Nick Clegg has today announced that Helena Morrissey will chair the independent inquiry into culture, process and complaints within the Liberal Democrats. Jo Swinson is speaking at the party conference rally tonight and will tell party members about her role in dealing with allegations about Lord Rennard. I want to do the same.
I had been Nick’s chief of staff since his election in December 2007. In 2008, Jo told me of concerns that had been expressed to her privately and in confidence by a number of women about the conduct of Lord Rennard.
While she did not give me any names or identifying details, since they had been shared in confidence, the general concerns about inappropriate behaviour at party events were deeply troubling. Jo was very clear that while the individuals she had spoken to understandably didn’t want to testify or have their names used, they did want action taken to ensure this ‘would not happen again.’
Having discussed the matter with Nick, I spoke directly to Lord Rennard. I explained the nature of the concerns and warned him in strong terms that any such conduct would be wholly unacceptable and wrong. Lord Rennard categorically denied the allegations, as he continues to do. It is a fundamental liberal principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty, but I was clear that these were serious issues and that given what was being said he needed to avoid any situation that could possibly cause further concern. These were not easy conversations, nor should they have been.
I reported this back to Jo and she spoke again to the women concerned, to tell them what had been done. The feedback at the time was that we had done what was wanted. I am unaware of any complaints that date from after those conversations. And, as Nick has rightly said, these events were in the background when Lord Rennard’s resignation, on health grounds, was accepted a few months later.
I continue to feel that at the time we took this very seriously and acted in the most appropriate way given the way the concerns were expressed and, most importantly, the wishes of those affected as they were passed on to me. But these events also shed light on some very serious inadequacies in our party’s procedures and policies at the time – the lack of a formal route for whistleblowers and therefore no clear system for issues like this to be dealt with. Treating people fairly, equally, and with respect are at the core of our liberal values – they need be at the core of our organisation too. The inquiries Nick has set up need to ensure the right lessons are learned. We need to act on them – and we will.