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Ombudsman appoints KC to investigate “F*** the Tories” scandal

09 Apr 2024 5 minute read
Michelle Morris, Public Services Ombudsman Wales

Martin Shipton

The Welsh Ombudsman has appointed a senior barrister to investigate allegations of political bias at the body after NationCymru revealed that its chief investigator wrote a series of contentious social media posts including one that said “F*** the Tories”.

Sinead Cook resigned from the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales (PSOW) after being suspended pending a disciplinary investigation.

The revelations about her prejudicial conduct have raised concerns that past decisions made by the Ombudsman’s office may have been compromised. It has been suggested that some councillors have been treated harshly while others have had complaints against them dismissed unduly.

Welsh Secretary David TC Davies says he has lost confidence in the Ombudsman’s office and has called for it to be dismantled and reconstituted.

A statement issued by the Ombudsman said: “ Following the allegation of political bias, made against a former officer of PSOW, the Ombudsman has announced that an independent review will be conducted to provide assurance that its code of conduct processes are sound, free from political bias and that lessons are learned from what has happened.

“The Ombudsman, Michelle Morris, fully accepts that PSOW now needs to rebuild trust in the work of the organisation on complaints against councillors. The remit will include reviewing discretionary decisions previously made, by the former officer and her team, not to investigate complaints when applying the Ombudsman’s processes.

The review will be led by James Goudie KC and is expected to report this summer.”

Process

The Ombudsman’s process includes the application of a two-stage test, first whether the evidence suggests that a breach of the Code of Conduct has occurred and second, whether an investigation is required in the public interest.

Some 10% of the office’s caseload last year were complaints against councillors, while the remaining 90% of caseload were complaints about public services, specifically NHS bodies 46%; local authorities 37%; housing associations 12%; and the Welsh Government and sponsored bodies 2%.

Meanwhile Welsh Conservative Senedd group leader Andrew RT Davies wrote a piece for the Conservative Home website in which he echoed David TC Davies’ call for a root and branch restructuring of the Ombudsman’s office. But he went further, linking the row to broader culture war issues.

Liberal bias

He wrote: “Left-wing and liberal bias in our institutions is nothing new. There are countless examples in the BBC, charities, and civil service. How Gary Lineker has been permitted to abuse his platform to attack the government is a notable case, but hardly isolated.

“Cook’s conduct is particularly egregious because of the nature of her role. As the Ombudsman’s Head of Investigations, she was responsible for overseeing all complaints made into local councillors in Wales. Political impartiality was therefore a prerequisite. It was the most important standard for her to meet.

“Cook’s actions fell far short of the standard required. Her comments, expressed while she was employed in her role, made her position untenable. The legal test for bias, applied by the courts, is whether a “fair-minded and informed observer would conclude that there was a real possibility that the decision maker was biased”. It is therefore the perception of bias that matters.

“Her conduct also has ramifications for others. Given the senior role she held, the public can’t have confidence in any decisions taken by the Ombudsman while she was in the post. The influence she had over others in her team, and the culture she set, means they too, through no fault of their own, were unable to act with the impartiality required. Having made such explicit comments in a public forum, it is highly unlikely Cook would not have made similar, potentially worse comments, privately.

“The public can therefore have no confidence in any investigations carried out by the Ombudsman during Ms Cook’s tenure. At the very least, all cases must be reviewed. Their findings are seriously flawed. Sanctions previously imposed may well have to be set aside. As with the Post Office scandal, these consequences are far-reaching. If a blanket exoneration is required, then guilty people may well avoid the consequences of their actions. This is why Cook’s actions are so serious.

“The Ombudsman’s office is contaminated by this scandal to the extent that it is no longer fit for purpose. No amount of institutional reform will restore public trust or repair the damage Cook has caused to its culture. I personally agree with David TC Davies, the Secretary of State for Wales, who says the ombudsman’s office must be closed down and replaced.

“Cook’s behaviour also raises a wider question, as to why she felt her actions were appropriate. We must also ask why she believed her behaviour would be tolerated. The answer can be found in the cultural bias that exists in our institutions. People on the cultural and liberal left consider their views to be morally superior. They consequently believe otherwise unacceptable actions can be justified.

“Of course, there are plenty of people in our institutions who do not hold liberal left opinions. And plenty of those who do hold such views nonetheless act with propriety. However it cannot be disputed that standards are not applied equally across the board. And this culture has become embedded.

“When behaviour like Cook’s is tolerated, it leads to examples becoming more and more egregious. The Ombudsman scandal is a symptom rather than a cause of this problem. Davies is right: The office must now be dismantled. But it would be a mistake to think this will solve the problem alone.

“A rotten culture extends so deeply into many institutions that they are now beyond salvation. I believe we need to shut down the Ombudsman and replace it with something new. Plenty of other institutions must also face the same fate.”


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Gareth Llwyd
Gareth Llwyd
1 month ago

Toriaid yn gorymateb ac yn mynd dros ben llestri unwaith eto.

Jeff
Jeff
1 month ago

Lets see. OK, yeah, investigation is required but ARTD has to pad out an article with fluff. No10 must have told him the number of words required and what words to include to tac onto this issue. Repeats the complaint a few times, I see that in padded articles where they say the issues several times but worded differently for column inches, who wrote this for him? Oh he likes an attack does ARTD. Lets see, BBC, basically the politics section is a No10 front. He cannot claim bias against his party there, they run interference for the Cons. And… Read more »

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