When accusations of sexual harassment in Westminster first hit the front pages of newspapers across the country, the First Minister was quick to issue a robust statement declaring how he intended to tackle the issue in Welsh Government and the Assembly.
In a series of tweets, Carwyn Jones said: “We have to be sure robust procedures are in place and that people feel safe and confident enough to call out wrongdoers […] everyone deserves respect and protection.” It is a proposition few could disagree with. No-one in this enlightened age should have to endure harassment in any of its forms.
And yet these virtues of respect and protection do not appear to have been extended to members of the First Minister’s own government, if recent allegations of bullying made by a former Cabinet Minister and special adviser to Mr Jones are to be believed.
The allegations centre on the testimony of Leighton Andrews, a former Rhondda AM, and Steve Jones, who once advised the First Minister on his dealings with the media. The latter spoke to BBC Wales, describing an atmosphere of “pure poison” which existed when he worked in government, and claimed that ministers were routinely undermined by senior advisers playing power games.
Mr Andrews paints a similar picture of psychological game-playing. Like Mr Jones, he claims to have complained to the First Minister about this bullying behaviour, who is said to have informally investigated the matter in October 2014. To paraphrase the former Cabinet Minister, the informal investigation ‘wasn’t going anywhere’.
Steve Jones’ assessment of how Mr Jones responded to his complaint about bullying is more damning. As reported by the Western Mail’s Chief Reporter, Martin Shipton, Mr Jones said: “[…] it became increasingly obvious that Carwyn was either unwilling or unable to address the culture that existed within his office. He allowed it to develop, fester and grow.”
Claims of bullying have since been corroborated by two former Welsh Government employees who have insisted on anonymity, which in itself tells us much about how whistle-blowers are regarded within Cathays Park.
The real albatross around the First Minister’s neck goes back to a Written Assembly Question submitted by Welsh Conservative Darren Millar AM in November 2014, where he asked:
Has the First Minister ever received any reports or been made aware of any allegations of bullying by special and/or specialist advisers at any time in the past three years and, if so, when and what action, if any, was taken?
The First Minister responded saying: No allegations have been made.
Therein lies the problem for Mr Jones. The response stands in direct contradiction to Leighton Andrews’ assertion that the First Minister was not only aware of bullying allegations in October 2014 – a month before the question was submitted – but was also actively investigating them. It is this flippant utterance which could lead to his downfall as First Minister.
If it can be proven that the First Minister misled Assembly Members when he denied any bullying allegations in 2014, then he finds himself in direct contravention of the Ministerial Code:
1.1 (ii) It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to the Assembly, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead the Assembly will be expected to offer their resignation to the First Minister;
As I write this, the First Minister has not yet tendered his own resignation to himself and is unlikely to do so. He is, after all, its sole arbiter – an anomaly which in effect allows Carwyn Jones to evade the code scot-free. Our calls for an overhaul of the ministerial code are well documented, and we plan to revisit the issue in the near future, though I suspect to effect real change in this regard first demands a change of government.
During First Minister’s Questions last week, I challenged the First Minister over his knowledge of bullying allegations in 2014. He replied conceding that issues at that time had in fact been brought to his attention, and were “dealt with”. Though vague in its meaning, it marked a clear departure from the response he gave to Darren Millar in 2014. It is the contention of Welsh Conservatives that this provides unequivocal proof that Assembly Members have been misled by the First Minister.
On the following day, my attempts at gaining further clarification from the First Minister over the bullying allegations during Topical Questions were met with more obfuscation and stonewalling, when he repeatedly refused to offer further comment on the matter. As well as rendering the process of scrutiny meaningless, this act of non-cooperation marks yet more rule-breaking from the First Minister – this time in Standing Orders:
13.9 – The Presiding Officer is to maintain order in Plenary meetings and must call to order any Member who: (ii) is obstructing the business of the Assembly, and (v) is using […] language which detracts from the dignity of the Assembly.
To the lay reader who has read this far; perhaps the ‘so what’ of all this remains unclear. To be sure, the implications of Carwyn Jones’ silence on this issue extends far beyond the procedural. How can a government carry out its core function of delivering high-quality public services if at its heart it is rotten and corrosive?
The First Minister cannot continue to run from scrutiny or ignore the questions of opposition members. Doing so not only undermines his credibility as leader, but brings the Assembly into disrepute by eroding its ability to carry out basic scrutiny. If he can’t be compelled to answer questions from opposition members then what is the point of our devolved legislature?
Today the Business Committee will meet to decide whether to back a Welsh Conservative motion to instruct an emergency Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister meeting. Much hinges on what this cross-party group of Members decides. The Assembly has never faced a harder test than now.
All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.
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