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The Standards Commission is an independent body whose purpose is to encourage high ethical standards in public life through the promotion and enforcement of Codes of Conduct for councillors and those appointed to the boards of devolved public bodies.

To share or not to share!

2nd August 2021

To share or not to share – that is the question!

One of the key principles of public life in Scotland is openness.

This places a duty on politicians and individuals appointed to public positions to be as open and transparent as possible about their decisions and actions. It requires them to give reasons for decisions and to only restrict information if there is a wider public interest in doing so.

So does this mean that the public is entitled to all information and that those in public life are free to disclose anything and everything to their constituents, service users or stakeholders?

Well… no!

Maintaining confidentiality in certain circumstances is of the utmost importance. Disclosing confidential information can impede discussions and decision-making and, further, can damage the reputation and integrity of all involved.

The Councillors’ Code of Conduct and Model Code for Members of Devolved Public Bodies in Scotland make it clear that councillors and board members must keep certain information they receive private. A failure to do so can result in a breach of the relevant Code and a sanction (including suspension or disqualification) being imposed.

Categories of information that would be considered confidential include commercial information, personal or sensitive information (such as information relating to an individual’s employment or health), information that is deemed confidential as under statute, information discussed in closed or private sections of meetings, and legal advice.

Such information is disclosed to councillors or board members for their use in that capacity. It must not be disclosed or in any way used for personal or party-political advantage or in such a way as to discredit the council or public body.

This applies even in instances where the councillor or board member thinks that the information should be publicly available.

Sometimes it can be a matter of timing – in many cases, the information may eventually be released into the public domain. However, councillors and board members must respect the requirement for confidentiality even if they consider it should be released at an earlier stage.

It may be that the public body needs to ensure that its employees are briefed and are in a position to manage external communications effectively, before the information is released. In that situation, a failure to maintain confidentiality could cause confusion and erode public trust.

Sometimes discretion is the better part of valour!