Every morning thousands of commuters from Swansea, Neath and the surrounding areas travel into Cardiff to earn their living.
None of them would dream of expecting their employer to put them up in a Cardiff hotel so they could get to work by 9am.
This week, however, the head of the National Assembly’s administration ruled that it was quite proper for an Assembly Member to expect exactly that.
After receiving a tip-off and checking our facts, we established that Plaid Cymru AM Bethan Jenkins had claimed expenses from the public purse for a hotel stay on the night she attended the Rihanna pop concert at the Millennium Stadium. At some stage – whether before or after we started making enquiries we don’t know because she refuses to tell us – the money was paid back.
We know that Plaid leader Leanne Wood asked Ms Jenkins to refer herself to the Assembly’s Standards Commissioner and we know that the South Wales West AM refused to do so. Instead she had a conversation with Assembly Commission chief executive Claire Clancy, who said she saw no reason to refer Ms Jenkins’ claim to the Commissioner.
The implication of Ms Clancy’s decision is clear: AMs who live in areas like Neath and Swansea have been given the green light to make hotel claims simply if they show up at the Assembly the following morning.
Five years ago the Western Mail was at the forefront of exposing abuses of the AMs’ expenses regime which then existed. Politicians living as close to Cardiff as Bridgend were allowed to have second homes in the Welsh capital. The public outcry forced change, and a panel was set up under the chairmanship of businessman Sir Roger Jones and with former Plaid Cymru president Dafydd Wigley as a member to make recommendations for a new expenses system that the public could have trust in.
Second homes for AMs living in Bridgend, Neath and Swansea were ruled out, but describing the occasions when an overnight stay at public expense would be appropriate, the Jones panel said: “Members living within the inner area would be expected to commute to and from Cardiff Bay on a daily basis. However, it is acknowledged that they will occasionally need to attend evening functions and meetings associated with their Assembly duties when it is impractical to return home that night.”
The rule that now applies is, however, more ambiguous. states that claims for an overnight stay are only to be permitted “in connection with the performance of their role as Assembly Members”.
Ms Jenkins’ interpretation of the rule – in which she is backed by Ms Clancy – is that such a wording allows her to claim for a night in a hotel even though she was not on Assembly business on the night of the claim and simply attended the Assembly in the morning without a committee meeting to go to.
A member of the public has complained to Gerald Elias QC, the Standards Commissioner, whose ruling is awaited.
On Thursday we asked Ms Jenkins these questions:
* What was the work you were doing in the Assembly on the morning after the concert?
* Why did you consider it appropriate to stay at public expense in a hotel instead of simply travelling in from where you live on the morning like thousands of other commuters who live within travelling distance of Cardiff?
* When did you notify the Assembly Commission that you would be repaying the expenses claim?
* Why did you repay the money if you were convinced you had done nothing wrong?
She has not replied.
Yesterday we asked Ms Clancy to explain why she did not consider it appropriate to refer Ms Jenkins to the Standards Commissioner. We received this response from the Assembly Commission: “We do not comment on cases being considered by the Standards Commissioner. It is for the Standards Commissioner to determine whether a complaint is admissible or not. The Standards Commissioner’s work is independent and confidential.”
“It would also be entirely inappropriate for the Assembly to disclose details of the reasons why the chief executive reached the conclusion she did to the media.”
None of the Assembly’s four political parties wished to comment, but a political source said: “It is completely inappropriate if the rules have been set to allow AMs living within such a short distance from Cardiff Bay to stay in hotels overnight with costs being met by the taxpayer.
“There are thousands of hard working people across Wales, many of whom travel long distances to work, who would not expect that luxury. Why on earth should AMs have it?
“It’s just another example of the National Assembly for Wales being completely out of touch with the people it is supposed to represent.”