Terms of Reference and Procedures for the SWP Disputes Committee
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Thursday 18 November 2021
28 January, 2019
The Disputes Committee’s (DC) function is to investigate complaints relating to disciplinary matters and unacceptable behaviour by its members or units. A guide to unacceptable behaviour is available to the DC and all members. It cannot solve crimes or make legal decisions. It cannot rule on “the guilt or innocence” of members but can only rule on whether they have broken party discipline or behaved in a way that is out of line with our politics. It can only recommend sanctions that relate to a member’s party role or membership.
The DC consists of not more than 12 members, elected annually at Conference.
In addition, the Central Committee (CC) may nominate up to two members on any panel where CC members are eligible to be on the panel.
The DC may co-opt members to serve for particular investigations. Co-option should in particular be considered for investigations when a member who is subject to a complaint or allegation is well known in the organisation.
The DC may seek legal or other advice from members with particular experience.
The DC may consult with the National Committee (NC) as needed.
Unless there are exceptional reasons elected members should form the majority of any panel.
The DC shall elect a Chair every year, who shall be an elected member.
Discussions and debates take place in local branches, districts, trade union groups and other bodies. But any disciplinary or potentially disciplinary issues (those which could result in a change of status of membership or disciplinary sanction) should be referred to the DC or CC. Where appropriate, the DC should be able to refer disputes back to a local body or the CC as appropriate, or to offer advice to members on how to proceed.
The DC has the right to refuse complaints if it finds either:
- The complaint is frivolous
- Based on the evidence, there is no case to answer
- The member concerned is trying to use the DC to win political arguments already lost in the democratic processes of the party
Cases are normally referred to the DC by the CC, but members may approach the DC directly. Non-members may approach the National Secretary (s) directly.
Where a member has a complaint against a member of the CC or party full-time worker, this is referred to the DC directly.
Anyone who is disciplined by the CC may appeal to the DC. The CC will provide a justification for this action including any evidence which has informed the decision. The procedure for convening a panel to hear the appeal will follow the guidelines set out below, except no members of the CC will sit on the panel.
The DC, whilst investigating a case, may recommend the suspension of a member by the CC. This is a precautionary suspension and does not imply at that point the member has done anything wrong. When members approach the DC directly, if on preliminary investigation, there is a substantive case for immediate disciplinary action or suspension, the DC will notify the CC. If a member is suspended, the DC must endeavour to hold a hearing promptly, ideally within 6 weeks. Suspension means the member cannot take part in events, meetings or activities organised by the SWP.
Police and legal bodies
The DC must explain to persons making an allegation or complaint that they are able to go to the police or seek legal advice at any time. The DC must pause a case during an ongoing police investigation, but may return to the case when this is concluded. The DC would only approach the authorities in circumstances, such as if there is an ongoing risk of serious harm to an individual, when the DC would contact the police or other appropriate body but should consider informing the complainant that they have done so.
Confidentiality before and during any DC investigation is paramount, both to avoid prejudicing the investigation and also to give members the confidence they need, to bring forward complaints, and to protect members from gossip speculation and slander. The only exception to this is that any party to the dispute may confide in someone who is a party member or close friend or relative or a professional counsellor who is prepared to accept the confidentiality of our process. They may seek support in principle from someone they may wish to be a witness or give a statement at any DC hearing. Witness statements should be submitted directly to the DC.
In fairness to all sides, the SWP expects the DC to adhere to these guidelines wherever practicable. Inevitably a degree of flexibility is required to deal with unforeseen circumstances or unusual cases. Such variances, however, should be kept to a minimum.
- On receiving a referral, the Chair or another member of the DC should contact the parties to the dispute quickly, to inform them that the DC has received the referral, give them a copy of the disputes committee procedures, and explain to them what will happen next. The Chair should also explain the need for confidentiality. In cases of alleged sexual misconduct, the Chair should consider the personal support needs of the members concerned and if necessary suggest suitable members and counselling organisations (see appendix) to offer support. When the communication from the Chair is by phone, this should be followed up in writing.
- If the Chair notes that the case involves serious sexual misconduct or other serious misconduct, they should recommend the CC suspend the person complained against, without prejudice.
- The Chair should pause the investigation if police investigations are proceeding.
- After a referral, the DC must have an initial discussion of the case to determine its nature, and to decide if it falls within the DC remit and whether it requires further investigation, or whether it should be referred back to a more appropriate body.
- If the DC decides to proceed, the DC will appoint a minimum of two members to further investigate. Other individual members of the DC should not meet with members involved alone or contact the individuals without prior agreement of those chosen to investigate the case.
- The DC members should where possible be unconnected with the individuals involved in the case, e.g. from a different branch or district or union or campaign. If this cannot be achieved, the DC should consider its powers of co-option.
- The DC cannot formally hear cases against ex-members who have resigned from the SWP. However, evidence obtained from preliminary investigations may be kept, and the case may be re-opened if that ex-member choses to re-apply for membership.
- Initial fact-finding meetings should then take place with all parties to determine information about the case, and to clarify with all parties what process will be followed. The interviews therefore also:
- Clarify the DC process and timescales for all parties
- Clarify who might be called to speak and answer questions or submit statements at any hearing
- Explain the possible outcomes that can reasonably be expected or may be possible
- Clarify if a victim of alleged sexual misconduct wishes to involve the police and offer support if that is the case.
- After the initial fact-finding, those members should report back to the DC, whether any allegations or complaints, if substantiated would constitute a breach of party discipline or expected standards of behaviour. At this point the DC will decide whether to move to a formal hearing, seek further guidance from the National Secretary (s) or other members, or propose a more appropriate way to resolve the dispute informally or through other party structures.
- If a formal hearing is decided on, a panel should be convened usually from its own members. If the case involves an appeal against disciplinary action by the CC, no CC member should sit on the panel. The composition of the panel must also be informed by the same considerations that informed the choice of fact-finding members. If the complaint is against a CC member, no CC members should sit on the panel, nor past CC members who have served on the same CC as the CC member complained against. The panel should decide on a likely timescale and communicate this to the members concerned. This must include when the member who is complained against will receive details of the case being made against them.
- Any case of sexual misconduct should be heard as promptly as is practical, ideally within 6 weeks of an allegation being made.
- Members making or responding to an allegation should be able to take another member into a formal hearing for support.
- The panel will consist of a minimum of three elected persons in almost all cases. The panel should contain up to two CC members except when an appeal against a CC decision is being heard or where a CC member is the subject of a complaint, when no CC members should be on the panel.
- The member complained against will receive a written statement of the case against them in advance of the hearing. In cases that are appeals against CC disciplinary action, the CC must provide a written statement of why they have taken the action they have. If the authors of the statements feel they wish to include matters within the statement that cannot be shown to a party to the dispute, they should state what elements they wish redacted. This may be, for example, be because this might put individuals at further risk of abuse. The member will be invited to reply to the statement against them in writing before the hearing. They may wish to dispute the facts, the interpretation or the politics of the case against them. The member may want to wait till the hearing to respond. A copy of any written reply should be sent to the person making the complaint, or the National Secretary (s) in the event of an appeal against CC sanction. Written statements should normally be exchanged no later than 2 weeks before the hearing date.
- All parties should inform the DC of any witnesses they intend to call or provide statements from witnesses no later than 2 weeks before the hearing.
A realistic timescale of the hearing should be given to all parties to avoid all parties stress during the hearing waiting to speak or answer questions, and also to give the DC time to fully reflect on what it has heard.
- The member against whom a complaint has been made should be allowed to be present in the room while the complaint is being heard and can ask the DC panel for the right to ask questions of any witness. But any member can ask to speak to the panel in private, and DC panel itself can rule on such requests on a case by case basis.
- In sexual misconduct cases, the member against whom a complaint has been made should not be present, when the panel hears from the member bringing the complaint or from anyone else asked to speak to the hearing or to answer questions, as they would have the right in other hearings. However sometimes the member bringing the complaint may wish to be present when the evidence of the person complained against is heard, and the panel should decide if this is allowable.
- In sexual misconduct cases, initial interviews, the hearing, and the evaluation of what has been said or heard at any hearing should be mindful of the guidelines drawn up by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. It is important that all parties to a DC case are kept informed, at intervals during the process, of the basis on which a case is being pursued and contested. The DC should therefore be given discretion to appoint a note-taker from among its members to be responsible, along with the rest of the DC, for conveying to the other party not represented in the room what has taken place during sessions of the DC hearing.
- If the member complained against has chosen to wait till the hearing to make a statement, then the member who has made the complaint should be given reasonable time to adjourn to reflect on this information before being questioned. This time should be agreed by the panel and the complainant. Exceptionally, if new evidence is presented that would require time to refute, the DC should consider whether the hearing must be postponed. These rules would apply vice versa.
- In sexual misconduct cases, all parties should be given reasonable time to adjourn to reflect on any information given and in exceptional circumstances the DC must consider whether the hearing should be postponed to allow more time.
- The DC panel should communicate its decisions to the member bringing the complaint and the person complained against as soon as possible. Where possible this should be done verbally immediately or soon after the hearing. The names of the parties should not be included in any documents. In all cases, there should also be a timely written response to both parties, which outlines at least:
- A summary of the approach taken by the DC panel.
- A summary of the political decisions, and an explanation of why they were taken.
- A summary of the outcome – e.g. censure, suspension from the party or from a position within the party, expulsion, no further action.
- An explanation of what happens next – report to conference / appeals procedure if appropriate.
- In sexual misconduct cases, the DC should offer to meet separately with all parties to discuss what happens next. It may still be appropriate to offer to direct the member who brought a complaint towards further support organisations. The National Secretary (s) may also want to speak to branches or other party units, within the confines of confidentiality, to ensure that members involved in the dispute are not subject to gossip, speculation and slander, whatever the outcome of the case.
- The DC panel must also communicate its decision to the appropriate member of the Central Committee, usually the National Secretary (s). If the DC panel has decided that disciplinary measures are needed, the CC is responsible for implementing them. Where necessary the CC must inform appropriate party bodies (such as branches), taking into account questions of confidentiality.
The DC has powers to:
- Censure a member
- Suspend a member from membership of the party for a certain period of time. Unlike precautionary suspension mentioned above, this form of suspension means that the individual concerned is no longer a member of the SWP. They will however have the right to have their application to re-join considered by the disputes committee at the end of that fixed period, and the DC will then make a recommendation to the CC, which will decide if they are to be re-admitted.
- Suspension from a position within the party
- National Membership. A National Member is one who is not a member of a branch of district. When this status of membership has been imposed by the CC or the DC, it means the member concerned cannot attend any local or district or fraction meetings or activities, as the DC or CC determines in their case. They cannot be elected to any party office or as a delegate to party conference. They can attend national events, unless the CC or DC decides otherwise.
- Take no further action
The CC, usually through the National Secretary (s), is responsible for implementing decisions and informing appropriate party bodies such as branches, taking into account questions of confidentiality.
In the case of appeals against CC decisions, the DC has power to alter CC decisions in either direction.
In all cases the Disputes Committee operates independently of the Central Committee, but its decisions are provisionally ratified by the CC subject to the final decision of the National Conference. Accordingly, the DC regularly reports to the CC on its activities and makes special reports when requested.
It is open to any conference delegate or NC member or CC member to move a rejection of any section of the DC report to Conference or Party Council. Members who are expelled or suspended by the DC cannot attend conference themselves to argue against the DC report.
Reporting back to conference
The DC reports back to Conference where its activities are subject to endorsement or otherwise. In some cases, the DC may feel it appropriate to report back earlier. It may consult the NC for advice or report to a Party Council. If such a DC report is accepted at Party Council, then that report should be considered endorsed as if the report had been made to a full conference.
In sexual conduct cases or other sensitive issues, it may sometimes not be appropriate to report to Conference in all cases. In any such cases the DC has the right to consult with the NC on the approach to be taken on reporting back.
If the report, or a section of the report is not endorsed by Conference or Party Council, then that section of it should be heard by the incoming Disputes Committee after Conference. Members of the DC who heard the original complaint should not be on the new panel. If necessary, the DC may need to use its powers of co-option to create an acceptable panel to rehear the case. The decision of any appeal body shall override the earlier decision, and this appeal body shall report to Conference or Party Council in addition to the DC report. The decision of Conference or Party Council on this appeal body decision shall be final and binding.
Appendix – list of organisations
Any of these organisations may be able to help:
- Rape Crisis, 0808 802 9999
- Victim Support, 0808 168 9111
- The Survivors Trust, 0808 801 0818
- National Domestic Violence Helpline 0808 2000 247