How the Senedd’s Standards System Can Do More to Tackle Racism

The institution’s code of conduct could be updated to include a new principle promoting anti-discriminatory attitudes and behaviours, argues Dr Arun Midha.

As a person of colour I, like many others, have shared the outrage provoked by recent events in the USA and the senseless killing of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake and the much longer history of racism apparent in everyday life. 

Parliaments often introduce codes of conduct as a reaction to a seminal moment. In 1994, the ‘cash for questions’ affair, where some MPs had accepted payments in exchange for tabling questions, acted as a catalyst for fundamental change in the way standards and conduct matters were addressed.

The affair prompted the then Prime Minister John Major to set up the Committee on Standards in Public Life, establishing a set of seven principles of public life known as the Nolan principles. One of its recommendations was for the Commons to adopt a code of conduct based on these principles, which it duly did in 1996.  

The Welsh Assembly (as it was known) established its own code central to which was a general statement requiring Assembly Members to observe the seven Nolan principles. These principles have, until now, stood the test of time. 

In the same way as the ‘cash for questions’ affair ushered in a principles-based code of conduct, could the events in the USA also prove to be a seminal moment to consider a broadened code for the Senedd?

Perhaps this is the time for all MSs also to undergo training as a demonstration of the importance of diversity and a visible commitment to improve.”

While some might argue that absolute intolerance of issues related to racism and discrimination are reflected implicitly within the current Senedd code, is the time right to explore a broadened code ensuring attitudes and behaviour of members reflect an anti-discriminatory, anti-racist stance?   

A recent Race, Ethnicity and Cultural heritage (Parlireach – UK Parliament) report ‘Stand in my shoes: race and culture in Parliament’ highlighted some disturbing experiences of BAME staff members including BAME staff members having their competence, their seniority, or the value of their contribution assumed to be less than it would be for white colleagues;

    1. Disparaging remarks being made when issues of diversity and inclusion were being discussed (e.g. “oh, you sound just like xx or xx [reference to two BAME MPs]” said as a derogatory remark);
    2. Two members of staff being asked why they were speaking Spanish because “everyone here in Parliament speaks English”;
    3. Some parts of Parliament having a “macho bravado” or “banter” culture which encouraged and allowed inappropriate behaviours to be normalised and accepted; and
    4. BAME colleagues being more frequently and more forcefully asked to have their passes checked.

Indeed, the Senedd’s current Inclusion and Diversity strategy sets out a desire for the Senedd to continue to be an exemplar organisation in valuing diversity, promoting inclusion and embedding equality, both as an employer and parliamentary organisation. 

In light of recent events in the US and perhaps influenced by the Parlireach report and the Senedd’s Diversity and Inclusion strategy, is now the right time to consider introducing an eighth principle to run alongside the Nolan principles; one that has a focus specifically on both behaviour and attitudes relating to racism and diversity. 

An additional eighth principle, one with an explicit focus on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion alongside the seven Nolan principles could read: ‘MSs should promote anti-discriminatory attitudes and behaviours through the promotion of anti-racism, inclusion and diversity’ placing a responsibility on each MS to promote specific attitudes and behaviours in relation to anti-racism, inclusion and diversity. 

The Parlireach report also supported the view that there has been insufficient focus on actions to challenge racial bias (both conscious and unconscious) and advocated the introduction of training for those in Parliament to address both overt and covert and other forms of prejudice that can be not intentional. 

Training could support a greater understanding and develop an overarching philosophy of why diversity and inclusion matters. Perhaps this is the time for all MSs also to undergo training as a demonstration of the importance of diversity and a visible commitment to improve. 

“Without public engagement, the respect a democratic society should have for its elected representatives will sadly diminish.”  

This has led me to think also that MSs would have a greater understanding of and thereby find it easier to adhere to the seven other ‘Nolan’ principles if these were reframed to be more relevant to an MS’s role.

In this context creating a descriptor for each Nolan principle that was more explicitly linked to an MS’s role. This would enable each MS to consider their individual conduct in the context of their role as elected representatives. As an example, the Nolan principle on Objectivity states:   

Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias’.

My suggestion for a specific principle would be: 

‘MSs should act and take decisions fairly and on merit. They should weigh carefully the available evidence, advice and other factors and responsibilities on which they base their decisions. These factors may include national interest, constituent interest, conscience and political context’. 

A reconstructed Senedd code of conduct is set out below suggesting a specific descriptor reflecting the role of an MS for each Nolan principle. 

Why is a conversation about such matters important? 

Syniadau uchelgeisiol, awdurdodol a mentrus.
Helpwch ni i gryfhau sffêr gyhoeddus Cymru.

Firstly, an adherence to a set of Nolan principles, recast to reflect the role of an MS would perhaps help them to understand the ethos underlying each principle more easily. 

Secondly, in abiding by a specific principle relating to equality, diversity and inclusion, MSs can demonstrate a visible endorsement of the Senedd’s Inclusion and Diversity strategy and set an example to others in welsh society, in their leadership roles, about the need for tolerance and inclusivity in guiding the way we all conduct ourselves in everyday life. 

Who then should be a part of such a conversation?

Clearly MSs need to be, also those involved in setting and overseeing the Standards system in the Senedd. But crucially, the public needs to be on board. Without public engagement, the respect a democratic society should have for its elected representatives will sadly diminish.  

Principle

Nolan descriptor and suggested proposal

(1)Selflessness Nolan: Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.

Suggestion for Senedd: Members must always act in the public interest. Members must avoid conflict between personal and public interest. If there is any conflict between the two, they must resolve it at once in favour of the public interest. 

(2) Integrity Nolan: Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.

Suggestion for Senedd code: Members must not place themselves under any obligation to others who might try and inappropriately to influence them in their role. They must not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare any interests and relationships and if there is any conflict between public and personal interests, they must resolve it at once in favour of the public interest. 

(3) Objectivity Nolan: Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.

Suggestion for Senedd code: Members must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit. They must weigh carefully the evidence on which they base their decisions to come to a reasoned and balanced decision.

(4) Accountability Nolan: Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions, and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.

Suggestion for Senedd code: Members are accountable to their constituents and the wider public for their decisions and actions and as such they must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this. 

(5) Openness Nolan: Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.

Suggestion for Senedd code: Members must always act and take decisions in an open and transparent way. They must draw attention to any relevant interests in all communications unless there are clear and lawful reasons for not so doing.

(6) Honesty  Nolan: Holders of public office should be truthful.

Suggestion for Senedd code: Members should be truthful.

(7) Leadership Nolan: Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs. 

Suggestion for Senedd code: Members should lead by example and behaviour and challenge inappropriate behaviour whenever it occurs.

8th principle: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Suggestion for Senedd code: Members should promote anti-discriminatory attitudes and behaviours through the promotion of anti-racism, inclusion and diversity.

 

 

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Dr. Arun Midha is a Lay Member of the House of Commons' Committee on Standards.

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