The inquest into the death of former Welsh Government minister Carl Sargeant continues today in Ruthin.
The former Children’s and Communities Secretary was found dead at his Connah’s Quay home last November, four days after after being sacked from his role in the Welsh Government. He was facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
This morning, Coroner John Gittins read a statement from Economy Minister Ken Skates which described how Mr Skates had met Carl Sargeant after joining the Assembly in 2011, and they became friends.
Mr Skates said Mr Sargeant had not explicitly told him of his mental health problems, but he had sensed that Mr Sargeant struggled with his mental health.
In his statement, Mr Skates said he himself had previously suffered from depression and anxiety in the past and said that Mr Sargeant had asked him about treatment, counselling and medication. He said he believed Mr Sargeant’s emotional health was “not right”.
Mr Skates said Mr Sargeant had taken up knitting as a form of mindfulness to help him relax.
His statement ends with his belief that Mr Sargeant had been struggling with his mental health for a long time before his death and had not been able to resolve his issues.
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Another written statement was read to the court, this time from Carwyn Jones’s former special advisor Steven Jones.
Mr Jones worked on Carwyn Jones’s Welsh Labour leadership campaign and was then appointed as an advisor between 2009 and 2014. He also worked for Carl Sargeant in his constituency office from 2015 and 2016.
In his statement, Mr Jones said he hadn’t spoken to Mr Sargeant for weeks or months before his sacking, but received a text from him on October 20, 2017 asking him to write a speech for an event Mr Sargeant had been asked to appear at.
On the day before he was sacked, Mr Sargeant had text Mr Jones saying there was going to be a reshuflle and after he was sacked he contacted Mr Jones again.
Mr Jones said Mr Sargeant told him he’d been sacked after allegations of inappropriate behaviour had been made against him, but the First Minister had not told him the detail of the allegations and told Mr Sargeant not to make them public.
The inquest heard that after Mr Sargeant died, Mr Jones went to his constituency office in Alyn and Deeside to be with friends and saw Ken Skates there. He said Mr Skates told him the First Minister was ‘furious’ that Mr Sargeant had made the reasons for his sacking public.
The inquest also heard from Carl Sargeant’s senior private secretary Imelda Francombe. She started working for him in 2016, having responsibility for his diary and engagements. She described him as a relaxed character, with a good sense of humour who was easy to work with.
She told the hearing she wasn’t aware of his mental health issues until about six months after she started working with him, when he told her during one conversation that he was feeling ‘really blue.’ He didn’t give a particular reason, he just said he sometimes felt blue. She said Mr Sargeant told her he was on medication, but he didn’t always take it.
She told the court that she was surprised to learn that Mr Sargeant had mental health problems and initially didn’t share that information with anyone until she had a meeting with her manager Peter Greening. During that meeting he commented that Mr Sargeant’s diary was ‘a bit light.’ Mrs Francombe said she felt ‘torn’ as she didn’t didn’t want to break Mr Sargeant’s confidence but didn’t want him to be seen in a negative way.
In the weeks leading up to Mr Sargeant’s death, Mrs Francombe said she didn’t see any obvious signs of a change in his mood. She said he was apprehensive after hearing rumours of a reshuffle. On the morning of November 3rd – the day of the reshuffle – she text Mr Sargeant and he replied saying he was gone, and apologised for letting them down, describing them as ‘magic.’
The coroner asked Mrs Francombe if she’d ever heard any rumours of inappropriate behaviour from Mr Sargeant. She said ‘unequivocally no,’ she’d never seen him be inappropriate or heard anyone say he had been.
The court also heard evidence from Peter Greening, Head of the Welsh Government’s cabinet divisions, who has oversight of the cabinet offices. Mr Greening told the court that at the time of his meeting with Imelda Francombe in early 2017, he had concerns that Mr Sargeant’s diary was light in comparison to other cabinet ministers. He said he hadn’t been asked to carry out a check on Mr Sargeant’s diary, apart from once in 2014.
Mr Greening told the court Mr Sargeant was an outgoing, larger than life character and he wasn’t aware of any mental health issues until Mrs Francombe mentioned it to him. He said he did not pass that information on to anyone else as he did not want to breach the confidence of Mrs Francombe.
Moving on to the time of the reshuffle in November 2017, Mr Greening said there had been speculation about a reshuffle over that summer, but he was not told officially until November 1. He was given a list of people who would need to be in Cardiff on November 3rd, so he could sort out travel arrangements.
He said he had meetings with two special advisors Jane Runeckles and Matthew Greenough to discuss who needed to see the First Minister on that day and he was aware of who would be sacked in the reshuffle. Mr Greening said he saw Mr Sargeant on the morning of his sacking and saw him leave afterwards but could not tell from his demeanour what had happened.
When asked by the coroner if any advice or support was provided to ministers who have lost their jobs in a reshuffle, Mr Greening said he wasn’t aware of any. He said there would be lessons to be learned at the conclusion of the inquest. The coroner asked Mr Greening if in hindsight he regretted not informing anyone of Mr Sargeant’s mental health issues when he knew that he was going to be sacked in the reshuffle, he replied that in hindsight he may have made a different decision.
In cross-examination by the Sargeant family’s barrister, Leslie Thomas QC, Mr Greening said he had no qualifications in dealing with mental health issues and when he was asked if he had sought advice, he said he didn’t want to break Mrs Francombe’s confidence and that while there were procedures in place for Welsh Government staff, there were no procedures for ministers.
Later, Matt Greenough, senior special advisor to the First Minister, told the court he’d known Carl Sargeant since he started working at the National Assembly as a researcher in 2005. He described Mr Sargeant as a ‘gregarious character,’ who was the life and soul of any social occasion.
He said Mr Sargeant was ‘always positive,’ but when he became the media special advisor for the Welsh Government, Mr Sargeant would sometimes say he could not carry out media obligations for personal reasons. Mr Greenough said he took them on face value and didn’t see a big change in Mr Sargeant.
He said he first heard of rumours against Mr Sargeant in May 2016, when an anonymous letter was sent to the First Minister which stated that Mr Sargeant was ‘not fit to be around women.’ Mr Greenough said that there were a couple of rumours circulating but nothing substantial and he didn’t think about it again.In October 2017 he received a call from a former colleague who said he had been at a social occasion in the previous weekend, where Mr Sargeant was also in attendance and there had been an incident involving him and two women. The former colleague suggested he talk to the woman about it. Mr Greenough said he discussed it with the First Minister before contacting the women, referred to as Miss A and Miss B. Mr Greenough said Miss A only wanted to discuss the incident with him and didn’t want to make a formal complaint, just to make him aware.