We come into contact with many people in the course of the work of the Scottish Government, and in the vast majority of cases these interactions are positive and productive for all parties. Occasionally, the behaviour or actions of individuals we have dealings with make it impossible for us to continue any constructive engagement. In this small number of cases we have to consider taking steps to protect our staff or to ensure that our ability to work effectively is not undermined. This policy explains how we will approach these situations.
Aims and objectives
We believe that all correspondents and complainants have the right to be heard, understood and respected. We also believe that our staff have the same rights.
We aim in all our dealings to:
- make it clear to everyone we deal with, both on initial contact and throughout our engagement, what the Scottish Government can and cannot do to meet their concerns and expectations
- be open and not raise expectations that we cannot meet
- deal fairly, honestly, consistently and appropriately with all correspondents and complainants, even those whose behaviour or actions we consider unacceptable
- provide a service that is accessible to all
- ensure that our staff and other people who use the services of the Scottish Government do not suffer disadvantage as a result of the unacceptable behaviour of others
Defining unacceptable actions
The Scottish Government understands that people may act out of character in times of trouble or distress. Often they have experienced upsetting or distressing circumstances leading up to a complaint or concern being raised with us. We do not view behaviour as unacceptable simply because a correspondent or complainant is forceful or determined.
However, we consider actions that result in unreasonable demands on our business or unreasonable behaviour towards our staff as unacceptable. The Scottish Government has grouped these actions under the following three broad headings.
Aggressive or abusive behaviour
We understand that people can feel passionate about the issues they discuss with us, and sometimes hurt, frustrated or angry. If those feelings escalate into aggression towards Scottish Government staff, we consider that unacceptable. Violence towards or abuse of our staff will never be tolerated.
Violence and aggression are not restricted to acts which cause or threaten physical harm. They also include behaviour or language (whether oral or written) that may cause staff to feel afraid, threatened or abused. Examples of such behaviour include swearing, threats, personal verbal abuse, derogatory remarks and rudeness. Inflammatory statements and unsubstantiated allegations can also be abusive behaviour. Statements do not need to be made directly to a member of staff or expressly address or name them to be abusive or threatening. Even statements made outside the work environment, or directed towards friends or family of a staff member, may constitute unacceptable actions in the terms of this policy, on which the Government will act. It is the overall context of the behaviour that is important.
People can make unreasonable demands on our resources by the nature and scale of the service they expect. Examples of such behaviour include repeatedly demanding responses within an unreasonable time-scale, placing unreasonable conditions on officials, insisting on seeing or speaking to a particular member of staff even when it isn't possible, refusing to accept that the Government cannot provide a particular service or action a particular issue, or repeatedly changing the exact nature of the complaint or issue they are raising or raising unrelated concerns. These kinds of behaviour can detract from the service we can offer to others, placing a significant burden on the organisation. Dealing with such behaviour requires a disproportionate amount of time and diverts an unreasonable proportion of our financial and human resources away from our statutory functions. This can be difficult and stressful for staff to deal with when it is impossible to find common ground or a realistic approach to the issues being raised. What amounts to unreasonable demands will always depend on the circumstances surrounding the behaviour.
Sometimes an individual will contact the Scottish Government repeatedly about the same issue or closely related issues. Their manner in these contacts may be quite reasonable in itself, but the persistence of their approach is not – they take up a disproportionate amount of time or resources in exchanges that are unproductive to us and ultimately to themselves. Sometimes this persistence will take the form of serial complaining – lodging complaints about the handling of complaints, often across different organisations or parts of the same organisation. The defining characteristic is the persistence of approaches over time. The Scottish Government has the right to assess whether that persistence has reached the point of disrupting our ability to undertake the work of the Government, or is amounting to harassment or unreasonable treatment of our staff.
Managing unacceptable actions
We will aim to ensure that a person is warned immediately if their actions are tending towards unacceptable, and what will follow if they persist. We will do so in a way calculated to defuse the situation, and the aim will be to bring the tone of communication back to a more reasonable level.
We will not tolerate any threat or use of physical violence against, or verbal abuse or harassment of, our staff. Such actions may be reported to the police, and will always be reported if physical violence is used or threatened.
Where we receive correspondence or a communication that is abusive towards staff, gratuitously offensive, or which makes clearly unreasonable demands, we will not deal with that communication, and will inform the correspondent of that fact. We will also warn the correspondent that if she or he continues to use such language that we will consider terminating all contact.
If someone ignores the warning they have been given, or if they use or threaten physical violence, we will take action aimed as far as possible towards:
- reducing the risk of harm to Scottish Government staff
- preventing the individual from inflicting further harm on him/herself or others
- ensuring that the business of the Scottish Government is carried out as efficiently and effectively as possible and to the extent required by law
This action is likely to involve terminating or limiting contact with the individual.
Terminating or limiting contact
The process of terminating contact will be carefully managed. There are a number of issues to consider, and the decision to terminate will not be taken lightly or without sufficient evidenced grounds.
Generally, the recommendation to terminate contact will be made by the Director in the area of Government involved. Where there has been correspondence to or with Ministers, a Minister will be asked to confirm the decision. Where the primary reason for termination is the individual's unreasonable behaviour towards staff, the decision will be taken by a Director-General or the Permanent Secretary.
We will carefully consider the form of such a termination in order to balance the rights of the individual against the duty of the Scottish Government to protect our staff and to avoid disruption of the business of government. We will consider a range of options, such as:
- terminating all contact (subject to necessary limitations referred to below)
- terminating communication by specified channels only (eg refusing to take telephone calls from an individual)
- refusing to accept communication on a specified subject only
- requiring the individual to communicate only through a third party
Limitations on termination of contact
Any consideration of limiting or terminating contact needs to start by considering the nature of the contact we have had. In some circumstances, for example, Scottish Government staff are acting as regulators or inspectors, often in a statutory role. In these cases, withdrawal of contact would be impossible or at least undesirable.
In deciding to terminate or restrict contact, we will not attempt to restrict the rights of an individual to raise requests under information legislation, such as the right to request information under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA), the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (EIR) or the Data Protection Act 1998 as appropriate. Any such requests received will be considered under the normal terms of those access regimes – although of course such a request, if couched in terms that are harassing or unreasonable, may be deemed vexatious under FOISA or manifestly unreasonable under EIR(S).
We will also consider if the individual's or anyone else's rights under European Convention on Human Rights are engaged in this decision, especially Article 10 relating to freedom of expression (this will be of particular relevance if the individual is or could be seen to be a journalist, or if our decision could be seen to have a chilling effect on the free reporting of matters on public interest).
Informing the individual
When a decision to restrict or terminate communication with an individual is made, we will inform that individual of the decision and its terms. This communication will also make it clear what if any recourse the individual has to make representations regarding that decision (see below).
Where an individual represents an organisation
An offending individual may be in contact with Government staff as a representative of an organisation. In that case, an initial approach should be made, usually by a manager in the affected team, to the organisation itself. Some details of the approach needed are given on Saltire. The Government reserves the right to terminate contact in the interests of our own staff even where an external organisation is not able or willing to act in respect of alleged unacceptable behaviour.
Measures to prevent contact
We will consider using technical measures to block an individual's attempts to contact us if that individual's communications have been judged to be abusive, threatening, or to constitute harassment of our staff. We will consider measures such as seeking to block an individual's telephone number or email address, and we will consider in more extreme cases whether to seek to interdict the individual or take other legal measures in order to protect our staff. Where we decide to implement technical blocking measures, e.g. of an email address, we will not necessarily make that known to the individual concerned. Whether to inform the individual of the use of technical measures will be a matter of judgement for the manager taking the decision to terminate or restrict contact.
Right of appeal or to make representations
Where we decide to terminate all contact with an individual, we will offer no right of appeal and entertain no representations from them. We will make this clear in our final communication, and we will draw their attention to their right to complain about Scottish Government services to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.
Where we decide to place restrictions on how an individual may contact us or on what subject etc, we will consider whether to offer a route for the individual to make representations to a senior member of staff in the Scottish Government. This will not be a formal right of appeal but an opportunity for the Government to consider if the restrictions we have decided to apply are unfair in some way to the individual affected.
Where we have terminated or restricted contact and a significant amount of time has elapsed (at least two years), we will consider representations from an individual that something significant has occurred which will give us assurance that their behaviour has moderated sufficiently for us to lift restrictions.
Recording a decision to restrict contact
We will record incidents involving unacceptable actions and behaviours as they occur, but will retain those records only for a limited period unless further action is decided on in that time. This period should be no longer than 20 days in general, but in some cases (e.g. where contact with an individual takes place on a quarterly cycle) should be longer, as appropriate.
Where it is decided to terminate or restrict contact with an individual, we will record that decision and the reasons for it. This record will be shared with units that have general public contact (Central Enquiry Unit, Ministerial Correspondence Unit), and also with any that either has been contacted by the individual or where it is judged possible or likely that the individual may contact a team.
Additional guidance and training
This policy takes account of the Scottish Public Sector Ombudsman's Unacceptable Actions Policy and the Scottish Information Commissioner's briefing on vexatious requests.
We will issue guidance on processes required to implement this policy in particular cases, including some simple boilerplate text for use in communications relating to unacceptable actions and guidance on recording information about unacceptable behaviour. We will also provide training resources for staff in handling situations involving unacceptable behaviours and actions.
Tel: 0131 244 4000 / 0300 244 4000
The Scottish Government Complaints Group
St Andrew’s House