The resignation of Sir Roderick Evans as Standards Commissioner of the Assembly has spotlighted a serious situation within the Assembly around the confidence of Assembly Members and others in the way that the standards process is operating. Ever since Sir Roderick dismissed a case some years ago involving a video Gareth Bennett AM made depicting Joyce Watson AM as not having been sexist when 99% of people who saw it believed it clearly was, questions have quite rightly been asked about the way his office is operating. Indeed, a range of organisations including those involved in equality issues such as the Electoral Reform Society, Women’s Equality Network and Welsh Women’s Aid are now making the case that the whole system be reviewed and remoulded to give greater confidence in the ability of people to bring complaints forward. From the Joyce Watson case, it is clear that the processes used simply are not fit for purpose.
Yet there are other dimensions becoming apparent the closer you look – or listen – to the way in which the Standards Commissioner is operating. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that Neil McEvoy AM’s covert recording of proceedings is morally dubious and potentially illegal in the eyes of the Llywydd, what his recordings unveiled is that many AMs subject to the complaints process were being sneered at and belittled, sometimes in sexist terms, by the Standards Commissioner and his staff. This creates a problem for many people who do not like Neil McEvoy – they cannot countenance any positive in any of his behaviour. To them, he is one of the Baddies along with the Brexit Party and whatever else the former UKIP group members are branding themselves these days. Around ten members of the Assembly are often seen as the Baddies of the institution, and to many the behaviour of both McEvoy and Mark Reckless in Plenary on Tuesday reinforced this binary division which is as absolute as Brexit.
Let me come at this from another important perspective. In the last eighteen months complaints against both Gareth Bennett AM and Mohammad Asghar AM were leaked to the press before investigations were conducted or completed. No action was taken to sweep the Assembly for bugs in those instances. Maybe they were seen as Baddies rather than Goodies.
There does indeed need to be a proper review of how the Standards Commissioner operates and whilst that should absolutely focus on supporting and protecting complainants, it also needs to encompass how accused people are supported and protected too. None of this is abstract or without context. Carl Sargeant took his own life two years ago when he had no idea of the nature of the complaints against him and was suspicious of the complaints process being invoked. Lessons should have been learnt then that should encourage confidence from both complainants and those complained about. The departure of the Standards Commissioner under a cloud creates the space and opportunity to do this.