With each passing day, more allegations of abuse and sexual misconduct are surfaced often involving big names in public life. The behaviour of the perpetrators is sickening, all the more so when compared against the bravery and resilience shown by those who have been abused. To be subjected to such a harrowing ordeal and then to face the glare of public opinion in order to seek justice demonstrates remarkable strength. Those people who do come forward should be listened to, understood and respected. Sadly, sometimes they are dismissed.
It’s easy within a political culture likes ours in Wales to downplay such incidents of abuse and harassment as symptomatic of other places: places like Hollywood or Westminster, where sex and power (often fuelled by drink and drugs) create a toxic atmosphere that breeds abuse. The sad truth is that this kind of abuse is not only happening in the ‘Cardiff Bay Bubble’, it is happening in other communities right across Wales too. Which is why Welsh parties should be applauded for passing legislation on domestic violence and violence against women. But problems still exist.
This week Plaid MP Liz Saville Roberts raised concerns that Westminster authorities did “nothing to deal with a sexual assault complaint” from an MP’s staff member. The first minister Carwyn Jones has called for urgent meeting of Assembly party leaders and said we should ‘not assume’ this is just a Westminster problem. He is right. Reported incidents in the Scottish Parliament is understood to be in “single figures” yet the Scottish first minister stated she fully expects more individuals to be reported. Despite the shocking headlines, this is a largely unreported problem.
It’s important that party leaders in Wales get a grip on this both to ensure justice for those subjected to abuse and to take action to safeguard others in the future.
This work should be undertaken on the basis of a cross-party inquiry, headed by an independent chair not of Wales. Such an inquiry should examine two aspects of abuse in public life: first, procedures for prevention and reporting, and second, our political culture and how it enables abuse to happen.
It’s an open secret in Welsh political circles that more than one party’s internal investigation procedures have been found lacking in this area. The very least victims should be able to expect is a robust, fair and transparent way of dealing with their complaints. At the moment, many of them are not and that needs to change. The inquiry would examine what measures each party and our institutions like the Assembly and local government, have in place. It would ask for examples of what’s not been working and seek to understand how such problems could be addressed. Political parties should commit up front to implementing the inquiry’s findings on safeguarding procedures, and Welsh Government should think carefully as to whether anything could or should be placed on a statutory footing.
Second, the inquiry should examine our political culture, both off-line and on-line. It should invite people who have been subjected to abuse to tell their story. We need to better understand how prevalent this is, what impact it is having on people’s lives and on our politics, and identify things we all need to do in order to change the way we do politics. Changing culture is a lot more difficult than changing procedures, but with leadership, attention and effort it can happen.
That such an inquiry is in the interests of victims should be reason enough for party leaders to take action. But perhaps public opinion may also reinforce the need for action. The public’s faith in politicians is still brittle, and rightly or wrongly the electorates’ perception of the elected is not good. Whilst there actions that could and should have been taken much earlier, party leaders still have time and space to act. I hope they do.
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