Carl Sargeant dies

As a minister, Carl Sargeant had been a
vocal advocate for women's rights
(Photo: Inside Housing)
In the last few minutes it has been reported that Carl Sargeant, the Welsh Assembly Member, has died at the age of 49.

While this alone is sad news, what is both shocking and disturbing is that it has been widely reported that Sargeant has taken his own life.

Sargeant was, until last Friday, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and children in the Welsh government. He was also the Labour AM for Alyn and Deeside.

Sargeant has in recent years been a strong advocate for women's rights and has campaigned against violence towards women - he even considered himself a feminist. He stepped down from his ministerial role after he was made aware that complaints had been made about his "personal conduct" by a number of women. The complaints had been made to First Minister Carwyn Jones, who informed Sargeant of the nature of the allegations but not (it would appear) about the detail. Sargeant issued a statement shortly afterwards in which he claimed "the details of the allegations have yet to be disclosed to me".

Whatever those allegations may have been, four days later a man has taken his own life. In the last few minutes many people have expressed their own views on social media, some more thoughtful than others. My own immediate feelings were along the lines of: "How has this happened?" I also reflected on how decades of political service could be forgotten about so easily - as if the apparent sexual nature of the allegations means his wider contribution to society must be overlooked.

I have no intention of discussing the allegations and asking whether Sargeant was guilty. No doubt much will be known in due course and I don't think speculation is particularly useful. However, this tragedy is clearly taking place against the backdrop of revelations of sexual harassment and wider concerns about the culture of UK politics. It is very likely that Sargeant's death occurred because of the allegations, or the way in which people responded to them - it seems improbable that there is no connection.

I have, for some time, been more than aware of the problem of sexual harassment within parliamentary circles. It is not new, and is in fact just one element within a toxic culture in which harassment, bullying and other abuses of power have historically been considered acceptable. I gave evidence to the Morrissey Inquiry in 2014, which made recommendations in respect to how the Liberal Democrats should deal with claims of sexual harassment and assault following the allegations made against Lord Rennard. Morrissey's report, while only applying to the internal procedures of my own party, now takes on wider significance: the problem is not confined to one party and neither should the solutions be.

Does anyone think it is acceptable that, in the absence of any formal process for making complaints of this nature, that complainants are forced to approach the Office of the First Minister? How appropriate is the First Minister as an arbiter in any case - can he be expected to be impartial? How also is it acceptable for the detail of the alleged offences to be withheld from those who are accused? How is it acceptable that, in the absence of a confidential internal cross-party system that treats both complainants and those accused with respect and dignity, we instead depend on party leaders having the intelligence and sensitivity to do the right thing under the "scrutiny" of a popular media already sensationalising the nature of the alleged offences (and sometimes demanding sacrifices)?

In spite of the specific detail of the complaints against Sargeant not being made public, a quick Google search will confirm what headlines have screamed from the pages of the UK's most popular newspapers. The Daily Mail referred to "shocking sex allegations"; others have banded about terms such as "shamed" and "sacked" - completely improperly in the circumstances.  Guilt should never be assumed, and processes must support all involved.

In the interests of everyone, there needs to be a more transparent system at the heart of UK politics for reporting abuses of all kinds. It is no longer acceptable for complaints to be dealt with in this unaccountable and antiquated fashion, if ever it genuinely was. This issue is bigger than any one party, and is clearly not reserved to Westminster. I hope that collaborative working between parties will lead to the establishment of a Compliance Officer role (similar to that of the Pastoral Care Officer recommended by Helena Morrissey), who would have responsibility for investigating complaints, recommending actions and, where necessary, referring matters to higher authorities. The Compliance Officer would also work with key personnel from across the political spectrum to improve standards and awareness, prevent bullying and harassment from occurring in the first instance and ensure greater accountability. They would also be a source of independent support in addition to having investigative and educational responsibilities.

Will this happen? I don't know, although I'd guess that finding scapegoats and shaming individuals is always easier than addressing significant cultural and institutional attitudes. I am not overly optimistic, but at least the Prime Minister's language so far has suggested cross-party solutions and that much is welcome.

The Labour Party has a duty of care towards both Mr Sargeant and those making complaints against him. It would appear that in at least one respect it has failed in this duty. Labour is not alone, however - other parties have been failing for years. This simply cannot be allowed to continue.

Whatever the truth about the allegations made against Carl Sargeant, no-one should feel unsupported and abandoned. I hope that, for the sake not of UK politics but of justice, senior politicians finally realise that the lack of any proper system for dealing with reports of abuse can no longer continue. No-one should be taking their own lives against the backdrop of sensational but speculative headlines. No-one should feel they're not being taken seriously. No-one should be ignored because it is politically expedient to do so. And no-one should be deterred from complaining because there is no established process.

Carl Sargeant's death is a tragedy. What is doubly tragic is that it might have been avoided if there had been a system in place to support him during what would inevitably be a trying time - the kind of system common to countless workplaces across the UK. The question isn't whether our politics can afford to modernise, but whether it can really afford not to when the human cost is so obvious.