Thursday, 16 January 2014

Sex and the Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrat party sets high standards for itself and for all participants in public life. This stance is resented as "holier than thou" by other parties. Consequently, when we fall from grace, the episode is seized on by opponents. For instance, LibDems are still suffering from the perception that some leading MPs valued a ministerial Jaguar above keeping their promise to students over tuition fees. (I am proud to say that all Welsh LibDem MPs kept their word and voted against the increases, even though in one case it resulted in a check to a government career.) Some of us are niggled by the double standard this creates. When a LibDem AM was first charged with an assault on a public servant after a drunken night out, he was first suspended from the party and  in short order both dismissed from the party and forced to resign his seat. A Labour MP who is a serial offender in these matters is only suspended and will retain his seat until the next election.

Anyone who has spent any time in local government will be aware, directly or indirectly, of senior people (councillors and officers) seeking  to make use of their position either within the local authority or their party to obtain sexual gratification from vulnerable people. This concerns both sexes and both heterosexual and same-sex relationships. It concerns all parties who have a position of strength. We have the evidence of a former researcher that it goes on in parliament, too, and again that all major parties are involved. And it is wrong, no matter who perpetrates it.

The BBC and the Daily Telegraph have seized on the considered assessment by a leading barrister that the evidence of Chris Rennard's inappropriate sexual behaviour was not strong enough to support a charge, while Nick Clegg has made it clear that Chris will never again have a position of power in the party, as dithering. (He resigned as chief executive in 2009 on health grounds, which may or may not be a coincidence - stories of his misbehaviour came to public attention in 2008.) It is noticeable that no other newspaper has led on the story. The BBC may well be looking for motes in other people's eyes after it has been established that two of its stars, Jimmy Saville and Stuart Hall, misused their position of power to prey on young people. Indeed, this lunch-time's BBC TV news led with the trial of an ITV actor, while two other BBC personalities are being tried on similar charges.

It is difficult to see what else Nick can do - or could have done in 2008, when, according to his statement, no specific allegations reached him. Those who knew more at the time should have spoken up, and the complainants should have stuck to their guns rather than withdraw them, in spite of any damage which would have been caused to the party, which was then riding high. Even so, it would have been difficult to dismiss Chris Rennard, who could have taken the case to an Industrial Tribunal, whose outcome would have been a lottery given less than gold-plated evidence. It is worth repeating Mr Webster's conclusion even after practically all the evidence is in:

In my opinion, the evidence of behaviour which violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants was broadly credible. However, it is my judgment, considering all of the evidence collected, that it is unlikely that it could be established beyond reasonable doubt that Lord Rennard had intended to act in an indecent or sexually inappropriate way. Without proof of such an intention, I do not consider that such a charge would be tenable. I stress that I am not finding that the evidence of the complainants was unreliable.

together with party president Tim Farron's response:

The Liberal Democrats have taken the allegations made against Lord Rennard extremely seriously, which is why we appointed an eminent and experienced QC to examine the evidence. As a party we have no choice but to accept Alistair Webster QC’s conclusions, but that does not mean I am content.

Nick Clegg and I are clear that we need to look again at our disciplinary procedures. Lord Rennard is not a current employee of the party and therefore the threshold that must be met for disciplinary action is higher than if this was a company HR procedure. In Alistair Webster QC’s view that threshold was unlikely to be met. While this process has not found to a criminal standard of proof that Lord Rennard acted with indecent intent, it is clear that he did not behave in the way that a Chief Executive should behave. Lord Rennard must reflect on his actions and apologise to the women involved.

These allegations prompted the party to take a long, hard look in the mirror. The Liberal Democrats are, and must always be, a party where everyone is treated with respect. The experience over the last year has been extremely uncomfortable for the Liberal Democrats. We have changed a lot of things about our party – in particular our rules and codes of conduct at every level, from grassroots members to parliamentarians, how complaints are reported and addressed, and we have appointed a Pastoral Care Officer – but we must go further. I am determined that as we continually review and improve our culture and processes we make sure that we reach the gold standard of how to protect volunteers and staff at every level of the party from harassment and inappropriate behaviour and ensure swift and just censure to those who behave in that way. 

The reforms that the party has put in place are right. They should mean that there is no recurrence of sexual harassment which is not immediately redressed. It's where we should have been in 1985. If Conservatives, Labour and Plaid Cymru have similar precautions in place, they have not made them public. I, for one, would be interested to know what they are.


Frank H Little said...

Since posting the original message, I have read Linda Jacks' blog which puts a different (51%?) perspective on the subject.

I have also come across Craig Murray's rather different take from this time last year. It occurs to me that Chris Rennard also did the party a disservice by not telling Charles Kennedy to tear up Michael Brown's cheque in 2005.

Bill Chapman said...

The LibDems must take a "long, hard look in the mirror". I can't see that this has happened yet. Don't forget that Lord Rennard is a senior LibDem partliamentarian. Not a good advert for the party is he?

Frank H Little said...

Point taken, Bill. As a comment to Linda Jacks' posting reminds us, the powers that be were very quick to take the whip from Jenny Tonge.