Review of disputes committee passed at conference December 2013
Disputes Committee procedures
The following document, a set of procedures for the Disputes Committee (DC), is based on a report produced by a body that was set up as the result of a vote at the SWP special conference in March 2013.
It was presented to the National Committee in September 2013, and the NC voted to place it before the party as a basis for discussion. Amendments were put forward to the SWP conference in December 2013 and voted on. This is the final text after amendments.
At the special conference of the SWP that met in March 2013, a body was elected to examine the procedures of the party’s Disputes Committee (DC) and recommend any changes it felt were needed.
This body included four members from the National Committee (NC) that had been elected at the January 2013 conference, four members elected from delegates to the March special conference, two representatives of the existing DC and one member from the Central Committee (CC).
This body has formally met on three occasions. We asked members of the SWP to submit their own suggestions to the body, and we are grateful to all those comrades who sent in contributions, many of which have helped to shape our recommendations.
We have also taken into account submissions made to the SWP’s pre-conference internal bulletins, both from 2012 and 2013, as well as submissions to the party’s 2009 Democracy Commission.
In addition, we have taken on board a report from the existing Disputes Committee about the substantial changes to procedures they have already made this year.
We also looked carefully at a number of disciplinary processes in place in trade unions and other organisations. 1
In our report we include sections on:
1. Discipline in a revolutionary socialist party
2. Role of the DC
5. Police and legal bodies
6. CC involvement
8. A recommended DC process
9. Guidelines to be followed in cases of sexual misconduct complaints
10. Appeals process
Discipline in a revolutionary socialist party
Our report is informed throughout by a particular view of the nature of discipline in a revolutionary party. We feel it is important to begin by outlining what that view is.
Discipline in a revolutionary socialist party is necessary, and its nature flows from our politics. The party is a voluntary organisation of individuals who understand the need to organise collectively to fight for the socialist transformation of society. Such a transformation is only possible on the basis of the self activity and self emancipation of the working class.
Historical experience, and the unevenness of working class consciousness, leads to the conclusion that the organisation of the minority who agree on the need for revolution is necessary. Historical experience also teaches that such a party needs to combine the fullest discussion and democracy with unified action in practice if we are to be effective – what we have called democratic centralism.
We expect all comrades to play a full role in the internal debate and democratic decision making of the party. When we decide to take a particular course of action, we also expect all comrades to abide by the majority decision. We expect comrades to draw on the experience of seeking to implement decisions and feed that experience back into discussions within the party so we can constantly review, and if necessary change, decisions.
Such discussions should take place primarily through the democratic structures and publications of the party. It is not acceptable for comrades to raise important discussions which involve changing democratically agreed positions outside the party without having done so through appropriate party bodies and processes. Almost always discipline simply means comrades discussing and then agreeing - if necessary through voting- to act together. In this sense, discipline is largely a political and voluntary act based on conviction.
From our politics also flow some broad standards we expect of all comrades – and especially of comrades in leading positions in the movement or the party.
We expect all comrades to do their best to support, defend and implement the democratically agreed decisions of the party. Failure to do this – for example by voting against party decisions in a union conference or executive, or openly arguing against the party position in a meeting – are serious matters of political discipline which undermine our basic approach.
We also expect comrades to uphold the broad lines of our politics in their personal relations with, and behaviour towards, others. This matters for the reputation of the party in the working class movement and
for the health of our own internal life and democracy. We cannot have comrades behaving towards others in an oppressive way that contradicts our basic politics.
Disagreeing and arguing with each other are not oppressive. Disagreement, sharp debate and polemic are the lifeblood of genuinely democratic discussion. We also recognise that there will be arguments, often sharp - over both political and personal matters, and at times we all behave in ways less than we would wish to. But behaviour which crosses the line – in which comrades use bullying, violence or oppressive behaviour linked to racism, sexism or homophobia - is not acceptable.
Of course there are gradations – there can be no formula or simple checklist. A new comrade who joins the party and uses inappropriate language in an argument at a social event, for example, needs to be talked to in order to win them to an understanding of why we think this is inappropriate – it would be ridiculous to immediately turn to harsh disciplinary action.
But a comrade who, for example, uses violence towards someone, or behaves in an oppressive personal way, is obviously a matter for more serious concern and possible action. This applies to all members of the SWP, but obviously and especially to those in leading positions in the movement or party.
Where disputes and disagreements arise the key question is how should the party’s internal cohesion, unity and discipline based around our shared politics and tradition be maintained?
In most cases disputes or disagreements should be resolved by the appropriate local or fractional unit of the party. Where the complaint against a member or unit of the party is serious and cannot be dealt with locally, or is a matter for the whole party and its reputation, the Central Committee has the prime responsibility to act. All CC actions and decisions in such matters are of course subject to endorsement or otherwise by party conference.
We also have a separately elected body – the Disputes Committee. One reason for having such a body is because the Central Committee is not infallible. Comrades who believe the CC has got it wrong on a disciplinary matter should have the right to appeal to the DC. Cases involving any CC member, or full time party worker appointed by the CC, clearly must go directly to the DC. And the CC may itself refer cases which cannot be dealt with locally to the DC to undertake the necessary detailed work to resolve the issue.
This is why we have a Disputes Committee. The purpose of our following report is to consider how it should operate.
Our remit was not to reopen or review previous cases. We have viewed our job as attempting to propose, notwithstanding previous decisions, a process for future cases that, as well as being fair, can be seen to be fair, both by SWP members and by those we work with in our trade unions, workplaces and campaigns.
We hope that the level of detail and transparency contained in our guidelines will help to restore wider confidence in the party’s disciplinary procedures.
Role of the Disputes Committee
The Disputes Committee is a political body, one which is elected as a collective and should operate as a collective. According to the SWP constitution, the DC exists to “to maintain and strengthen party unity and principle and to investigate complaints relating to disciplinary matters by its members or units”.
The DC is not a body that can solve crimes or make legal decisions. It can only make a political judgement on cases. It cannot rule on the “guilt” or “innocence” of comrades, but can only examine whether they have broken party discipline or behaved in a way that is out of line with our politics. As such it can only recommend sanctions that relate to a comrade’s party role or membership.
The majority of cases of breaches of party discipline can and should be dealt with by an appropriate local or fractional body. The vast majority of such issues should be solved on an informal basis. The DC should only be involved if it proves impossible to solve disciplinary questions through normal channels - it is a body of last resort. It is composed of lay members (not full time workers) of the SWP, elected by and accountable to annual conference.
While the DC primarily looks at cases of political breaches of party discipline, it may, on occasion, have to deal with personal disputes or questions of sexual misconduct.
Because of its political role, the DC may decide that cases which have been brought to its attention would be better handled by a different body. As such the DC should, where appropriate, refer disputes back to a local body. In this event, the DC can offer advice to comrades on how to proceed.
The existing constitution also gives the DC the right to refuse to pursue complaints if it finds any of the following to be the case:
1. The complaint is frivolous;
2. Based on the evidence presented, there is no case to answer;
3. The comrade concerned is trying to use the DC to win battles already lost in the democratic processes of the party.
We think this should remain the case – and that, as at present, the DC should account for any such decision in its reports.
It is, of course, impossible to foresee everything that may come before the DC and the comrades elected to the DC must be able to make decisions about the best way to conduct their work and about how to apply our politics to specific cases
Confidentiality during and before any DC investigation is paramount, both to avoid prejudicing the investigation and also to give comrades the confidence that they can bring forward complaints. All members of the SWP are bound by this.
Information given to those other than the main parties should be strictly limited to an explanation of the arrangements for investigating the allegations or complaint. It may be necessary to make exceptions to the blanket duty to maintain confidentiality. For example, either party may wish to confide in a friend or family member, or seek support in principle from someone they may wish to be a witness at any DC hearing.
When interviewing or contacting any such person, or any other parties, the DC will inform them of the need for ongoing confidentiality. In the case of a breach of confidentiality at any stage of the process, the DC should have the right to suggest to the CC that sanctions should be applied. The DC should always seek to avoid using full names in any correspondence, and will include on all emails and letters a short statement as a footnote emphasising that the email should not be forwarded / shared and that the contents are confidential.
The DC can, at any stage after an allegation or complaint has been brought to its attention, recommend the suspension of a comrade in order to safeguard the integrity of the party and/or to minimise risk to other party members. Any such suspensions must be made on a case by case basis, and should not be seen as a presumption that the suspended comrade has done something wrong.
Should suspensions be made in advance of a hearing, the DC must then endeavour to hold a hearing promptly, normally within six weeks
Police and legal bodies
The DC should explain to someone making a complaint that if they wish to seek legal redress they are, of course, free to go to the police or take legal advice. The DC may not then be able to deal with a case during an ongoing police investigation. But once any legal investigation is concluded the DC could consider revisiting the case and decide on action.
The DC would itself only approach the police or authorities in exceptional circumstances, such as if there was a threat to someone’s safety.
Central Committee involvement in disputes cases
Because the DC is a political body, it is right that as now the CC - the party’s elected political leadership - should be involved in the majority of cases that come to the DC. CC members may also be called as witnesses at a DC hearing by either side in a dispute, or by the DC itself.
However, in cases when CC members themselves are directly the subject of a complaint, we think that CC members should not sit on the DC panel at any hearing, and nor should comrades who have served on the same CC as the individual concerned. However, CC members, like any other comrades, may still be called as witnesses by the DC or individuals involved in the hearing.
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.
The existing SWP constitution says that “the Disputes Committee may co-opt members to serve for particular investigations”. We feel that co-option of other SWP members should be considered more frequently by the DC, particularly when a comrade who is the subject of a complaint or allegation is well known in the organisation. Co-option should also be considered as a means to ensure geographical/ gender balances and to draw on wider experience in the party where this is important in ensuring that any process is seen to be fair.
Several submissions to our review body suggested that in the future the DC should consider co-opting individuals who are not part of the SWP, but are members of wider affiliates to the International Socialist Tendency (IST), particularly in the case of serious allegations against leading members of the SWP. This review body felt that we should not do this for several reasons.
Firstly, we did not think it would help guard against allegations of bias. One accusation made against the DC process in the recent past is that it could not fairly decide against a leading member because the member was well known. We feel that in the case of the IST it is actually more likely that they will know a leading SWP member.
Secondly, the DC is primarily a political body, and it makes judgements based on a political situation here in Britain that members of the IST may not be fully aware of. Finally, we feel that in cases of sexual misconduct, the procedures outlined within this document strengthen the ability of our own organisation to deal with such matters internally.
The DC should, of course, be able to seek legal or other advice from comrades with particular experience, and it should also be able to consult with the NC as needed.
We believe it is essential for the integrity of the process that in the main disputes cases are dealt with by members elected to deal with the whole range of cases that might arise rather than be selected to deal with particular cases and that unless there are exceptional circumstances elected members should form the majority of any panel.
Disputes Committee process
Several comrades who wrote to us felt that it would be helpful if there was greater clarity about how the DC approached its task when an issue or complaint is raised. We agree. A number of comrades had specific suggestions about how processes might be improved. After careful discussion of all such suggestions we are now proposing that the following procedures should be adopted.
1. The DC must have an initial discussion of the nature of any complaint referred to it. This should decide whether the nature of the complaint falls within the DC remit, and whether it requires further discussion or investigation, or should be referred back to a more appropriate body (such as a local branch). At this stage the DC may consider the nature of the allegation or complaint to be serious enough that a formal hearing will be necessary.
2. If the DC decides to proceed with a case, initial fact finding meetings with all parties involved must take place. These meetings should be to determine information about the case, but also to communicate and clarify to all parties what process will be followed. The interviews should therefore also:
A minimum of two members of the DC should be involved in these meetings. Individual members of the DC should not meet with comrades involved in a disputes case alone, or make contact with individuals with without prior agreement of those comrades chosen by the DC to investigate an allegation.
Where possible, the comrades chosen from the DC to carry out initial fact finding should be completely unconnected with the events and comrades concerned, e.g. from a different branch, region and union, and should not be involved in any campaign activities in which the parties are involved. It may not be possible to achieve this (for instance in the case of a well known member) in which case the DC should consider its powers of co-option.
3. Following the initial meetings, those comrades who have met with the parties involved should report to the wider DC whether any allegations or complaints, if substantiated, would constitute a breach of political discipline or expected standards of behaviour. The DC must then decide whether to move to a formal hearing, seek further guidance, or propose a more appropriate method to resolve the dispute.
If the DC decides a formal hearing is needed it should then convene a panel – usually drawn from within its own membership, but bearing in mind the points about composition in point 2 above and also the restrictions proposed earlier for any case involving complaints against a CC member. This panel should then conduct any further investigation, hold a hearing and reach a conclusion on the complaint.
The DC panel should decide on a likely timescale, and communicate this to the comrades involved. This should set out potential timings – such as for the likely length of any investigation and a likely time limit after the initial investigation for when a hearing is to be held. This ensures transparency and fairness to all comrades, and also helps to prevent additional stress caused by avoidable delays. The timeline should also set out the minimum time in advance of the hearing for the comrade against whom the complaint has been made to receive full details of it.
4. In advance of any hearing, the DC panel must write both to comrades making a complaint and those against whom a complaint has been made outlining exactly what the DC process will be, how the complaint will be dealt with, and what outcomes are possible or could be expected. This letter should also set out advice about approaches to the police and other legal bodies.
It should also make clear how important the DC considers confidentiality and outline how the panel will try to ensure that this is maintained. It will also set out a likely timescale, emphasising that the DC will endeavour to hear the case as soon as practicable. Both parties should then confirm in writing that they understand and agree to the outlined procedures, including the need for confidentiality.
5. The constitution currently states that, “Unless the DC rules that exceptional circumstances prevail, comrades receive in advance a written statement of the case against them and are present when evidence is given to the DC.”
In addition, the comrade against whom a complaint has been made should be invited to reply to the statement against them in writing. The comrade complained against may, for example, wish to indicate whether they dispute the facts, interpretation or politics of the case against them. The comrade may want to wait until the hearing to respond. A copy of any written reply should be sent to the person making the complaint. Written statements should normally be exchanged no later than 4 weeks before the hearing.
All parties should normally inform the DC panel of any witnesses they intend to call no later than 2 weeks before the hearing. The DC panel itself may also want to call comrades to speak at a hearing or to answer questions. The details of all those to be called should be passed to all parties no later than one week before a hearing.
The DC panel should meet prior to any hearing and draw up a realistic timeframe for the hearing itself – one which allows time to hear from all parties and also to factor in time for discussion among the panel itself. This is to avoid the unnecessary stress of long delays waiting to speak or answer questions at a hearing, and also to give the DC time to fully reflect on what it has heard.
We support the Democracy Commission recommendations that while direct confrontation should be avoided, the comrade against whom a complaint has been made should normally be in the room during the hearing and can ask the DC panel for the right to ask a question of any witnesses at the hearing.
Any comrade should also, however, have the right to ask the panel to speak to it or answer questions in private. The DC panel itself must rule on such requests on a case by case basis.
However, there are some cases, such as allegations of sexual misconduct (see additional guidelines below), where the DC panel should rule in advance that it is not appropriate for the person complained against to be in the room during parts of the hearing.
If the comrade waits until the hearing to respond, if necessary the comrade 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 DC and the complainant.
In exceptional circumstances—if new evidence is presented which would require time to refute—the DC should consider whether the hearing must be postponed. These rules would apply vice versa.
6. The DC panel should communicate its decisions to the comrades concerned as soon as possible. Where possible this should be done verbally immediately or soon after the hearing. There should also be a timely written response to both parties, which outlines at least:
The DC panel must also communicate its decision to the appropriate member of the Central Committee, usually the national secretary. 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.
7. The SWP constitution says that “The Disputes Committee reports to Conference, where its activities are subject to endorsement or otherwise.”
The DC, however, should be sensitive to aspects of particular situations or cases when making reports. For instance, it may not always be appropriate to use names when reporting to conference.
The DC is elected directly by SWP conference and is rightly, therefore, directly accountable to the conference. Thus, ideally, the DC should report to conference on all cases heard.
However, in cases of sexual allegations or other sensitive issues, this might not be appropriate. In any such cases the DC should have the right to consult with the SWP’s National Committee about the approach to take and how to report back.
In particular, because the SWP conference is annual, the DC may, in special circumstances, feel it appropriate to report earlier. In this context the DC may consult the NC for advice or report to an SWP Party Council. Should a DC report be made to a Party Council and be accepted, the report will be considered endorsed as if the report had been made to a full Conference.
A DC report to Conference, Party Council or an interim discussion at NC is not a re-running of the dispute, nor is it an appeal. However Conference or Party Council has the right to question the DC’s report and vote on whether to endorse it. A final vote by Conference on the DC report may have to be taken case by case.
Should the DC report or a section of it not be endorsed by Conference or Party Council, then the appeal should be referred to the incoming Disputes Committee.
Members of the DC hearing the original complaint should not sit on the appeal. If necessary the newly elected DC could use its power of co-option to create an acceptable panel to rehear the case.
Additional guidelines for cases of sexual misconduct
The SWP is opposed to all forms of oppression. Any allegation of sexual misconduct should be handled with the seriousness and sensitivity that reflects our politics. Our starting point should be to be supportive to anyone who raises a complaint of sexual misconduct, to treat them with respect and to take their complaint extremely seriously, even if it is not ultimately upheld.
Disputes involving allegations of sexual misconduct are generally very distressing for all those involved, touching on intimate details of people’s lives. For this reason, as well as to ensure that our politics are fully applied to any allegation of this nature, we suggest the following guidelines should be followed in regard to complaints of sexual misconduct, in addition to the general procedures outlined above. In some other cases involving allegations of oppressive behaviour, such as racism or homophobia, some of these guidelines may also apply
1. When a complaint is first made, the DC should discuss with both the comrade making the complaint and the comrade against whom a complaint has been brought whether they feel they have sufficient personal support for what is likely to be a distressing process. The DC may offer to suggest suitable comrades, not involved in the dispute, to offer support. The DC should also suggest support and counselling organisations where relevant.
2. The DC must take special care to ensure that the person bringing any complaint understands the remit, powers and procedures of the DC, what reasonable outcomes can be expected or are possible, and to discuss any areas of concern at an early stage.
3. In cases that potentially involve criminal actions such as sexual violence, the DC should explain both verbally and in writing that the complainant can of course approach the police if they wish, but that the DC may not be able to proceed while there was any ongoing police investigation.
4. In cases where there are allegations of sexual violence, there should be a presumption that the comrade complained against should be suspended from the party without prejudice or any presumption of wrongdoing pending an investigation. The DC must explain any instances where they believe this is not appropriate.
5. Any complaint of sexual misconduct should be heard as promptly as is practically possible, in a timeframe agreed by all parties, and normally within six weeks of the allegation being made.
6. Comrades making or responding to an allegation of sexual misconduct should be able to take another comrade into any DC hearing for support.
7. The question of confidentiality must be stressed with all parties. This is important to protect comrades from gossip, speculation and slander.
8. During the hearing the DC should be mindful that the person bringing the complaint should be kept informed of the basis on which the complaint is being contested and given a chance to discuss, process and respond to any evidence provided. (And vice versa for the person complained against).
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.
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.
At the fact finding stage of an allegation of sexual misconduct the DC should endeavour to ascertain the basis on which the person complained against is contesting the complaint and to convey this to the person bringing the complaint.
However, it is the right of the person against whom the complaint is made not to respond in writing and to wait until the hearing to give their evidence.
In this case the person bringing the complaint should then have adequate time to reflect on this information before being questioned, the length of time to be agreed between the DC and the person on the day, and potentially this might involve having to reschedule the hearing to a later date.
9. Any hearing must proceed in line with our politics on oppression. The DC should agree procedures with both parties prior to the hearing. The comrade against whom a complaint has been made should not be present when the panel hears from the comrade bringing the complaint or from anyone else asked to speak to the hearing or to answer questions – as they would have the right to in other hearings.
10. 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.
11. Where possible any decision or conclusion the DC panel reaches should be given to all parties within two weeks of the hearing, and names of the parties should not be included in any written documents.
12. 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 comrade who brought a complaint towards further support organisations. The DC may also want to speak to branches or other party units, within the confines of confidentiality, to ensure that comrades involved in the dispute are not subject to gossip, speculation and slander, whatever the outcome of the case.
In most instances comrades currently accept the decisions of the DC. We hope this will continue to be the case. However, situations may exceptionally arise where comrades feel they cannot accept an outcome. Therefore we propose the following appeals procedure:
1. Currently the constitution says, “Anyone who is disciplined [by the CC or local structures] and is unhappy about their treatment may appeal to the Disputes Committee, who will review the decision and can change or reverse it if they agree.” We think this should remain the case.
2. If a decision of the DC is rejected at Conference or Party Council, then the appeal should be referred to the incoming Disputes Committee.
The decision of any appeal body shall override an earlier decision and this appeal body should report to the 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.
1: For instance, we looked at the Equality & Human Rights Commission guidance on sexual harassment,
and the PCS Disciplinary Procedures, Section 10 of the rulebook here http://www.pcs.org.uk/en/about_pcs/about_us/pcs-rules/index.cfm