The Guardian, 15 January 2014
Once again, the Liberal Democrats are having trouble with women. The party has decided not to take disciplinary action against its former chief executive, Lord Rennard, who has always denied allegations that he sexually harassed female colleagues. But the findings of Alistair Webster QC, who looked at the evidence as part of a disciplinary process, make uncomfortable reading for senior Lib Dems. To outsiders, the episode appears to confirm the impression that the party remains a boys’ club, and one that doesn’t know where to draw boundaries in questions relating to power and gender.
Senior Lib Dems are without exception male, and they’ve been accused of failing to act promptly when female members bring allegations of sexual misconduct to their attention. Now they have to deal with the fallout from an investigation that makes highly critical observations about someone who was one of the party’s most senior employees, yet stops short of recommending any formal sanction. How will the complainants feel after being told that their evidence was not unreliable, yet no action is to be taken against Rennard?
Webster accepts that the peer’s behaviour may have caused distress to the women who made the allegations. He found “broadly credible” evidence of “behaviour which violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants”. He thinks that Rennard should apologise and commit to changing his behaviour.
But then he offers the peer a get-out: because he could not establish beyond reasonable doubt that Rennard intended to act in an indecent or sexually inappropriate manner, Webster does not think he should face a disciplinary charge of bringing the party into disrepute. That decision seems more appropriate to a criminal court, which has the power to deprive someone of their liberty, than a disciplinary procedure.
These events are all the more damaging because the Lib Dems are perceived to have a wider problem with women. After almost four years in coalition with the Conservatives, Nick Clegg hasn’t put a single Lib Dem woman in the cabinet. Only seven of the party’s MPs are female, and the Labour MP Angela Eagle pointed out last summer that it has as many knights on its benches as women. Few of its female MPs are household names and one of them, Sarah Teather, has already said she won’t fight the next general election.
Now the outcome of the Rennard investigation has left a question mark over the party’s commitment to gender equality. A previous report by a businesswoman, Helena Morrissey, found that the deputy prime minister was wrong not to launch a formal inquiry in 2008. Similar complaints have been made about the way the party has handled allegations of indecent assault against one of its MPs, Mike Hancock, who denies the accusations but has resigned the parliamentary whip while he faces a civil action.
The party’s president, Tim Farron, has embarked on a damage limitation exercise, saying that it will look again at its disciplinary procedures. He has also acknowledged that Rennard did not behave in an appropriate way for a chief executive. But senior Lib Dems cannot shrug off the impression that they acted too late, and have ended up with a report that raises as many questions as it answers.