Investigation gets underway over Carl Sargeant tragedy and Welsh first minister

This article by Stephen Clear, Lecturer in Law, was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The circumstances surrounding the tragic, untimely death of former Welsh Assembly member Carl Sargeant in November 2017 are yet to fully emerge. But now that the terms of reference for an independent investigation have been announced, it is hopeful that the truth will be uncovered.

But what will the outcome mean for Wales’s first minister Carywn Jones, in what is being portrayed as something akin to a trial of his actions?

On November 2, 2017, Sargeant – the assembly member for Alyn and Deeside – was sacked as the Welsh government’s secretary for communities and children. He was also suspended from the Labour Party, pending an investigation into alleged “unwanted attention, inappropriate touching or groping”. Five days later, he was found dead at his home in Connah’s Quay, Flintshire.

Since then there has been mounting pressure on the first minister to fully explain the events surrounding Sargeant’s dismissal. Sargeant’s family has claimed that he was deprived of justice and not informed of the details of the allegations against him.

Fellow AMs meanwhile have criticised the way Sargeant was dismissed – calling it “trial by media”. Others have gone as far as saying that Sargeant was bullied by the first minister’s office.

Jones claims, however, that he had no choice but to dismiss Sargeant based on the evidence he had received. Responding to further accusations of a “toxic environment” of bullying within the Welsh Labour party, Jones made a public statement in November 2017 – and referred himself to an independent assessment board. He also agreed to an independent inquiry into his actions.

Despite claims that the first minister caused the Sargeant family considerable distress, Jones has repeated that he has nothing to hide.

What to expect

Last week, the independent investigators, led by public lawyer Paul Bowen QC, announced their remit as being to look into Jones’s “actions and decisions in relation to Carl Sargeant’s departure from his post … and thereafter”.

It is important to note that this is an investigation, not an inquiry. Its legal authority comes from the first minister’s functions, set out in the Government of Wales Act 2006. This is rather than a formal inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005.

This distinction means that the investigators will operate on a specifically tailored operational protocol basis, agreed by both the Welsh government and Sargeant’s family. These protocols set out the way information will be shared by the Welsh government and include a provision for confidentiality and the redaction of sensitive information from public reports. These exceptions are not too dissimilar to the restrictions on public access under the inquiries legislation.

However, unlike an inquiry, the investigators will not have the legal power to compel attendance of third parties, or the production of specific documents of interest. While the Welsh government’s permanent secretary Dame Shan Morgan has given reassurances that all staff will fully cooperate and provide all necessary documentation, this is not strictly a legal requirement for those outside the Welsh government.

The investigators have already made an open call for evidence and testimonies relating to events. This extends to the civil service staff – although there has already been concern over the way information is being collected and some of the new evidence that is emerging.

Inside the Welsh government

The most revealing aspects of the investigation are likely to come from the first minister’s communications – including messages sent using his private email addresses to cabinet ministers – which will give insight into the real climate within the Welsh government.

We are also likely to see extraordinary reports as Jones is questioned directly over his actions and scrutinised over his personal leadership and administration. The first minister has already announced his intention to stand down from the role, following his “darkest of times” in office. Nonetheless he has pledged to comply and see the investigations through to their conclusion.

Importantly, if reports that the claims made against Sargeant were aired publicly in the media – before he was given the details of them – are true, such a disregard for justice and due process would also likely lead to wider questions about the fairness of the first minister’s powers. Similarly, there will be concerns over the way allegations are handled within public sector organisations, as well as how the ministerial codes are enforced in Wales.

Publication date: 20 June 2018