Tory councillor starts suspension for ‘serious abuse of trust and power’
Rhiannon James, local democracy reporter
A Conservative councillor has begun a three-month suspension following a “serious abuse of trust and power”.
Newport City councillor Joan Watkins, who represents Caerleon, was found to have misused her position as a councillor, and representative member of the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board, when dealing with Isca Medical Centre – a general practice in Caerleon.
In addition to the suspension that begins today (October 18), it was recommended by Public Services Ombudsman Wales that the council remove Cllr Watkins as a representative on the health board.
An investigation into Cllr Watkins’ actions was conducted by the Ombudsman after it received a complaint from the practice in August 2020.
Cllr Watkins had called the practice on behalf of an elderly constituent, after they had contacted her with a concern about an appointment.
The elderly constituent was given an appointment for nine days time, this is in-keeping with the NHS’s recommendations, but Cllr Watkins wanted the constituent’s appointment brought forward because of their vulnerability.
In the council’s Standards Committee hearing held on September 22, the members found that Cllr Watkins was attempting to pressurise the practice into diverging from their regular standard procedure, in addition to asking them to breach data protection laws.
The practice described Cllr Watkins as demanding and threatening during the phone calls.
During one of the phone calls, Cllr Watkins threatened to contact the chief executive of the health board to complain about the practice.
Reflecting on her actions, Cllr Watkins admitted she “may have been too passionate”.
Cllr Watkins added: “It was never my intention to cause offence, merely to help if at all possible, and if my actions were unacceptable I apologise unreservedly.”
Thirteen days after the phone calls with the practice, Cllr Watkins submitted a written complaint to the health board.
Her follow-up response came 25 days later. At this point, the patient would have received their appointment and prescription.
The committee found Cllr Watkins would have been able to reflect by the time she made the complaints, and therefore she was not “acting in the moment” as she claimed.
Investigating Officer for the Ombudsman, Leigh McAndrew, said Cllr Watkins’ actions were not a “one off” because she had made two phone calls and made two complaints.
The constituent had not asked for the complaints to be done on their behalf.
The committee concluded that Cllr Watkins made the complaints because of her personal grievances towards the practice.
Cllr Watkins admitted that there was “history” between her and the practice – referring to a personal issue she had with the practice previously in relation to her own health.
But Cllr Watkins said she made the complaint because she felt let down by the practice. In the complaints, Cllr Watkins said staff at the practice were “rude” and “unhelpful”.
But Mr McAndrew described these complaints against the staff as unfair. The committee said the recordings of the phone calls between Cllr Watkins and the practice show staff were firm, but polite and courteous throughout.
‘Come on too strong’
Cllr Watkins admitted that she may have “come on too strong” in her complaints.
In the hearing, Conservative councillor William Routley argued that Cllr Watkins had not breached the Code of Conduct.
Cllr Routley, who represents Langstone, said Cllr Watkins was simply trying to help the elderly constituent, and not secure any personal gain or advantage for herself.
The committee did not consider that it was part of Cllr Watkins’ representational role to act as an advocate for individual patients in this way.
The committee concluded that Cllr Watkins breached the Code of Conduct and should be suspended for three months.
The committee said that because Cllr Watkins is an experienced councillor and former healthcare worker, she should have known the seriousness of her actions.
Cllr Watkins has since received “additional training”, according to a Standards Committee report.
Following the decision to suspend Cllr Watkins, Cllr Routley said: “Cllr Watkins is a passionate, robust and caring councillor for Caerleon. We are extremely disappointed that she has been suspended by Newport City Council’s Standards Committee, however we accept and understand the decision.
“We look forward to Cllr Watkins returning thereby fulfilling her electoral duties on behalf of the residents of the Caerleon Ward.”
In a statement, Cllr Watkins said: “Having worked in the NHS for some 42 years, I retain the utmost respect for staff across the service. I look forward to returning to my councillor role at the end of the suspension period.”
Cllr Watkins will not be appealing the decision.