Councillor admits he made a mistake in not declaring his interest

Councillor Finlay Cunningham
Councillor Finlay Cunningham

The conduct of our elected representatives has been put under the microscope this week following the news that a Western Isles Councillor has been accused of failing to register his interests in a company that he owns one third of.

Comhairle Councillor Finlay Cunningham, the independent member for the Na Hearadh Agus Ceann A Deas Nan Loch ward, is the subject of a public hearing by Scotland’s ethics watchdog.

He is alleged to have failed to notify the council about the fact that he owns 33% in a company, JRFC Properties, within the one month rule for doing so. A hearing on the matter will be held by the Standards Commission for Scotland (SCS) in Edinburgh on Tuesday, July 3rd.

This week a spokesman for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, stated: “A complaint was made to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland (CESPLS) that a shareholding had not been registered in a Councillor’s Register of Interests in the time frame allowed.

“The Councillor concerned rectified this omission and registered this shareholding before he became aware of the complaint.”

The complaint to the CESPLS was made on December 1st 2017 and related to a document which should have contained all of the Councillor’s Interests dating from May 12th 2017.

The Comhairle nan Eilean Siar website, which notes the Councillor’s Interests in the company JFRC (sic) was updated on January 18th, with the CESPLS referring the matter to the Standards Commission on April 27th.

Councillor Cunningham described the incident as ‘a mistake’, he told the Gazette this week: ““When I was made aware that I had made a mistake in failing to register my interest, I immediately rectified my position and ensured that my interest was duly recorded.

“The ensuing investigation acknowledged that there was never any intention to mislead or deceive. This was an omission on my part for which I have apologised.”

Councillor Cunningham, sits on the Council’s Sustainable Development committee, which considers matters dealing with: economic development, conservation and enhancement of the countryside, structure and local plans, fishing and fishery piers, crofting, tourism and the archaeology service.

The Independent member also sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which considers matters dealing with: Roads, the Harbour Authority, Public Community Transport, Ferry Services, Waste, Coast and Flood Protection and Asset Management.

Following the public hearing in July the Standards Commission has a number of options in regards to sanctions. Sanctions which could be imposed are:

Censure (Censure is a formal recording of the Commission’s severe and public disapproval of the Respondent).

Suspension (This can be a full or partial suspension. A full suspension means that the Respondent is suspended from attending all meetings of the Council / Board. Partial suspension means that the Respondent is suspended from attending some of the meetings of the Council / Board).

Disqualification (Disqualification means that the Respondent is disqualified for the period determined (up to five years) from being a Councillor or Board Member, in a Local Authority, this could have the effect of removing the Councillor from office.

The Council said that the Local Authority itself would not face any sanction as “it is up to Comhairle Members themselves to declare the relevant interests they hold”.

Although, the spokesman could not be drawn on how thoroughly members are briefed on the the importance and seriousness of making their financial interests known in the correct time-frame.

The Edinburgh hearing on the matter will be open for members of the public to attend.

Convener of the SCS, Professor Kevin Dunion, said: “It is clearly set out in the code of conduct that councillors must register any shareholding that exceeds 1% of the issued share capital or has a value of greater than £25,000.

“Councillors must register all financial and other interests within one month of accepting their appointment.

“Any failure to do so represents a breach of the Code of Conduct that all councillors must abide by.

“The registration of financial interests is an integral part, and absolute requirement, of the Councillors’ Code of Conduct as it provides the opportunity for openness and transparency in a councillor’s role and affords members of the public the opportunity to consider whether a councillor’s interests may or may not influence their discussion and decision-making.”

The Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland (CESPLS) who has carried out an investigation into the complaint, will present the case against Cllr Cunningham at the hearing.

Then, he, or his representatives, will have a chance to respond.

A three-strong panel of SCS Members will adjudicate. The decision will be made public on the day of the hearing.