The Talking Point #8: Why “Innocent Until Proven Guilty” Matters

(Title Image: World Hunger & Poverty Blog)

You can’t sneeze in politics without it playing a walk-on role in the ongoing soap opera it’s become. Opinions are plentiful, judgements are instant – including on here.

Things happen so quickly there’s little opportunity to control what is or isn’t made public and voids in information are filled with speculation and innuendo. Parties and leaders often need to be seen to act instantly in order to appear on top of things (particularly issues that have been in the headlines).

Although everybody going into politics should do so expecting to be one step away from the sack, in a cruelly short space of time, Carl Sargeant was dismissed from a role he clearly cared about, was suspended by his party (and assumedly partly cut off from his support network) and subject to allegations that by association – innocent or guilty – will have hurt his reputation and honour as a man deeply and unquestionably committed to social justice.

There’ll be further recriminations as Carl appears to have been punished without knowing the precise details of what he was accused of even up to the morning of his death. Based on the recently-released private correspondence he at least knew the broad nature of them, but it’s impossible to mount a defence without knowing the hows, whats, whos and whens.

That’s not right, it’s not justice and it’s appalling judgement on the part of the First Minister, (Welsh) Cabinet Office and Welsh Labour hierarchy that requires full and frank investigation and soul-searching. If this is how the procedure works, the procedure isn’t fit for purpose.

None of this makes the large number of recent high-profile complaints “a witch hunt”. It just means the public downfall of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey has given women (and a few men) – who might’ve been carrying secrets for years – the confidence to speak out. It’s 30+ years worth of pain that’s been corked into a bottle and has finally burst forth.

None of this means we can’t have a system in place so (usually) women can report harassment and have those reports taken seriously. The Senedd, Welsh Government and political parties have clearly failed catastrophically despite statements to the contrary made over the last few days.

None of this means that if men in positions of power are suspected of harassment, they shouldn’t be investigated or suspended from work while those claims are dealt with. But the accused should be given the chance to defend themselves on an even playing field – that includes being given all the facts and a duty of care being upheld by their employers and/or parties.

The shock amongst the Welsh political establishment is palpable and is gradually turning into anger – you don’t need to be physically at the heart of it to sense it; cancelling an entire week’s worth of meetings and journalists doorstepping a First Minister is unprecedented. Welsh politics has been hit by scandals, crises and tragedies before, but nothing like this.

Carl Sargeant’s death will lie on the consciences of many for a long time to come.

Once the shock and mourning relent, everyone involved owes it to him, his family and friends, to deal with the fall out maturely, outline what went wrong, accept culpability and mistakes (where applicable) and ensure nobody – accuser or accused – is put in a situation like that ever again.

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