Councillors’ Code of Conduct needs to include ECHR article

Edinburgh City Chambers.  Neil Hanna PhotographyEdinburgh City Chambers.  Neil Hanna Photography
Edinburgh City Chambers. Neil Hanna Photography
It didn’t take me long shortly after I was elected to Edinburgh Council in 2017 to know I was in the presence of dangerous idiots.

I’d proposed a motion calling for the Councillors’ Code of Conduct to enshrine Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to protect freedom of expression, after my colleague Cameron Rose and ex-councillor Jeremy Balfour faced censure from the Standards Commission for identifying officers implicated in an appalling scandal of corruption and intimidation.

They were only cleared because a panel hearing their case accepted their argument that Article 10 should apply, but the administration deleted the ECHR reference in my motion because, I was told, “it would be fun to hear a Tory argue in favour of Europe.”

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Pathetic. The Convention has nothing to do with the EU and the real reason was a watering down of anything which might give councillors more freedom to call out malpractice and upset the unions.

Sure enough, when the Code was revised in 2021, Article 10 wasn’t mentioned but as well as demanding courtesy and respect, it required councillors to “project a positive image of the Council” and to “maintain and strengthen the public's trust and confidence in the integrity of my council”.

It was a catch-all which convinced me council benches were no place for effective scrutiny and accountability. I wasn’t wrong, because as the tram report demonstrated, councillors can’t name officers alleged to have misled them.

Even without tough new rules, for nearly two years I have been under investigation by the Standards Commission for the way I criticised what I still maintain was an arrogant attempt to interfere with public debate on a matter of the highest public interest, that of sexual abuse by a senior council social worker, and the years of covering up by others which allowed him to get away with it.

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At issue was a paragraph in a report on the affair from a team of lawyers, which warned councillors like me against taking political advantage, which we had no intention of doing. But it gave the administration cover to attack anyone asking difficult but legitimate questions.

The lawyers, who were paid nearly £1.4m for their work, complained to council chief executive Andrew Kerr who didn’t hesitate in referring it to the Standards Commission, and it has taken 23 months and a lot of public money for a panel to conclude I was within my rights, overruling the Standards Commissioner who had decided I wasn’t.

Ironically, the same legal team’s review of the council’s management culture rejected claims that disciplinary action was used as a weapon against complainers. And for speaking my mind on a matter of obvious public interest I have been castigated in the vilest terms.

Councils are big organisations, so rotten apples are inevitable, but Edinburgh seems to have them by the barrelful, and while some councillors are emasculated the problems almost always track back to officers; shared repairs, the tram, abuse in social work, abuse in secure units, corruption in the education department, the list goes on.

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Those responsible are shielded, often by councillors in hock to vested interests, while challengers are disbelieved and discredited before facing the might of council legal services.

Don’t tell me high standards of public conduct involve promoting an organisation like this. It has little integrity to promote.

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