The political abuse and harassment scandal has, it seems, claimed its first life. Welsh Assembly Member Carl Sargeant has reportedly killed himself after allegations were made about his behaviour.
I have no idea whether Sargeant is or is not innocent of the allegations. Already, social media is awash with comments blaming his accusers for his death. There is a real risk that this will deter other people from coming forward with their own stories of abuse.
To be sure, this may serve as a harsh reminder that a throwaway comment may have consequences far beyond those intended. If this does make some people think twice before making trivial or frivolous allegations, then that will be a good thing.
But it is completely wrong to dismiss all allegations of this nature as being frivolous or trivial. Just because something is relatively low level (when compared to, say, an allegation of rape) doesn’t make it not worth reporting. It’s just as illegal to steal a tenner as it is to rob a bank of millions. And low-level sexual harassment and bullying still needs to be dealt with.
If there is blood on anyone’s hands, though, it seems to me that it rests on those who told Sargeant he was under investigation. He posted this on Twitter shortly afterwards:
Now, it seems to me that this is totally inexcusable. To be told that there are allegations against you, but not to be told what they are, is both cruel and a denial of the basic right to defend yourself against your accusers.
It’s worth noting, in this context, that the police can’t arrest you without telling you why you are being arrested. Anyone accused of a crime must, by law, be given all the information that will be used in evidence against them. There can be no justification for any internal disciplinary procedures failing to follow this basic principle of justice.
It seems to me that we need some basic guidelines in place to ensure justice for both the accuser and the accused.
People should think carefully before making allegations, and be sure that what they allege is not trivial or frivolous.
However, no genuine victim should ever be deterred from speaking out, and it’s better to err on the side of reporting the things that are too small rather than not reporting the things that are large.
Any allegation, of any nature, once made, must be taken seriously and investigated appropriately, whether that be internally or by referral to an external agency.
The subject of any allegation has a right to full disclosure of the allegation made, at the time that they are informed of the allegation, and to be kept informed of any information which later comes to light.
Both complainant and subject have a right to be treated with dignity and respect throughout.
The investigation should be neither rushed nor unduly delayed. Reaching the right conclusion is more important than reaching a rapid conclusion, but justice deferred is no justice at all until it is resolved.
This story will, no doubt run and run. Let’s hope that some good can ultimately come out of what is, undoubtedly, a tragedy.
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