Code of Conduct for MSPs - Volume 3, Section 8: Engagement and Liaison with Constituents

Supporting constituents – responsibilities under equalities legislation

8.1. Members should ensure that reasonable adjustments are made for disabled constituents including those with a mental health or physical condition who want a member to take on casework on their behalf. The adjustments should be in line with legal obligations members are required to meet under the Equality Act 2010.

8.2. Common examples of reasonable adjustments include: ensuring venues for constituency offices and surgeries are accessible; and providing support to assist constituents set out the nature of their casework request (either through constituency office staff, provision of communication support services or using advocacy organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureau).

8.3. Further guidance is available from the Equalities Manager in relation to supporting a constituent with a mental health condition. This includes details of tailored means of support dependant on the requirements of the individual. It is important that Members are aware of the types of mental health conditions that may be experienced by people in the community. The awareness is not about having an expertise of each condition, it is about recognising signs of a mental health condition and to know how to approach situations where a Member is concerned that someone needs help with their mental health. The guidance provides information on this. In addition, should an individual come to a Member in a state of distress or a Member fears for the individual’s wellbeing, the guidance provides options for appropriate professional assistance.

8.4. In addition, the Standards Clerks, in conjunction with the Parliament’s Equalities Manager, can provide further support to members seeking advice as to whether reasonable adjustments have been fully implemented, to allow the Member to be satisfied that they have met their legal duty.

8.5. Should an individual want to make a complaint in relation to a Member’s engagement with them as a constituent, but is not in a position to set out a complaint in writing, they can contact the Parliament’s Public Information team by telephone, Text Relay or email for assistance. Alternatively they can contact advocacy organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureau.

Unacceptable actions – guidance for members and their offices

Introduction

8.6 The Code of Conduct establishes for members the conduct expected of them in working with constituents and within the Parliament. However in a minority of cases members may experience difficulty in representing a constituent because of that constituent’s behaviour. This guidance sets out examples of the types of behaviour which are unacceptable and suggests how members might respond.

8.7 This guidance seeks to strike a balance between the duty of the member as an elected representative and members’ rights to a non-threatening environment for themselves and their staff. Further advice is available from the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments clerks.

8.8 MSP office staff may be the first point of contact for constituents. This guidance is intended to be helpful to members and their staff; however, it is the member who should decide what the most appropriate response is to address unacceptable behaviour by constituents.

8.9 This guidance is intended as best practice advice, does not represent obligations and does not form the basis for imposing sanctions.

Defining unacceptable behaviour

8.10 Members and their staff should be able to work in an environment which is free from oppressive behaviour such as the threat or use of harassment, verbal abuse and physical violence. Members and their staff should not view behaviour as unacceptable just because the constituent is forceful or determined. Actions and behaviour should be judged on the basis of the nature and extent of the behaviour.

8.11 Members and their staff should treat all individuals with courtesy and respect and expect to receive similar consideration in return.

8.12 Wherever possible, members should provide the constituent with the opportunity to change their behaviour. Where it is deemed that unacceptable behaviour exists it is recommended that the member keeps a documented trail of activity on the part of the member and the constituent.

Aggressive and abusive language
8.13 Harassment through aggressive and abusive language may occur in a face-to-face setting or by telephone, as well as in written or electronic communications.

8.14 Members and their staff are not expected to put up with rude, abusive or threatening language and have the right to ask the constituent to use reasonable language. The member or their staff may warn the constituent that, if they persist in using unreasonable language, the call may be ended or the member may not respond to future communications couched in similar terms. Members and their staff should be aware of the fact that some people use offensive language when they are in a panic or are frustrated.

Aggressive and abusive behaviour
8.15 Physical abuse should not under any circumstance be tolerated and should be reported immediately to the member’s local police station or the Parliament’s police unit. The member could ban the constituent from entering the member’s office and the member can decide not to represent that person any further.

8.16 It is understood that members may be unwilling to report a constituent to the relevant authority (for example, local police or the Parliament’s police unit) because of concerns about protecting the privacy of the constituent. However, members must take into account not only their own personal safety but also that of any staff who are working in members’ offices.

8.17 Section 8.1.6 of the Code of Conduct requires members to “respect individual privacy, unless there are overwhelming and lawful reasons in the wider public interest for disclosure to be made to a relevant authority, for example, where a member is made aware of criminal activity.” The police can offer advice on situations where the member suspects that an offence may have been committed and will usually deal with these situations in a confidential manner. Members are advised to consult either their local police or the Parliament’s police unit.

8.18 Aggressive and abusive behaviour may include unwanted physical or non-verbal conduct. It may occur in a face-to-face setting, by telephone, in written or electronic communications or by loitering outside the home or workplace. It may also include damage to property.

8.19 In these circumstances the member must be able to decide if any future face-to-face meetings with the constituent should take place. If the member decides to hold face-to-face meetings, the member is entitled to ask any member(s) of staff to attend the meeting too.

8.20 If the threats or threatening behaviour continue despite a warning, the member could ban the constituent from entering the member’s office. This decision should be communicated to the constituent together with the reason for it. The member may also decide to stop representing that constituent. It is for the member to decide in future if the threats have subsided enough to re-admit the constituent concerned. A member might also limit further communication: for example, to written communication only. Further advice is also available from the member’s local police station or the Parliament’s police unit.

Unreasonable demands and persistence
8.21 Some unacceptable behaviour does not involve any threatening actions but simply involves unreasonable demands which, if met, would impact detrimentally on the member’s other responsibilities and which also may not assist the constituent in progressing their case.

8.22 What constitute unreasonable demands may depend on the circumstances surrounding the behaviour but could include demanding responses or action within an unreasonable timescale, repeated phone calls or letters to the member or continuing refusal to accept a decision made in relation to a case.

8.23 Where the constituent repeatedly phones or sends irrelevant documents, the member may decide only to return calls from the constituent at a set time on set days or to return documents to the constituent. The member should explain to the constituent the reasons for such a course of action.

8.24 If the constituent refuses to accept the decision of the member, the member may warn the constituent that future phone calls will not be accepted or that correspondence on the same issue will be filed and a simple acknowledgement issued. The member is advised to respond to the constituent if the constituent provides significant new information relating to the case.

Use of Social Media

How you describe yourself
8.25 In setting up a social media account, members should be aware of the requirements of the Code of Conduct in relation to how they should describe themselves. Section 8.2 provides that members should not misrepresent the basis on which they were elected or the area they serve. Members may therefore wish to use a description on any social media account which reflects whether they are a constituency or regional MSP and the name of the constituency or region that they represent. This applies both to the name that would appear on the account page and to the username (if this is publicly available).

8.26 Members may also want to distinguish any account they use in campaigning for election to any office (including party office) from an account for communicating about the work they undertake as part of their parliamentary duties.

Staff access to your social media accounts
8.27 Members are responsible for the behaviour of their staff within the Parliamentary complex and in their dealings with other members, other members’ staff, and Parliamentary staff (section 7.6.1). Members are also responsible for ensuring that their staff comply with the terms of Section 8 of the Code of Conduct in relation to engagement and liaison with constituents. 

8.28 If a member intends to allow staff to update and post content on social media accounts, they should ensure that staff are also aware of this guidance.

Responding to aggressive or abusive comments
8.29 In making use of social media, members may become the object of abusive or aggressive comments and messages from individuals whose aim is to provoke a response rather than to engage in a reasoned discussion.

8.29 Members who receive such comments should be aware of the principles underpinning the guidance on unacceptable actions set out in Volume 3 of the Code of Conduct.

8.30 Members may also wish to ensure that they know how to make use of the reporting and/or blocking tools offered by the social media they use.

8.31 Members are advised to avoid taking any actions (such as retweeting if the comment is made on Twitter) that may result in the individual who made the aggressive or abusive comment themselves becoming the object of similar comments by other users.

Further guidance

8.32 Further guidance on the use of social media is available at Section 7.3 to 7.7 if this guidance.

8.33 More specific advice can be sought from the clerks to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee.