Assembly sexual assault claims spark vow to investigate outside groups

Credit: PA

Officials at the National Assembly say they will investigate complaints about inappropriate behaviour made against anyone from outside organisations working with or visiting the Assembly.

It follows the results of two surveys into inappropriate behaviour.

The latest, of support staff working for Assembly Members and carried out by the BBC's Wales Live programme found two claims of sexual assault against BBC staff and one against a politician.

Six staff members said they'd experienced bullying or sexual harassment.

An Assembly spokesperson said:

We expect anyone who uses our premises to respect those who work here and to uphold the high standards of conduct set out in this policy. If there are complaints about the conduct of anyone undertaking work at, or visiting, the National Assembly, constituency offices or wherever we are conducting business, we will investigate and where appropriate, we will take these issues up with their employer. Where appropriate, we will report the matter to the police.

– Assembly spokesperson

Also this week, a survey by the Commission which runs the Assembly, found that 37 people (including staff, political party workers and AMs) had experience inappropriate behaviour, 32 on multiple occasions. 42 people said they'd witnessed such behaviour.

In response to both surveys, the Assembly spokesperson said they showed that 'much more must be done' to make the Assembly a safe environment for those working there.

As the Llywydd clearly stated yesterday in response to the results of an Assembly Commission survey, inappropriate behaviour of any kind has no place in the Assembly. The testimonies of the women interviewed by Wales Live and the results of the BBC survey coupled with our own survey results, clearly demonstrate that much more must be done to ensure that the National Assembly for Wales is a safe environment for those who work here, for those who visit the estate and for anyone who has dealings with us. For those who are subject to inappropriate behaviour, in whatever form that takes, we must ensure that they feel able to come forward to seek advice and support, as well as to make a complaint should they choose to do so.

During the Plenary debate on 16 May, when the Assembly approved the Dignity and Respect policy, it was acknowledged that the Assembly needed to build trust in the complaint systems. This is why we have been working with colleagues from all parties and staff over many months to better understand how dignity and respect at the Assembly is observed. We have recently approved a new policy and delivered many improvements to raise awareness of what constitutes inappropriate behaviour and advice for those who experience it. Moreover, we have clarified our reporting processes and enhanced the support we provide, particularly through the creation of Contact Officers who are accessible to people who work here and those who have dealings with this institution. In addition, Assembly Members and Senior Assembly Commission staff are undertaking a programme of dignity and respect training. In the meantime a detailed inquiry is underway into these matters by the Standards of Conduct Committee. We have no doubt that the Committee will consider the results of these surveys carefully as part of its deliberations and will bring forth recommendations for future action across this institution.

– Assembly spokesperson

BBC Wales has also responded to the results of its survey:

The BBC Wales Live programme has been looking at the working environment at the National Assembly for Wales for a number of weeks.

As part of the team’s research, it sent a questionnaire regarding experiences of inappropriate behaviour to a large number of staff working for Assembly Members.

This questionnaire – similar to one already conducted by the BBC at Westminster – made it clear that any responses would be treated in the strictest confidence. The BBC questionnaire was conducted independently of the survey looking into similar issues published by the National Assembly for Wales on Tuesday.

As a result of the BBC Wales Live questionnaire we have been made aware of three anonymous allegations against unnamed BBC staff. The BBC takes matters of this nature very seriously and will look carefully at the information that has been broadcast – but it is extremely difficult to verify these allegations as they stand given the limited information that we have received.

If anyone has any information they think could assist us in these matters, they can access our details on the BBC Whistleblowing website – which provides options to contact the BBC directly or via an independent organisation, Expolink. We are also reminding staff of the BBC’s policies should they wish to raise any concerns confidentially.

– BBC Wales Spokesperson

These surveys are the first to look closely at the experiences of those working in or with the Assembly but elsewhere the scale of the problem has already begun to become clear.

Earlier this year a similar survey found that nearly a fifth of staff at Westminster had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour while a separate Comres survey of MPs staff, commissioned by ITV News, found that 24% agreed sexual harassment is "rife" within the Palace of Westminster.

In the Assembly, moves have been made to develop a new Dignity and Respect Policy but there have been concerns that events surrounding the death of the former minister Carl Sargeant have made it more difficult for people to come forward with complaints.

These surveys offer an opportunity for that to change and put pressure on political parties and those running the Assembly, as well as the media and other organisations which work with it, to confront such difficult matters.

Political reaction

Credit: PA, Tim Ireland

I've asked each of the political parties operating in the Assembly for their response as well as the Welsh Government.

A spokesperson for the Welsh Government said:

There is simply no place for any inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. It is essential that individuals are able to raise concerns without fear of intimidation and that these concerns are fully investigated and dealt with.

– Welsh Government spokesperson

The Welsh Liberal Democrats say they back the Assembly's new Dignity and Respect policy but are aware that they need to make changes themselves following a number of cases involving Lib Dem politicians.

A spokesperson said:

The surveys from the Assembly Commission and BBC Wales on inappropriate behaviour make for disturbing reading for anyone involved in Welsh politics.

We wholeheartedly endorse the Assembly’s new Dignity and Respect policy, but these findings show there is no room for complacency. Welsh politics is not immune from the sexual harassment and bullying that is unfortunately still so prevalent across society and particularly amongst the powerful.

We must consistently improve the Assembly’s policies in these areas whilst creating a political culture and society where sexual harassment and bullying is considered unacceptable by all.

We’re committed to making our own party a welcoming and safe environment for everyone and have robust procedures in place to deal with inappropriate behaviour and a Pastoral Care Officer to support victims. However, we know there is no room for complacency ourselves and so we’re working with our Federal party to develop and improve our procedures for dealing with these important issues.

– Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson

Plaid Cymru's leader Leanne Wood has said that all concerned in Welsh politics can -and must- do better.

The conclusions of these reports by the BBC and the National Assembly for Wales are disturbing. The findings show that there is a problem here that must be tackled with urgency.

No parliament, no organisation and no political party is immune to this problem. We all can – and must, do better.

It is a good thing that over recent months people from across all different workplaces have felt able to come forward and share their experiences.

But I have been troubled by the backlash we have seen recently to women sharing their stories, or attempts to minimise the problem in Welsh public life.

The responses to these surveys show that there is a problem, and we must be clear: one incident of sexual harassment or assault would be too many.

This behaviour should not be accepted as normal, inevitable or acceptable. We must all take responsibility for that culture and if we do that we can all take responsibility to turn the situation around.

In Plaid Cymru we are taking action to put it right.

Within the party we have strengthened our internal disciplinary processes in order to ensure that any unacceptable behaviour is investigated and dealt with fairly for all involved. All Plaid Cymru Assembly Members and staff will be attending Dignity and Respect training. We will also be speaking to all staff in light of these surveys to remind them of the support available, and how they can raise any concerns.

I reiterate our message to anyone who comes forward with concerns or disclosures about sexual harassment, bullying or abuse: we will listen to you, we will support you and we will take appropriate steps to investigate any complaints.

– Plaid Cymru Leader Leanne Wood AM

A spokesperson for the Labour group of Assembly members shared the same level of 'deep concern' and said that Labour AMs and staff will shortly be getting 'Dignity and Respect' training.

The Labour Group are deeply concerned at any reports of inappropriate behaviour. The National Assembly should be a safe place for everybody and such behaviour should be called out and dealt with.

It is crucial that all complaints are listened to and that all are investigated.

The Labour Group strongly supports the strengthened measures proposed by the Standards and Conduct Committee and expects them to be implemented in full. It is vital that the Assembly has robust procedures in place which have the confidence of everyone involved.

The Labour Group are working with ACAS, Members and Staff will shortly be taking up Dignity and Respect training. In addressing the findings of this survey, it is crucial that all of us in the National Assembly play our part in ensuring that everybody is treated with dignity and respect.

– Labour group spokesperson

A spokesperson for the UKIP Assembly group said:

The findings of the survey are deeply disturbing. We hope that the BBC and the National Assembly for Wales take this seriously, and that the accusations are thoroughly investigated.

Sexual harassment is unacceptable anywhere, and especially in an institution that claims to champion dignity and respect for all.

– UKIP spokesperson