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Senedd backs review of political impartiality of Wales’ public services watchdog

Michelle Morris, Public Services Ombudsman Wales

Chris Haines, ICNN Senedd reporter

A call by the Conservatives for an inquiry into the political impartiality of Wales’ public services watchdog has been backed by Senedd Members.

Sam Rowlands led a debate after the head of investigations at the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales stepped down over anti-Conservative comments online.

Mr Rowlands said the ombudsman’s office, which deals with complaints about councillors and public services, must be impartial and unbiased.

But he warned: “Unfortunately, we now know that this simply has not been the case.

“After revelations that the head of investigations had been, over a long period of time, making torrents of politically motivated, hostile, aggressive comments on social media, it’s clear that the ombudsman has a real problem.”

‘Beyond belief’

Mr Rowlands said non-Conservative politicians were also in the firing line with independents in Bridgend and Monmouthshire raising concerns about unfair treatment.

The Conservative MS for North Wales criticised the initial decision to appoint James Goudie KC, a barrister and former Labour council leader, to lead an investigation.

He told the chamber: “It’s almost beyond belief, but then you do remember we are in Labour-run Wales, where this behaviour is just par for the course.

“I am pleased that eventually the individual in question has been removed from this role.”

The former Conwy council leader urged the ombudsman, Michelle Morris, to reopen every investigation involving the former head of investigations.

‘Rot’

Mr Rowlands made the case for a full and thorough investigation by a Senedd committee to understand the “exact extent of how deep the rot is” and restore credibility.

Peredur Owen Griffiths, who chairs the finance committee, said it is essential that the ombudsman investigates independently of political interference.

The Plaid Cymru MS, who represents South Wales East, urged caution in the Senedd considering operational matters within the ombudsman’s office

He said: “It is not our role to monitor the day-to-day running of the office, nor should we be challenging the ombudsman’s decision, as that would undermine the integrity of the office and investigations process.

“However, the ombudsman is ultimately accountable to the Senedd, and it is right for us to take action when serious concerns arise.”

‘Politically motivated’

Mike Hedges, a Labour backbencher, told the chamber the ombudsman provides an excellent service to the people of Wales in dealing with complaints about public services.

However, he argued the ombudsman is not suited to dealing with complaints about politicians as he called for the creation of an ethical standards commissioner.

The Swansea East MS warned: “Many complaints are politically motivated, and the number increases as you approach local elections.

“And they’re often by people standing against sitting councillors who then make complaint after complaint about them to try and muddy the water.”

Gareth Davies, the Conservative MS for Vale of Clwyd, said trust in the public services ombudsman has collapsed as he argued the watchdog should be replaced.

‘Deeply damaging’

Llŷr Gruffydd, for Plaid Cymru, told MSs that recent revelations around the ombudsman’s office have been deeply regrettable and damaging.

Mr Gruffydd, who represents North Wales, said upholding the highest possible standards is more important than ever in an age of declining trust.

He welcomed the ombudsman’s decision to rethink the appointment of Mr Goudie after the full extent of his Labour links came to light.

Mr Gruffydd criticised calls to wind down the public services ombudsman, saying: “I don’t think the best course of action is to rashly throw the baby out with the bath water.”

He paid tribute to the ombudsman’s hard-working staff “who have been dragged into this unfortunate episode” which has tarnished the office’s reputation.

‘Political impartiality’

Lesley Griffiths, responding for the Welsh Government, shared concerns about recent events but stressed that ministers would not advise the ombudsman on how she should respond.

Ms Griffiths, the newly appointed culture and social justice secretary, said public servants must behave with complete political impartiality in their responsibilities.

“This includes not doing anything in their lives outside of work that might cause that impartiality to be called into question,” she said.

The Conservative motion was agreed without objection, doing away with the need for a vote following the debate on April 17.

The Welsh Government had tabled a “delete-all” amendment and it is thought that Labour MSs allowed the Tory motion to pass in error.


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