We owe it to all those involved to seek justice and deliver it

Picture: National Assembly (CC BY 2.0)

Leanne Wood

Most of us who work in our National Assembly are still shocked following the death of former minister Carl Sargeant.

I first met Carl in 2003, when both of us were elected to the Assembly at the same time. It was refreshing to see someone who was authentically working-class and rooted in his community rise quickly up the ranks of government.

His friends and family, as well as his colleagues, are filled with grief in the aftermath of his passing.

He leaves a big gap in so many people’s lives. Everyone affected by this former Welsh minister’s apparent suicide must be afforded time, space and privacy to come to terms with their loss.

There are many questions which need to be answered. For all those concerned and especially the family, I am pleased that an independent inquiry will be held into the circumstances and decisions that were taken by the First Minister.

Justice is not a privilege, but a right and these are the first steps towards it.

That same justice must also be afforded to all those who have made complaints against any politician.

Desensitised

Just a few hours before the news broke about Carl’s death, the Plaid Cymru Assembly group held a special meeting of all AMs and all their staff, including our Head Office staff, to discuss the recent revelations of sexual harassment which had been dominated the headlines.

The allegations against various politicians, as well as people in the film and television industry, over recent weeks have exposed difficult questions for political parties about our processes for dealing with such complaints.

No party is immune to these concerns. For this reason, I was eager to acknowledge to colleagues and staff that in the past, Plaid Cymru may not have treated cases of harassment with the seriousness with which they deserve. That situation and the culture that has been tolerated in politics must change.

I outlined to our staff my determination to help foster a new culture, where it is understood by all that everyone is respected at all times. A culture where everyone is able to work in an atmosphere that is free from harassment and the abuse of power.

People in all political parties have been guilty to turning a blind eye this damaging culture where inappropriate words or behaviour can go unchecked and unchallenged. We have become desensitised to it.

I issue a formal apology to anyone who has complained to Plaid Cymru in the past and didn’t have appropriate or sufficient action taken.

I, too, in my younger days have experienced it. Sometimes I challenged it, on other times, I said nothing. As women, we have just accepted it as the way some men are, even though many of us understand how this works and the damage such behaviour can do over time.

When so many women are disclosing this previously normalised inappropriate behaviour and are finally starting to be believed, we have to take responsibility for changing this culture. There can be no going back on that now.

So my message to anyone who comes forward to Plaid Cymru with concerns or disclosures about harassment is: we will take you seriously, we will support you and we will take appropriate steps to ensure that complaints are investigated thoroughly and fairly.

We will encourage and support you to make complaints of inappropriate behaviour by any AM to the Assembly’s Standards Commissioner and we will ensure our party complaints procedures are fit for purpose when we are called upon to investigate complaints.

Difficult

Although we have recently reviewed our own reporting mechanisms, I am committing today to seeking independent advice as to whether further amendments are necessary to bring about the culture we want to see.

We are also developing a training programme for elected representatives, officials and staff with an external partner to be better prepared to deal with disclosures of sexual harassment.

Mistrust of the system and not being believed are some of the reasons as to why so many people are reluctant to complain about harassment from people in positions of power.

Add into the mix that people are reluctant to complain about colleagues, party loyalty and that often that the perpetrators are powerful men while those harassed are mainly younger people at the beginning of their careers with little power.

The complainants in Carl Sargeant’s case have been subject to some appalling attacks and abuse on social media – all of this makes coming forward or speaking out even more difficult.

Of the difficult issues this episode has thrown up, it is important that the truth is still sought as to those initial allegations. Justice is deserved on all sides.

We owe it to all those who have been caught up in this, not least the family of Carl Sargeant, to seek justice and deliver it. Despite or perhaps even because of the awful situation here, we cannot shirk or go back on that.

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