Petition PE1594 “Specification of lying as an example of public maladministration”

Here is an entry in the Diary of Walter Humes in Scottish Review.


Thursday 3 March 2016
It’s official. People in Scotland can rely on senior figures in public bodies to tell the truth. Do I detect a sceptical eyebrow being raised? Have no fear. Last week the Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament rejected a proposal to include 'lying’ in a list of items regarded as examples of maladministration. The submission was made on behalf of Accountability Scotland, an organisation which seeks to ensure that public bodies have fair and robust procedures in place to investigate complaints. On several occasions it has been less than satisfied with the service provided by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO).

When the original Ombudsman legislation was being taken through the UK parliament, the then Leader of the House, Dick Crossman, gave the following examples of maladministration: 'bias, neglect, inattention, delay, incompetence, ineptitude, perversity, turpitude and arbitrariness’. The petitioner in the current case, Richard Burton, wanted the Crossman catalogue, together with 'lying’, to be added to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman Act of 2002. A previous attempt to get a direct answer from the head of the SPSO, Jim Martin, failed to produce a satisfactory response. He simply said that 'we would criticise a body who provided inaccurate or misleading information’. Questioned several times by a member of the public, the SPSO advice team refused to say whether lying was treated as maladministration.

It is not exactly surprising that a group of politicians should be reluctant to add lying to the list of offences. It is regarded as 'unparliamentary language’ and MPs and MSPs who accuse other members of telling lies are required to withdraw the statement and may find themselves subject to disciplinary proceedings. Politicians are often adept at evasion, obfuscation and misrepresentation, conduct that can come perilously close to lying, so they perhaps have some fellow feeling for senior staff in public bodies who are inclined to veer in the same direction. The petition was dismissed without discussion. (In the subsequent written record it is stated that it was rejected on technical/legalistic grounds.) What is the conclusion that we are expected to draw? Presumably that important people like MSPs and chief executives of public bodies can be trusted to behave ethically. Aye right.

I should declare an interest. I am a member of Accountability Scotland, though not a particularly active one. I was not involved in any way in the latest submission to the Public Petitions Committee. I do, however, have a long-standing interest in the performance of Scottish public bodies (including the SPSO) and am not inclined to share their self-image as reliable stewards of the principles of democracy and justice. Eileen Reid recently wrote a powerful piece in SR about what she saw as a state of denial within the Scottish educational establishment. Similar critiques could be extended to the health service, the legal profession and local government.