It’s time for an inquiry into abuse in Welsh public life

Steve Brooks urges action to tackle abuse and sexual misconduct in public life in Wales.

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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Steve Brooks Tweets from @stephenbrooksUK and writes in a personal capacity.

3 thoughts on “It’s time for an inquiry into abuse in Welsh public life

  1. The spectrum of “abuse and sexual misconduct” covers a wide range and the first thing that is needed it seems to me is clarity about the expectations we should have in regard to political parties.

    At the most serious end it is clear to me that best practice in safeguarding must be to involve the police, or at least to encourage someone alleging a serious sexual offence; by which I mean any offence which if proven would ordinarily result in a sentence involving imprisonment, to go to the police. Maybe a complainant might not wish to go to the police, but whatever you think of how the criminal justice system handles rape complaints, political parties do not dispose of any resources in forensics, cannot arrest suspects or subpoena witnesses, nor impose any penalty beyond expulsion. Even the criminal justice system, with all its resources and with all the changes to the legal framework in recent decades, finds it difficult to secure convictions, not least because on a purely evidential basis, rape is a notoriously difficult crime to prove beyond reasonable doubt. With the best will in the world, none of our political parties can set itself up as an alternative criminal justice system. Only a court of law can decide if someone is guilty of a serious sexual offence. All that a party can possibly do is to reach an initial view on whether an allegation is credible, and pronounce on whether or not, on the balance of probabilities, the accused is fit to remain a party member.

    Self-regulation in matters of party protocol, policy and practice is one thing. The Court of Appeal ruling in August 2016 that Labour’s NEC has to be the “ultimate arbiter” of the Party’s rules over questions around eligibility to vote in internal elections made it clear that the courts cannot and will not get involved in scrutinising such essentially political decisions provided they are reached by something at least resembling due process. What political parties gain from internal dispute resolution, is essentially closure – both in the sense that a line is drawn and everyone moves on, and in the sense that the details of each individual case are closed off to everyone not involved in resolving them. Reputation management is obviously a core competency of a political party and nobody enjoys seeing their dirty linen washed in public. Moreover most political parties have among their memberships quite a bit of professional expertise in dispute resolution in the form of lawyers, trade unionists, women’s rights advocates and so forth whose expertise can be drawn upon.

    There are however a whole range of social institutions, from the Boy Scouts to the Catholic Church to the BBC, which have learned the hard way that an institution cannot credibly investigate itself, especially where sexual misconduct (or worse) is concerned. It is clear that our political parties are no exception. It’s important not only that justice is done but that it’s seen to be done; particularly in situations where power relationships are highly unequal and/or where potential for serious reputational political damage might be perceived to have influenced a decision. Some form of high level oversight by an appropriately qualified individual of impeccable discretion with no connection to any party (ideally a retired high court judge or similar) would help to dispel suggestions that parties operate “kangaroo courts” or manufacture claims of sexual harassment, bullying or other alleged ‘problematic’ behaviour as a cover for ‘fitting-up’ and expelling political dissidents.

    As our understanding of what counts as oppressive or predatory behaviour has evolved since the seventies it is important for parties to be clear about the distinction between inadvertent discrimination or inappropriate behaviour – holding meetings in pubs; employment of outdated language, stereotyping etc. – which may have far more to do with generational or cultural habits vis a vis deliberate prejudice. In my view there is a great deal of the former across all parties; but instances of the later are neither typical or widespread. Still any experienced political hack will be aware of certain cases. One might hear that a councillor in such and such ward was notorious for trying it on with any young women who joined his branch. If the party maintains up-to-date membership records, someone may notice that certain branches seem to have a lot more trouble holding onto female or BAME recruits than normal and so on. External audit may have a role here, but there are of course resource implications and parties are understandably reluctant to release data to outsiders.

    Perhaps the key principle in the internal regulation of political parties (and this is critical from a reputational risk management perspective if nothing else) is that the more senior the office held the higher the expected standards of behaviour to which people should expect to be held.

  2. The abuse in public life in Wales must also include the alarming rise in workplace bullying in the Third/Charity sector. I experienced serious workplace bullying at a high profile Welsh charity and lost my job and livelihood over it. So too did others. It’s part of the culture there. I know so many people who have been through the same hell at other ‘high profile’ charities. Their bosses all schmooze with the relevant politicians and Ministers in Cardiff Bay and beyond who are aware of the bullying culture yet sweep it under the carpet, it continues to wreck lives and the Welsh Government continue to hand over huge sums of public money to fund these abusers. Enough is surely enough?

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