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FDA Cymru|Wales is calling for a truly independent process to deal with complaints about the conduct of Members of the Senedd.
The latest report from the Senedd Standards Commissioner for the year to March 2021 makes for uneasy reading, showing a 104% increase in complaints. Against this backdrop, FDA Cymru|Wales National Officer Gareth Hills has called for the Senedd to introduce a process mirroring that now in place in the House of Commons, including an Independent Expert Panel, with the authority to make decisions on investigation outcomes and sanctions on upheld complaints.
The union made the case for the introduction of an Independent Expert Panel in response to a consultation on the Senedd’s code of conduct earlier this year (available to read in English and Welsh). While FDA Cymru|Wales welcomed the review’s proposal to better align the code with the Dignity and Respect policy adopted by the Senedd in 2018, Hills has criticised the fact it fell short of introducing an independent process to handle complaints against MSs and former MSs.
“Our experience from Parliaments in all corners of the UK is that those principles will only be effective if backed up by an effective independent complaints procedure that is completely free from political interference, and has the trust and confidence of Senedd staff, the Senedd authorities and MSs” Hills explained.
FDA Cymru|Wales’ National Officer has also met with the new Chair of the Standards Committee, Vikki Howells, to discuss how FDA Cymru|Wales can work with them to ensure the Senedd introduces a new, fully independent process for dealing with complaints.
“The meeting with Vikki Howells was very positive and I’m delighted that we have agreed to continue the dialogue,” Hills said. “She made a great point about the need for a single and easily accessible policy setting out a process in straightforward terms. She was also very receptive to my comments about this being a chance for the Senedd to highlight itself as an exemplar Welsh employer by advancing Welsh Government’s Fair Work agenda, promoting workplace rights, and tackling bullying, harassment and discrimination.”
Without the introduction of a new, independent policy, the Senedd risks being an outlier compared to the other nations of the UK. In June 2020, the House of Commons approved the final stage of an independent process by voting through a motion to establish the new Independent Expert Panel (IEP) to make decisions on sanctions over upheld complaints of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment against MPs – exactly what the FDA had campaigned for. Following this, in June 2021 the Scottish Government announced a commitment to introduce a new, independent process for dealing with complaints of bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment against Ministers and former Ministers.
According to Hills, the current complaints procedures available to the 460 staff employed by the Senedd Commission are “too complex”, which can lead to delays in dealing with complaints, and “lack full independence”, as the arrangements involve MSs and allow the whole Senedd to take final decisions on breaches of the code of conduct.
“Having a robust and independent policy that has the trust and confidence of MSs and those working for the Commission is our priority,” he said. “It would also be a first step to ensuring that FDA members in Welsh Government, Estyn and other devolved bodies who meet, work with, and provide advice to MSs also have their rights to dignity and respect upheld.”