Assembly Cabinet Minister Facing New Bullying Claim

Article excerpt

Byline: By MARTIN SHIPTON Western Mail

A middle-ranking civil servant has made new bullying allegations against the National Assembly's Social Justice Minister Edwina Hart. Last week Mrs Hart was officially cleared of bullying Charles Willie, the former head of the Assembly's Equality Policy Unit (EPU), after a nine-month investigation.

But in a detailed statement to the Western Mail, a civil servant still working for the Assembly accused Mrs Hart of engaging in behaviour they regarded as bullying on a regular basis.

The civil servant also criticised the author of the report into Mr Willie's case for not interviewing present and past employees of the EPU.

Mr Willie complained to the Assembly's standards committee about Mrs Hart after having large quantities of internal Assembly documents disclosed to him under the Data Protection Act.

The material showed how the Minister wanted him removed from his post and replaced by someone of her nomination. The individual favoured by Mrs Hart subsequently had to leave his own job with South Wales Police under a cloud.

Members of the standards committee accepted the recommendation of Tom Frawley, the Northern Ireland Ombudsman who conducted the investigation into Mr Willie's complaint, that it should not be upheld.

In discussing whether Mrs Hart had bullied Mr Willie, Mr Frawley's report said, 'An element of the complaint and the related evidence in this case has been about the perceived demeanour of the Minister. Paragraph 2.1 of the Principles Section of the Protocol for Relationships between Assembly Members and Assembly Staff which states 'relationships between Assembly Members and Assembly Staff shall be professional and based on mutual respect' is of particular relevance in this context.

'It has been indicated by witnesses, and accepted by the Minister herself, that she has a forthright and robust style and she accepts that she adopts a challenging approach in her examination of advice offered to her by civil servants and other advisers.

'The Minister contended that her approach is in fact consistent with a commitment to supporting an open and frank approach to politics; however she also acknowledged that not everyone is comfortable with her style. I believe that there is a responsibility on Ministers to be conscious of how their demeanour can have an unsettling effect on staff and thus may actually inhibit them from giving of their best.

'A Minister should also bear in mind an important point made by Mr Willie in this case ie 'that the line between assertiveness and bullying is a very narrow one'. Where a Minister succeeds a colleague with a markedly different style it is important, for the purposes of founding the working relationships on mutual respect, that steps are taken to ensure that information about their differing styles of working is shared with staff who will be working to them and who will be providing advice and briefings for their consideration.'

The fresh allegations of bullying against Mrs Hart have been made by a civil servant angered by Mrs Hart's assertion to Mr Frawley that she 'did not make nor had she made any specific complaint about the work of EPU or Mr Willie in particular.'

Mr Frawley himself said in his report, 'The Minister told me that whilst she may well disagree with proposals or advice offered to her, and reflect her disagreement in a robust manner, that response did not constitute an expression of considered dissatisfaction on her part with the person who had prepared the briefing or advice. Similarly, she explained that in meeting with outside parties she may frequently hear criticism of aspects of Government policy or the work of a particular branch but, unless a specific considered complaint is made, she regards such comment as simple expressions of disagreement - the stuff of day to day politics.

'Whilst the Minister stated that she regarded the EPU as under significant pressure in meeting its deadlines and its related policy contribution to the work of the Assembly, she did not make nor had she made any specific complaint about the work of EPU or Mr Willie in particular. …