Last week I acted for Bernie, Jack and Lucy Sargeant, the family of former Welsh Government cabinet minister Carl Sargeant at the inquest into his death.
Carl committed suicide in November 2017 after he was sacked from his cabinet post as Secretary for Communities and Children. Allegations had been made against him, but he was never told what they were. The fact of his impending removal from government was leaked to the media before he knew.
The inquest concluded on Thursday 11 July, some seven and a half months after it started, having been listed for five days.
During that first week in late November, the coroner heard evidence from the then First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones.
He claimed that he spoke to Ann Jones AM the weekend before Carl’s death and that she had been given a formal pastoral role for Carl in the wake of his dismissal. This turned out not to be true. The inquest was subsequently adjourned and resumed last Monday with the now former First Minister being recalled, along with Ann Jones.
The coroner was very clear in his opening comments to Mr Jones about the seriousness of his situation, saying: “Either you were mistaken in what you said to me or I was misled, and perhaps deliberately so, with a view to some type of PR that made your position somewhat more tenable.”
The former First Minister said, on reflection, that he was incorrect to tell the inquest he had spoken to Mrs Jones over the weekend between Mr Sargeant losing his cabinet role and his death. Yet he only corrected this after Mrs Jones came forward.
I leave you to decide how this ‘reflection’ came about.
There followed a testy exchange between our instructed counsel, Leslie Thomas QC, and Carwyn Jones. For the family, it was a shocking and disturbing display of bravado, with not a scrap of remorse or consideration shown for the fact that a man had lost his life.
Indeed, many in the Ruthin courtroom was astounded to hear Mr Jones say that one text sent by one of his special advisers was sufficient care for someone he claimed to be a friend, adding that he didn’t even have to do that.
The family was not entitled to legal aid and Hudgell Solicitors acted on a heavily discounted rate, as did our counsel, which the family had to fund from their own pockets.
Welsh taxpayers should take note of how Mr Jones has continued to exercise control over the public purse even after he has left office. Not content with using public funds to correct his initial account to the coroner, he then instructed his counsel to go on the attack.
In a last-ditch attempt to protect his own reputation at the expense of a dead man’s, Mr Jones shamelessly set about trying to move the narrative by instructing his counsel to recount some of the unpublished allegations against Mr Sargeant for the media’s benefit in the form of questions to Bernie Sargeant, Carl’s grieving widow.
It was one of the most uncomfortable and undignified displays I have ever witnessed in a court during my 25 years in practice.
Fortunately, the coroner refused to play along with Mr Jones and his counsel’s attempts to get unproven allegations into evidence, calling them “opportunistic”.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by the actions of Mr Jones. The stakes after all are high for him – his conduct throughout this whole episode may well cost him a seat in the House of Lords. Rightly so.
Then, on Thursday evening, a few hours after the inquest concluded, the Welsh Government, without any warning to the family, released the report of its inquiry into whether information about Carl’s sacking was leaked. It concluded that there was a release of information shared amongst Labour members of Parliament and an Assembly Member prior to Carl being told, but that there was no leaking to ‘unauthorised’ recipients.
We beg to differ.
Separately, Cathy Owens, director of the political lobbyists Deryn, appeared on the BBC in the days before Carl’s death alleging sexual harassment from an unnamed politician, pointedly refusing to rule out Carl.
The next day, Carwyn Jones gave an interview saying he had become aware of “a number of incidents”, no longer using the word “alleged”.
Carl Sargeant then sent a text to Ann Jones the night before he killed himself, saying: “I still have no idea of allegation detail? All we know is off BBC what FM [First Minister] briefed? Bastards! I am telling no-one again I’m thinking of running for FM.”
According to phone transcripts obtained in evidence, after learning of Carl’s death, the former First Minister made two short calls to his wife and father, followed immediately by long phone calls to Ms Owens and Jo Kiernan, a senior adviser at Deryn.
The coroner perhaps best summed it up in his concluding remarks: “The twists and turns of the journey at times long the murkiest of paths into the world of politics has been a challenge.”
In recording a conclusion of ‘suicide’, the coroner went on to say that he believes that there is a real risk that future deaths will occur in the event of political sackings unless action is taken by the Welsh Government. He issued it with a Prevention of Future Deaths Report; ministers have until early September to respond.
In fact, in questioning by the coroner about support to colleagues, the former First Minister asked “where it ends?” The coroner responded: “It shouldn’t end is the reality, Mr Jones, because we’re talking about people’s lives.”
This case has nothing to do with the truth of the allegations made about Carl. The allegations can never be tested because the ‘star witness’ is no longer here to defend himself. It has everything to do with the way in which Carl’s dismissal was handled by the Welsh Government.
For me, this whole episode has also shone a spotlight on the complete inequality of arms in the inquest process. How can it be right that a former government minister has access to the public purse to wage a personal battle to salvage his reputation, when an ordinary grieving family, who I can tell you do not seek the limelight into which they have been thrust, is refused any help?
Dr Neil Hudgell is a solicitor and managing director at Hudgell Solicitors