors
The Councillors’ Code of Conduct sets out the standard of behaviour expected of elected members of local authorities in Scotland. Local councillors must conduct themselves in accordance with the Code or risk facing a censure, suspension or ultimately disqualification from office.
A new version of the Councillors’ Code of Conduct took effect from 7 December 2021, replacing the July 2018 version. The new Code comes with detailed guidance but, as with any new policies and procedures, it may be some time before we see the full effect of how these new rules are interpreted and enforced.
What has changed in the amended Councillors’ Code of Conduct?
Many of the revisions in the updated version are intended to bring the Councillors’ Code of Conduct up to date and make it more user friendly. For example, there has been a general rewrite to change the Code to the first person and adopt plain English wherever possible to make the Code easier to understand.
There is also improved clarity on some aspects of the Code. There is a greater emphasis on addressing discrimination and unacceptable behaviour in Section 3 (the Protocol for Relations between Councillors and Employees has also been rewritten and moved up to Annex A), as well as stronger rules around accepting gifts, both to protect councillors and to build confidence in their impartiality amongst the general public.
Declaration of interests
Some parts of the Code have had a more substantial rewrite. Section 5 deals with the declaration of interests. The amended Code now establishes three clear and distinct stages for a councillor to determine whether there is a potential interest that should be declared. These stages are:
- Connection – is there any link between the matter being considered and the councillor, or a person (such as family or social connections) or body they are associated with?
- Interest – is that connection significant enough that it would be considered likely to influence the discussion or decision-making? If so, it must be declared as an interest.
- Participation – the councillor must declare their interest as early as possible in meetings and must not remain in the meeting nor participate in any way in those parts of meetings where they have declared an interest.
Decision on a quasi-judicial or regulatory application
There has also been a substantial rework of Section 7 of the Code, which relates to taking a decision on a quasi-judicial or regulatory application. The changes to this section are intended to provide a more generic approach that can cover all types of applications and decisions, and not be so heavily focussed on planning matters.
Guidance on the amended Councillors’ Code of Conduct
The Standards Commission for Scotland has issued detailed Councillors’ Code of Conduct Guidance which includes examples of conduct that falls short of the standards of the Code under each section. These examples are illustrative only and are not exhaustive. Each councillor has personal responsibility for ensuring that they have read and understood the Code and accompanying guidance and conduct themselves accordingly.
The Standards Commission has also updated versions of its advice notes to reflect the amended Code. The notes cover, for example, how to declare interests, receiving gifts and hospitality and using social media.
Harper Macleod’s public sector team are familiar with the amended Councillors’ Code of Conduct and can advise on interpreting and applying the new Code, as well as dealing with any disciplinary issues arising as a result of a breach or alleged breach of the Code.
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