In November, 2020 City of Edinburgh Council published a petition which broke their own rules relating to authorship, honesty and reasonable steps taken before bringing the issue to the Council. The Council failed to establish the names of all those who wrote the petition, it did not check potentially false or defamatory statements and seems to have ignored the rule requiring petitioners to have taken reasonable steps to solve their issue before petitioning the Council.
Council Policy & Sustainability Committee
This Committee met on 23 February 2021 and the petition was introduced, as part of a report, by Hayley Barnett, a Council Officer. The report said:
“a valid petition…has been received” (4.1)Petition for Consideration: Introduce buffer zones around clinics that provide abortion services
Councillor John McLellan asked Hayley Barnett:
“We’ve all been circulated with information from people who obviously disagree with the petition. In particular they raise the question about whether or not claims made in the petition itself have been verified. … I just think it’s important that if we’re discussing something as quite clearly as shocking as the claims in this petition are, that we are certain of their basis”Webcast: Policy and Sustainability Committee – Tuesday, 23rd February 2021 at 10:00am – City of Edinburgh Council Webcasts (public-i.tv)
Hayley Barnett replied:
“We did not contact the petitioners, I guess, to substantiate or prove or disprove the statements that were in there… there was a feeling that actually we couldn’t prove or disprove any of the statements and they should be presented to committee for consideration.”
Councillor Lesley McInnes asked Barnett a similar question:
“I want you just to follow up partly on the issue that was raised by Councillor McLellan about verifying the content of that petition. Is that something that you would normally do when reports are coming forward with a petition attached”
Hayley Barnett responded:
“Not unless we have serious concerns around the content. I think in this case, the statements were not attributed to an individual. So we took the decision that in this case it would be best to present the petition to committee.”
After discussion of various amendments Committee agreed with the Council’s prosposal to escalate the issue to COSLA which represents all Scotland’s local authorities.
COSLA held a secret meeting on 23 May 2021 to discuss the subject of vigils.
Analysis and Apology
On 4 June 2021, in email correspondence Hayley Barnett said regarding the petition:
“In this case, it is acknowledged that further scrutiny and challenge could have been used and we apologise for any distress caused”
Hayley Barnett’s statements to Councillors were not in line with the Council’s published petition’s criteria, which stated that that false or defamatory statements will not be accepted. Barnett said that the Council had not taken any steps to verify the serious allegations made including a threat that someone would “die of cancer” for having an abortion. This should have raised the “serious concerns” Barnett described in her response to Councillor McInnes.
By the time Hayley Barnett acknowledged the Council’s failures the issue had already moved on to COSLA, which was the preferred solution for the Council’s ruling SNP / Labour coalition.
In correspondence Hayley Barnett referred to an update given to the Policy and Sustainability Committee which said:
It is also noted that the Council has received a complaint about the allegations contained in the petition and, as advised at Committee, these allegations were not verified. The petitions guidance will now be updated to ensure there is clarity on the verification process.June 2021 Business Bulletin
Since the 23 February meeting, the Council’s petitions disclaimer has been updated and now says:
The City of Edinburgh Council will assess petitions based on the criteria set out in the Petitions Guidance but may not substantiate all claims detailed in a petition.https://archive.ph/nmna8
The petition helped City of Edinburgh councillors in their aim, which was to advance the issue to COSLA. Council Officers acceptance and presentation of the petition to elected members raises a number of questions:
- Were Council Officers pressured to break their own rules by Edinburgh’s administration?
- Did Council Officers mislead Councillors in their report that “a valid petition” had been received?
- Would people have signed the petition if they knew the allegations were unsubstantiated and potentially false and defamatory?
The Council has now changed its guidance to make clear that it may not substantiate all claims in petitions. However Council petitions criteria still says it will not accept petitions which are false and defamatory. It’s not clear how the Council will prevent false or defamatory claims in petitions if it’s stated policy is not to check them.