Inquiries into Rennard allegations must be as public as possible

The party’s investigations into allegations against its members are traditionally internal, confidential affairs. There are good reasons for this, particularly as confidentiality can be necessary for people to be willing to given evidence and as the simple existence of an allegation can kill someone’s political career, even if the allegations are subsequently found to be groundless.

They are often so confidential, in fact, that the last time I was asked to provide evidence for an inquiry, I did not know what the precise allegations were, who was investigating them, who the range of people being investigated were, whether or not the investigation has concluded and what its full conclusions were.

When it comes to the allegations against Chris Rennard, the party absolutely needs to provide a fully confidential and independent whistleblowing service and support to anyone who wishes to present evidence. The party’s decision to bring in the leading charity in this area is a good one.

Beyond that, however, the party’s own inquiries must be as public as possible whilst respecting the rights of people to raise issues confidentially.

That will be a tricky balance to strike. It is also a necessary one.

Necessary, because the more public the inquiry, the more confidence people will have in its outcome. That’s all the more important when the inquiry may come to conclusions on one or more points that contradict claims made in the media. Members, and indeed the public, will need to able to see why different conclusion have been reached (and remember the inquiry needs to start from the position of people being innocent until proven otherwise).

It is also important because there are many side-players in the story, especially members of party staff whose actions are being discussed, analysed and commented on as part of the ‘who knew what and when’ story. Current and former party staff, and other party members, deserve to have the chance to explain and defend their actions. Many are being directly or indirectly criticised for their past actions.

Reading the papers over the weekend, for example, I can spot errors in the Mail’s claims about Alison Suttie. They are not central to the allegations about Chris Rennard, and so in that sense are very much secondary matters. It’s also the case that she and others deserve the chance to put their case, and if their actions are found to have been correct to have their reputations left intact.

A confidential, internal inquiry would leave far too many questions unanswered – or even worse, only answered through one side of the case being put via briefings to the media .

We need an inquiry that is as public as possible, both to get to the truth of the allegations against Chris Rennard and also to examine and then criticise or clear the actions of others. Other investigations have managed to combine necessary confidentiality for witnesses with transparency overall. The party must too.

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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  • Very impressed with Mark, Stephen Tall and Tim Farron on this issue. Honest, upfront and wholly sensible. Much to be said for ‘talking human’.

  • fully agreed. Although you get what you deserve if you read the mail. and yes I know a lot of people do. But as my mother used to say “if everyone else jumped in t’cut…”

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Feb '13 - 1:39pm

    We would all like to think we would instantly act upon any rumours of sexual abuse in any area where we have responsibility, have it dealt with, have the alleged offender swiftly brought before the police. For many years the Roman Catholic Church was the Aunt Sally in these issues – the great and good gathered round to throw abuse at it, suggesting there must be something deeply wrong and evil about the RC Church that it did not act as they were certain they would have acted if they were in the position of its leaders. In the case of the BBC, we now find at the very time they were running anti-Catholic documentaries on this issue, they were acting in just the same way, protecting what from many accounts was a prolific abuser, covering up what (at least as it had been alleged) he was doing.

    We have recently had lurid tales from the world of music education. This sort of thing regularly crops up in sports training as well. In the Savile case, it was not just the BBC, there were large number of other organisations he was involved with which had suspicions but chose not to act in them, or not any more than the equivalent of “moving him on”.

    The case here does not involve minors, and if what we have heard is all there is is fairly mild compared to what has happened in many other places. It is only recently that it has been taken seriously. For many years the “office groper” was taken to be a bit of a joke, and the senior manager who had “worked his way round the shop floor” wasn’t even a joke, sometimes he was almost admired for it. In my area of employment, academia, there was a time when female students were regarded as almost a perk of the the job – I hasten to add this was already over when I started my teaching career, but I’ve heard enough about some of the things that went on not that many years earlier.

    In short, the almost universal reaction to these things seems to be to be embarrassed, to hope it goes away, to leave it rather than deal with it. Yet somehow we still seem to think if it happened directly with us, it would be different, so those elsewhere who let it happen must be horrible evil people. Until we find that actually it WAS happening with us, and we did just the same.

  • Confidentiality for the women must be respected, that is absolutely paramount. However, having just listened to the World at One on Radio 4, another lady has come forward and I hope more will do so. Women should not be afraid to openly talk about their experiences for fear, say, that their careers may be affected, they have done nothing wrong.

  • I think that “Susan” summed it all up best when she said “it’s like telling the party faithful that Santa Claus isn’t real.” I have to say that it doesn’t necessarily reflect at all the party I know – but then, as a man, maybe my perspective is different. What’s important is how the party handles this now and how it conducts the investigation, but it’s fair to say that this kind of allegation is really not one which many companies deal with well. I also suspect that there are also similar stories to come not just from the Lib Dems but also Labour, the Tories and others too.

    It has done one thing, though, and that’s make me change my view on PPC selection processes. Maybe we do now need to set aside our Liberal principles – for one election cycle, at least – and try to have some form of positive action to promote women to winnable seats (God knows they’ll be few and far between in 2015) with a view to getting as close to 50-50 in the Parliamentary Party as possible.

  • I thought this – and Mark’s piece to the BBC yesterday were excellent

  • Rachel Coleman Finch 26th Feb '13 - 5:14pm

    We don’t like to think that people we like have done bad things. It’s very common when someone you like is accused to look for reasons why it couldn’t possibly be true, it must be a smear campaign, a misunderstanding, an exaggeration, not that serious anyway. It’s understandable, but it has to be recognised and fought against.

    I’ve seen similar discussions of accusations of harassment play out in two other spheres of my life over the last few years: science fiction conventions & IT conferences. Like politics, these are often places with gender imbalances, power imbalances and blurred lines between “personal” and “professional” contexts. Oh, and lots of alcohol. Some of the discussions were very long and extended, but eventually resulted in a lot more people understanding common patterns to sexual harassment, and some tools for tackling it. I collected what I thought were the most useful jumping-off points in a post on my own blog,

    The more public the investigations, the more these patterns can be widely understood, not just in a few communities that have worked through the arguments, and I think that would be a long-term good extracted from the current worrying situation.

  • tonygreaves 26th Feb '13 - 8:32pm

    I suppose I will be attacked for saying this, but I think people should think about what they want. This is not a criminal trial (not yet anyway and possibly never). There are, as things stand, a small number of women prepared to give evidence in ase puihblic. I suspect most people will not. In which case all those part of the investigation incluneding the Rennard rebuttal/defence will have to be in private too. In the case of allegationsn when the complainant is willing to do it in public, they may want to rely on witnesses who may not wish to give evidnece in public. What then?

    The amount of the work that it is “possible” to do properly in public may not be high – so not a good idea to raise expectations at the moment.

    Tony Greaves

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