8. Debate on the Standards of Conduct Committee Report, 'Ninth report to the Sixth Senedd under Standing Order 22.9'

– in the Senedd at 5:57 pm on 13 March 2024.

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Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 5:57, 13 March 2024

(Translated)

Item 8 is the next item, a debate on the Standards of Conduct Committee report, the 'Ninth report to the sixth Senedd under Standing Order 22.9'. I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion. Vikki Howells.

(Translated)

Motion NDM8519 Vikki Howells

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Considers the Report of the Standards of Conduct Committee—Ninth Report to the Sixth Senedd laid before the Senedd on 6 March 2024 in accordance with Standing Order 22.9.

2. Endorses the recommendation in the report that a breach has been found.

3. Resolves that the Member shall be excluded from any Senedd proceedings under Standing Order 22.10(iii) for a period of 42 days, excluding days while the Senedd is in recess, commencing with the passing of this motion and ending no later than midnight on 15 May 2024.

4. Notes that the Member shall not be entitled to any salary from the Senedd in respect of the days to which point 3 applies, in accordance with Standing Order 22.10A.

(Translated)

Motion moved.

Photo of Vikki Howells Vikki Howells Labour 5:57, 13 March 2024

Diolch, Llywydd. As the Chair of the Standards of Conduct Committee, I formally move the motion. I'd like to begin by thanking my fellow members of the committee and the committee clerking and legal team for their support on this case.

The committee considered the report from the commissioner for standards in relation to a complaint made against Rhys ab Owen MS regarding his conduct on the evening of 30 June to 1 July 2021. The committee gave the commissioner's report careful consideration and our report sets out the committee's decision on the commissioner's findings and opinion and makes a recommendation as to the sanction that is appropriate in this case. Following the receipt of the commissioner's report, the committee has given the Member greater latitude to make representations in both oral session and by way of written submissions and correspondence than has previously been afforded to a Member who has been the subject of a complaint considered by the standards committee.

The Member has also been provided with all of the commissioner's responses to points raised. As the committee sets out in the report, the committee has decided to make a finding of breach of the Members' code of conduct in respect of the five matters originally put to the Member by the commissioner, namely that he was drunk, swore at and inappropriately touched the complainant on the evening of 30 June to 1 July 2021. We are recommending a sanction of 42 days, based on the initial complaint received by the commissioner in August 2022. The facts relating to the complaint and the committee's reasons for its recommendations are set out in the committee's full report.

The standards system is one that requires a careful balance of the need to be transparent and the need to avoid distress or further harm where there is no public interest in making information available. As such, Members will note that the committee has taken the decision not to publish the commissioner's report. We were mindful of the need to ensure privacy for all those involved in this complaint. However, the committee has made the report and related appendices and documents available for inspection by Members under conditions of strict confidentiality in a reading room, with only essential redactions to respect the privacy of witnesses and third parties, and, in particular, to protect the identities of persons named in the commissioner's report. This follows a practice that has been adopted in other UK legislatures in similar cases.

I would like to take this opportunity to remind Members that the reputation of the Senedd as an institution and the public's trust and confidence in it rely upon us Members adhering to the code of conduct. In doing so, we must show integrity, leadership and respect in our behaviour and in the example that we set for others. For the start of the sixth Senedd, we the Senedd expressed our commitment to upholding the dignity of other people and the prohibition of unwanted behaviour and harassment. We adopted an additional principle of respect to the long-established seven principles of public life in our code of conduct. It is to this important principle that I draw Members' attention in particular today.

As has already been noted elsewhere, the recommendation is the longest exclusion proposed to date by a Senedd standards committee, and it reflects the seriousness of the breach of the code of conduct and the committee's determination to uphold that fundamental principle of respect. The Senedd must be a safe and inclusive workplace where everybody is treated equally. Those working for and serving Members should not feel that they must tolerate behaviour that is not acceptable.

I would like to finish by assuring this Senedd that the committee has arrived at its recommendation on the evidence before it and, as we note in our report, we were conscious not allow emotion to cloud our objective assessment of the facts. However, this is the first complaint considered by the Senedd that addresses matters of harassment and unwanted behaviour, and it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that this case has had a significant impact on everyone concerned. In particular, it required courage for the complainant to decide to come forward and engage with the complaints process. The committee hopes that its work on this complaint will reassure others considering bringing a complaint that they will find that there is a fair and impartial process with a secure environment that will enable them to be heard. The motion tabled invites the Senedd to endorse the committee's recommendation.

Photo of Rhys ab Owen Rhys ab Owen Plaid Cymru

Diolch, Llywydd, for the opportunity to speak, and thank you in advance to my fellow Members for listening to what I have to say. I'll be making my speech in English as I want to speak directly to every Member. As many of you will know, this place does mean a lot to me, and I appreciate the opportunity to speak after what has been a long and difficult period. And while I wish I could have spoken to you in person to demonstrate my respect for you and the institution, due to the very critical health situation of my newborn nephew Emrys Arthur, I am required to attend hospital this evening to support my family. Therefore, that is the reason I am addressing you remotely. I thank you in advance for understanding this.

Of course, I'd like to begin with an apology, an apology to the people directly impacted by my behaviour, to my family, to you my colleagues in the Senedd, and to the public I serve. Simply, I have let you all down. My behaviour on the night in question fell far short of the standard expected of a public official, and for that I do apologise unreservedly, mainly to those present and affected by my behaviour that evening, now nearly three years ago, to you my colleagues, to my family and to the public. I had too much to drink that night and I behaved badly. I accept responsibility for my behaviour and the consequences of that behaviour. I therefore also accept the punishment given to me, even if I might have reservations about how it was reached, and I do have reservations, Llywydd.

While I respect the necessity of this process, its duration and lack of transparency were challenging for all involved. It is only right that we have such a process, but that process needs to improve, and it must improve for all parties involved. The complaint was submitted to the standards commission on 1 July 2022. It is now 13 March 2024. Over 20 months have gone by; 622 days. No matter how distinguished, one individual should not be the investigator and finder of fact. This is especially the case when there is no way to challenge or appeal the process other than a judicial review that could cost six figures to pursue. Such a cost would deter most except the very rich from seeking to appeal, highlighting the real barrier to fairness. I would imagine that this is a sum unreachable for most here in the Senedd. But, Llywydd, the rules, as they are, are the rules, and I must abide by them. I do abide by them.

This experience has taught me the importance of compassion and not defining others by their lowest points. Nor must we rush to judgment; whatever my sins might be, they are not what have been described in some corners of the media commentary about the report. I would therefore urge all to read the committee report carefully before offering their commentary.

Of course, to make mistakes is human, and although forgiveness is for others to offer, it is something that must also be earned. I have made significant personal changes aimed at becoming not just a better individual, but also a more dedicated representative of my constituents. I have done my level best to keep hard at work on behalf of my constituents as this process has unfolded. I have not let them down in terms of the work I do on their behalf, even though I have let people down and let them down in this matter.

I would like to thank my wife and family for their love and support. I will return it to you now, when my family needs it most at this difficult time. I would like to thank my fellow Members from all sides and constituents who have checked in on me during this long process. It is appreciated and much needed. I am sorry. Diolch yn fawr.

Photo of Vikki Howells Vikki Howells Labour

Diolch, Llywydd. I would like to thank the Member for the respectful way that he approached his dealings with the committee. In terms of the length of the inquiry, what I would say is that the Commissioner for Standards conducted his investigation into the complaint from 15 August 2022 to 12 May 2023. The investigation involved interviewing the Member, complainant and various other witnesses, and the committee began its own consideration of the commissioner's report on 24 May 2023.

Members will see from the annex to the report the timeline of committee proceedings, and in particular the volume of submissions and responses that were exchanged. The committee also requested the clarification of certain points, which required witnesses to be re-interviewed by the standards commissioner and further disclosure of documents. The committee was keen throughout to ensure that it gave due weight to the representations that it received and was not prepared to rush to its conclusions.

In terms of the commissioner's investigation itself, the committee considered the Member's criticisms carefully and has set out its views in our report. Were the committee not satisfied, we would have rejected the commissioner's findings as a whole. The committee did decline to make a decision on a number of findings that were not core to the original complaint for the procedural reasons that we set out in the report. Diolch, Llywydd.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 6:09, 13 March 2024

(Translated)

The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No, there is no objection, therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

(Translated)

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 6:09, 13 March 2024

(Translated)

That brings us to voting time and, unless three Members wish for the bell to be rung, I will proceed directly to the first vote.