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Complaint against Gareth Bennett AM (UKIP, South Wales Central)
Complaints made by: Vaughan Gething AM (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central), Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North)
Published: 1st April 2019 (pdf)
In May 2017, Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) made reference to UKIP AMs “behaving like rabid dogs” during a debate. The following May, she was scheduled to travel with the Senedd’s Environment Committee to London but had to cancel at short notice, fully reimbursing travel costs to the Assembly Commission.
Using the “rabid dogs” comment a year earlier as part-justification (an example of an equalities champion being a hypocrite), Bennett published a Youtube video falsely accusing Watson of wasting public funds. He also described Watson as an “odd creature” and superimposed her head and shoulders on a woman wearing a low-cut Bavarian barmaid outfit:
“Joyce (Watson) once ran a pub in Pembrokeshire but you wouldn’t guess that from looking at her. She doesn’t look like the life and soul of the party. I’m not sure I would fancy popping in for a quick one at the local if I saw her pulling pints behind the bar.”
– Gareth Bennett AM
On May 8th 2018, Watson complained to the Standards Commissioner, Roderick Evans QC. To the bewilderment of AMs, the Commissioner decided the complaint was inadmissible on misogyny and sexism grounds.
Following complaints from three Labour AMs, in November 2018 the Senedd agreed to appoint an Acting Standards Commissioner – Douglas Bain – to re-open the investigation.
For a start, there’s the act of superimposing a pensionable-age woman into a sexually-suggestive outfit associated with a particular stereotype. Then there’s making derogatory comments about Joyce Watson’s appearance and also the double entendre of “popping in for a quick one (quickie)”.
Gareth Bennett’s Defence
Bennett has refused to apologise to Watson personally for the video and false accusation – the false accusation seems to be the only reason the video was taken down.
Bennett had to be interviewed twice. In something that’s becoming a personal trademark, he flounced out of the first interview because “the atmosphere became too oppressive and I couldn’t deal with the situation” when questioned on whether Watson’s appearance had anything to do with political criticism. The Acting Standards Commissioner and the Committee interpreted this as non-cooperation.
- He claims the video was about Labour despite all but 45 seconds of a 6 minute+ video being about Joyce Watson. UKIP staff and AMs found it funny that “someone as austere and joyless as Watson could once have been a publican”.
- Bennett admitted he doesn’t run his own Facebook, Twitter and Youtube accounts and has never looked at them; something the Acting Commissioner described as “fairly reckless”.
- He denied there was any double entendre, sexual innuendo or any suggestion of sexual promiscuity; it was entirely subjective.
- Bennett – who’s a member of the Standards Committee – didn’t understand what his duties were under the Members Code of Conduct. He didn’t believe the Code of Conduct applied to behaviour between AMs.
- Without irony, he used Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Freedom of Expression) to justify the video. While he (eventually) accepted some people will have had a problem, he didn’t believe he has a duty as an elected representative to avoid causing offence.
The Acting Standards Commissioner’s View
- Politicians are expected to have “thicker skins” when it comes to criticism, but Article 10 of the ECHR doesn’t extend protection to abusive comments.
- The images and comments in the video didn’t count as political criticism; it was “gratuitously personal abuse” which was also deliberately chosen and well-crafted.
- He found it inconceivable that Bennett, a former journalist, didn’t know that “popping in for a quick one” was sexually suggestive.
- 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(g) of the Member’s Code of Conduct, which states that: “Holders of public office should promote and support these principles (of public life) by leadership and example”. Bennett also breached the Senedd’s Dignity and Respect Policy.
- The Acting Commissioner raised a number of points of principle, including the difficulty members of the public might have in interpreting the Code of Conduct; making co-operation with standards investigations by AMs a duty (Bennett apparently failed to collect a summons); providing victims of misconduct with a copy of the report, not just the complainants.
The Committee’s Conclusion
- The video fell well below the standards of behaviour expected of an AM and was “a severe breach of the Code of Conduct”.
- For flouncing out of the first meeting with the Acting Standards Commissioner, they recommend Bennett pay £500 to cover the cost to taxpayers of holding a second meeting.
- Subject to the Senedd’s approval, the Committee recommends Bennett is censured and suspended for 7 days without pay starting 29th April 2019.
- They also recommend that for not apologising, Bennett is removed as a member of the Standards Committee. They say, “In a climate where we are trying to ensure everybody feels empowered to come forward and raise issues and concerns about inappropriate behaviour, we do not believe his continuing membership of this Committee, for the duration of this Assembly, is appropriate.”