Thursday, 16 May 2013

Assembly prefects request bigger stick to thrash AMs

Harsher punishments for AMs who "misbehave" are on the cards.
I'll probably be ridiculed, but is all this "hairshirting" going too far?
(Pic :
The Assembly's Standards Committee published its second report in as many weeks, this time into punishing AMs when they - to use the politically correct term - "bring the Assembly into disrepute" (pdf).

There was only one recommendation – that the Assembly's Standing Orders be modified to include harsher sanctions against AMs who misbehave.

Why have they decided to review it?

This was part of a wider investigation into standards procedures this Assembly term, so not prompted by anything in particular.

Currently, when complaints are made against an AM, the Standards Commissioner – Gerard Elias QC - decides if there's been a breach of the AMs Code of Conduct or Assembly's Standing Orders (pdf - as of May 2013), and refers it to the Standards Committee to make a decision :
  • That there's been a breach, but no further action is required.
  • That the AM in question should be "censured" by the Assembly.
  • That the breach is serious enough to warrant exclusion from Assembly proceedings.

A "breach" refers to whatever the AM has done wrong; things like failing to properly declare expenses, society memberships and interests - and yes, various "incidents". A "censure" is a formal reprimand issued by the Assembly itself.

The Standards Committee drew up a new list of sanctions they thought would be reasonable, and put that out to consultation to AMs, subsequently noting there was "unanimous support" for them.

What are the new sanctions?

The Committee and Commissioner looked at other devolved legislatures' standards procedures to see if revised sanctions were needed. If approved, the Standards Committee will now have several options when a breach has been found, as well as the power to combine them:
  • Take no further action, as before.
  • "Censure" the AM in accordance with Standing Orders.
  • Exclude the AM from Assembly proceedings for a set time without pay.
  • Withdrawal of "rights and privileges", like :
    • Denying access to Assembly estates and services.
    • Exclusion from events to which an AM would usually have the right to attend.
    • Removal of representational or ceremonial privileges.

As for permanent exclusion, the Assembly doesn't have that power. So AMs can't be "sacked". Parties can suspend AMs, but the AM in question would still have the right to sit as an Independent for the remainder of their term of office.

How would these new sanctions work in practice?

Sanctions would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all of the circumstances – including whether it was an intentional breach or not. The Standards Committee would have "discretion" when deciding how to apply the rules. So sanctions "may" be applied, not "must".

Repeat offences would, as the report says, "lead to more serious consequences". However, different approaches are needed between a single serious breach and lots of minor breaches that might "show contempt of the Assembly and its rules".

AMs are generally expected to apologise for any mistakes, but there's acknowledgement that it might not always be appropriate – for example, refusing to apologise after making a contentious political statement.

One big change though is that "exclusion" – which has never been used AFAIK – could be applied to a wider range of breaches. The Labour Group in the Assembly proposed it should be a maximum of six months. Instead, the length of any exclusion will be included in censure motions put to the Assembly, seemingly without any set limit.

Turkeys voting for Christmas?

These changes will whiz through the Senedd. Of course there was "unanimous approval". AMs aren't going to oppose something in order to give themselves an easy ride, are they? They know how that would look.

I'll say it instead then - these new sanctions might be too harsh. I guess I'll need to explain my reasoning as you pick your jaws up from the floor.

On the whole, AMs are relatively well-behaved. There've been four serious high-profile sanctions against three AMs in the last few years. I'm not here to stick the boot into anyone, you can figure out who's who yourselves.

One complaint, in my opinion, shouldn't have gone to the Standards Committee. That particular AM set out with good intentions – in fact they had a good idea they wanted to roll out. It seems they had implicit Assembly Commission approval, but got accidentally tangled in the Assembly's rules. They were perhaps let down by the Commission, and should never have been allowed to take on something as ambitious as that - on their own - in the first place.

The other three breaches were what I would consider personal, not professional, misconduct. Two were serious and inexcusable whichever way you look at them. The other was embarrassing for the AM involved and a bit of a non-story.

So only one complaint related to what you could consider "professional misconduct" – and that was spurious, perhaps driven by a single newspaper headline. The others were to do with incidents in their private lives.

Professional misconduct should be the boundary of the Standards Committee's remit. By that I mean anything directly related to their job as an AM or the Assembly's own rules. However, the current Code of Conduct blurs private with public with regard personal conduct.

With expanded sanctions, we could end up seeing harsher penalties for personal transgressions - which would usually have passed with no action or just a censure. That might goad the media, party hacks or individuals into dragging up any sort of "dirt" to lay "one of them" low.

Instead of questioning their actual job performance, I fear we're going to end up with more of this:

"AM destroys child's sand castle with clodhoppers whilst on 'holiday' - Standards Committee suspends them for 3 months without pay.
  • Elderly witness dropped ice cream 'in disgust'.
  • Anonymous source : 'They were trampling on their little flag, laughing. They're out of touch, aren't they?'
  • Child provided with counselling, said to be 'traumatised'.
Editorial : Should AMs look where they're going on taxpayers' money?"
Rob15 - Shoud b SACKED    -27

ContLlwfr - NATS, WELSH, WAG    -15

We expect high standards of behaviour from elected officials, but as far as I'm concerned, private lives are out of bounds. Unless they break the law, I don't give a toss how much AMs drink, who they sleep with, what they watch on the telly, what they said on Facebook umpteen years ago or who they punch.

Like all this nonsense about the Green Party member posting poor taste "Good Advice Duck" memes.
That's soap opera, not politics. It's at the very least a smear or gossip, and at worst bullying and harassment.

e're in danger of putting politicians on a pedestal, making it look like they're immaculate angels descended from on high, who can't be hurt and are born to do no wrong. All they are in reality is one of us with letters after their name.
They're no better than us, a few of them are going to be bad eggs, but so what if they do their jobs properly?

I don't think anything they do on a personal level reflects on the Assembly. A misbehaving doctor or solicitor doesn't reflect badly on the whole NHS or legal profession, does it?

Breaches of "personal conduct" should be treated similarly, and given the same levels of attention, as an ordinary member of the public. Further sanctions for those breaches from their employer - especially if they've already been dealt with outside the Assembly - seem like punishing someone twice for the same crime. Nobody deserves that, and unless the breach is very serious - prison term serious - it's cruel too.

Similarly, nobody deserves to have a mistake they've made dragged up at any and every opportunity after they've been punished or shown remorse. I think we would be riled if that happened to us, wouldn't we? Well, I know this is an alien concept, but "that lot down Cardiff Bay" are people too.

I'd also be annoyed if an AM I elect has their job interfered with, or are suspended, for something they did on a day off, as opposed to corruption or professional dishonesty. In fact, under those circumstances I'd expect them to work harder.

I think that's called "restorative justice". If any AMs believe that's suitable for us, they should practice it on each other too, not wave around a bigger stick or try to fix something that wasn't really broken in the first place.


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