(Title Image: BBC Wales)
Complaint against UKIP’s Gareth Bennett
Complaint made by the Assembly Commission
Published: 23rd November 2018 (pdf)
Following his election in 2016, Gareth Bennett identified an office in Pontypridd as a possible regional office. In February 2017, the Assembly Commission’s Security Manager visited the building and deemed it a security risk as well as in a general state of disrepair.
Despite this, in March 2017 Bennett took up a four-year lease – having never visited the building for himself and without a survey being undertaken – for an annual rent of £5,200, paid for by the Assembly. He also submitted a claim of just under £2,500 for building materials.
It quickly became clear that the cost of bringing the office up to standard (quoted at anything between £9,800-£20,000) far outstripped the available budget. There were damp problems, part-absence of electricity supply and it failed to comply with fire regulations.
The office never opened. The lease was cancelled in September 2017, costing the Assembly Commission £9,883 in total.
In February 2018, the Chief Executive of the Assembly Commission referred the matter to the Standards Commissioner for investigation.
- Bennett delegated the responsibility for finding an office to a staff member (who has since left) “with a background in property development”; Bennett decided he didn’t have “the time nor the inclination” to become personally involved in the project.
- He doesn’t remember being advised by solicitors not to sign the lease or signing a waiver (correspondence between the Standards Commissioner and the solicitors confirms Bennett was told not to sign the lease over the phone and in person).
- The annual rent of £5,200 was appropriate had the office been fully refurbished.
- Bennett paid £4,533 out of his own pocket to end the lease.
- Bennett apologised for costing the Assembly Commission almost £10,000 due to “an unfortunate set of circumstances”.
- He believes he followed the rules and blamed Members Business Support for not doing anything to prevent him from signing the lease. Bennett also believed that, due to circumstances “beyond his control” and the fact he’ll save the Assembly money by not taking up a regional office, he shouldn’t be liable for the full costs.
The Standards Commissioner’s View
- There was no suspicion that Bennett personally benefited from the deal, but there was clear evidence of “inappropriate oversight” on his behalf throughout the project.
- The responsibility for use of public funds rests with Bennett alone and not his staff, even if they were delegated responsibility; the desire to open a regional office overrode all normal considerations in acquiring a property – behaviour the Commissioner described as “reckless”.
- 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 and refrain from any action which could bring the Assembly, or its members generally, into disrepute.”
- There was a further breach of 4(d) of the Member’s Code of Conduct, which states that: “No improper use shall be made of any payment or allowance made to Assembly Members for public purposes and the administrative rules which apply to such payments and allowances must be strictly observed.”
- The Commissioner raised a number of points of principle, including that AMs should have to assure the Assembly Commission that they’ve visited a property, obtained proper quotes and have all necessary permissions in place before submitting a claim for a constituency or regional office (….something that would be common sense to 99% of the population).
The Committee’s Conclusion
- The Committee noted that Bennett accepts he broke the Code of Conduct and that he’s been fully co-operative.
- They agree Bennett has misused Assembly funds and brought the Assembly into disrepute.
- They largely endorse the Commissioner’s points of principle, though adding additional flexibility for regional AMs (who might not want a permanent office) and setting up a specific allowance to carry out surveys.
- Subject to approval from the Senedd, they recommend Bennett be formally sanctioned, while Bennett has asked for £2,500 to be docked from his November 2018 salary to cover the cost of the building materials.