Carl Sargeant: what process?

Jon Owen Jones calls for a process independent of political parties to investigate accusations of sexual harassment






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I knew Carl Sargeant slightly. I know the First Minister rather better. I have no idea what Carl did or did not do in regard to the accusation of inappropriate behaviour. I do not understand the process that led to Carl’s sacking and suspension.

We do know that the consequences were tragic and profound and now to be the subject of an independent inquiry. One of the first questions that inquiry should ask is why two separate processes were apparently brought together.  That is, was Carl sacked because he had been suspended or were the two decisions separate and his sacking had nothing to do with the reasons for his suspension.

If that question is resolved it becomes much easier to understand  what happened and why.

Had Carl not been sacked the civil service would have conducted an investigation into the behaviour of a minister. Had Carl been sacked for other reasons the accusations could have been dealt with by Labour Party with Carl now a backbencher. I am sure with the benefit of hindsight Carwyn wishes that one of these course of action were followed however perhaps he felt he had no choice. Perhaps he had become aware of a serious and immediate problem that demanded this response.

There are less charitable explanations and these are given some support by the recent allegations of bullying that allegedly took place within cabinet a few years ago. The story illustrates that there are often deep animosities within political parties and a multitude of motivations. In my experience as a minister and as a whip it was not unknown for politicians (and party workers) to lie about their colleagues and to have a very strong tendency to believe the worst about their opponents and the best about their supporters. That experience gives me very little faith in the ability of any internal party process to judge a case fairly on its merits alone. Those judging a case will have at least half an eye on the effect of their judgment on their party or faction within it.

In Westminster during another scandal the Labour Party suspended Dr Ian Gibson the MP for Norwich.  Ian’s crime was to allow his daughter to stay in his London flat on which he was claiming an allowance. Other MPs were able to use their expenses in a far less appropriate way but they endured little condemnation. Ian’s real problem was that he was an able and eloquent critic of the Labour Leadership. He was a convenient scape goat. In his public disgrace he resigned his seat and Labour lost the by-election. The Tories have held the seat ever since.

In the last few days Ruth Mosalski wrote an excellent article explaining the dilemma a woman faces if she makes an accusation of harassment in work which leads to very adverse outcomes to her employer and her colleagues. This dilemma is particularly acute in politics where adverse outcomes are so public and the definition of the workplace so broad. However maintaining the anonymity of accuser’s even from the accused cannot be a solution. The accused must have an opportunity for defence. Being suspended subject to investigation for suspected sexual harassment has very considerable consequences to a public figure. The case must be investigated fairly and promptly. In this matter the Labour party were planning to hold their inquiry a full two months after Carl’s suspension.

Of course Carwyn  is a barrister and better qualified than I to understand the requirements of a fair process when dealing with a serious accusation. We do not know who made the accusation and to whom. We know that Carwyn was made aware of it directly or indirectly and then appointed a special advisor to interview the accusers. I assume the special advisor then made an assessment that there was a case to answer. Depending upon the strength of evidence and the nature of the complaint there may well have been a need to interview the accused before completing that assessment. From the reports that I have read that doesn’t appear to have happened.

Sexual harassment is a problem in politics as in many other work places and elsewhere. It does deserve to be treated seriously with an agreed process implemented by legally qualified professionals which have a high degree of independence from the political party being investigated.

Since writing the above article I have learned that a second man suspended by the Labour Party has committed suicide. Whatever the differences in the two cases the outcome of the suspensions has been tragically  the same. High time to change what we are doing and set up an independent process adopting best practice from industry.

 

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Jon Owen Jones is a former Labour MP, Whip and Welsh Office Minister.