Macdonald Report goes back for a rethink – a member of the English Appeals Panel reflects

The news that the Macdonald Report, and its allied recommendations, had been narrowly referred back came as something of a surprise, as least to this observer. The ground is normally pretty well prepared for changes like this, and whilst the debate about the Party’s internal disciplinary procedures has been going on for some time now, there appeared to be agreement that something needed to be done. And whilst that possibility isn’t ruled out – yet – there must be some doubt as to whether the proposals will, even if amended, be accepted by a Federal Conference at some future date.

Having read the report, it seems to me that it contains much to recommend it. The suggestion that a statement should be agreed to be used by all those in positions of leadership within the Party, if asked to comment on a disciplinary issue, is essential for justice to be done. Too often, there has been a sense that senior figures influence such decisions, regardless of whether or not that is true. If a process exists, it should be trusted to deliver appropriate outcomes. And yes, the verdicts may be flawed occasionally, but no system of justice is perfect, and an appeals system should hopefully take care of most of those issues.

On that point, the right of the Party President to appeal on behalf of the Party at large troubles me somewhat. It is a power vulnerable to pressure from external sources – would an appeal be submitted following negative coverage by the media, for example? It seems to me to contradict the suggestion that the Party’s leadership should refrain from comment.

The possible grounds for a successful appeal are logical – failure of process, perversity of initial findings, emergence of new evidence – all act to protect individual members from possible miscarriage of justice, and expand the scope of the current English Appeals Panel somewhat (currently, it does not rehear a case).

Training for the newly designated adjudicators is, as is noted in the Report, critical, given the responsibilities they will have. Justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done, and that offers a challenge to the Party, requiring as it does proper resourcing. And the question of how adjudicators and Appeals Panel members are appointed needs to be looked at. The example of my appointment to the English Appeals Panel may enlighten.

I received an e-mail from my Regional Chair, asking me if I would be willing to serve, following the creation of a vacancy by the promotion of the incumbent to the Federal Appeals Panel. I was happy to do so, given my background in the Party’s administrative ‘undergrowth’ and my professional expertise in the field of compliance. But there was no training offered, and I rely to some extent on my knowledge of the Party’s rules and the training offered by my employer. Not everyone has those advantages.

The question of anonymity for complainants is a difficult one. On the one hand, I can see that raising one’s head above the parapets is difficult, particularly in a Party which can be a bit like a family sometimes, prone to circle the wagons against threats rather than consider whether or not the complaints are justified. On the other hand, it is difficult to defend oneself when you aren’t certain who is accusing you. The Party will have to decide whose interests are best served by whatever decision it takes on that, and live with the consequences.

Finally, the Report addresses one of the major bugbears of our current disciplinary system, the time taken to reach a final outcome. In my experience, one of the major problems is that bringing together a disciplinary panel and arranging for everyone to be in the right place at the right time is far more difficult than it sounds. I’m a volunteer, with a job and a family, and most of the key players in any Party body have similar commitments. And, unless you have a large body of potential participants, you are reliant on the goodwill and ease of availability of a very small number of key individuals. You may meet the proposed timetable, but it doesn’t take much to extend the timeline. There is, however, no harm in setting a goal for reaching an outcome, as long as the timetable doesn’t drive the final outcome.

One assumes that the Federal Board will now be tasked with going away to seek ways of addressing the concerns stated in Southport. I will be interested to see if there is an effort made to talk to those of us who work with, and within, the current system, rather than those who merely set the framework and make the appointments.

* Mark Valladares is the East of England’s nominated member of the English Appeals Panel.

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