Monday, 15 July 2013

Up Shipton Creek

With The Western Mail bringing her more stormy weather
Should Bethan have slept under her umbrella-ella-ella-ella?
(Pic : The Telegraph)
Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) attended a concert and seems to have confused the Assembly's Member's Services with lastminute.com.

As you might expect, by doing so, her family will bear the dishonour for ten generations, and she should be sent to the ducking stool post-haste. Wales' very own Inspector Javert and Snitchfinder General - Martin Shipton - stands ready to dunk her into the Taff for the third/fourth time in 18 months.

The story's also been covered by Inside Out, National Left and A Change of Personnel. I didn't think it was worth noting, but supposedly it is. Court of public opinion and all that.

I prefer the scalpel over the club. So far from taking to the streets with a pitchfork, it's worth looking at the details regarding this latest "incident" and deciding how serious it is for myself.

What happened this time?

On to the details :
  • Klingon warbler, Rihanna, held a concert at the Millennium Stadium on June 10th as part of her World Tour. Bethan Jenkins attended, and claimed for an overnight hotel stay in Cardiff via the Member's Support Service – who arrange hotel accommodation for AMs.
  • At some point, Bethan discussed with the Assembly's Chief Executive, Claire Clancy, whether her expenses claim was legitimate. She was also (apparently) asked by Leanne Wood to report herself to the Standards Commissioner. (Presumably, Bethan wanted to check if she'd actually broken any rules first.)
  • Bethan's expenses claim was given the OK by Claire Clancy – as Bethan was working at the Assembly on the morning of the 11th, meaning it was within the rules. Despite this, she paid back the costs for the hotel stay, perhaps acutely aware of how it looks.
  • Simultaneously, The Western Mail received a "tip off" about the concert and expenses claim. They questioned Bethan, and she explained that despite her stay being within Assembly rules, she paid the money back.
  • The Western Mail ran the story on 5th July, citing unnamed "Assembly insiders" who were critical of Bethan's behaviour. An unnamed "member of the public" also submitted a separate complaint to the Standards Commissioner, which is currently being dealt with.
  • Bethan released a statement on July 11th, explaining (once again) that the cost of her hotel stay was met by herself, and expressing her disappointment that anonymous sources were briefing against her.
  • The Western Mail ran another piece the same day, suggesting there was "internal turmoil" within Plaid Cymru due to Bethan's "refusal to apologise" or report herself to the Standards Commissioner. They speculated both Bethan and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr) could leave Plaid if any disciplinary action were taken against her.
  • On July 13th, Martin Shipton ran an editorial piece, criticising Bethan's refusal to apologise (again). He also criticised the Assembly's policy of allowing AMs to claim for hotel expenses for overnight stays prior to a working day, even if they live within a "reasonable travelling distance" - which is what Bethan was "accused" of doing.

The Key Points

Attending the concert – This is a ludicrous criticism. AMs aren't the property of the state and can do what they want in their own time. If Bethan wants to go to a concert, why shouldn't she?
Live concerts by world famous performers are rare events in Wales, and not being a complete cynic, AMs do enough work to earn treats.

Being an AM isn't just official committee and plenary meetings; it's office, portfolio, legislative and case work which happens behind the scenes too. This happened during the midst of a major hospital reorganisation in her region, I think she had a short debate on mining around the same time and also whilst several major Bills were going through the Senedd. Presumably, all this "other stuff" is what she was dealing with on the morning of the 11th. 

That comes with the job, and
Bethan hasn't neglected those duties once as far as I can tell, but you can see why she wanted a night off. The only "outrageous" thing here is her questionable musical taste.

The necessity of an overnight stay - I'm guessing the concert would've finished around 11pm-midnight. Cardiff to Neath takes the best part of an hour by train. With a taxi/bus/flying carpet journey on top of that, you're looking at getting home in the early hours of the morning.

Then there's the journey into Cardiff the following day. Whenever I've had to commute for 9am (or earlier) starts by public transport from Bridgend, in reality it's a 6:30am start - taking into account delays, foot journeys and leaving a cushion to avoid being late.

AFAIK, Bethan Jenkins lives closer to Pontardawe than Neath.
"Reasonable travelling distance" depends on method of transport too as it adds to journey times. She can't pop on public transport and be in Cardiff in an hour - we all should be able to in an ideal world - but it's more like the best part of two hours. You're looking at a ~6am start and not getting home until 7-8pm.

Now, you can argue, "Lots of ordinary people do that!" Actually, there's little evidence of mass commuting to Cardiff from anywhere west of Bridgend.

According to Stats Wales, in 2011 ~1,000 people commuted from Neath Port Talbot to Cardiff each day, and just 1,900 from Swansea, out of 70-80,000 in total.
That's compared to 6,000 from Bridgend alone and even 5,800 from outside Wales! Saying that Neath and Swansea are within "the Cardiff commuter belt" is an exaggeration. It's the exception rather than the norm.

The expenses claim – Should Bethan have stayed in Cardiff, on the same night as a concert she attended, using Assembly services?

Stay in Cardiff - yes, that's sensible. Claim on expenses? - Nope! She shouldn't have even thought about it. She must've known how that looks, and it's the reason this became newsworthy. Not only does she have chronic bad luck, but Bethan's her own worst enemy sometimes.

However, when you look at it objectively and within the context of the expenses rules there's no issue. In that situation you want the room, not the money.

It's like using a employee/corporate discount. It's cheeky, but in this case doesn't even count as bending the rules as it complied with them entirely. Despite how it might "look", Bethan didn't do anything wrong at all.

The "Assembly insiders" and Plaid's "turmoil" –  I'm suspicious of any story that's reliant on unnamed sources, as it screams out, "This is probably a load of old bollocks". That's just my personal opinion though, and it's not unusual to use such sources.

Though there'll no doubt have been discussions, I suspect talk of "turmoil" in Plaid is bollocks too. There haven't been any signs of a problem.
Plaid seem to be having a jolly old time on Anglesey at the moment with their new pal, Rhun; riding tractors, wearing Welsh hats and getting sun burns tans.

I suspect the "rat" isn't someone in the current Assembly Group or a Plaid staffer, but outside the Assembly. Maybe it's someone who isn't in Plaid at all, but they clearly had inside knowledge.

I'm a constituent too, and I value loyalty. If it is someone within Plaid doing it with eyes on 2016 selections, someone doing it on their behalf, or someone from another party hoping to benefit from this, I don't want them to represent me as an AM, now or in 2016.


If they can do it to a backbencher over a minor thing, they could easily do to a leader or ministers one day. Do we need people like that in the Senedd? Would someone want to share a party with someone like that? I'd say no.

Despite the picture they're painting of Bethan, the insider isn't showing the character traits necessary to be an elected representative or represent one. Depending on which direction it's coming from, they breach "Nolan Principles" - in particular selflessness and objectivity - as well as other unofficial ones by being an opportunistic coward, lacking honour and breaching trust.

You don't have to like everyone, but someone smearing a member of their own or another party for non-political reasons - instead of maintaining a dignified silence - has serious issues and, in my opinion, is unsuitable to be a candidate at any level. I have my suspicions as to who it could be, but I'm well-mannered enough to keep that to myself.

If the complaint to the Standards Commissioner is ruled as admissible - it shouldn't be, based on the evidence - we'll find out who the "member of the public" is too. And isn't it funny how the reported complaint from a "member of the public" - a single complaint, which nobody without inside knowledge will have seen - almost matches The Western Mail's grievances word for word?


The story falls apart - Martin Shipton torpedoes his own scoop in his July 13th editorial.

He acknowledges the Assembly's own rules state that AMs - even those living within a commutable distance - are allowed to claim for overnight stays in Cardiff up to a certain limit,  including the night before, as long as they're carrying out  official duties the following day.

"An AM's official duties"
will include the office work that's not on the official Assembly timetable, but part of their general duties. Sometimes AMs will do that at home, sometimes they'll do it in their constituency offices; when the Assembly's in session, they'll do it in Cardiff - as Bethan presumably did on the 11th.

Oh, and to repeat, we must remember that Bethan paid back the costs of the hotel stay – which, in fairness, was pointed out in previous articles, but drowned in righteous indignation.

He's demanding Bethan apologises for not breaking any rules and, it appears, for attending a concert!? That's a nonsense position, going down the "She shouldn't have gone to a concert when people are enduring tough times etc." line - neither should anyone else then. Also, trying to equate a hotel stay to second homes is a lame attempt to create guilt by association.


Bethan should only apologise if she has something to apologise for - and she doesn't.


I doubt there'll even be a rule change because of this, as under these circumstances, what sort of person chooses a night in a hotel over their own home?

Someone who wants to turn up to work on time and well-rested so they can do their job properly, I presume - regardless of what they were doing the night before. In other words, a responsible adult.

"Oooooohhhm, I'm telling on you!"

I'm developing a habit of foreshadowing events. Last October, in response to a comment on the more serious incident, I said this:

"I wonder if she (Bethan Jenkins), or other AMs from South Wales, don't stay in Cardiff overnight because of how it would be reported? I think we all know certain newspaper editors have a broom up their arse with regard certain AMs."
Heh.

Then, back in May this year, I warned that once stricter punishments for AMs come into effect - including the option of temporary expulsions - we're going to see AMs get over the top punishments for any and all slip ups. I suspect I'm going to be right, and I suspect someone's hoping that Bethan will be the test case for those new laws of the Senedd playground.

This certainly started off as a story in the public interest, I don't criticise The Western Mail for running it.

What began as serious political gossip though - which could've been expanded to look at similar expenses claims from other AMs - changed its tone in subsequent articles to become an attempt to batter an apology out of Bethan for no good reason.

As soon as The Western Mail made this personal,
the story becomes easy to pull apart - because you had better be sure it's serious enough to have such attention focused on one person - leaving The Western Mail with all the credibility of a playground grass. News became opinion.

The final derailment was a backtrack to a generic straw populist "Aren't politicians out of touch?" line. The focus shifted from Bethan to the Assembly Commission. That's because Martin Shipton comes across as being almost disappointed and angry that she didn't
break their rules in the first place, rendering the story a mangled wreck.
The fuss surrounding a youngish person – ignore the AM bit for a moment - wanting to watch Rihanna live on a "school night" seems rather vindictive and borders on bullying, IMO.

I'm not sure if Bethan's owed an apology, but I hope she has the class to not demand one in public.

8 comments:

  1. That is such a long article, Owen. Is it worth it?

    The only thing I would say is that it isn't a matter of claiming expenses and then paying them back. Overnight accommodation is arranged and paid for by the Assembly Commission directly. An AM doesn't have to pay first and then claim back. If the Commission has a gram of sense, they will have negotiated a substantial corporate discount for something that must happen hundreds of times a year.

    So while Martin might have had a point if she had paid, make a claim and then changed her mind and repaid it, he doesn't have a point if she only made use of a convenient (all she had to do is ask someone in the Commission Office to make the usual booking) and cheap (because of the discount) booking service, but with every intention of paying for the room. The amount would simply be offset against any other expenses that month or, if there was a deficit, she would pay the difference.

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  2. Thanks, MH.

    Well, Martin managed to get three articles out of this, and all the other ones in previous years, surely someone should return the compliment? :)

    I understand that the system works as you described, and I'd guess that this was the latter of the two scenarios. That's what I meant by "using a corporate/employee discount". It's "naughty", but the whole thing's a bit of a non-story, especially if there's been a reimbursement.

    I'm willing to bet Bethan Jenkins isn't the only AM who's been doing this, and although I'm not one for tin foil headwear, he (or a source feeding him) seems to have a "problem" with her in particular.

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  3. Or another was to look at it Bethan Jenkins and Martin Shipton deserve each other, both keep damaging their respective professions through their actions and ultimately welsh politics is the real loser.

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  4. This annihilates the story itself, but I doubt it will do the same for public opinion sadly. Mud sticks. Great post!

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  5. This may be something of a sacrilegious point of view at the moment, but I am utterly disinterested in the puritanical witch hunt of AMs, MPs and other politicians over their salaries, expenses, allowances, etc., from whatever party they are from. Not because I'm disinterested in the probity of public servants, or not keen to ensure the effective spending of public money, but because I genuinely think it is counter-productive, quite dangerous actually.

    You see, every second, and every column inch that is spent wailing about an £80 Travelodge bill for an AM is a second and column inch not spent talking about the elephant in the room: salaries, expenses, bonuses, benefit in kind, share schemes, pensions and corporate entertainment in the private sector, in particular in corporate business. And whilst the mega salaries of the City are certainly a problem, I'm actually not referring to that stratum of the national workforce.

    I spent 15 years in the private sector in corporate commerce and banking at middle to senior management level, some of it headquartered in Cardiff. I never broke the rules, certainly not the law, and I never broke any moral code that would be recognised for a second in the private sector. And yet the sheer quantum of difference between reward and recompense in those sectors compared to the public sector is simply embarrassing. But this seems to be perfectly acceptable for our national press, tv and public at large.

    Largesse in the private sector = good or acceptable as that is for shareholders to decide

    Modest reward and expenses in the public sector = moral corruption

    What dummies in our society (and in the press it seems) don't get is that we (the dummies who buy products from the great corporations) are paying for that Largesse in exactly the same way as we are paying for the modest reward of the public sector through taxation, except we don't have any electoral control over it.

    Whilst we beat politicians over the head for daring to act in a managerial way, we're not tackling the real problem. Corporate Britain and its employees (a pretty big group nowadays) are getting richer at the expense of everyone else. The gap in prosperity is growing. Singling out one AM or MP every few months for 'angling' a hotel room or a meal on the slate simply draws the fire, it gives the masses the impression that an enemy has been found and that we're giving them a good beating, whilst people like me (in a former life) are laughing all the way to our company cars, five star hotels, meals and drinks allowances and corporate credit cards. We have a patsy taking the bullet for us and the shooter doesn't even know it, and even if he does (and does he?) the crowd still think they've got their man.

    I'd much prefer that the investigative 'strengths' of our press were targeted at the real scandal and moral cancer of our times - the disparity in prosperity and reward between the corporate classes and the rest and how that is paid for. But that requires guts...

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  6. Thanks for the extra comments. It looks as though this has gone down rather well. ;)

    ACOP - In fairness, Martin Shipton was only trying to do his job, but he blew it by making business personal. I don't think either "damages Welsh politics" at all. Non-existent "scandals" are blown out of proportion for the sake of headlines, while our AMs should be careful not to give the likes of Martin ammunition - even if he shoots himself in the foot.

    Anon 21:26 - If I'm honest, I doubt anyone cares about this. I just called "bullshit" because I think Bethan Jenkins has been unfairly criticised for years - with one big exemption, of course. I care because I think there's an element of ageism to it (maybe hints of sexism too - I've written on that before [here]), and being a few years younger than her, that's going to wind me up.

    Anon 23:18 - An excellent contribution, thanks for putting the effort in.

    I think we both know that the reason the public get wound up by politician/public sector expenses is because it's seen as "their/taxpayers' money". Politicians don't have the best reputations, but - I don't want to come across as haughty - at least I can see why they need expenses for certain things like overnight accommodation.

    It's legitimate too - you shouldn't be expected to pay to do your job from your own money. That's especially dangerous in politics, lest it becomes some sort of hobby for the rich - even if that's the case in Westminster, especially the House of Lords. Even the self-employed get various schemes and allowance for that. As you say, it's a shame the press and public don't see that, or cynically assume there's a fiddle.

    As much as it pains me to say this, private companies can do what they want with their own expenses, as long as it's fair, proportionate and doesn't ring fence those at the very top. It's excessive "bonuses" for doing their job, rather than expenses, that I have a particular problem with - in both private and public sectors. I've come around to the John Lewis/co-operative business model down the years, and I think that's probably the way forward to make the free market "nicer".



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  7. I wonder how much of the headline-grabbing power of the story comes from the link to Rihanna? 'News' is an odd thing. People have to decide what's going to sell or be read and then hang the points they want to make on that. I imagine the story would never have made the news if Bethan Jenkins had gone to see Bob Delyn at Clwb Ifor Bach or Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog at Acapela.

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  8. Thanks, ö-Dzin Tridral.

    You're absolutely right regarding "news". If it had been the scenario you described, the reaction, I suspect, might've been even worse once the Wales Online comment chimps got wind of it.

    I suppose if Ann Jones, for example, had been in an Anaal Nathrakh pit, that might've been news for different reasons compared to some wanky jazz band playing in front of 10 people.

    This became a story because someone tipped off the ever-obliging Martin Shipton, thinking - Dick Dastardly style - that this was going to be the coup de grace, without first checking if Bethan had done anything wrong.

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