Welsh leader calls for 'less brutal' politics as tributes paid to Sargeant

Guardian Web |

The Welsh first minister has called on parties to consider how politics could be made “less brutal” following the death of Carl Sargeant, who was found dead four days after being sacked as a minister over harassment allegations.

Carwyn Jones is under huge pressure in relation to his handling of the claims and has been accused of presiding over a government in which a “toxic” atmosphere of “fear and loathing” was allowed to exist.

Speaking at first minister’s questions as the Welsh assembly met for the first time since Sargeant’s death last week, Jones said: “Do I think there are lessons for all parties to learn? There may be.

“Politics is a very difficult business. We know that. People can be sacked from cabinets … without any reason. They can find themselves in a job and then out of a job.

“It is in that sense a very brutal business. Perhaps as parties we should consider how to take not the edge, not the need for forensic examination, not the debate, not the scrutiny out of politics, but to see how we can make it less brutal than it is. That is something all parties may want to consider.”

A former special adviser and an ex-minister have claimed there was a toxic atmosphere in the Welsh government that undermined Sargeant. Jones said: “I invite people to come forward with any concerns they have.”

The first minister also flagged up the possibility of the findings of an inquiry he has ordered being produced before the full inquest into Sargeant’s death takes place. Jones said he wanted to find out whether the coroner wished to see the results before the inquest.

Before the questions session, members from across the political divide paid tribute to Sargeant, depicting him as an authentic politician who never forgot his working-class roots and campaigned against violence to women, homelessness and modern slavery.

There were also moments of humour, with friends remembering how “Sarge” took up crochet to while away long train journeys around Wales and attracted curious looks as he produced dainty pink baby bonnets.

Related: Former insider says Welsh government was 'toxic environment'

Jones said Sargeant’s family had suffered an “unbearable loss and a deep trauma. I can’t begin to imagine what they are going through”.

The first minister said Sargeant was well-liked, jovial and fun, but committed and firm. He said he was the best heckler in the assembly, but was always witty and never nasty.

A fellow cabinet member, Lesley Griffiths, said her friend had a “beautiful, sensitive and vulnerable soul”. Griffiths said Sargeant nicknamed her “mother” but “I know he loved me as a sister”.

Members recalled how Sargeant always wanted to be called Carl rather than minister, and loved to sit with assembly catering staff, security guards and drivers.

The Labour assembly member Ken Skates said: “If there is to be a lasting legacy to Carl, it should be that we should all show a bit more love and care for one another. We should be kinder and more respectful to one another, not just here but across society, to change our culture for the better.”

Addressing Sargeant directly, he said: “There is only one more door you must knock on, but on behalf of all those whose doors were opened and whose hearts were opened to you, you take care.”

Describing herself as a “proud feminist”, the Labour AM Rhianon Passmore said Sargeant was “a champion of equality and women’s rights”. One member said Sargeant had worn a pink feather boa for a breast cancer awareness event, while a second recalled him putting on pink high heels to show solidarity with women who had been victims of domestic violence.

The Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, paid tribute to Sargeant’s “rootedness and his authenticity”, saying: “He could never be accused of being out of touch.”

The Welsh Conservative leader, Andrew RT Davies, told the chamber Sargeant was the assembly’s “legislator in chief” who had pushed through four major pieces of legislation.

“Carl was a character, but a serious individual who knew what his role was in this institution – to speak for the people of Alyn and Deeside and for the people the length and breadth of Wales who didn’t have a voice,” he said. Davies said Sargeant always had a smile on his face and always addressed him as “boss”.

Davies said Jones should refer himself under the ministerial code over allegations of bullying in 2014.

That year, the first minister wrote to the Conservative AM Darren Millar saying no allegations of bullying involving special advisers had been made over the previous three years.

During the questions session on Tuesday, Jones said: “Any issues that were brought to my attention at that time were dealt with.”

Davies said the answer suggested issues of bullying were brought to his attention and he dealt with them personally.

“In light of this very troubling revelation, I call on the first minister to refer himself under the ministerial code,” he said. “He should appoint an independent Whitehall mandarin to set in motion an independent investigation.”

Sargeant was found dead at his family home in Connah’s Quay, north Wales, on Tuesday. He had been cabinet secretary for communities and children. On Friday, the first minister agreed to order an independent inquiry into his handling of harassment allegations made by three women.

Sargeant denied the allegations and his family have said he was left in turmoil by the Welsh Labour party’s refusal to disclose details of the claims against him. They said the inquiry announced by Jones will not be truly independent because the Welsh government’s permanent secretary will be leading its establishment.

A hearing on Monday heard Sargeant’s body was found by his wife, Bernadette, in the utility room of their semi-detached home. Family members and paramedics tried for up to half an hour to resuscitate him before he was pronounced dead. A provisional cause of death was given as hanging.

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