There’s a certain grim irony that the BBC’s mis-handling of the Jimmy Savile row should re-erupt at the same time as Lib Dems consider our own party’s alleged failings to take seriously enough claims of inappropriate sexual behaviour levelled against former chief executive, Lord (Chris) Rennard.
There is a gulf both in the severity and scale of the allegations. But there is also a potentially worrying similarity: that just as the BBC turned a blind eye to the alleged offences one of its stars, so too did the Lib Dems.
Like many in the party I’d heard rumours along the lines of those which have now surfaced against Chris Rennard for years. I’d always hoped they were untrue. After all, I’ve met Chris a handful of times, always respected and liked him. Though not famous outside the Westminster Village, there have been few more influential figures within the modern Lib Dems than Chris Rennard.
And it’s because I find myself conflicted by what’s emerged that it’s impossible not to wonder if those in the party — people who would have known Chris far better than me — would have felt similarly conflicted. Perhaps they would have felt it easier to turn a deaf ear, or perhaps they ran up against too many other people who reckoned it would be better to let sleeping dogs lie or who said the situation could be dealt with in a different way (ie, with no messy publicity). Alison Smith, one of the women alleging sexual impropriety interviewed by Channel 4 News, described the party as being in denial over the issue.
Natural justice requires that all those facing allegations — not just Chris, who is strongly refuting the claims, but also the senior party figures named as having not properly pursued inquiries when complaints were made (Paul Burstow, Jo Swinson) — have the chance to put their side of the story and defend their actions.
I never (thankfully) had to deal with complaints of sexually inappropriate conduct in my non-political day-job when I was a manager. But I have had to deal with allegations of bullying made against one employee by another. It’s not fun, I can tell you. However, I knew it had to be dealt with and be seen to be dealt with — not only for the good of the individuals and the team they worked in, but also to protect the reputation of my employer (and my own) if the complainant took it further.
We’re past that stage now. Three women — two of them well-known, respected figures in their own right within the Lib Dems, and one who remains anonymous — have taken their complaints further, putting them in the public domain. The party has to acknowledge the seriousness not only of the allegations themselves, but also the alleged cover-up. Tim Farron has been put in charge of leading an immediate review into all the party’s procedures for dealing with such issues, “including a thorough examination of how allegations made in the past have been handled”.
But an internal review is an inadequate response. I wrote to Tim this morning to point out that it places him in “a very difficult position to ask questions that will need to be asked of (for instance) Jo [Swinson], given you’re colleagues”.
When the BBC ran into trouble they commissioned the Pollard Review: the Lib Dems need an equivalent. It should be someone outside the party. At the very least it needs to be someone outside the parliamentary party.
The party needs also to enable others to come forward with allegations, and to know they can do so privately and confidentially. So far the party has said only that “we urge anyone to contact the Chief Executive or use our confidential whistle blower procedure if they have issues they wish to raise as a result of Channel 4’s report.”
That isn’t good enough. It isn’t reasonable to expect those who wish to allege sexual misconduct to send an email or letter to the chief executive unless they can be sure he and he alone will have access to such correspondence. As for the whistle-blower’s procedure, I wish you luck finding it on the party’s website or via a Google search. I haven’t been able to unearth it.
Again I wrote to Tim Farron this morning to ask him to clarify this the question: “If anyone has information / allegations about behaviour who should they contact?”
There is no good time for allegations such as these to come to light. A week before a critical by-election when all the party’s senior figures are flat-out campaigning makes it extra-difficult. But we’ve already seen today how much more damaging it can be if an organisation fails to get its response right first time round. No matter how awkward, we need a better response to this than we’ve had so far.
* In view of ongoing investigations and for legal reasons comments on this post will be disabled.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.