Helena Morrissey’s report: my first impressions

helena morrissey reportI attended Helena Morrissey’s media briefing this afternoon, marking the publication of her independent inquiry report into the ‘culture and processes’ of the Lib Dems following the allegations of sexual impropriety levelled against the party’s former chief executive, Lord (Chris) Rennard.

I’ve not yet had chance to read the full report, so this post is based on a skim read only, together with Helena’s own summary of it to the assembled journalists.

First, Helena set the context: not simply of the specific allegations, but more widely of what she termed “the dangerous environment” of Westminster politics, where young, ambitious men and women work unsocial hours in close proximity to older, more powerful politicians (almost always men). That is exacerbated by a distinct feature of politics — political parties rely on unpaid volunteers, not simply paid staff with employment contracts — and a distinct feature of the Lib Dems: our diffuse governance structures.

lib dem organisationPage 14 of the report features the ‘organogram’ that was given to Helena to represent how the federal party fits together. Cue journalists’ mirth. The reality, of course, is a little different from this diffuse, devolved picture: the leadership normally finds a route to getting its way. However, Helena quite rightly highlights this ‘byzantine structure’ which she thinks contributed to the chaotic way in which the party responded to the messy situation it found itself in.

When asked what had shocked her most about her inquiry, Helena didn’t point to events at Westminster — rather it was the reality at the local level that most surprised her, with stories of poor treatment by and among local councillors, candidates and party officers. She contrasts this with the (generally) much more professional standards and procedures in place in the party’s federal headquarters today.

One of her main recommendations — setting up a pastoral care office to where all concerns and complaints can first be referred — was billed as a ‘safe harbour’, in part to reflect that the party encompasses both formal relationships (employed staff) and informal ones (volunteers who are managed, or in some way beholden to someone higher up), and in part to reflect that not everyone wants their grievance to be made formal or to become public. The approach she wants to see the party put in place is to prevent problems occurring, to address them when the do, and to monitor how successful this is in reality.

The questions from journalists focused on “Who was to blame?” In this, Helena Morrissey’s report will disappoint them (though won’t of course stop them): she doesn’t point the finger of blame at any one individual. That’s not to say she finds no fault: quite the reverse. She states explicitly that Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander, Jo Swinson and Paul Burstow all “made wrong decisions and should have made different judgements”. In particular, she thinks they should have asked more questions. However, she accepts their mistakes were made in good faith, motivated by a belief that the women concerned did not want to take the allegations further and wanted to remain anonymous.

And contrary to the barrage of press headlines at the time (in the week leading up to the Eastleigh by-election) she rejects any suggestion of a cover-up by the leadership:

I have deliberated over whether there was a conscious cover-up, which would suggest a more corrosive culture. One of the women involved has specifically alleged a blatant cover-up. I understand her frustration, anger and suspicion but I did not find evidence to support this regarding these events.

Certainly, it can be argued that more questions should have been asked and I had a sense that everyone wanted the issue to ‘go away’; while that is not right, it is a natural human reaction to a difficult problem. These difficulties were compounded by what may have been an erroneous judgement around what the women actually wanted to happen at the time and the understanding, again perhaps erroneous, that they wanted to remain anonymous. (p.45)

Are there more allegations of sexual impropriety out there? Helena received 32 discrete complaints during her inquiries, including ‘a male parliamentarian propositioning a young male researcher’, but none, she concluded, were ‘live’ (in that specific case, the individual did not wish to make a formal complaint).

I asked Helena if she’d looked at the procedures in place for the other parties, and how far these matched with what she’s recommending as good practice for the Lib Dems. Her answer was clear: “no-one’s got this solved … a lot of this applies throughout Westminster”.

Nick Clegg has confirmed that all nine recommendations of the Morrissey report will be implemented. Helena herself will carry out a follow-up review to check on the party’s progress in implementing them in the autumn of 2014.

It’s hard to think of a sorrier episode in the party’s modern history. That a liberal party that stands for equality should be the one that has its reputation dragged through the mud for failing to deal properly with serious allegations of sexual impropriety is wretched. There is, though, nothing we can do about what’s done (or not done). What Helena’s report sets out is a way we can try and ensure nothing like this can happen again — and that’s the responsibility not only of the leadership, but of all of us who are members.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Eddie Sammon 12th Jun '13 - 7:30pm

    I agree sexual propositioning someone out of the blue is wrong and sexual harassment, but let’s not go extremist on this and also equate flirting to sexual harassment.

    I also don’t agree with secret complaints – anyone making a complaint as serious as sexual harassment should say who they are because how can anyone defend themselves if do not know who is making the claim?

  • “Helena Morrissey’s report …..states explicitly that Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander, Jo Swinson and Paul Burstow all “made wrong decisions and should have made different judgements”

    Is it right for her to be dragging up the NHS changes again at this time? 🙂

  • Tony Greaves 12th Jun '13 - 9:12pm

    Like everyone else at Westminster I have been told not to say anything about this report (I will be interested to observe how long that lasts).

    However, whoever supplied Ms Morrisey with that ludicrous diagram is a fool (no doubt thinks s/he is a clever fool) and should be sacked forthwith if they hold any position.

    Tony Greaves

  • Stephen Donnelly 12th Jun '13 - 9:35pm

    @Tony Greaves. Fortunately our employment laws, preserved by a Liberal minister, will prevent any member of staff being ‘dismissed forthwith’.

  • Andrew Suffield 13th Jun '13 - 7:49am

    The diagram looks reasonable to me… it’ s not very well-drawn though. The party has three organisational arms (elected, executive, and staff) each of which is a fairly straightforward management tree, with a few connections between them. Draw it that way and it doesn’t look so silly.

  • Douglas, I found the lowly, small print status of the Scottish Party really quite revealing in that diagram. This is the one part of the Lib Dems that had featured as the smaller partner in a Coalition government and managed to pass some of its ideas without childish toy throwing by its larger partner. If only Clegg and co had used that experience…

    On the sexual harassment, not encouraging that Clegg won’t go on a diversity course. This is a standard recommendation for senior management in any organisation with a problem with harassment. Not to do it risks undermining the whole response.

  • I have spent more time on this that I would like to admit, but probably not as much as it looks.

    Mine does overstress the split at the federal level compared to the split at the national level. I think it can be fixed but I’m way out of time now.

    It’s interesting to me that the chart seems to mix conceptual groups (“Welsh Assembly”) with the members of those groups (“AMs”). Similarly there are committees listed which probably have overlapping membership. The decision of which view of an organisation to display in this kind of image is interesting to me.

    Sorry for posting about such a banal part of an important story.

  • Tony Greaves 13th Jun '13 - 2:54pm

    Is it an organogram? I am not sure I have ever seen that word before! My point is that it is nonsense and whoever drew it (I am now told it was some years ago) was obviously trying to rubbish the party rather than explain anything clearly.

    Tony Greaves

  • It is all very well to state that named individuals should have asked more questions, but does the report clarify what questions should have been asked? When complaints are anonymous, the scope of further questions must be quite restricted.

  • “That a liberal party that stands for equality should be the one that has its reputation dragged through the mud for failing to deal properly with serious allegations of sexual impropriety is wretched.”

    Quite so. This speaks to a dysfunctional culture in the Party. Speaking truth to power rather than bowing down to it should be central to Liberals. Yet it seems that powerful individuals were untouchable for too long with no-one to grasp the nettle. I’ll bet it’s not confined to sexual impropriety either.

    As for the organisational chart – the Party deserves to be a laughing stock. I take the point made in earlier comments that it could be better drawn; the fact that it hasn’t been, that this is what the Party supplied, and that it hasn’t been drastically simplified speaks to a profound organisational malaise which must be sorted out pronto. A party that can’t even run its own affairs most certainly can’t run those of the nation. No wonder we remain a minor party despite the best efforts of workers on the ground.

  • Andrew Suffield 13th Jun '13 - 11:35pm

    a profound organisational malaise

    Nobody with an understanding of how the federal bits of the party actually function (rather than how they are supposed to function) would disagree with this description. It’s only peripherally relevant though.

    The party organisation is not designed to be efficient. In some ways this is deliberate. In others it is accidental debris from past crises (like the merger).

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