Thursday 16 November 2017

Abuse, bullying and the Assembly (updated)

We have heard a great deal recently about cases of sexual harassment and bullying in politics, and it was announced yesterday that the party leaders in the Assembly had agreed to crack down on any sexual harassment or other inappropriate behaviour by Members.

As always, the devil is in the detail, and based on my own experiences I somehow doubt that this crackdown will be as effective as it sounds in changing the culture of secrecy and privilege which shields the bullies and abusers.

Earlier this year I was made aware of comments made by a member of staff of a serving UKIP AM on Facebook. I will not name the individual, but in the course of a conversation he made some clearly threatening remarks, not against me personally, but against Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, of which I am a member.

The fact that the complaint related to threats against Cymdeithas members is really incidental to this piece, which I hope shows that yesterday's declaration does not go anywhere near far enough in tackling a culture in which bullying and abuse can thrive.

Cymdeithas is a legitimate campaign group which occasionally uses civil disobedience, and it has always been clear that it eschews violence and intimidation against people. It relies entirely on its members and supporters for funding.

The individual concerned made remarks which showed that he knew very little about Cymdeithas yr Iaith, before going on to promise that he would "hunt down" its members.

I also had evidence that this person had been involved in discussions with the Labour Party in Llangennech and Llanelli, and that he had played a part in stirring up trouble there. I was also aware that someone from the same circle had fed malicious and untrue claims of vandalism and harassment by members of Cymdeithas to the Western Mail.

It therefore seemed to me to important to try to do something to hold this person to account.

I raised the matter with officers of Cymdeithas who decided that they did not wish to pursue the matter in the name of Cymdeithas yr Iaith, but they agreed that if I so wished, I could complain as an individual.

My aim in taking up the complaint was not to have the individual dismissed, but to have it made clear to the individual and the AM for whom he works that his conduct was unacceptable.

I therefore wrote to the office of the Llywydd (presiding officer), and a couple of weeks later received a reply saying that while the individual did indeed work for a Member, he was not employed by the Assembly Commission and I should therefore refer my complaint to the Member in person.

Since correspondence to Assembly Members is dealt with not by the members themselves but by their staff, I concluded that if I did make a complaint, it would almost certainly be seen first by the person I was complaining about, and that there was a risk that I would expose myself to harassment.

Not unreasonably, I also felt that even if the UKIP Assembly Member did get to see the complaint, it was unlikely that it would be acted on.

It may well have been the case that the individual's remarks were just careless mouthing off with no serious intent, but I suspected that he was using Assembly resources to pursue a political vendetta and spread malicious and untrue smears, and I wondered what options would be open to a member of the public with much more serious complaints of inappropriate behaviour against a member of staff of an Assembly Member.

With the honourable exception of Plaid Cymru, it is common for Assembly Members from all of the other parties to employ family members on their staff. Imagine for a moment that a member of the public was subjected to bullying or harassment by the husband or wife of an AM. Presumably they too would have to make a complaint to the AM concerned in the near certain knowledge that their correspondence would be seen first by the person they were complaining about.

I decided to try a different tack and wrote back to the office of the Llywydd, pointing out that AM staff are paid for out of the public purse, i.e. the Assembly itself, and that I was aware that the Assembly's HR department was directly involved in the recruitment process.

To argue that AM staffers are nothing to do with the Assembly was, I felt, a little disingenuous.

The Llywydd's office stuck to its guns.

As a final throw of the dice I felt sure that AM staff would be subject to a code of conduct. I therefore asked to see that document. In due course, I received the following reply:

Mae holl staff Aelodau’r Cynulliad yn destun Côd Ymddygiad Staff y maent yn llofnodi pan fyddant yn dechrau eu cyflogaeth.  Fodd bynnag, nid yw'r ddogfen hon yn un gyhoeddus.

(All AM staff are subject to a Code of Conduct that they sign when they begin their employment. However, this document is not public.)

It took nearly a month to reach this dead end.

In a nutshell any complaints that you or I might have about the behaviour of someone recruited using Assembly resources and paid for out of Assembly funds has to be sent to the Assembly Member concerned, even though the complaint will almost certainly be intercepted by the person you are complaining about. There is also quite a strong likelihood that the person you are complaining about will be a member of the Member's immediate family.

The fact that the Assembly still allows its members to employ family is another scandal.

To cap it all, you cannot claim that the individual has breached the Assembly's Code of Conduct because the code of conduct is secret.

Kafka would feel at home in 21st century Cardiff Bay.


In common with the rest of the motley crew who were originally elected under the UKIP banner, the AM referred to in this piece was returned on a regional list. Oddly for an elected member of a democratic institution, our subject seems to be a rather shy and elusive beast.

Constituents wishing to get in touch can write to the Assembly itself, but there is no telephone number listed on the Assembly profile which refers instead to the AM's own external website (which would of course have been funded by you and me).

The call the website poor is to be generous. Again, there are no telephone numbers, and there is no office address, although we can be pretty sure that office rent and expenses are being claimed for. You might want to pop along to a surgery, but the web page giving details of surgeries is completely blank; and anyway, the location appears to be secret.

Presumably this is acceptable to the Assembly under the doctrine that whatever AMs and their staff get up to is pretty much a matter for them, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the Assembly. If the Assembly does have minimum standards governing how its members and their staff engage with the public, the bar is set so low as to be laughable.

Although I corresponded with the office of the Llywydd, I doubt very much that the matter was brought to the attention of Elin Jones.

It could be argued that this particular case reflects badly on UKIP, but that's not saying very much.

In reality nepotism, corrupt practices, lack of accountability and secrecy reflect badly on the institution itself. It's time for more than just pious declarations.


Stan said...

And our politicos wonder why all faith in them by the public seems to have evaporated. They are meant to be acting in our collective best interests, they are meant to be accountable. Every day you are receiving feedback like Cneifiwr's latest story. We deserve so much better from our institutions and those we elect. We aren't living in North Korea, after all.....

towy71 said...

Who polices the policeman??

Anonymous said...

We have finally got there thanks to Cneifiwr. It's no surprise that the electorate who finds themselves on the receiving end of corrupt practices gets short shrift from the Assembly. It is a shocking state of affairs that no-one appears to be accountable, even when clear evidence of misconduct us produced. Something drastic needs to happen.

Anonymous said...

Investigations into the culture could begin with taking a look at Carmarthen Council's CEO which would then lead us to the culture within the Assembly. We need answers. We pay for this.

Sean Goodsir-Cullen said...

This is quite amusing in a Catch-22 sense but it never should be amusing - it seems as if the system has been deliberately designed to prevent any complaints from being resolved amicably. Perhaps you should pass it on to a friendly journalist if there are any that don't feel threatened by politicians.

Jac o' the North, said...

Welsh public life is thoroughly corrupt, and that's the way those involved like it. All the early talk of devolution and the Assembly being open and transparent was utter bollocks.

The first promise to bite the dust was Rhodri's pledge that all AMs in the new Assembly would declare their membership of the Freemasons. That was shot down by the loveable Rod Richards and others. And so it has continued.

Throw in a politically compromised Ombudsman, a third sector stuffed with political cronies, a civil service owing loyalty to London, a Welsh media too afraid of being excluded to ask the real questions, and it becomes obvious why real scrutiny is left to Cneifiwr and others.

Richard Powell said...

It's just absurd that the Assembly's Code of Conduct should be secret. What possible justification can there be for that? It should be available on their website. Are you submitting a FoI request?

(hd)^2 said...

Cneifiwr had already asked privately three times.

(hd)^2 said...

FOI confirmed that there are two distinct Codes of Conduct. Only the one for directly employed staff is available on their website, the deflection has piqued a little more interest in the shadowy workings

Cneifiwr said...

Many thanks (hd)^2.

(hd)^2 said...

The current code (post May 2016) has now been provided, and they've helpfully shown the minor changes from the one previous revision. The salary cost of the department of 12 is circa £291K-£381K (not counting employer NI, benefits, pension, absenteeism cover etc.)

And this confirms your concern:

"2. The Head of Members’ Business Support reports to the Director of Commission Services.

Assembly Members are employers in their own right and so are responsible for investigating alleged breaches of the Assembly Members’ Support Staff Code of Conduct. Members’ Business Support provide advice as and when required."

An employment tribunal would have a field day with those arrangements if an employee were to claim unfair dismissal etc.