Conference tells Federal Board to think again on new disciplinary processes

There was shock late yesterday afternoon when Conference referred back the new disciplinary proposals brought forward by the Federal Board as a result of the Macdonald Review.

The new process had been developed by Ken Macdonald, a former Director of Public Prosecutions and was designed to be independent of the state parties. The current system is clearly not fit for purpose, at least at English Party level. Complainants tell of long delays- one woman described a 13 month to have her complaints sexual harassment dealt with – and unsatisfactory results.

Conference decided by just two votes to refer the matter back to the Federal Board after speakers expressed concerns about the proposals. While the English Party Chair, Liz Leffman, was fully behind the new system, other senior members of the English Party spoke against the proposals citing practical difficulties and opposition to measures designed to give limited powers to key figures in the Party. They objected to a measure that would give the Party President a right to appeal against any decision on behalf of the Party – a vital safeguard, I would have thought, if a decision was made that clearly went against the weight of the evidence. Another move, to give the Federal Chief Executive emergency power to suspend a member for a very short period of time. Best practice in voluntary organisations and workplaces gives an immediate power of suspension in cases of gross misconduct. Under the new system, the ordinary process of suspending someone could take up to 14 days. If you have someone convicted of some sort of offence involving harassment or assault on the eve of a Conference, that presents immediate safeguarding issues and quicker action may be needed.

While some elements of the English Party were perhaps reluctant to give up their power over a process that is currently failing, a number of young speakers said that they thought the proposals wouldn’t work because of a lack of commitment in the Party to tackling issues around sexual harassment. They were concerned about proposals around anonymity of complainants, which they wanted to uphold. Their frustration with the way the party has dealt with issues such as these was clear. An appeal directly to them by Party President Sal Brinton did not resolve their concerns.

New member Vanessa King from Guildford asked for a Reference Back. This is a procedural device that defers a final decision on a proposal, asking a particular party body, in this case the Federal Board, to look at an issue again in light of concerns raised in the debate.

It was a real knife edge vote, with the reference back winning by 102-100. Had the vote been the other way around, it looks unlikely that the associated constitutional amendments would have won the required 2/3 majority and would have fallen.

So, what happens now? The Federal Board will need to look again at this. I think that we need to get the young women who spoke against round a table to discuss their specific concerns to see how we can resolve them. I don’t think that they are a million miles from where I am on wanting to tackle sexual harassment. I supported the proposals because I thought that they would actually deal with the shortcomings of the current system but we do need to look again if those affected aren’t convinced. It is really important that a system like this commands the confidence of those who need to use it.

Amended proposals are now likely to come back to Autumn Conference in Brighton.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • I was in the debate. No one spoke against the idea of reform, you had the agreement of conference on that. But I heard two sets of concerns- and not only from the two different groups you describe in this post:
    1. That this process seemed to focus more on protecting the party and not on protecting the complainants from distress.
    2. That some (not all) of the elements of the process are illiberal.
    I know that the movers of this have more sympathy with the former set of concerns than the latter, but they should listen to all views (not least to avoid finding themsleves in the same position next conference. )
    I also think it is important to remember that this is a disciplinary process for all aspects of discipline, not only sexual harassment. Please, Sal et al., listen to the concerns. Everyone I heard yesterday agreed the need for reform. We do best when we craft these things together.

  • I’m a bit confused, what were the reasons for this getting rejected? The explanation provided by Sal Jarvis seems to be completely at odds with that provided in the article, Caron.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 12th Mar '18 - 7:25am

    There has been extensive consultation and there will need to be more in the future.

    I think the concerns about some aspects being illiberal were overblown in an attempt to derail the reform, to be honest.

  • I think Sal is dead right here. I was particularly, as a lawyer, on board with Margaret and Brian’s comments about separation of powers, which is a fundamental liberal principle and we need to live it.

    I’ve also heard from more than one source that those who were extensively consulted in the “extensive consultation” felt that they were told what was going to happen rather than asked for their views. Obviously not being one of those people myself I can’t speak to how true a perception that was, but the fact that the perception is there is a problem in itself.

    The party needs to be on board with disciplinary reform if it is to have any hope of working and too many membership just aren’t.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 12th Mar '18 - 8:07am

    Is there unchecked power anywhere in the new system, though?

  • Zoe O'connell 12th Mar '18 - 8:11am

    I don’t think the “this is illiberal” calls were overblown deliberately, some people genuinely seem to think like that and regard any complaints as an unnecessary distraction.

    I was particularly annoyed by the speaker who said that some things needed to be dealt with quietly and locally because those accused might be “key activists”. I have heard this argument used by someone senior in the party in response to a complaint I was involved in, and it makes me despair. We should not be giving people a free pass on unacceptable behaviour just because they happen to deliver a few more leaflets than someone else.

  • Mick Taylor 12th Mar '18 - 8:13am

    James. The proposal hasn’t been rejected. It has been referred back to its sponsors, Federal Board, for further thought. What that means is that there there should be further consideration of the proposals, almost certainly much more consultation and then a revised proposal should come to Autumn Conference in September.
    I would hope that FB will revise the proposal in the light of the objections and then send it to every constituency party and region for consideration. In the light of such a wide consultation – and any further changes as a result – it should be possible to bring forward a widely agreed new disciplinary scheme for September.
    Everyone really has to recognise the very real problems that exist AND that quite a lot of people, especially those who have made complaints, simply have no confidence in the party to deal with complaints speedily, if at all. A not insubstantial number of competent and good people have in the end left the party because their complaints were not dealt with properly.
    The party really must get the process right and the reference back is the opportunity to do so.

  • paul holmes 12th Mar '18 - 1:05pm

    I agree with what most of Sal Jarvis and Jennie say -although in fact I voted against referral back and would have voted for the proposal, amended or not simply because, even without improvement, the Macdonald proposals would be massively better than the present inordinately lengthy, vague, opaque, unaccountable system.

    Caron asks ‘if there is unchecked power in the new [proposed] system?’ Well, as I told her when we went for a drink straight after the vote on Saturday, yes there is. Giving the Party President the constitutional right to appeal against the decision of a trained and Independent (under the Macdonald system) Panel, who unlike the President have studied the evidence and heard the witnesses, can only lead to potential abuse of power. I would have voted for the Macdonald proposals even with that clause in it though simply because the President has already taken that power to herself in practice anyway and I didn’t want to lose the big improvements that were on offer for the sake of arguing for ‘perfection’.

    Since the proposals were in fact referred back I hope that the Presidential Power will be removed before revised proposals are brought back to Conference. After all Caron a future President might not be someone who you agree wholeheartedly with and could have a different perspective that you would be unhappy with.

  • Jeanette Sunderland 12th Mar '18 - 3:27pm

    I was not part of the debate but as one who, along with colleagues, has been damaged significantly and continue to be as a result of this processes then I had hoped for some change for the benefit of ordinary members. However I was extremely disappointed to see such power put into the hands of the Party President.

  • Richard Fagence 12th Mar '18 - 8:51pm

    I totally agree with the comments made by Paul Holmes. I was present during this debate and was wary of the proposed powers to be given to the party president. But there is one major difference between what Paul did and what I did. He voted against the reference back and I voted for it! Referred back by 102 votes to 100. What if I had supported him in voting against? Would it have been a dead heat? What would have happened then?

  • With my FCC hat on: a dead heat does not pass, because there needs to be a majority for it to pass

    (we actually had this discussion in FCC chair’s training on the Friday)

  • (also, every time I see the headline of this article, my brain goes “… and sent them homeward tae think again”)
    ((sorry, not sorry))

  • Wow. I missed that debate. Sure there was a reason, but looks like I should have been there.

    Just two points. A reference back “tae think again” requires a rethink and an open mind (“think it possible you may be mistaken” – Oliver Cromwell!). The outcome of the rethink may not please most of the critics and is bound not to please all of the critics, but it should happen.

    Also I myself used the complaints procedure, though not about anything like harassment. The matter was taken as serious and was resolved. But I was very surprised to find there was no rule that the complainant should be asked if (s)he was satisfied the matter was resolved, before the case was closed or for the complainant(s) and subject(s) of the complaint alike to be asked after closure for feedback on how the matter was handled. Those seem to me basic good practice.

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