Catalan Government prepares legal changes in the wake of harassment case at Foreign Office
Current minister considering changes to transparency law to make reports on senior officials public
BarcelonaDisciplinary proceedings against the former Foreign Affairs Minister Alfred Bosch concluded last week finding him guilty of a serious misconduct, although no sanction was imposed, more than a year and a half after ARA uncovered the case. Alfred Bosch did not activate the Generalitat's protocol in cases of alleged sexual harassment after accusations against his deputy Carles Garcias, constituting an infraction of Generalitat senior officials' code of conduct. The fact that this happened in a government department and that no action was taken until the story made its way to the press show, as the government itself admits, that the rules and protocols against harassment must be reformulated.
According to government sources consulted by ARA, several initiatives are being studied in parallel: changing the protocol against sexual harassment, updating it in accordance with the latest modification of the law against male violence; modify the law of transparency with regards to the privacy of reports that affect senior government officials, and promote staff awareness within the administration to detect cases of harassment and act preventively.
Making conclusions public
A number of departments are involved, although the executive council has not yet been formally informed. There have been contacts between Foreign Affairs, led by Victòria Alsina, which has powers over transparency and open government (in addition to the experience within the department over the Bosch case); the Department of the Presidency, led by Laura Vilagrà, which controls the civil service, and the Department of Feminisms, led by Tània Verge, which is in charge of equality and combating sexual harassment.
Several initiatives have been carried out internally at the Foreign Office - which Alfred Bosch's successor, Bernat Soler, already started - to support victims and avoid similar situations. These include setting up information points for reporting abuse within the department and a specific prevention unit.
However, probably the most important change that Alsina wants to promote is the modification of the law of transparency to ensure that the conclusions of disciplinary proceedings affecting senior officials are made public. Sources in the Department warn that they have not yet looked at it legally, but that one of the options would be to bring the regulatory change to the law accompanying the 2022 budgets.
Currently, Article 23 of the transparency law states that the content of the sanctioning files is protected and cannot be made public. "Requests for access to public information must be denied if the information to be obtained contains specially protected personal data such as [...] those relating to the commission of criminal or administrative offences". In this sense, Alsina's ministry is studying the possibility of making the result of sanctioning procedures public in the cases of high-ranking officials -it has to be defined if it includes only politicians or also civil servants-. The paradox in the Bosch case is that by law it has not been possible to officially transmit the results of the procedure despite the fact that the investigation only ever occurred precisely because the original accusations made it to the press.
The Foreign Department also stresses the need to protect the victims and guarantee their anonymity. In the case of Bosch, the internal denouncement is the one that was more complicated because they were not guaranteed anonymity due to the way the Department managed the case.
In this line, another question also arises: at some point, does the Public Prosecutor's Office have to be made aware of the facts? Now the law obliges the administration to inform the Public Prosecutor's Office if there are indications of a crime, but the idea is to clarify at what point in the procedure this has to be done. Another point that needs to be reviewed is the pace of the procedure. The Government intends to revise the rules for administrative proceedings to make sure action is swift. To avoid the result of a file arriving a year and a half after the facts -as in the case of Bosch-, the reform involves explicitly outlining the process to be followed and thus avoid the room for manoeuvre that the government had in its previous term. When the case broke out, the Department of Digital Policies (led by JxCat), which was then in charge of the civil service, opened an investigation to determine whether Bosch should be sentenced for not having activated the Generalitat's protocol against harassment. The conclusion was affirmative, but the executive council did not open disciplinary proceedings because of the tension between the two coalition partners.
Esquerra demanded a new report from another body, the committee of public ethics, where they had a majority over JxCat. This body exonerated the ex-counselor affirming that he did not have the "obligation" to apply the protocol. Faced with the two contradictory reports, the then vice-president and acting president, Pere Aragonès, asked for a third opinion on what to do from the Generalitat's legal services. They advised opening proceedings against Bosch, which was closed six months later. The Foreign Office believes that if it establishes the procedure more clearly, similar situations would be avoided. In short, a whole set of reforms are being worked on to reduce the government's capacity to act in a discretionary manner in cases like this.
Beyond these regulatory changes, the Department of Feminisms intends to update the protocol for the prevention of sexual harassment in accordance with the law for the right of women to eradicate male violence, whose latest reform was approved in December last year. This latest change introduced the concept of institutional violence and regulated the areas and treatment of violence against women in political life. Parallel to this work, Feminisms will also develop protocols against harassment in the cultural and educational spheres.
There is still no clear timetable for finalising these changes - they are being studied within the framework of the departments involved - but two weeks from now there will be a meeting between the ministries involved to assess progress. Subsequently, the despartments' proposals will have to be submitted for debate to the executive council. The idea is that at the beginning of next year they can be implemented, because at least one of the modifications would have to be linked to the approval of the 2022 budgets -the change of the transparency law-, which has to be approved this autumn. The will is there, but it remains to be seen whether it will be put into practice.