Senedd complaints process being abused by politicians - watchdog

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image captionBehaviour in the Welsh Parliament is governed by a code of conduct

A small number of politicians are abusing the Senedd complaints process, according to Wales' politics watchdog.

Conduct in the Welsh Parliament is regulated by the acting standards commissioner, Douglas Bain.

His annual report claims a small number of Members of the Senedd (MSs) are using his office as a "political weapon" - making claims about each other's behaviour.

One MS alone made seven of the 14 complaints submitted by Senedd members.

Only one of that MS's complaints was deemed admissible for investigation.

A small number of MSs are also using members of the public to make complaints on their behalf, Mr Bain said, "to hide their own identity".

No action is being taken on two complaints about MSs to avoid the risk of prejudicing police investigations, the report covering 2019/20 said.

Mr Bain policies the Senedd's code of conduct - the rules by which Members of the Senedd are meant to behave.

In the last year the number of complaints rose 147% - although most were inadmissible - while the cost of running his office almost doubled.

Mr Bain said an additional member of staff was "the main reason" for an increase in office costs from £76,384 in 2018/19 to £156,460 in 2019/20.

image captionDouglas Bain became acting standards commissioner last year

Speaking to BBC Wales, Mr Bain said he had "no desire" to stop MSs complaining each other "when they genuinely believe there has been misconduct".

But he said there is "evidence some members, a small number, [are] using the complaints process to score party political points, or equally as bad getting members of the public to front a complaint that they are really making".

"That's conduct that is an abuse of the process and should be stopped."

In the 2019/20 period, of the complaints made by members, seven came from independent MSs, three from Welsh Labour politicians, two from Plaid Cymru members and one from a Brexit Party member.

Of those complaints, six were against Welsh Labour MSs, three were against Brexit Party members, two were against Independent MSs and one was against a Plaid Cymru member.

82 'inadmissible' social media complaints

The overall number of complaints against MSs rose from 43 to 106 - the highest number since the office of Commissioner was established.

Most - 84 - were deemed inadmissible for investigation.

Of those, 82 had "insufficient substance to justify further investigation". 53 were about conduct on social media.

37 concerned an MS's use of Nazi imagery around the time of the elections to the European Parliament, while another ten concerned a MS's tweet criticising climate campaigner Greta Thunberg.

"Everyone has a right to freedom of expression and in the political sphere that right is enhanced," Mr Bain said.

"The right of politicians is not absolute and does not excuse gratuitously offensive personal comments."

None of the MSs discussed by the commissioner have been identified.

image captionComplaints about what an MS said about Greta Thunberg were not investigated

Mr Bain said he intends to produce "new user-friendly guidance" over the coming year "to try and make it clearer to the public what the commissioner can deal with and what he can't deal with."

"But I wouldn't want to class all these complaints as spurious," he said.

"If members of the public genuinely believe that a Member of the Senedd has been guilty of misconduct, it's right that they should be able to complain and that that matter should be looked at by a totally independent commissioner."

'High standard'

He said the increase in the number of complaints "demonstrates close scrutiny by the public" and that he is "satisfied that almost all members continue to observe the high standard of conduct rightly expected of them."

Douglas Bain was appointed acting standards commissioner in November 2019 following the resignation of Sir Roderick Evans from the role.

Sir Roderick resigned after independent MS Neil McEvoy revealed secret recordings of the commissioner, which he claimed showed sexism and bias.

The outgoing commissioner said much of the detail of the comments shared was out of context and misleading.

The report covers the end of Sir Roderick's office, and the start of Mr Bain's.

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