By Angela Harbutt
News broke last night that Lord Rennard is being investigated for sexual impropriety.
Lib Dem Voice can hardly bring itself to mention the words, referring to it rather obliquely as “Party launches investigation over C4 News allegations“. You would not know the allegation was even about Lord Rennard, had they not put up a statement from Lord Rennard’s solicitors. Likewise the rest of the blogs seem unusually quiet on the issue. Shock? Fear? Denial?
The Channel 4 investigative report is admittedly, truly shocking. Put simply, the programme states that women who worked for the Liberal Democrats have told the programme that Lord Rennard abused his position for years by inappropriately touching and propositioning them – and that leading Lib Dem MPs and peers who knew – failed to take any meaningful action. Lord Rennard has responded through a solicitor saying he has no recollection of any inappropriate behaviour and is unaware of any complaint about his conduct ever being made against him.
It is too early to get into the specifics of the allegations made about Lord Rennard. This may well end up being a police or legal matter. It is worth stating that those appearing in the Channel 4 programme all came across as highly rational women with no particular axe to grind. There was no payment involved and the motivation for them speaking up was said to be the concern that, having quit as Chief Executive, Lord Rennard was being re-integrated into the party.
The women should be applauded for their actions. It was a terribly brave thing to do. Who knows how many other women may feel emboldened to come forward as a result of their willingness to put themselves in the firing line. Who knows what this may eventually uncover.
There are three things that the party needs to do. It has not had much time, and thus far gone some way to addressing them, though there are as many questions as answers raised by the Party statement made to date. And some things that feel, well, just wrong. Let me go through them:
1. We need full investigation into claims made against Lord Rennard.
The party has stated that an internal investigation into the specific allegations raised by Channel 4 has begun under the Party’s disciplinary procedures.
The allegations made in the programme are individually serious and collectively devastating. An investigation must happen. But the suggestion is to conduct an internal investigation. Is it really appropriate given the allegations made? Have the women concerned been asked how they would like to see this conducted? After all, one of the women was quite clear that she had already tried the internal complaint route. Would she be happy treading the same path again?
Surely, and mindful that I have not spoken to the women either, wouldn’t it be better if this job was conducted by an independent arms-length body or individual. People, perhaps still active in the party, may feel more comfortable coming forward, if the investigators they have to speak to are NOT their colleagues, bosses, or leading members of the party.
We also do not know where this investigation may take us, who may come forward, and what they might say. Though we all hope it is not the case, supposing other members of the party are accused of harassment or bullying? At what point does an internal investigation into internal issues become an impossible mess?
All in all, we do need an investigation, but I urge the party to consider consulting with the women first this time, and probably putting this investigation into hands of a third party, giving them full reign to investigate where they will with impunity. That is surely the only way to be sure of the best outcome for everyone.
2. We need a full investigation into the actions of Paul Burstow, Jo Swinson and Ros Scott
The party says there are a number of questions that have been raised and that the review will ensure it properly addresses all of them.
I assume this refers to the fact that at least one of the women, Alison Smith, states that she took her complaint to not one but two parliamentarians.
The first person she says she took her complaint to, “within a week” was Paul Burstow, the then Chief Whip. She says he listened to her complaint and did nothing. Paul has to be allowed to have his say of course. But this has to be investigated, and if true, he must face serious sanctions. It really is that simple isn’t it?
Alison Smith then says she took her complaint to a second member of Parliament, Jo Swinson, the then spokeswomen for the party for “women and equality” [She is also the MP who put down a motion in parliament for "unwanted touching and harassment"]. According to Alison Smith, Swinson did at least agree to investigate her complaint and, indeed appears to have done so. But again says nothing happened.
Again Jo must be given the opportunity to answer the claims made. But if she was indeed “aware of a number of cases”, and let the matter get swept under the table then she too should face serious sanctions. Certainly she would have to cease to pronounce on women’s issues forthwith.
Finally we must ask what the party president knew. In a statement she gave to Channel 4 News, Baroness Scott refused to comment on why Lord Rennard resigned. Why? It was ill health wasn’t it?
According to Alison Smith, Ros Scott told her that Chris Rennard had been forced to stand down because of these allegations. Ros Scott did say to Channel 4 that she was “aware that there were issues about his behaviour” She says that she received no formal complaint; but says that as a result of the allegations she instigated a review of the party’s whistle-blower procedures. This is puzzling. She was sufficiently concerned about allegations she had heard to instigate a better protocol for whistle-blowing, but appears to be insufficiently concerned about the lives of the young women to investigate, or demand to be told who had investigated the situation, and what the outcome was.
There may be others.
We cannot stand on platforms espousing equality, women’s rights and commitments to tackling sex discrimination in the workplace whilst turning a blind eye to what may be happening within our own ranks. That would be hypocrisy. If the cries of help from women have been ignored, then anyone who ignored them, failed to take action, or stood by and allowed nothing to happen, must all face the music. .
3. Getting it all out
The party is urging anyone to contact the Chief Executive or the Lib Dem confidential whistle-blower procedure if they have issues they wish to raise as a result of Channel 4’s report.
That is welcome but insufficient. We cannot sit back and “hope” that word gets around that that an investigation is underway. If we are serious about this we need a letter written to every Liberal Democrat member, informing of the investigation and asking anyone with information to come forward. We need a specific name to contact (not “the Chief Executive”) a hotline telephone number, and a confidential email address people can write to. Every member of staff should be encouraged to come forward, if they have anything meaningful to report, using the “confidential whistle blower procedure” (whatever that is).
As well as putting this investigation into the hands of an arm’s-length third party, we should also ask the party to a commitment to reporting back its findings. I do not mean the specifics of the allegations against Lord Rennard. But at the very least we should expect a report detailing the findings of the broader investigation, conclusions and outcomes. To date there has been no mention of what the outcomes may look like. This must be addressed.
It is fair to say that collectively we are in shock. But we must get over that. If we are to move on from this we have to get to the truth, and be seen to get the truth. If that means asking questions about how the party is to conduct this investigation, and demanding more of it, if we find it wanting, so be it. Mostly we must ensure that the women in this are given every opportunity to have their say in how this process is conducted.
Update: Earlier this evening I received an email from Alex Folkes , a leading Lib Dem photographer for many years , asking that I immediately take down the photo of Lord Rennard because it was “unauthorised and uncredited”
Alex Folkes is in Georgia so I gather he was unable to contact me by telephone.
Following an email exchange with him, I am delighted to confirm he is now content for the image to appear on our website.
Liberal Vision is pleased to confirm that Mr Folkes is the copyright owner of this image and we are grateful to him for allowing us use of it.
Tags: Liberal Democratss
, Lord Rennard