Committee recommends AM is suspended for 7 days for “coconut” slur

(Title Image: Daily Post)

Standards Committee
Complaint against Michelle Brown AM (UKIP, North Wales)
Complaints made by: Labour Party Assembly Group, Leighton Andrews and a member of the public
Published: 18th April 2018 (pdf)

The Complaint

On 14th May 2016 – a few days after being elected AM – Michelle Brown was recorded in a conversation with a potential candidate for a senior adviser role describing Labour MP, Chuka Umunna, as a “f**king coconut….black on the outside, white on the inside” alongside comments about how he wouldn’t understand the lives of ordinary black people due to his privileged background.

The conversation was subsequently made available to the Daily Post and Western Mail around a year later.

Michelle’s Defence

A sizable chunk of the defence was provided by UKIP’s group leader, Neil Hamilton AM (UKIP, Mid & West Wales), in his capacity as Michelle’s personal adviser. His (lengthy) submission is included in the report and is an “entertaining” read.

  • Michelle wasn’t aware the conversation was being recorded and if she were she wouldn’t have used such language. It was also recorded days after her election when she wouldn’t have been fully aware of the Code of Conduct and its ramifications.
  • The recording of a private conversation between two (then) friends was released without Michelle’s consent after UKIP’s National Executive Committee were blackmailed by the former employee (who had been dismissed) to expel Michelle or have the recording sent to the Daily Post. It was a malicious act of revenge.
  • The term “coconut” may well have a racial element but was used to make a socio-economic point and is used routinely by ethnic minority communities; it’s unlikely the vast majority of people would find it offensive. It was on the milder end of the scale when compared with other forms of racial abuse which suggest inferiority.
  • There’s no evidence of damage to the Assembly’s reputation and attempts to control free speech outside the Assembly chamber is “fundamentally oppressive and undemocratic”.
  • If the complaint were upheld, it could set a precedent where secret recordings of AMs are made in order to be used for malicious purposes.
  • Complaints from the Labour group and Leighton Andrews were politically motivated; UKIP AMs are routinely on the receiving end of derogatory abuse, none of which has been complained about.
  • Although Michelle didn’t apologise for using the term “coconut” in her submission to the Standards Commissioner, she later apologised for any offence it may have been caused.

The Standards Commissioner’s View

  • A comment on whether a politician from a privileged background, despite their heritage, may not have the understanding of an ordinary member of an ethnic minority is “within the range of points that a politician is entitled to make”.
  • However, in making that point, Michelle Brown resorted to using a racist term (“coconut”), which falls below the standard of conduct expected of an elected AM speaking with a prospective, or actual, staff member.
  • There was a breach of 4(b) of the Member’s Code of Conduct, which states that: “Assembly Members should at all times conduct themselves in a manner which will tend to maintain and strengthen the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of the Assembly, or its members generally, into disrepute.”

The Committee’s Conclusion

  • The Committee agreed that the language fell below the standards expected of an AM and racism shouldn’t be tolerated in any form.
  • AMs need to understand they’re governed by the Code of Conduct in both their public and private lives and are expected to maintain the highest standards of behaviour at all times.
  • As the Committee is cross-party and quasi-judicial, having a complaint made by an entire party group is “detrimental to the process” as there was no Labour involvement in their deliberations.
  • Information about complaints shouldn’t be released to the media or used for political advantage.
  • An appeal against the initial report – made to the Llywydd (as is a Member’s right) and subsequently considered by John Griffith Williams QC – was dismissed (pdf).
  • There was a breach of standards and the Committee recommends suspending Michelle Brown for 7 days without pay, subject to a Senedd vote.
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