Welsh Government rejects independent investigation of complaints against Ministers

(Title Image: Wales Online)

Yesterday, AMs discussed the Standards Committee report on changing the workplace culture at the Senedd and within the Welsh Government – a summary is available here.

The headline recommendation was that the independent Standards Commissioner should investigate all complaints against Ministers. At the moment, it’s for the First Minister to decide how to discipline members of their government as set out in the Ministerial Code.

Inappropriate behaviour has no place

Committee Chair, Jayne Bryant AM (Lab, Newport West), expressed her gratitude to staff and others who offered evidence in order to shape the Committee’s recommendations.

Jayne was pleased the Assembly Commission has reacted positively to the recommendations and additional support has already been offered to the Standards Commissioner’s office. However:

“The committee recommends that the Ministerial Code be placed under the investigative remit of the standards commissioner….The First Minister considered and rejected this recommendation, as he feels the independent oversight system he is introducing will add sufficient separation. The committee recognises this is consistent with the approaches of many other Governments, but we did feel this was an opportunity to add clarity and full independence to the system. “
– Chair of the Standards Committee, Jayne Bryant AM

Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.) was disappointed by the First Minister’s rejection, which was based on making a distinction between when Ministers act as a regional or constituency AM and when they act as Ministers. But surely, Paul argued, “Ministers are always Ministers”.

“Surely, it would be simpler to understand and easier for the public if initial complaints and investigations were dealt with by the independent standards commissioner. The Welsh Government will no doubt argue that this isn’t the case for other parliaments, but the Assembly doesn’t always have to follow other legislatures. There is nothing to stop us from setting our own agenda on this matter.”
– Paul Davies AM

Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) largely concurred and said it was inappropriate for the First Minister to decide whether a Minister has breached the code or not. She wondered whether the Committee could approach whoever the new First Minister will be and ask them to reconsider.

“The First Minister is the ultimate judge of standards of ministerial behaviour”

Replying on behalf of the Welsh Government, Leader of the House, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West) broadly welcomed the Committee’s recommendations – even though the only recommendation for the Welsh Government was rejected.

“….the ministerial code sets out the First Minister’s expectations in respect of ministerial conduct and this is underpinned by the seven principles of public life…. In particular, the code makes clear that Members are expected to be personally responsible for their conduct, but that the First Minister is the ultimate judge of standards of ministerial behaviour. He also determines any appropriate action in respect of any breach of those standards. In addition, he will call upon an independent adviser or advisers where appropriate to investigate complaints and to provide him with advice on which to base his judgment about any necessary action.”
– Leader of the House, Julie James

In an intervention, Helen Mary Jones AM said that was precisely the problem – putting too much power in the First Minister’s hands.

The Leader of the House understood the point but disagreed. Using a Commissioner appointed by the Senedd to investigate Welsh Government Ministers would, in itself, create ambiguity around a ministerial and a constituency/regional role.

Nevertheless, the Welsh Government would support measures to promote dignity and respect in the workplace and the report and its findings were unanimously noted.

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