Councilors express concern over abuse

Scotland’s chief councilor described online abuse and harassment against public servants as “a threat to local democracy”.

CoSLA Chair Councilor Alison Evison told West Lothian councilors they needed to show leadership in promoting civility in public life to tackle the problem.

And he warned that avoiding challenging and reporting abuse and harassment cuts to the core of communities.

She said: “Everyone here will be aware of the impact of incivility, the impact of disrespect and cruelty in our own lives as councilors serving our communities.

“We are also mindful of the broader impact on families and communities. Stress can affect a large number of people around us. Incivility in public life that makes people think twice before participating harms us all and harms our communities. This is something that CoSLA has deemed crucial to address.”

The rise in online abuse targeting elected representatives was acting as a barrier, discouraging many, especially women, from running for public office, he said.

“It became clear that women in public life are much more targeted than others,” Councilman Evison said.

There is also evidence that the level of harassment is causing some councilors in Scotland, especially women, to reconsider whether to stand for election again. This has the domino effect of driving experienced councilors out of the chambers.

It was a timely reminder as councilors face election campaigns within the next three months, and it followed moody scenes at recent meetings.

The local government umbrella group has worked with its partner organizations across the four nations to produce materials and information to help councilors speak out and challenge incivility and harassment, especially online.

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Cllr Evison told the meeting: “This is not about one person or group, this is about the heart of what we do in our democracy. None of us need to accept behavior that is not up to par.”

CoSLA has produced a new code of conduct for councillors, with a much broader section on help and advice on dealing with incivility in public life, including online bullying.

Councilman Evison said the materials were to help elected representatives shut down uncivil comments.

“Shutting down uncivil comments is not a threat to democracy. Allowing it is a threat to democracy,” she added.

The deputy leader of the Labor group, Councilor Kirsteen Sullivan, described how she had heard in conferences from councilors who had been ignored in meetings, denied the right to speak and argued. She asked if help was available.

Councilor Evison described a mentoring training program established through the Improvement Service, a national body that promotes best practice and cooperation between Scottish councils and is now available to all councillors.

Asked by Conservative councilor Bruce Fairbairn how optimistic he was that change would come, Cllr Evison said: “We can all show leadership by reflecting on what we do ourselves.

“Claim things that are not right. There is something we can all do. I am optimistic if we all fulfill our role. It’s something we all need to participate in.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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