Statement by the Chair of the Standards of Conduct Committee: Dignity and Respect in the Assembly
Jayne Bryant AM
Party: Welsh Labour
Diolch, Llywydd. As Assembly Members will be aware, in November 2017, the Llywydd, leaders of party groups and I, as Chair of the Standards of Conduct Committee, issued a joint statement. We set out a commitment to ensure that inappropriate behaviour has no place at the National Assembly for Wales, and a desire to reassure everyone who works here, and those who visit us, that they will be free from any form of harassment. Whether it’s here in the Senedd, a constituency office, or out in the community, everyone should feel as though they are treated with respect as they encounter representatives of this organisation.
The joint statement set out a number of actions intended to ensure the Assembly is an inclusive organisation, free from intimidation and harassment. These actions included the development of a dignity and respect policy, the establishment of a confidential complaints referral service, and ensuring the complaints procedure is clear and consistent. Work is well under way, and a dignity and respect policy is due to be laid before the Assembly next month.
The Standards of Conduct Committee agreed to undertake a more wide-ranging inquiry into creating the right culture at the Assembly. We believe that the Assembly must set an example and provide clear and strong leadership on the type of workplace culture we would like to see within Wales. We’re considering existing procedures around complaints involving Assembly Members to ensure that they are appropriate and clear. Individuals must feel able to come forward with confidence about any concern regarding inappropriate behaviour.
We’ve held an open consultation, which aimed to find out whether the current complaints procedure is easily understandable and accessible, and whether there are any barriers to people raising concerns about the behaviour of anyone associated with the National Assembly for Wales. Although the consultation is now formally closed, people are always encouraged to come forward with suggestions on how to improve the process or with any concerns they may have. We’re currently taking evidence from groups and individuals who have agreed to talk to the committee about their experiences. And I would like to put on record my thanks to those who have offered their views to the committee during the last few months. I’m particularly grateful to those who have agreed to speak to us. Without understanding the experiences of others it’s very difficult to identify the challenges within the Assembly and ascertain precisely how the culture can be improved. As a committee, we’re determined that these views will be respected and reflected in the reporting stage.
While we’re still undertaking our inquiry, one of the messages we’ve heard to date is that better communication and clarity around the complaints procedure would help increase confidence in the system. Building on existing provisions within the Assembly Member code of conduct, the new dignity and respect policy will help to make it explicitly clear that inappropriate behaviour has no place in this Assembly. And I’m sure that Members will agree it’s important that inappropriate behaviour must be called out. We’re all responsible for ensuring we do not stand by and let things happen.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to re-emphasise that the National Assembly for Wales has a completely independent commissioner for standards, who impartially examines any concern or complaint raised with him. He can be contacted via phone, email or in writing and he’ll always try to help, either by dealing directly with concerns or signposting in the right direction. A helpline has been set up for those unsure whether the commissioner is the most appropriate avenue for complaint. The number is on the Assembly website and posters around the estate. If Members and staff want to discuss any issue regarding the complaints procedure with the commissioner, he will be available in the Senedd during Plenary next Tuesday. In addition to the commissioner, members of the standards committee are also available to discuss any concerns you may have regarding the complaints procedure, and a member of the committee will also be available during Plenary next Tuesday.
It takes a huge amount of commitment, time, persistence to achieve meaningful cultural change. Today I have set out the early stages of the process, ensuring that the National Assembly for Wales fulfils its aims to be an institution that enables and empowers people. I’m confident this aim is shared by all of us here in the Chamber and that everybody will be willing to play their part in making sure this is achieved. Diolch.
Gareth Bennett AM
Party: United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)
Thanks to the Chair for her statement this afternoon. I’d also like to thank the committee staff for helping to arrange the inquiry and the witnesses that have so far appeared before us. I think we’re all in broad agreement that we want the Assembly to be a welcoming environment for everyone who wants to work here. That includes people of different genders, of different ethnicities and different sexual orientations. In the UKIP group, we have had a wide variety of people working for us and hopefully our group room and the Members’ offices have been and still are a welcoming working environment for them.
Of course, we recognise that issues can arise. Problems can rear their heads in the relationships between people who work at the Assembly and it’s crucial that there is a clear path for people who feel that they are being harassed, victimised, persecuted, bullied or simply intimidated. There has to be a clear guideline of how to proceed with a complaint. And there has to be certainty in the mind of the complainant that the complaint will be dealt with robustly and that the making of the complaint won’t have any adverse effect on the complainant’s career.
There also needs to be clarity over processes and I think the previous two speakers have raised several issues over that. Paul Davies brought in the aspect that most AMs are also members of political parties, so to some extent you have to bring the political parties on board and their processes have to dovetail with any Assembly process. So, I was glad to hear that the commissioner is working with the different parties. Hopefully we’ll soon hear the outcome of that.
Llyr raised the other very relevant point that there is a danger of different parallel processes creating confusion. For instance, you’ve got the political parties, which can carry out their own investigation, you have the Assembly investigation, and then, of course, the point that Llyr mentioned: if the AM is also a Minister, you’ve also got the ministerial code. I think it can get confusing with all of these different processes. Now, I know that you just stated that the ministerial code isn’t in our remit as the standards committee, so I wonder if you think that does pose a problem in our efforts to get one clear and transparent code for the Assembly. Is there a case that, in some sense, our policy is going to have to encompass in some aspects the ministerial code and dovetail with that?
Jayne Bryant AM
Party: Welsh Labour
Thank you for your points, Gareth. I appreciate you were following on from the points of Paul and Llyr. I think the issue you raised about the ministerial code is again something you raised last week as well, so I’m sure that that will come up, but as I said, we have to be mindful that it’s beyond our remit in terms of what we can change, but obviously we have to look at all of these issues when people like yourself raise them.
It is important that there’s a clear path, as you say. I think the important point is that the person who is the complainant is in control of those processes as well, because it is important that they know where they want to go with it, rather than just having that decision made for them. I think it is important that people are signposted in the right way, and hopefully if there are people who feel unsure about coming forward, there is this phone number now at the moment. Obviously, this is just an interim measure—whether we extend that, the committee’s yet to report on that. Obviously, we’re still in the middle of our inquiry so there are lots of things we can look at, but we can have a debate on that when our inquiry reports.