Carwyn Jones, First Minister
Members will have noted the recent announcement from the Independent QC Investigation that its work has been suspended pending the outcome of the Judicial Review initiated by the family of the late Carl Sargeant.
There is rightly a significant amount of interest in this process. I am constrained in what I can say to Members in the light of the Judicial Review, but I feel it is important and appropriate to provide as full an update as possible to Members on this matter. In relation to the Judicial Review, we have previously confirmed that we will be strongly contesting all the grounds on which it is being brought and the legal process will now take its course.
The process of setting up the IQCI has been complex, and has had to take into account a number of inter-related factors, including among other things the absolute requirement to maintain the confidentiality of the complainants.
I announced the QC Investigation on 10 November 2017, using my powers under s 48 and s 71 of the Government of Wales Act. Following this, I gave the Permanent Secretary a clear remit to make the operational arrangements to take it forward on the basis that it would not be a public inquiry, and that the confidentiality of the complainants must take precedence. I made it clear that the implementation of the investigation on this basis should take place at arm’s length from me and my office.
The Permanent Secretary and her legal team drafted an Operational Protocol which met the remit in full, and contained substantial safeguards for the confidentiality of witnesses and information related to the Investigation. A shortlist of three highly respected QCs based outside Wales was provided to the Sargeant family and their first choice, Paul Bowen QC, was approached to undertake the investigation on the basis of the Operational Protocol as drafted. Mr Bowen QC indicated there was no impediment to him taking up the role, based on the Operational Protocol.
In the interests of transparency, the protocol was circulated by the Permanent Secretary to all Assembly Members in January. In line with his remit as chair of the investigation, Mr Bowen QC discussed proposed terms of reference for his investigation with the Sargeant family. An amendment to the terms to clarify the scope of the investigation was requested by the family through Mr Bowen and agreed by the Permanent Secretary.
Mr Bowen QC requested a further series of significant changes to the Operational Protocol, which as Chair of the Investigation he was of course entitled to do. The proposed changes went well beyond the remit that I had given to the Permanent Secretary, and therefore she made clear to Mr Bowen QC that she did not have the authority to agree them, and would have to refer them back to me as First Minister.
Following intensive and constructive discussions between Mr Bowen QC and the Permanent Secretary, including the involvement of outside counsel retained by the Welsh Government, I was provided with formal advice on the proposed changes, and agreed to the majority of Mr Bowen’s requests, including discretion for the chair to enable the Sargeant family and their legal representatives to be present during questioning, subject to assurances about the confidentiality of the complainants and any evidence that might risk identifying them.
Once agreement had been reached on the revised Operational Protocol, I indicated to the investigation that I would make myself available for oral evidence sessions at any time. A series of dates for these were proposed by Mr Bowen to take place in September, however, the Sargeant family indicated their barrister would be unavailable for these dates, so later ones would have to be found.
On 25 June, we received a pre-action protocol letter from the Sargeant family’s solicitors indicating that they intended to pursue a Judicial Review in relation to elements of the Operation Protocol. Mr Bowen QC wrote to the Permanent Secretary in July indicating that, in light of the uncertainties caused by the Judicial Review, he was formally requesting an extension to the six month timescale for delivery of his report which is set out in the Operational Protocol, and this was agreed.
Mr Bowen QC has announced that, subject to the outcome of the Judicial Review process, he intends to hold evidence sessions in March or April next year. I have indicated throughout that I will make myself available to give evidence at any time, and this will of course continue after my tenure as First Minister comes to an end.
I hope this statement is useful to Members in terms of setting out some of the background to the current situation. I recognise that nobody wants these delays. It is having an impact on everyone involved in this tragic case, not least Carl’s family. I was the one who announced the need for this investigation and, as much as anyone, I wish this process had reached a conclusion by now. However, this must be done properly and in a way that does not compromise the anonymity of the people who came forward with complaints.