An expenses rule that enabled a Plaid Cymru AM to claim for an overnight hotel stay after attending a pop concert is to be reviewed by the body that determines politicians’ pay and allowances at the National Assembly.
In June Bethan Jenkins, a regional AM who represents South Wales West and lives near Neath, stayed in a Cardiff hotel at public expense after attending the Rihanna concert in the Millennium Stadium.
Despite later paying the money back, she has refused to apologise and insists that she acted within Assembly rules.
In 2009 a panel chaired by businessman Sir Roger Jones and including former Plaid president Dafydd Wigley recommended that AMs living in areas like Neath and Swansea should only be able to claim for an overnight stay in Cardiff when they had attended an Assembly-related event late in the evening and it would be impractical for them to return home.
However, the rule subsequently introduced to cover such claims said they would be acceptable up to a defined cash limit so long as an AM was on bona fide Assembly business the morning after the hotel stay. Ms Jenkins had no formal Assembly meeting to attend on that day.
Following our stories about the matter, a member of the public made a complaint about Ms Jenkins’ claim to Assembly Standards Commissioner Gerard Elias QC.
In an email to the complainant, Mr Elias said: “It appears…that the Remuneration Board’s Determination does not restrict the Member to claim the allowance only when attending a committee or plenary session, as your letter suggests. Rather the interpretation of ‘Assembly business’ adopted by the Remuneration Board and operated by the Commission is a wider one, namely, ‘in connection with the performance of their role as AMs’.
After saying there were no grounds for pursuing further an investigation into Ms Jenkins, Mr Elias tells the complainant: “In this case, you have raised an issue which may demonstrate the need for greater clarity both for the public and for AMs in relation to the meaning of ‘performance of their role’ by AMs when claiming in these circumstances.
“Therefore, I am proposing to write informally to Sir George Reid, Chair of the Remuneration Board, to invite him and the Board to consider this issue of interpretation further.”
The member of public who made the complaint did not wish to comment, but a political source said: “It’s encouraging that Gerard Elias has written to the Remuneration Board with a view to its defining more clearly when an AM can claim for an overnight stay.”
The source added: “The sooner the rules are changed the better, as this whole episode has damaged the Assembly as an institution immensely.”
We asked Ms Jenkins why, if she thought she had done nothing wrong, she repaid the cost of the overnight stay. We also asked her how she felt about the issue being looked at by the Remuneration Board.
She said: “I think that the response from the Standards Commissioner explains the situation in that the complaint by the as currently unknown complainant has been deemed inadmissible, and thus this matter is closed.
“I am pleased that he has come to this decision. I was performing my duties as an AM that Tuesday morning as usual.
“This is a job that I feel passionately about, and enjoy. The rules are there to state when an AM can and cannot claim, as your readers will understand, and everything is publicised openly on the Assembly website.”
“I work hard for the people of my area, be it by campaigning against zero hour contracts, for justice for Visteon Pensioners, or by calling for better services for those with eating disorders in Wales.
“Working hard for my region and for Wales has always been my priority, and will remain my priority as an elected member.
“Those seeking to smear me and undermine me in an anonymous fashion should do so in their own name, if they wish to continue to seek to tarnish my name. But I will continue with my hard work despite their negative efforts to make me out to be something which I am not.”
We asked Plaid Cymru whether the party was happy for its AMs to claim hotel expenses after attending a pop concert in Cardiff and whether it welcomed the decision by the Standards Commissioner to refer the matter to the Remuneration Board.
A Plaid spokeswoman said: “The Standards Commissioner has decided that no further action will follow his preliminary investigation and we welcome the fact that the Remuneration Board is being asked to provide further clarification to AMs.”