The cost of complaints

Max Andrews States Members Picture: DAVID FERGUSON. (37755248)

IT costs nearly £4,000 to investigate a complaint against a States Member, the Island’s political watchdog has revealed – with most grievances resulting in politicians being advised to apologise to each other.

Commissioner for Standards Dr Melissa McCullough, who investigates alleged breaches of ethical and behavioural guidelines for politicians, confirmed that investigating a complaint costs the taxpayer an average of about £3,800.

The lack of accountability demonstrated by certain politicians in acknowledging and rectifying their mistakes was an issue also identified in the commissioner’s annual report for 2023.

Dr McCullough, who is based in Northern Ireland and was appointed as the first pan-island commissioner last year, is responsible for providing advice on standards of conduct for elected members and for investigating complaints when breaches may have occurred.

Her annual report for 2023 showed that 17 complaints against politicians were made last year, with most involving Members accusing each other of misconduct.

Only 41% of complaints came from the public.

Of these 17 complaints, nine were deemed inadmissible, eight were admissible, and two remained open.

Only five complaints, which are outlined below, proceeded to a full independent investigation.

In four out of five investigations, Dr McCullough found that the accused politician violated the code of conduct, which outlines certain ethical and behavioural guidelines that States Members are obliged to follow.

In all four of these successful cases, the reprimanded politician was told to apologise to their fellow States Members.

Beyond the findings of misconduct, a recurring theme identified by the commissioner was the repeated failure of certain politicians to recognise and rectify their errors before the issue escalated.

The JEP took a look at the five complaints which proceeded to full independent investigations – and cost the taxpayer £19,000 to investigate…

Not respectful

Deputy Moz Scott had her knuckles rapped last August and was told to apologise to Deputy Max Andrews after telling him to “f*** off” twice.

The commissioner concluded that the language was “not respectful or courteous”, and that Deputy Scott had breached the Code of Conduct.

Moz Scott. Picture: DAVID FERGUSON. (37755245)

However, the commissioner added: “It is my view that this complaint would have been better dealt with through mediation, which was offered and declined by Deputy Andrews.

“I am not convinced a formal complaint was the best and most efficient way to try and resolve the issue.”

Letter of apology

At the same time, Deputy Andrews was also told to apologise to Deputy Scott for his behaviour and language.

The complaint related to Deputy Andrews telling Deputy Scott that she looked “stunning” and giving her expensive gifts, including an “inordinately expensive” box of chocolates, Chanel perfume and bath oil.

The complaint also related to a heated exchange on Liberation Day when he was reported to have called her a “silly cow”, in addition to an incident where he shared a document called “Notes on Moz” via email that contained “sensitive, confidential and unverified information”.

The States voted to censure him after the commissioner found that he had breached three articles of the code.

Dr McCullough reprimanded him for his “discourteous communications to her and about her”, along with reported violations of her boundaries and disclosing confidential information, suggesting that he should write a personal letter of apology to Deputy Scott.

Did not mislead

In June, then Chief Minister Kristina Moore and her Deputy Chief Minister Kirsten Morel were cleared by the commissioner of deliberately misleading the States over the extent of their knowledge about the shock departure of former government chief executive Suzanne Wylie.

During a States sitting in March, Deputy Morel denied knowledge of any government resignations, while standing in for Deputy Moore.

The following day the public announcement of Mrs Wylie’s resignation was made, leading some Members of the States to accuse Deputy Morel of misleading the Assembly.

However, the commissioner said that Deputies Moore and Morel’s handling of Mrs Wylie’s resignation was down to a genuine mistake and confusion surrounding the dates.

Misused power

In December, the commissioner found that then-Health Minister Karen Wilson and ex-Scrutiny panel chair Deputy Geoff Southern “misused the power of their positions” and caused reputational damage to fellow panel members by circulating untrue information about them.

Deputy Wilson was also found to have “missed a number of opportunities to rectify the matter”.

The “untrue statements” were alleged to have been made in a letter from the then-Health Minister to Deputy Southern in February.

In the letter, the minister accused Deputy Barbara Ward of referencing information about the appointment of Professor Hugo Mascie-Taylor that she had gleaned in a previous private meeting in a public Scrutiny hearing.

Deputy Wilson also accused Deputy Ward of conveying sensitive information about the States Employment Board to the Scrutiny panel and claimed that she was “routinely drawing the [Health Scrutiny] panel away from its purpose”.

The former Health Minister claimed in the letter that Deputy Andy Howell had “not always acted in a professional manner towards the public servants responsible for Health and Community Services”.

However, the commissioner found that the letter “wrongly suggested that Deputy Ward cannot be trusted to keep confidence and that Deputy Howell is a bully”.

Dr McCullough added: “Being wrongly accused of these things, to the knowledge of States Members, the wider public and the press, was stressful and damaging to the Deputies’ reputations.”

The commissioner described it as “quite unbelievable” that there was “such a lack of willingness to listen, understand and put the record straight”.

Both Deputy Wilson and Deputy Southern were asked to apologise to Deputy Barbara Ward for breaking the Code of Conduct for States Members.

Felt intimidated

Deputy Chief Minister Kirsten Morel was reprimanded by the commissioner in January for showing “aggressive” behaviour towards a colleague in February which left her fearing “he was going to hit” her, and unable to sleep.

Deputy Kirsten Morel was found to have breached the Code of Conduct and asked to apologise by the Commissioner for Standards, following a complaint from Deputy Barbara Ward that he invaded her personal space and acted in an intimidating and verbally aggressive way.

“I felt so intimidated by his closeness and aggressive verbal manner that I thought he was going to hit me as he appeared so cross with me,” Deputy Ward told the commissioner.

Deputy Morel, who denied having regular “outbursts” but admitted to being “passionate”, has since apologised to Deputy Ward.

The commissioner concluded that Deputy Morel’s behaviour towards Deputy Ward on 28 February 2023 was “inappropriate and should not have occurred”.

However, she outlined the fact that Deputy Morel did not intend to upset Deputy Ward, that he appears to understand and has reflected on the matter, and that he says he has since made a determined effort to change his behaviour and keep his emotions in check.

Dr McCullough said that Deputy Ward’s complaint illustrated the “importance and benefit of raising complaints of this nature – notwithstanding that it can be difficult for all concerned”.

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