The Bowen inquiry: the main questions

Martin Shipton reflects on the recent announcement that Paul Bowen QC will chair the inquiry into Carwyn Jones’ treatment of Carl Sargeant

Until recently the idea that the fate of the First Minister could be determined by a London barrister would have seemed fanciful. Carwyn Jones seemed unassailable in his post, and while the general assumption was that he was likely to stand down in 2019 after a decade leading Wales, no-one thought there was the remotest chance that he could be forced out of office sooner.

But the appointment of Paul Bowen QC to chair the inquiry into Mr Jones’ treatment of Carl Sargeant has brought that possibility into play.

Many have been waiting expectantly to see who would take charge of the central investigation into what has precipitated the most serious crisis in Welsh politics since the National Assembly was established in 1999.

The death of Mr Sargeant four days after he was removed from his post as Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children because of unspecified allegations of sexual harassment has raised questions far beyond the tragic fate of one individual.

The announcement that Mr Bowen will be running the inquiry has been welcomed by Mr Sargeant’s family, both because he practises outside Wales and because it gets underway a process they hope will answer as many of their questions  as possible about the events leading up to the politician’s apparent suicide.

Before the inquiry gets formally under way, however, there is a need to agree its terms of reference. The terms of reference are important because they will determine the limits of what can be looked at and provide a focus for what should be investigated.

It is understood that the Sargeant family wants the inquiry to take in an examination of the role of the Labour Party in the matter during the period leading up to Mr Sargeant’s death.

They consider that appropriate because Mr Jones involved the party – a decision which has not been explained in detail so far.

The First Minister has on several occasions since Mr Sargeant’s death insisted that he could not have acted differently to the way he did. Piecing together exactly what happened, and why, is surely the first step of Mr Bowen’s inquiry. He will then have to decide whether the decisions taken by key players – most notably Mr Jones – were correct in the circumstances.

What we know from statements that have been made by Mr Jones is that days before Friday November 3, Mr Jones was made aware of complaints made about Carl Sargeant’s personal conduct towards an unspecified number of women. It has not been stated who drew the complaints to Mr Jones’ attention.

It was at this point that he made a crucial decision. When Theresa May found herself in a similar position after a complaint was made about Damian Green, her effective deputy and longstanding friend, she referred the matter at once for investigation by the Civil Service under the Ministerial Code.

The code governs the standards of behaviour which Ministers – at Westminster or Cardiff – are meant to live up to. Sexually harassing women is a clear breach of the code, so it’s clear that the allegations against Mr Sargeant could – and arguably should – have been investigated by the Civil Service.

Mr Green was sacked by the Prime Minister after a report from Sue Gray, the Civil Service’s director-general of propriety and ethics, concluded that he had made misleading statements about pornography on his computer. But instead of referring Mr Sargeant’s case to the Civil Service, Mr Jones asked his senior special adviser, Matt Greenough, to carry out an impromptu inquiry during which he spoke to a number of women.

As a special adviser, Mr Greenough is a political appointee. His salary, however, is paid not by the Labour Party, but by the Welsh Government. Nevertheless, it has been confirmed that after he spoke to the female complainants, the information he obtained was passed not to the Welsh Government, but to the Labour Party.

The party has confirmed that at no stage did it receive written statements from the complainants. It did, however, decide to suspend Mr Sargeant from party membership on Friday November 3 – the day he was removed from the Cabinet.

In doing so, the party ignored its own policy on investigating allegations of sexual harassment, which states that members should be suspended only once all statements in the case have been assembled and the matter is about to be considered by a party panel.

Labour has said that in the light of Mr Sargeant’s death, it will not pursue the investigation into the allegations that would have gone ahead if he had remained alive.

Details of them were not disclosed to him before his death, despite pleas from his solicitor up to the day before he died.

Another inquiry is under way to establish whether Carwyn Jones misled AMs by claiming to know nothing about bullying allegations on the Assembly’s fifth Ministerial floor, with Mr Sargeant as one of the alleged victims. Mr Bowen’s inquiry is likely to touch on this aspect of the matter only to the extent that it relates to the late Minister’s vulnerability. The Welsh Government has confirmed in an information disclosure to the Welsh Conservatives that there was no written evidence of pastoral care being offered to Mr Sargeant. If Mr Jones is criticised in the Bowen Report, due to be published before the summer recess, he will find it difficult to keep his job.

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Martin Shipton is Chief Reporter at Wales Online.