Y Pwyllgor Cyllid

Finance Committee

09/05/2024

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Mike Hedges
Peredur Owen Griffiths Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Peter Fox
Rhianon Passmore

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Chris Vinestock Prif Swyddog Gweithredu a Chyfarwyddwr Gwelliant, Swyddfa Ombwdsmon Gwasanaethau Cyhoeddus Cymru
Chief Operating Officer and Director of Improvement, Public Services Ombudsman for Wales Office
Katrin Shaw Prif Gynghorydd Cyfreithiol a Cyfarwyddwr Ymchwiliadau, Swyddfa Ombwdsmon Gwasanaethau Cyhoeddus Cymru
Chief Legal Adviser and Director of Investigations, Public Services Ombudsman for Wales Office
Michelle Morris Ombwdsmon Gwasanaethau Cyhoeddus Cymru
Public Services Ombudsman for Wales

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Ben Harris Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser
Cerian Jones Ail Glerc
Second Clerk
Leanne Hatcher Ail Glerc
Second Clerk
Mike Lewis Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Owain Roberts Clerc
Clerk

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Cyfarfu’r pwyllgor yn y Senedd a thrwy gynhadledd fideo.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 10:30.

The committee met in the Senedd and by video-conference.

The meeting began at 10:00.

1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau
1. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest

Croeso cynnes i'r cyfarfod yma o'r Pwyllgor Cyllid. Rydyn ni yma bore yma ac mae pob Aelod yn bresennol, felly mae hynny'n dda, felly does gennym ni ddim ymddiheuriadau. Mae'r pwyllgor yma'n cael ei ddarlledu'n fyw ar Senedd.tv a bydd y trafodion yn cael eu cyhoeddi yn ôl yr arfer. Gaf i ofyn os oes unrhyw ddatganiadau angen eu gwneud? Na. Mae hynny'n iawn, felly. Gwnawn ni symud ymlaen.

A very warm welcome to this meeting of the Finance Committee. We are here this morning and every Member is present, so that is good; we have no apologies today. This meeting is being broadcast live on Senedd.tv and the Record of Proceedings will be published as usual. Could I ask if there are any declarations of interest that need to be made? No, there are none. That's all right, then. So, we will move on.

2. Papurau i'w nodi
2. Papers to note

We'll move on to item 2. Item 2 is papers to note. We have one paper to note, and that is a letter from the Cabinet Secretary, so could we note that for the record? That's great. Thank you.

3. Adolygiad o weithrediadau, prosesau ac ymchwiliadau a gynhaliwyd gan Ombwdsmon Gwasanaethau Cyhoeddus Cymru: Sesiwn dystiolaeth
3. Review into the operations, processes and investigations carried out by the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales: Evidence session

Okay. So, our substantive item this morning is a review into the operations, processes and investigations carried out by the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, and it's our first evidence session. We want to thank the witnesses for coming in this morning. Can I start by asking you to introduce yourselves for the record, please?

Of course, yes. Bore da. Michelle Morris, public services ombudsman.

Bore da. Chris Vinestock, chief operating officer.

Katrin Shaw, chief legal adviser and director of investigations.

Diolch yn fawr. Fantastic. Thank you very much. This is the committee's first session of its review into the operations, processes and investigations carried out by the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, which we were formally instructed to carry out by the Senedd on 17 April, under Standing Order 17.2. I'd also like to note that the ombudsman has shared a draft of your terms of reference for the independent review, which have been included as supporting documents for today's agenda.

I'd like to now turn to our questions. First, I'd like to focus on the issues that led to the independent external review of the ombudsman and her office. So, can I start? Can you set out the context, please, that led to the resignation of a member of your staff who was previously team leader of the councillor code of conduct team, including how you became aware of that content that had been posted on social media?

Okay. Yes, of course. Could I just perhaps start by saying that it's been a really difficult period of time for the organisation and for the staff in the organisation? The impact of the actions of one individual has really sent ripples—shockwaves, really—through the organisation, so that's what we've been dealing with. But I think it's important that I put on the record from the outset that the conduct of that member of staff fell well short of the standards of conduct expected from our staff, and that's why we took swift action, which I'll go on to talk about. Neither I nor my staff condone any of the comments that she made and they were totally unacceptable. So, I just felt it was important to get that on the record from the outset, so thank you for that, Chair.

So, the events, the context here. The events started, really, at the end of March, just before the Easter bank holiday weekend, 26 March, when I received a letter that set out allegations that the team leader had made political comments on social media, and that letter provided details of the posts that had been made, so it provided clear evidence of what had happened. We could see immediately that those fell well short of the conduct we expect of our staff. It's really important to us that we're independent, we're impartial, and, politically, we're a neutral organisation, and that's what we expect of all our staff. We could see that it fell well short of that, and, as a result of that, we spoke to the team leader about those posts and those allegations.

She was actually on annual leave when I received that complaint, and we had to wait three days before she returned home, and then her line manager and our HR officer made contact with her and arranged to meet with her on the Friday to put the allegations to her. She didn't deny that those social media posts had been made by her, and she didn't deny that the social media addresses were hers. The important point being here that she hadn't attached her name to them; they were under a sort of pseudonym, so it wasn't obvious immediately that they were hers. But she didn't deny any of that. So, because of that, she was suspended immediately, pending an internal disciplinary investigation.

That's the normal procedure that we would follow in these situations. That's in line with our own disciplinary policy, and it's definitely in line with how we would deal with any allegations that could constitute a breach of our staff standards of conduct. So, all of that was done literally within a three-day period. 

Whatever our views about this and the rights and wrongs of it, I think we were very mindful of the situation that member of staff was in. It was very difficult for her, as well as being difficult for the rest of the organisation. And by the time we spoke to her, all of that information that had been provided to me in that letter had been provided to the press as well, so we knew it was going to get press coverage over the Easter weekend, and her name was put into the public domain very quickly, not by us—we've never published her name—but it came from whoever passed that information to the press. So, we were mindful we had to support her through that, and we did so through that weekend, with her line manager providing support. 

But things moved quite quickly the following week, once she got her trade union involved—because she was a member of the trade union—and they offered her support and advice, and she subsequently resigned on 3 April, which I think was the middle of the following week. So, really, within a week of those allegations being put to her, and her suspension, she made the decision to resign.

In terms of the terms of her leaving the organisation, she resigned and we made contractual payments to her in line with her notice period. The notice period for staff is three months, so we had a contractual responsibility to pay her that three months in lieu of notice. But, over and above the contractual payments we needed to make, we made no other severance payments. So, I just wanted to clarify that for committee, because I know that was something that was in the Senedd motion.

So, that's what happened. The staffing matter was dealt with, I think, quite swiftly. But what it's left is an organisation with previously 19 good years, I think, of reputation and standing—. It's left us damaged in terms of our reputation and people's trust and confidence in our work, particularly around the work we do—specifically, really—around the work we do in investigating cases or allegations that councillors in Wales have breached the code of conduct. So, I realised that it wasn't just simply enough to deal with the staffing issue and carry on regardless.

We had to do something more, and I took the early decision after the Easter weekend—and I think I'm on the public record, saying this, and I know I wrote to the committee as well—that we needed to do an external review, an independent review, to look at what had happened, to look at the processes that we follow when we do our code of conduct work, and particularly the delegations that we have in place, and to go back and look at relevant cases in terms of the work that that particular team leader had done whilst she was in that team leader position, and the work of her team, because, of course, she oversaw the work of the team for a period of time. 

That decision was made early on that we needed to do that independent review, and I'm sure we'll come on to talk a bit more about that today, in terms of the terms of reference, who will be leading that review, and how we see that progressing over the next few months. Perhaps I'll pause there, Chair.

10:35

Thank you. Can you outline, really, what the—? You've talked about the disciplinary process that you'd started in suspending the individual. Can you outline the procedure that would have been undertaken should an allegation of potential political bias be raised? Was this process followed with any other staff members? Has an allegation like this been made previously? Have you got a process to follow, and was that followed?

10:40

Okay. Well, I'll defer to Chris, who has been with the organisation longer than myself, but certainly in the last two years there haven't been allegations of political bias against a member of staff. Chris, do you want to pick that up?

Thank you. That's correct. We haven't had any previous allegations of that nature. We haven't got a separate process for investigating that, because if there is a breach of our staff standards of conduct policy, that would fall to be handled under the disciplinary policy, so that was the appropriate route to take, and had the team leader not resigned, we would have pursued that through the agreed policy.

Okay, thank you for that. You've talked about a duty of care to the—. Sorry, Mike. There we are. Mike wanted to come in on that—sorry. There we are. Mike.

A former Senedd Member, Neil McEvoy, regularly accused the ombudsman's service of being biased against him, but you're saying now you never received a formal complaint from him.

I don't believe I said that. What I said is we've never had an allegation of political bias against a specific member of staff. I'm sure we will have had, over the years, views from different Members about the decisions we make, whether we decide to investigate or not. I don't know if you want to say anything about that particular issue.

Yes. Without going into details of individual cases that perhaps have gone through the whole process where the ombudsman has investigated and then matters are independently considered by the adjudication panel for Wales, during the course of investigations sometimes allegations of bias are raised during an investigation, but, of course, once the ombudsman does refer a report to the independent tribunal, the tribunal then considers all matters raised and members, councillors, can raise in their defence issues of concern that they have. Matters are then determined by the adjudication panel. In the case that was mentioned, obviously there have been instances where referrals have been made to independent tribunal and also the standards committee of the relevant local authority. But I don't believe any allegation of individual political bias about a member of staff has been raised in that context, which would have necessitated the disciplinary procedure to be used.

Chair, if I may just clarify my earlier comment, that was the point I was attempting to make. There have not been allegations against individuals. That doesn't mean people haven't been critical of the office, but there have not been allegations against individual members of staff. I apologise if that wasn't clear.

What process would you have followed against the office when you were accused as an office of potentially having a political bias? Can you talk us through how you would assess that and what checks and balances you've got in place to make sure that you are being even-handed in your dealing with that?

So, there are a few things on checks and balances. One of them is that if, particularly where we make a decision, and this is the case in about 80 per cent of the complaints we receive about councillors—. Where we make a decision not to investigate a complaint, then that complainant has the right to ask for an independent review of that decision, and that's passed to another person, another team within the organisation, that would look at that fresh and independently, and either they will concur with the original decision or they might ask for it to be reopened or reconsidered. So, there is that in place for complainants. I think the other thing that we have in place is that we have a complaints procedure. You would expect us to. That's only right. And so, if anyone has a complaint about the way we are conducting ourselves, conducting an investigation into a complaint, or any aspect of our service, they can raise a complaint and we will look at that and investigate it. But that is done—. At least in the first instance, that is done internally. But it would not be investigated by the team that made the orginal decision or were managing the complaint. It would be investigated by someone independent of that team within the organisation.

10:45

And within the scope of your investigation now and the terms of reference that you've presented to us, are those sorts of—? Where people have challenged or asked for something to be reviewed, is that process—? Are those cases going to be looked at again, just to make sure? We're looking at specific timescales within this, but would there be a time when this individual worked for a different team that did one of those reviews as well? So, it's just for us to understand that element of it.

Okay. Certainly, it is intended that the terms of reference will include any cases where reviews were requested, and the information regarding that review, how it was done and the outcome, will be made available to the independent review lead. But I think the answer is 'yes', if other complaints were made. When the person comes in to do the review, they'll have access to the case files. So if, on a case file, it said, 'This person was unhappy', and they made a complaint or they sought a review, they would be able to follow that trail as well and look at those instances to see how we responded to that complaint or that review. So, I think the answer is 'yes'.

One of the things that, when we were talking privately about this, as a committee we were concerned about was the well-being of the individual concerned as well as the well-being of your staff. You talked a little bit about the support that has been given to that individual and through the unions and so on. Can you just clarify what that is, because being in the public domain and names being shared is something that is very stressful. So, are you able to just talk us through what you've put in place and that that pastoral care is available as well?

So, if I deal firstly with the specific member of staff, yes, this is devastating for her as well and it will have been very difficult, I'm sure, for her and her family. So, as I said, from that weekend where the allegations were put to her and she was suspended, we made it clear that there was support there in the organisation for her, and that point of contact and that support initially was her line manager. We realised that that meant that we had to ensure that the line manager wouldn't have been part of any disciplinary procedure, because she had to be there to support. Because at that time, we thought we were going into a disciplinary process, which could have gone on for some time. So, that person needed that support during that process, and it needed to be someone who was independent of the disciplinary procedure. So, that was all put in place and there was also another trusted member of staff, a friend, if you like, from the team that that person could talk to as well. And all our staff have access to services such as counselling if they need them as well. But because this was resolved so quickly, we didn't really get into that situation. 

So, that was provided and then I think, after the bank holiday weekend, it became evident that the trade union were now involved. They were supporting the member of staff and liaising with us about how things might be resolved. So, at that point, really, when she resigned, that's the point at which those arrangements stopped, to be honest. And we would expect that the trade union would have continued to provide support. 

In terms of our other members of staff, I think we've given a lot of attention to their welfare as well, because this has hit people. They were genuinely shocked at what has happened, and particularly those in the code of conduct team. It's a small team: it's a team leader and six members of staff. So, I think they were particularly shocked by what had happened, and they're still dealing with the fallout of it, of course, on a day-to-day basis. So, from the outset, we've been I think very open with staff in our communications, we've been honest with them about what has been happening, and we've kept them regularly updated.

That first week after—I think it was the first week after Easter, we did face-to-face briefings, either for staff who were in the office or online, because a lot of our staff work flexibly, just to have the conversation about what had happened, how we were responding and answering any questions they had, but to ensure that they had the support they needed. And I think a lot of that support has been provided within teams. People have just been able to talk to each other, but we’ve obviously got things like counselling services if staff needed that, but I don’t think that’s been used so far. And we’re going to continue with that, really. Any announcements we’re making publicly, the staff hear about first. They’ve seen the terms of reference et cetera. So, I think at the moment, it’s about keeping them informed about what’s happening, offering them support, encouraging them, if they’ve got real personal concerns, to come forward and either talk to their manager or to another employee. We’ve got mental health first-aiders in the office—named people who are there to provide that sort of support and they can be used in this situation if people feel it's really affecting them from a stress and mental health perspective.

So, all of those things will need to continue, and I think the team that feels this most closely, as you’d expect, is that team of six, who now are still doing our code of conduct work, and I think we’ve been particularly mindful to support them. We’ve had a lot, as you can imagine, of correspondence about this from people who perhaps have previously made complaints to us or who have been investigated, or perhaps have got complaints and investigations ongoing, and we’ve been responding to that correspondence to make sure we’re clear about how we’re dealing with the situation, and we’ve been doing that at the management level to support staff in the team. So, hopefully, that answers your question.

10:50

Thank you. Yes, thank you very much. You've set out, going on to something we touched on a few minutes ago, that the former employee responsible for the content was the team leader who managed the councillor code of conduct team from February 2019 until August 2023. Was the former employee responsible for the content in question involved with that team or code of conduct cases in any previous or subsequent roles at the PSOW? It goes to some of that tracking across—so, are you aware of any cases where that's happened?

Well, she was employed with us—sorry, I'm just looking for the dates; I know that we've provided them to the committee. So, she was employed at PSOW—well, she first joined us in December 2008, and from then until February 2019, she had a number of different roles as an assessment and investigation officer role in the organisation. I think, importantly though, during that time, she was in teams where her work had oversight from a team leader or manager. And she didn't progress to team leader until February 2019, and then she had responsibility for a team as well as some work herself. So, that is why we focused the start of the review on the point when she became a team leader.

So, over her period of employment, she will have been involved in investigating complaints, both on the public service complaints side of what we do, which is about 90 per cent of our case load, and some on code of conduct as well. I think about 25 per cent of her case load during those earlier years would have been on code of conduct cases, but she would have had oversight from a team leader or manager in those instances.

Over those years, was there ever anybody who raised any concerns of any online activity she might have had—I'm conscious that social media platforms weren't as advanced in those earlier days, but in the latter stages? And the culture in the office would have been, I'm sure, if somebody had felt there was something, they would have whistle-blown, if you like, on it. Can we have reassurance that those things would have—that there weren't previous concerns and that people may have said, 'Well, we weren't too happy with some of the things that have been said'—some reassurance that that culture hadn't come to light in those previous years would be useful?

Yes, I understand. Do you want to deal with those early years and whether there were any concerns expressed, Chris?

Yes, thank you. I suppose it's worth saying to start with that the former member of staff actually had a number of social media accounts and they were not in her name, so they weren't easily known. There was one that I understand was known to other staff, and that was innocuous, it was a normal social media account, but the ones that are in question now were ones that we don't believe staff were aware of; I've certainly not detected any sense of 'we thought this might come out sometime', or 'we knew this was going on'.

And just to go back to the whistleblowing point, it is absolutely key. It's one of the things that we stress at the start of people's employment. Just looking back at contracts of employment, there's a very specific clause in the contract of employment that encourages—in fact, requires—people to report any unacceptable behaviour, and that would include behaviour that breaches our staff standards of conduct, which in turn covers political impartiality and social media.

So, we're absolutely clear that it isn't acceptable. We've provided training for all staff recently, which was partly about fraud, but actually included, as an element of that, whistleblowing, when and how to do whistleblowing. That was done by all staff in the last eight months. So, it is something that we think is important. We really want people to speak up, and our sense is that people do and will.

10:55

Okay, thank you. So, if we could move on to get a bit more about, further information, on the independent external review, including the scope and the timings and the outcomes. Before I start, could you confirm who you've appointed as the lead to do the review?

Yes. Yes, I can. I've appointed Melissa McCullough. Melissa is currently the Northern Ireland Assembly Commissioner for Standards, and she also does a similar role for the Channel Islands' governments, so she's well-versed in the world of standards and investigations. So, I was able to make that appointment late last week and we've had an initial conversation with Melissa, who'll be now starting that work.

Okay. Thank you for that. If we step back slightly, then, what led you to conclude that an independent external review was the most appropriate way forward on this matter, and how have you ensured that the appointed reviewer is a suitable candidate to conduct this review, especially in light of the motion that was laid before the Senedd and passed?

Okay. Well, I think it was evident to me early on that, as I said earlier, even though we dealt with the specific staffing issue, what we were left with was severe damage to our reputation as an organisation, and, particularly, people's trust and confidence in the work we did—we do—around code of conduct was affected by what happened, and I understand why.

So, my sense was it wasn't enough for me to say, 'It's okay; everything's all right.' Because I would say that, wouldn't I? I think I felt it really needed to be someone independent of the organisation that understood this world, understood this work, coming in to look at how we do things, to look at our processes and our procedures and our scheme of delegations around how the work is done, and, as I said, to look for a specific period of time at the cases where there was delegation to individual officers who were under the management of that team leader for the defined period of time. It just felt like we needed to do that in order to be able to rebuild that trust and confidence in the work that we do.

Obviously, it depends what comes out of the review in terms of what the next steps are, but I'm sure that, whatever comes out, there will be areas where we can reflect on that, we can strengthen and improve our processes, and we're very keen to learn from this, to make sure that, if we've got weaknesses in our controls or need to do something differently, that we do do that. It's what we expect other public bodies that we investigate to do, and it's right that we should do that ourselves. So, it just felt that the only way of doing that in a credible way would be an independent review. So, that's why I took that decision early on. And to be honest, I've not heard anyone say that that was a bad way to go, although it's a significant piece of work.

In terms of the decision about who to lead that, I recognise that my initial decision around this wasn't helpful in hindsight, and I listened to the concerns from various people and stepped back from that decision and went back out, and I've just explained to you who is now going to be leading that. In terms of the work, we did do due diligence originally. I don't think we did it deep enough; that was obvious from the reaction I got after the appointment of that KC. I do believe he could have done that work, he had the experience and knowledge to be able to do so, but with this piece of work it's got to be something that people see as credible and they've got to have confidence in who leads it, otherwise they won't have confidence in what comes out of it. So, it was clear to me I needed to change tack, and that's what I've done.

So, we took a bit more time, I think, this time, to look at who could be out there that could possibly lead it. I reached out to networks, to colleagues, about people they might have worked with or people in their networks that they felt would be good to focus on this piece of work, or perhaps had done this sort of work in other organisations, and came down to a shortlist of three people that we did some due diligence on, not only within the organisation, and obviously by speaking to them and asking perhaps deeper questions about what they'd done in their past and political associations, but we also had an external company help us to do some due diligence on them to make sure there was nothing that came out of press, social media, that might cause problems. There were people that were originally on the list that came off the list, to be honest with you, because some of that due diligence said that might not be quite so appropriate. So, we did all of that, and we took a bit more time over it and came up with three people. We took some soundings on that, we took soundings from our own advisory board and our audit and risk assurance committee, and came back to Melissa.

Melissa's got—. This is her world, this is what she does, she's commissioner for standards in the Northern Ireland Assembly and, as I said, does that work in the Channel Islands as well. She's got a lot of experience in this field and, obviously, works in a political environment, so I think understands the role that we have and will be well placed to come in and look at the processes and look at the cases that we've been dealing with over that period of time. As I said, her name was—. I had quite a few conversations with people about who might be good to lead this work, and her name came up on a couple of occasions from different people as being someone who it was worth speaking to.

11:00

Okay. Rhianon. There we are. Oh, hang on. There we are, yes, go.

That was a muddle of muting and unmuting. Thank you very much for your commentary so far. In regard to the due diligence that was undertaken in terms of the independent review lead initially, in the first place, could you shed some light as to what the process was?

The process was internal. We did some due diligence through internet searches, through looking at that person's resume, by talking to that individual. But I think what I recognise now is that we didn't go deep enough on that, and that is why we ended up in the situation of having to go back out and look at that again.

Because, obviously, in terms of—. You've mentioned the reputational issues; obviously, this is a further iteration around that, and I would have presumed that in terms of any resume, curriculum vitae, that is entered into anything of this nature, there would have been a call from your organisation and an expectation that political activity would need to be declared. I would presume you would agree with that.

Yes. Yes, I would agree with that, and I think—

Okay, right. So, there was nothing on the resume or curriculum vitae.

No, and the issues that came to light were about his political activity 45 years ago, and none of that came to light on the resume, no.

11:05

Thank you, Chair. I just wonder if you could share how cases and the processes will be assessed, and what criteria you’re going to assess and do that work against.

Okay. Well, I'll perhaps pass on to Katrin to talk a bit about—. I think it might be helpful to talk a bit about the process we go through when we deal with a complaint, and therefore where we think the review will focus. 

Thank you. As outlined in the draft terms of reference, Michelle delegates to staff to take decisions on whether to investigate complaints of breaches of the code of conduct. So, that’s the key element. We have an assessment part of our process and investigation, as I know you know, and, when we assess complaints of this nature, we apply a two-stage test, which is, first, is there evidence of a breach of the code of conduct as presented on the complaint form, and then, second, whether it’s a matter that’s in the public interest for us to investigate. That public interest test is very much aligned to the purpose of the ethical framework—you know, matters that are serious and significant.

So, the terms of reference outline that cases that the team manager either assessed herself or that the code of conduct team took will be considered as part of that review. And the terms of reference set out that the reviewer will consider whether that two-stage test has been properly applied, and then also whether there is any suggestion of political bias on the files or decision making in those cases. And as I say, the two-stage test that we apply is very much focused at the serious side of the complaints we receive, as Michelle has outlined. Eighty per cent of the cases we don’t investigate because they don’t meet that threshold. So, it’s matters such as bullying, misuse of position as a councillor or serious disrepute that tend to be taken forward for investigation.

So, that’s the first element of the review, and then obviously there are cases that the former team leader investigated while she was in her managerial role, so those cases are also considered as part of the review, and our process on delegations is such that individual investigators take those assessment decisions—so, they decide not to investigate a complaint—and then decisions to investigate cases rest with me as director of investigations. And then, once a case is investigated, I also take decisions that stop short of referring cases to standards committees or adjudication panels. The decisions that I take are on the basis that, the evidence we’ve gathered, there is no evidence of a breach or there is no further action that is required. And then the other two options that are open to the ombudsman under the legislation are that the matter can be referred to the standards committee for hearing or the adjudication panel for hearing, and those decisions rest with Michelle. So, those cases don’t fall within the draft terms of reference, but, because the former team leader did investigate cases whilst in that managerial role, although she didn’t take those decisions on investigating cases—they rested with me—we are putting those into the review as well to give that assurance that there’s no suggestion of political bias in those case files either. So, the reviewer will look at those in full and have access to everything on those files.

I think Rhianon wants to come in on that point. Rhianon. 

On that particular point, obviously there is going to be a lot of concern from anybody who has been referred to the ombudsman and is captured within this particular category, bearing in mind the window of time that you referenced and the evidence that we’ve been shown that references to that window of time. What reassurance can be given to those whose, in a sense, cases will now be reopened, for whether they’re going forward for investigation or not, that they’re not going to be dealt with in any different a manner than they would have been, i.e. more rigorously, in a sense, prosecuted around this to show that there’s no political bias? How would you capture that in a response?

Just to be clear, we do not intend to reopen cases. This is about looking, as Katrin has outlined, at whether decisions were taken—whether our two-stage process was properly applied and whether there was any evidence of political bias in the decision making, which is obviously the allegation that's now being made. We don't intend to be reopening cases. I think that that would be extremely difficult, given the period of time that's passed. I think that's what you're indicating, isn't it? If someone had a complaint made against them three years ago and we looked at it at that time, to now go back to them and say, 'We're going to take a different view and open it' would not be a reasonable thing to do. We've actually got clear legal advice that says that that would be abuse of process. So, that's not our intention. 

11:10

I can see why Rhianon raised that question because I know a lot of people have contacted lots of us who are anxious that there may have been some sort of culture years ago that had bias against them, and some might want to see their cases reopened because they felt there was an injustice at that time. I know it's a very difficult thing and there has to be a line, but there are lots of people who have views, and perhaps it falls into that earlier conversation we had, where it's not about an individual, that there was a concern about how the ombudsman treated their case. Well, we'll always see that if people disagree and if they weren't content with the outcome. So, I understand the difficult situation that you're in.

If I just move on then, perhaps you could give us an indication of how you're going to assess and consider the data you hold on the political split of code of conduct complaints. Obviously, clearly, the individual declared quite a political bias, so how are you going to assess the split to make sure that cases were treated fairly?

That's a fair question. It's interesting because that isn't data that we routinely collect and hold because, as I said, we are independently investigating complaints that come to us. So, our position is that the political affiliation of either the person who complains or the person complained against is not something that we take into consideration. But when this all arose, I thought, 'Well, what does that look like? Does that tell us something?' So, we have done an initial analysis on that, and that is something, obviously, we'll provide to the independent review because I think it forms some high-level context for them. But it's not information we routinely keep. 

It's quite interesting because when we looked back at this period of time and the cases we'd dealt with, about a third of the cases that we've dealt with during that period, we've got no record of any political affiliation on the files, and if you think about the large number of town and community council complaints that we deal with, a lot of members simply—. You know, that isn't a factor for them; they're there for other reasons. So, that was interesting. 

It is interesting, because the data shows that the proportion of the complaints, as they've come in, seems to play through into the ones that are then not progressed or, indeed, progressed—. In other words, what I'm saying is that it doesn't look out of kilter. So, if you've got 10 per cent of our complaints that are about a particular group, that tends to flow through then into the decisions made following that. There's nothing there that spikes. 

Nothing that distinguishes a favourable outcome for certain groups over other groups. 

No, it doesn't. 

So, the data tracks through, effectively. The percentage split, if you like, at each stage looks pretty much the same. The data doesn't tend to show that there's something that would need to be looked at further. But, obviously, you say that you're going to provide that to the investigators. So, that's interesting.

It is, and I said, a third of the investigations, we've got no record of any political affiliation. The next largest group are independent members who are independent, obviously, and not in a political group. So, that tends to then reduce the actual proportion of our complaints that we're dealing with that have got a strong political party affiliation. But that data, that initial analysis, has been interesting. I think it provides some comfort that there are no odd things happening there, but we'll definitely provide that to the independent review.

11:15

I know we're not in reflective mode at the moment, we're looking at this investigation, but is that one of the takeaways that you might take away, to record that and monitor, going forward, just in case?

Yes. As you said, we haven't got into reflective mode yet either; we've been focused on what we're talking about today. But it could be that we monitor that in the future, to check that it doesn't start to get out of kilter, to therefore suggest that there might be anything amiss, so, yes, it could be something we do in future. But we don't routinely ask members what their affiliation is, whether they're a complainant or complained about, because that simply isn't a consideration that we take on board when we're investigating.

Yes. Thanks for that, Michelle. So, could you give us an overview of the time frame that this is going to span, because it's going to be significant, I'm sure? I wondered also how you assess that this whole process will give the assurance required, so that we can satisfy the concerns of the Senedd and the wider community, really.

Timescales: it's tricky to be definitive about that at the moment. As you said, we had an initial introductory meeting with Melissa yesterday, and we're going to sit down with her next week and go through the terms of reference in more detail, and give her time to think about how she might approach this—you know, the processes and methodology she wants to use. We've talked about wanting to conclude this work, if we can, by the end of the summer, in order to be able to report back to you in the autumn cycle of the Senedd. But that is very much caveated, if I may, by her needing to have a look at this and look at whether the work can reasonably be done in that period of time. Because there is a substantial number of cases, as you'll see from the terms of reference; it's between 670 and 700 cases to go through, so it's quite a bit of work.

So, you feel the remit and the scope of this piece of work, a considerable time frame, ought to give the assurance to us that it's rigorous.

Yes. That's certainly our intention. We've taken quite a bit of time over the terms of reference; I think the terms of reference are comprehensive. We've put everything in there that I think needs to be in there and, you know, the commitment to having someone totally independent to come and do this is because I genuinely want this to be a process that will start rebuilding our confidence and trust. And if we have things that we need to address, then we will address them.

Thank you for that. So, looking into the review a little bit more and the scope of the review, how will it provide assurance that that former employee did not influence any decisions or actions taken by other members of staff, in such a way that would have been inconsistent with your office's principles?

I think that's an important point, and it goes to the issue you raised about, unfortunately, some people now feeling that this is something that happens right across the office, this is part of how we operate. It absolutely isn't. I will be extremely disappointed if anything comes out about the team leader bringing her views and influence into the office and into her work. There's certainly nothing to suggest, at the moment, that that has happened. I think what we wanted to give the independent reviewer the scope to do was to actually talk to staff. You know, obviously there's a process to be gone through in terms of looking at our decisions, and all the paperwork that supports that, but there's something here as well about talking to staff that she worked with and talking to the team, to give them the opportunity to share any concerns they may have had or have now, and I'm sure the team will feel a bit apprehensive about that, but having met Melissa, I'm sure she will put them at ease and they will be comfortable talking to her. But, I think it's just really important that those softer issues, if you like, around how things have been operating and how people have felt and whether they have been put under any influence, we need to make sure we identify them, if they exist, so that's why that is specifically included in the terms of reference.

11:20

So, staff members need to be confident and comfortable that they can raise their issues without any fear.

Absolutely, and that's about creating a safe space for them within the review to have those conversations, if they want to do it as a team, if they want to do it individually, if they want someone to sit with them to support. Whatever they feel comfortable with, we'll facilitate that, but it is a safe space and it will be totally confidential.

On that point, has anybody, since this has come to light, privately come forward to say, 'I did have concerns'? 

Not to me.

No, not at all.

No, and obviously you don't know what's being said, necessarily, between everyone, but there's no sign of that; there's no hint of that at all.

So, as a senior management team, that hasn't been escalated to you.

It hasn't. But across the office and across team meetings, the feedback is one of absolute surprise and shock.

I work closely with the team manager and the team themselves, and everybody is shocked and nobody has raised any concerns or issues.

I certainly feel sorry for team members, who must be feeling let down. I can understand that. However, we have to push and probe and make sure—

We understand that.

—we have all that confidence. So, I wonder could you set out what decisions and cases the review will consider and what decisions and cases it won't consider, and why the review is taking that approach?

Yes. So, that goes back to the area you covered.

Yes, sure. Yes, just to recap, the review will consider the assessment decisions taken by the former team leader and her team during the period from 1 April 2021 until October 2023, and that's because those assessment decisions rested with that team from that point. Before then, those decisions were taken by a different team, managed by a different person. The review will also then consider, as outlined, the investigation cases that the former team manager investigated herself personally, and although she did not take the decision on the outcome of those investigations that did not get referred to the standards committee or the adjudication panel for Wales, because she was in that managerial role, the review will consider those cases. So, there are 673 assessment decisions that will be considered and 11 investigation cases.

So, would they be prior to 2021? Even though she wasn't managing the team, some of that could have been from whenever she was involved in the team.

Yes. Well, she took on her managerial role in February 2019. She didn't start overseeing the code of conduct work until 1 April that year. So, it's the investigations during that period when she was in that managerial oversight role that are within the terms of reference.

Just to follow on from that, Michelle, you were appointed in August 2021. Was it August 2021? No. Sorry.

I took up position on 1 April 2022.

Twenty-two, sorry, yes. So, the individual had been in the role prior to your appointment as—

Sorry, I just wanted to clarify. Yes. Sorry, I'm reading my notes incorrectly. So, the individual had been in the role for a year prior to your appointment, so under the previous PSOW.

In terms of oversight of the code of conduct work, that's 1 April 2019—

—so actually it's three years before Michelle took up her office.

Okay. Fine. Sorry, I just wanted to—. I probably muddled myself even more then, but it's good to have those on the record to know when things happened. Thank you.

So, just focusing a little bit more on how the review will be conducted, specifically what information and access will the independent reviewer have—I know we've had a flavour of that already—and what resources will be made available to them over the course of the review? Because this is going to be thorough, and thorough comes at a cost.

11:25

Yes, you're absolutely right on that. We discussed this with Melissa yesterday. She'll have full access to these cases. We use a case management system for this; everything's online in that case management system. It is fortuitous that she uses the same system in her work, so we're now currently looking at how we can provide secure access to her, so that she can literally go into the system, and she will see all of the paperwork associated with those decisions that Katrin has outlined to you. That's the way she would prefer to work, so we'll be able to give direct access to those files. And, as I said earlier, if there's a review request, or a complaint linked to that file, she'll have access to that as well and she'll be able to look at that. So, that helps in terms of not having to move large amounts of paper around the country, because we can do it electronically. 

As you would expect, she's got staff that she works with on a regular basis, and so she's considering how she might involve them in her team. She's given that some thought, for us to follow up in our conversation with her next week. And then we'll provide a single point of contact within our office—a person that can deal with any inquiries or practical issues that she would need. I think that is likely to be the current team leader. She rejoined the organisation, but she came into this role after the events that are part of the investigation. 

So, the summary, I guess, is that we're still firming up the resources she needs to do this. She's got the terms of reference. She's given that some thought. She's got people that she normally works with, and, again, are used to working in this sort of field, and she's quite keen to use them. We're very relaxed about that, because I think it's right that she has the people she needs around her. And then we'll be able to build a budget from that in terms of what we think the cost will be, although not knowing exactly how long it's going to take, that's a challenge. 

Bearing in mind that we're sat in the Finance Committee, and, obviously, we scrutinise your budget as well as other things, have you set aside money within the organisation currently to be able to fund some of this, or will there be a call for us to relook at something, or we'll have your next year's budget coming through? I know it's early days, because you don't know the full scope, but, obviously, you'll have been looking at your budget and thinking, 'How am I going to pay for this as well?'

We have put aside a notional sum to cover the cost. Whether that sum will be sufficient is the thing we don't know at the moment, and that will come from an in-year saving related to property. Our intent would be to try and manage it within our current budget. 

And, obviously, as a Finance Committee, we'd encourage you to do that. I know Rhianon has her hand up, so I'll bring her in now. 

Thank you very much, Chair. If this is being picked up later in the agenda, I'm happy to leave it for that. I suppose there's a question here around reassurance and the acceptance at face value, it seems, of when an esteemed person comes with an application, which demonstrates everything a CV should demonstrate, but in regard, then, to that due diligence, that should never drop off the cliff. So, even where we're at at the moment, in terms of the current review lead, my question, really, is has there been due diligence, obviously bearing in mind the current post holder's fantastic reputation. As a matter of course, is there a process around due diligence in these matters?

Sorry, do you mean in terms of her appointment?

Yes. So, in regard to the issue, previously, in terms of the acceptance of the CV, I'm presuming that there has been due diligence in that regard as well, in terms of the current appointee. 

11:30

Yes, there has. 

So, from the point of view of political allegiances and that aspect, Rhianon, is that what you're asking?

Yes. What is important is that this is the end of this process of iteration, isn't it? So, in regard to that, are we confident, then, or are you confident, that that has been looked into and there can't be further concern or complaint made?

Yes, I am, based on the work that's been done and the assurances I've had directly from the individual. 

A couple more questions from me, Michelle. You're hoping that perhaps we can come to some conclusion by the end of the summer. Also, you're having close talks with the review lead. You've obviously discussed timescales with her, how this might work out. And you're confident, and she must be confident to get to those timescales. On her commitment to be able to do this thoroughly, I'm conscious that she's also got other jobs to do as well. So, I'm assuming that all the ducks are in a row and there is enough time for her to do this as thoroughly as it needs to be done. 

I don't know Melissa, but I think she will do a thorough job and she will take the time that she needs to do that. You make a good point, she's got other roles and she's never quite sure what might come up in those roles that might take her time, and so on. So, I think that is why the team around her and the support she has got is important so that the work could continue even if she was taken away on other business. But, as I said, from that initial conversation, we outlined the aim to get this done by the end of the summer, and there was no concern expressed by her at this stage that that couldn't be achieved. But we do have some further detailed discussions to take place. 

Did the Northern Ireland Assembly or anybody have to sanction that time out as well? I don't know. Forgive me, I—

I think her employment arrangements are such that she's got a certain amount of independence in these matters. 

That's fine. The last point from me, then. I just wondered if the review is likely to engage with stakeholders other than your office. And, if so, how is that likely to be carried out?

To be honest, that isn't something that we've discussed. So, we're very open to any thoughts that the committee might have on that. At the moment, this is very much focused on our internal processes and the decisions we've made over this period of time. We've been talking to a lot of stakeholder groups over the last few weeks—monitoring officers, the Adjudication Panel for Wales and chairs of our standards committees as well—to try to keep them up to date with what we're doing, but at this stage, there's nothing in the terms of reference that would suggest that. 

It might be an interesting piece of work to review their thoughts, certainly monitoring officers, who have regular contact with the office, their views or observations over many years. That's just a thought. That's all from me. Thank you. 

Thank you very much, Peter. Before I bring Mike Hedges in, you've talked about the timescales, and what might be useful for this committee is, because of the timescale—this is going to take until the end of the summer and into the next term—if we could ask you to give us an update prior to the end of this Senedd, before the summer break, so that we can satisfy ourselves that things are advancing, so that we don't just leave it and then come back to it in October, November, or whenever that might be. We'd like touch points, just to give us those staging points, if you like, even if it's just a letter to explain where you've got to and how things are going. So, if you're able to do that, that would be very useful. 

Yes, that's no problem. We can liaise with the clerks around the appropriate timescales.

Thank you. I'll bring Mike Hedges in at this point. Thank you, Mike.

11:35

To what extent will the review consider the broader processes at the PSOW relating to code of conduct complaints, and will it consider things like the training and guidance provided to staff? And I'm well aware that your predecessor was a former parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats in Ynys Môn, and I know that Peter talked about monitoring officers—Julie James, who is familiar to all of us, used to be Swansea Council's monitoring officer.

Sorry, could I just ask you to repeat the first part of your question? I didn't quite—.

To what extent will the review consider the broader processes at the PSOW relating to code of conduct complaints, and will it consider things like the training and guidance provided to staff?

Will it consider training and guidance? Yes. What we've sought to do is not make the terms of reference restrictive, and I think what we want to do is to give the independent reviewer the scope to make comments or recommendations on a wider range of areas, if she feels they are relevant or they're areas that we should consider. And to that extent, the final point of the terms of reference gives scope to make any recommendations that they consider appropriate and should be included in the final report. 

So, things like training, absolutely, I would encourage that if there are areas of training that we need to be improving upon as a result of this or learning lessons on, then there is no reason why that shouldn’t be included in the review. So, we’ve sought to make it not restrictive in terms of the independent reviewer's scope to look at how we operate. Does that answer your question?

Yes. The next question is will the findings of the review be presented to the public—i.e. be made publicly available. 

Yes, I've given a commitment that the final report will be published.

Thank you. Can you outline how the code of conduct team operates in regard to
processing incoming complaints and who makes decisions as to whether a complaint proceeds to investigation? I declare an interest here because I received a complaint for which we had to get a lawyer in in order to tell you, 'You're doing something wrong'. It was well before your time, but it was a malicious complaint by a council officer. How do you know when to take it on?

Do you want to talk about the two-stage process?

Yes. We've mentioned the two-stage test that we apply, and we very firmly apply that. As I said previously, it's focusing on what are serious matters. That was introduced a few years ago to enable us to really manage our resources really effectively, but also, as I said, to focus on those things that really matter when we are considering conduct in public life, where there might be misuse of position or perhaps a failing to declare an interest in something that is a significant issue. So, that's the test we apply.

When the team assess their cases and consider that those cases do meet that two-stage test, the file is referred up through the team manager to myself to decide whether to start an investigation. So, I will look at those cases thoroughly and decide whether to start. But I think it's really important to say—I know we touched on the investigation process previously—that throughout the life of a case, we might start an investigation, but we are constantly reviewing, 'Does this continually meet our public interest test?' throughout. Because we also have the option to discontinue if that's appropriate.

Our investigation procedure is very much designed to be fair, impartial, and to ensure that the councillor who is complained about—when we start that investigation, they are informed and given a copy of the complaint in most cases, or certainly enough detail to know what they are alleged to have done that might be in breach of the code—has a fair opportunity to comment at all stages. They don't have to comment at that stage, if they don't want to—they can leave it until we do formally interview them. But, again, when we get to that stage, we've done, often, rigorous evidence gathering where we verify documentary evidence. Witnesses will give us statements; they sign their own statement to ensure that they are content with what they're presenting. And then, before councillors are interviewed, again, we are really open and transparent in our process and we give them copies of the evidence that we have gathered that's relevant to the case, so that they, again, have a fair opportunity to comment when we are asking them questions about what is alleged to have occurred. And then, after the interview, again, we will analyse that evidence and decide whether there is a further case for them to answer and the matter should be proceeded further. It's also worth adding, I think, even the information that we gather that we don't think is directly relevant—our practice when we refer cases for hearing is to produce a schedule of used and unused material so that there's absolute transparency and openness there as well if there's something that we're not using that the councillor considers is relevant. So, in terms of complaints about possible bias in the process, if anybody's got concerns, we are open in what we disclose to the councillors who are being investigated. But there's a process of continuous review—[Interruption.] Sorry.

11:40

[Inaudible.]—time. [Inaudible.]—the actions of some of your predecessors. How many of those complaints against councillors have been stopped following the councillor getting a letter sent from a solicitor explaining why you shouldn't be proceeding?

Sorry, I didn't catch—

Sorry, you broke up then. Are you able to repeat that? Sorry.

Yes. This is before your time. How many of your complaints, which you are proceeding with, have been stopped by the action of a member going via a solicitor to explain that what you were doing was wrong?

During the process, if councillors wish to engage legal representation, they can. As I've outlined, our process does give councillors or their legal representatives or indeed anybody else who may be representing them an opportunity to comment and provide information to us. We welcome that, because we want to hear from the councillor their point of view. So, if we are presented with information that leads us to say, 'What's been alleged didn't actually occur in that way', or 'What's being alleged isn't actually a breach of the code', then we will discontinue or close the case down at that point, and those are decisions that I take when a case is investigated. So, whether somebody is legally represented or not, we obviously take on board, and consider the information that's presented to us.

So, with Mike's question there, are you aware of cases—? Obviously, Mike is alluding to one case there. Are you aware of any others where that has happened, and if you don't have that information to hand, maybe you could let us know that figure down the line of where, if I get this right, Mike, a solicitor's letter has come in to say, 'You're acting beyond the scope of what you're allowed to act on'?

I'm not aware of those. Obviously, I see the investigations that we undertake and determine the outcome. We could have a look at that, but, as I say, part of the process is giving the member an opportunity to comment, and if that's via their legal representative and they say something that persuades us that there may not have been a breach of the code, then it's right for us to close the matter down at that point, I would suggest.

Thank you, but, actually, the case I was talking about was about a complaint about the whole of the Labour group on Swansea Council, and it was explained to you or your organisation—you certainly weren't there—that the decision to take action was outside your remit and that you were carrying on regardless until such time as that letter from the solicitor came in. But I just wanted to make that point rather than ask a question on that.

Have you dealt with any previous instances of potential political bias within the code of conduct team or elsewhere within your organisation?

I think we've probably addressed that point earlier. We're not aware of any of those instances personally, no.

I think, Chair, that there is a challenge for us here in that, particularly with code of conduct cases, there are always two parties. There's the councillor that's complained about, there's the person making that allegation. The nature of our work means that it's unlikely that both parties will be satisfied with the outcome. That's a fact of life, that's a fact of the work. I think, just referring back to the earlier answer, we haven't had any allegations that individual members of staff have acted inappropriately or in a partisan way. It doesn't mean that people always agree with our decisions, and sometimes, when they disagree with our decisions, they might say, 'It's because your office is biased' or whatever. I think the key question for us is if there's anything that actually substantiates that, and that's going back to the earlier answer, that's when it might trigger something more substantial. Just disagreeing with the decision without saying why they think it's flawed, or why they think it's misguided is not enough. They can challenge a decision, and as Michelle and Katrin outlined earlier, we will then revisit a decision. But the fact is people do make suggestions that our office isn't fair to all parties; I think that's the nature of it. But we haven't had anything specific that says, 'We think this decision is politically biased, because—'. And I think that's an important point.

11:45

Okay. Two very simple questions to follow. Do you keep a record of the number of council officer complaints about councillors and the number of councillor on councillor complaints? Have you got numbers for those?

I mean, we do know, obviously, if it's an officer against a member or a member against a member, but I don't have those numbers to hand today, no.

If you have them, I think I certainly would—I don't know whether the rest of the committee would—find it very useful. And on to my final question: are you the right body to deal with councillor complaints? You do a tremendously good job in health and local government dealing with individual complaints against the organisations. I'm very pleased with the job you do. I speak highly of you in that job you do. But are you really the right organisation for dealing with councillor on councillor or council officer on councillor complaints?

I think we are. It's what's set out in the Local Government Act 2000—our role is set out very clearly there. Obviously, it's a matter for others if that were to change in the future. But I think we are, and I think it's very important that we don't draw unfair conclusions about an organisation from the actions of one individual.

Of course, it's done differently in Scotland. I'll stop there, Chair.

There we are. Thank you. And in the fairly near future, we'll be reviewing the Act, so it might be something for us to delve into further in that piece of work, Mike. So, thank you for that. Just before I bring Rhianon in, you started your role as the PSOW on 1 April 2022—I got that right this time—have you made any changes to the processes undertaken by the code of conduct team since you took office, including any changes to the role of the staff member in question?

Right. I've made no changes to the role of the staff member in question. As you said, she was a team leader when I arrived. She did rotate out of that role into managing another team. I think we've set that out in the terms of reference, but that's normal that we move people around and that was the result of the retirement of another team leader.

Have I made changes? Well, we're continually looking at our processes to see if they need to be changed or improved or amended, and we have a team that look at that. I haven't instigated anything specifically myself, certainly nothing on the scale of the sort of review that we've now got in front of us. But I have made some changes, I suppose, in terms of my oversight of the work of this team. So, an example of that is that I introduced monthly case conferences, where I now sit down with the team leader and I've got, I think, a good oversight of what our casework is, decision making and any cases coming through that might be particularly difficult or particularly sensitive, and we do that on a monthly basis. I do that for the other part of the business as well. So, that's something I've introduced since—

As part of your management style, if you like, and management oversight.

Yes. I think it was about wanting to have clear oversight of our complaints work. You know, we have a good scheme of delegation across the office—you know, delegation will be part of the remit here. But it was important to me that I understood what the casework was looking like, what the challenges were and, I suppose, I made a point of getting involved in the right places, and where things could just proceed as normal, then allowing them to proceed. So, I introduced some new things, but the processes have largely stayed the same; I haven't made any fundamental changes there.

11:50

In those monthly meetings, have you picked up anything that was of concern?

Not in terms of political bias and the things we've been talking about, no.

No, okay, thank you. I'll bring Rhianon in for the final set of questions, please Thank you.

Thank you very much, and thank you for the commentary so far. Obviously, in terms of walking into this issue, it must have been extremely difficult to manage. My question, really, is in terms of—. My first question is around how to mend the reputational damage that has occurred, in terms of both the substantive issue and then the secondary issue that's followed, in terms of the appointment of the lead, and the current situation that we're in at the moment. I want to understand just briefly, if I may, because I may not have followed correctly, and without in any way pre-empting or predetermining the outcome of this current investigation, if there is felt to be political bias involved in not taking cases forward under the code-of-conduct matter, surely there is a second issue, then, in terms of what happens next and then in terms of where your organisation goes with those cases. Has there been any thought process around that and are you able to comment in any way, shape or form on that? 

Well, I think, if it were to find evidence of political bias, then we would need to take really swift and decisive action to make sure that that doesn't continue, and we'll be looking to the recommendations coming out of the review to help us do that. I have to say that I don't believe that there will be evidence of political bias in our decision making, but the review is there for someone else to properly look at that and take that review. But I think we've tried to write the terms of reference in such a way as we recognise that there will, probably, be things that we need to do better or differently as a result of this review, whether there's evidence of political bias found or not, and I think this is a good opportunity to look at our processes and how we work in this area, and make sure that we take that opportunity to make those improvements.

Because, obviously, and I accept fully what you've just said—obviously, if it were to be the latter, in that that was found to be the case, there is an issue in regard to those cases brought forward to your office that may or may not have been taken forward, and then, in terms of that as an issue, obviously I'm sure that that's something that you will have thought through. It's possibly not for today's session—we can come back to that at a different point—so thank you for that.

I'll go on to the questions: have you undertaken any action since the recent incident, looking beyond the individual responsible, and, obviously, I'm referring to the original incident, in terms of social media releases, to understand whether any other staff may have breached your internal staff standards or conduct policy in regard to impartiality? I think you've roughly answered that, but you could be very brief. 

Yes, we've done a lot of work to try to support staff, because I think this has been a very difficult time for them. I think part of that, and I think staff have done this themselves, is reminding them of what is in our staff standards of conduct, and reminding them of the requirements, as Chris has outlined, around political activity and the requirements around social media. What we've also done is provided some more detailed guidance around social media use as well to try and assist them, and I think we're going to be running some sort of hands-on workshops for those of us who are, perhaps, not a whiz on social media to make sure people are using it safely and in a way that's appropriate.

So, we're doing all of those sorts of things as well, but I think the piece of internal work that we'll be doing is now revisiting our staff standards of conduct and social media guidance as well to see if we can strengthen that and just reiterate with staff what's required. That's not because I think staff don't know what's required, but if you've worked in an organisation for 10, 15 years, you signed a contract 10, 15 years ago that says, 'I will comply'—. We don't take them out and look at them every week, do we? And I think this situation has led to all of us, and all of our staff, to just refresh their memories on those things, and we'll support staff through that as well.

11:55

Sorry, Rhianon. Based on that, have you done any review of staff's social media? Is that something that you've looked at, just in case, or have you not done that yet?

To be honest, we don't have the resources to look at everyone's personal social media. I don't know—and I'm sure I can be corrected here—of many public sector organisations that would do that, because I think there's a line, isn't there, about staff's private time, and their private social media posts, and what we can see and interrogate, if you like, as an employer. We wouldn't have the resources to do it, and I'm not sure it would be the right thing to do. What is the right thing to do is to make sure that they absolutely understand what's good and what's bad, and to support them in that, as I said, with practical support and guidance, to make sure that everyone's behaving properly and safely.

And make sure they're fully aware of what their responsibility is.

[Inaudible.]—I recognise the capacity to go back, but when you're recruiting though, is that part of your due diligence of recruiting, recognising the total impartiality needs of your organisation? Is that part of your recruitment process? I think I certainly would want to get reassurance from that.

Historically, Chair, that hasn't been an explicit part of the process. I think that's one of the things, as Michelle said, that we'll be revisiting and learning from. I guess there's always this distinction between social media that is personal and is, in a sense, locked down, so it's not public, and those things that are more public, and I think we probably will be doing more to look at those public posts that are universally accessible, rather than straying over that line and trying to pry into people's private social media accounts. But I think the things that they're saying publicly will be something that we're considering in terms of our recruitment processes. 

I know, certainly in the political world, when we employ people, we want to make sure that they haven't got a past that is embarrassing for us, or whatever.

Yes. Absolutely. I think we do need to do a bit more work on that area, to be honest.

I think that's very relevant. Obviously, the point has been made that the world has moved on in terms of social media use compared to 10 to 15 years ago, when some staff's experience will have started. In regards to enforcement around some of the actions that you're taking in terms of understanding if the reputation has been brought into any disrepute, what enforcement tools have you got in that regard, because, obviously, the lessons are there to be learned? And in terms of the training that staff members will or have recently undertaken in regards to political impartiality and unconscious bias, could you just briefly explain what actions have recently or will be undertaken in that regard? Sorry, it's a very long question.

Well, all our staff, when they start work with us, undergo an induction process, which does make it clear, as you'd expect, what our standards of conduct are that we expect of our staff, and that will cover political activity, and not doing it, basically—they shouldn't be undertaking any political activity—and it'll cover social media as well. Despite the independent review, I think we've learnt a number of lessons internally already, and we need to strengthen the induction process and everything we do, really, in our procedures and guidance, to make sure it's absolutely crystal clear for staff coming in what is acceptable and what is not. But also, as I said, we have a lot of staff who've been with us for a long time, so refreshing it with those staff as well, and to be fair to them, to give them that good guidance so that they don't inadvertently get themselves into a difficult situation. So, I think that induction and our internal procedures will all be looked at in order to make sure they're as strong as they can be.

12:00

And from an ongoing training aspect, one of the things that I've done in the past with teams is unconscious bias training and that sort of thing. Is that something that—? It's very informative about your own personal development as well as everything else. Is that something that may be on a training schedule that you're going to be putting in place now, to make sure that your staff are on top of this and understand their own biases, and that they don't bring that into a work context?

The office has previously done unconscious bias training. I think most recently it was 2021.

It will be in the forthcoming corporate training plan that's just being prepared for the current year. 

And obviously that corporate training plan is certainly a really good tool to move forward. I'm not sure what enforcement tools there would be, so perhaps that's something that we can be contacted with at a later date. 

So, finally, then, in regard to your engagement with other standards bodies—I know that Mike Hedges has mentioned Scotland, and they've got a really interesting set-up there—have you had the opportunity or an inclination at this point to have a look elsewhere in terms of what processes there are around these types of matters? When nothing is in the public limelight, it just carries on as normal, but once an organisation has had this amount of heat and light shone upon it, it's a very difficult job then to come back into the normal work process. So, what sort of engagement are you planning to see how other organisations work around these matters?

We regularly—. We're involved in networks with those other bodies as a normal part of our work. So, I'm part of the UK and Ireland public services ombudsman group, and my colleague in Northern Ireland, for example, has a very similar remit to me, and manages local government standards as well as public service complaints. So, we work quite closely with NIPSO, with that organisation, and staff in the office have good operational links with both Northern Ireland and Scotland, so with colleagues who are doing this sort of standards work in those two areas. There isn't actually a body in England that exists doing this work, so our focus tends to be working with Northern Ireland and Scotland.

But I think, you know, probably one of the interesting things I've had from the conversations I've had is that we could perhaps strengthen that engagement by linking in to the parliamentary commissioners, and that's probably the bit we don't do as strongly as in either Northern Ireland or Scotland. I think there is scope there to do a bit more around that on an ongoing basis, not just because of our response to this particular situation. We've had good contact, and I've been speaking to colleagues in Scotland and Northern Ireland about what's happening and how we're responding to it.

Thank you very much. That brings us to the end of our questioning. I'm looking around and nobody else is indicating that they want to ask any further questions. I'll just give you the opportunity to say if there's something that we haven't covered that you wanted to say before we bring this session to a close.

No, I would just go back to that point, I think, which is that the damage has been done by one individual. We've got an organisation of really committed staff who believe in what they do and continue to do that job. Our focus is to carry on supporting them to do that job, and being very open to taking on board whatever comes out of the independent review. 

Okay, thank you very much. Thank you so much, the three of you, for making the time this morning to come and talk to us. It's a challenging time and I appreciate that this sort of level of scrutiny is very difficult, but hopefully it'll put you in a stronger position going forward, and if we focus on what can be done to strengthen the organisation, that's good.

Obviously, a draft transcript will be available for you to check for accuracy. Could you also provide us with the final terms of reference when they are published? The committee's intention is to wait for that report, but as I mentioned earlier, if we could get updates on how that is coming along, because it's beholden on us as a committee and we've been instructed by the Senedd to do this work.

12:05

I understand that.

So, it's important for us to understand how that is progressing. We will wait until that comes out, but we will also then decide whether or not we need to speak to other stakeholders to form a further view on this work. And once that report is concluded and we've seen it, we'll probably have you in then to go through it— 

Yes, I understand that.

—and other stakeholders to go through that, if we need to. So, that would be good.

4. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog Rhif 17.42(ix) i benderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod
4. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of this meeting

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

So, under Standing Order 17.42, the committee will now resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of this meeting, if that's okay with Members. Lovely. Thank you. We'll go into private, then. Thank you. 

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 12:06.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 12:06.