Ex-aide claims 'pure poison' undermined ministers

A former aide to Carwyn Jones has claimed that ministers such as Carl Sargeant were "consistently undermined" in an atmosphere "of fear and loathing" that existed in the Welsh Government in the past.

Carwyn Jones faces new claims about 'toxic' Welsh Government culture Credit: PA, Ben Birchall

The Welsh Government says it doesn't recognise the comments made by Steve Jones who was special adviser to the First Minister from 2009 to 2014.

His claims echo those made last week by the former minister Leighton Andrews who alleged that a "toxic" environment in the Welsh Government during the 2011-16 Assembly was "damaging" to the mental health of ministers such as Mr Sargeant.

Welsh Conservatives say there is "evidence building" which suggests Carwyn Jones has broken the ministerial code by allowing "a culture of bullying and intimidation to fester."

Steve Jones says that, despite being used to the "rough and tumble of politics" after working for Government whips in Westminster, he found the behaviour of some at the top of the Welsh Government was "pure poison" and like nothing he'd "ever seen before".

It is understood the allegations aren't aimed at current senior advisers or staff.

He says that the situation improved for a few months after he warned the First Minister and said that he wanted to resign, but "the poison returned".

Amongst the claims he makes are that ministers "seen as a threat" were undermined and "frequently the the subject of malicious rumours and concerted smear campaigns". He says that they'd have their diaries "unreasonably monitored and questioned," policy proposals shelved and direct access to the First Minister blocked.

You can read the full statement by Steve Jones and criticism of the First Minister by Welsh Conservatives below.

We do not recognise these comments. All complaints regarding staff and special adviser conduct are taken seriously and dealt with accordingly.

– Welsh Government spokesperson
A Coroner's inquest into Carl Sargeant's death opens today Credit: PA, Benjamin Wright

Mr Sargeant's death less than a week ago has led to a full political crisis for the Welsh Government and demands for answers from political allies and opponents alike.

Last week the First Minister resisted pressure to resign but agreed to calls for an independent inquiry into his actions and decisions in relation to Carl Sargeant, although there are still questions about the nature and timing of that inquiry.

The Welsh Government's Permanent Secretary has been asked to begin the preliminary work of finding a QC to lead the inquiry. I understand that the Sargeant family has accepted that it will be technically and legally a Welsh Government inquiry but would prefer a senior civil servant from Whitehall to be drafted in to oversee its setting up.

There is no official comment on that but Welsh Government sources insist that there should be no question about the impartiality of the civil service including the Permanent Secretary.

A further question is when the inquiry begins. Last week's statement said that "it is our understanding that such an inquiry should not take place before the outcome of a Coroner’s Inquest – but we will take further advice on this matter."

That inquest opens today but legal advice given to the Sargeant family suggests an inquiry into the wider issues surrounding the former minister's death can run at the same time which means the work to set it up could begin as soon as this week.

It should also become clear this week what will happen to the Labour party inquiry into the allegations of inappropriate behaviour made against Mr Sargeant.

The Labour AM Mike Hedges told BBC Radio Wales' Sunday Supplement programme that that internal inquiry couldn't continue because of Mr Sargeant's death. Cerys Furlong, of the equality at work charity Chwarae Teg told the same programme that there should be a way of reviewing the wider issue of sexual harassment in politics.

In a separate development, Leanne Wood issued a formal apology to anyone who has complained to Plaid Cymru in the past [about harassment] and didn’t have appropriate or sufficient action taken.

In a post on the Nation website she said that, "people in all political parties have been guilty to turning a blind eye this damaging culture where inappropriate words or behaviour can go unchecked and unchallenged. We have become desensitised to it."

This is the full statement by Steve Jones:

I agree entirely with Leighton Andrews’ description of the toxicity that existed at top of the Welsh Government.

Soon after I arrived to work for Carwyn after his election as First Minister in 2009, it was clear that I was entering a toxic environment. The atmosphere that existed on the fifth floor and in particular the First Minister’s Office was one of fear and loathing.

I’m no shrinking violet when it comes to politics. Prior to moving to Cardiff Bay, I worked as a Special Adviser to the Government Chief Whip at Westminster. I was fully accustomed to the rough and tumble of politics at the very highest level.

But the behaviour of some at the top of the Welsh Government was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It was pure poison. Ministers were undermined by senior advisers playing power games and seeking to exert unreasonable control over Government and the First Minister himself.

Certain Ministers who were seen as a threat to these advisers, were frequently the subject of malicious rumours and concerted smear campaigns. Those Ministers including Carl, would have their diaries unreasonably monitored and questioned, their policy proposals shelved and direct access to the First Minister blocked. It went way beyond any ‘office politics’ or personality clashes. Dealing with our Plaid Cymru partners in Government at that time, was considerably more straight forward than dealing with the clique surrounding Carwyn.

The mind games being employed against Ministers - such as Carl - were at times an utter distraction from the serious business of governing Wales.

After recognising the effect this behaviour was having on my own wellbeing, I informed the First Minister of my intention to resign. I told him precisely why I had decided to leave. He urged me to reconsider.

He promised he would sort out any problems I had, if I tore up my letter. He convinced me he would address the situation, I agreed to remain.

Things improved for a few months, then the poison returned and it began to engulf others - advisers and Ministers alike.

It was clear that all this was getting Carl down. I told Carwyn that Carl was becoming increasingly unhappy. I suggested to him on more than one occasion that he should simply go for a pint with Carl one night - to talk about things and get back to the kind of relationship they enjoyed before and during Carwyn’s leadership campaign. I don’t know if they ever shared that pint.

In any case, it became increasingly obvious that Carwyn was either unwilling or unable to address the culture that existed within his office. He allowed it to develop, fester and grow.'

– Steve Jones, former Special Adviser to Carwyn Jones
Steve Jones, on the right, with other Labour officials and advisers in 2012 Credit: Nick Powell

'The questions are stacking up for Carwyn Jones'

Here is the full response from the Welsh Conservatives:

This incredibly brave and detailed account put forward by Carwyn Jones’ former special adviser raises yet more questions for the First Minister and the culture he has willingly overseen whilst in government.

Taken in association with the accusations put forward by Leighton Andrews – a former Welsh Government Cabinet Minister – there is a substantial body of evidence building which suggests Carwyn Jones has broken the ministerial code. Steve Jones paints an incredibly dark picture of the toxic environment at the heart of the First Minister’s office and it is now abundantly clear that concerns were raised on numerous occasions, but for whatever reason, Carwyn Jones failed to tackle them.

Instead he has allowed a culture of bullying and intimidation to fester, which has clearly resulted in the tormenting of ministers, other advisers and officials. The questions are now stacking up for Carwyn Jones as to why he has deemed it acceptable to turn a blind eye to this behaviour from within his own office. It is imperative that the cloak of secrecy surrounding the First Minister’s office is removed immediately. Why were these allegations not fully investigated? Is the person(s) alleged to have orchestrated this endemic culture still in post at the heart of Welsh Government? We need answers from the First Minister as the people of Wales need to have confidence that when there are alleged injustices, its government will do all it can to investigate and resolve them. If Carwyn Jones can’t even do that with affairs in his own office, how can he be trusted when it comes to the affairs of the country?

– Welsh Conservative spokesperson

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