We should note that Lord Rennard vehemently denies any wrong-doing.
Despite being a general report on the party’s procedures, the Helena Morrissey Independent report, issued today, covers the handling of the allegations against Lord Rennard in great depth, particularly from pages 36 to 46.
You can read the report in full here.
It will take a while to absorb the full detail, but here are some key passages:
Paul Brustow involvement
The fact that no one wrote any of this down was a mistake right from the beginning – by all. This was a missed opportunity to investigate the allegations very early on. It also shows that no one really knew quite what to do in this sensitive situation. The Chief Whip is obviously a key disciplinarian in the Party and I believe that Paul Burstow genuinely did not think the women wanted him to take the matter further and that they wanted to remain anonymous. Otherwise, given the nature of his role at the time, I see no reason why he would not have explored it though the appropriate channels. However, even if that was his read of the situation at the time, given the seriousness of the allegations and Rennard’s role in the Party, for the sake of all concerned and as he subsequently realised, Burstow should have proactively taken the issue to the President.
Jo Swinson and Danny Alexander involvement
The issues were ‘handled’ informally, principally by Jo Swinson and Danny Alexander, because that is what they thought the women wanted – primarily to protect their identities. While their actions were, I believe, in good faith, this approach was ultimately not sufficient. Informal handling of complaints is the recommended initial step but the serious nature of these allegations and the fact that a number of women had come forward from separate sources warranted a full investigation. Certainly, the issues should also have been escalated to the Chief Executive’s line managers, the Party President and the Chair of the Federal Finance and Administration Committee. While the circumstances were obviously sensitive, and will always be so if senior staff are accused of sexual harassment, no one is ‘above the law’ and an organisation has a duty of care to all employees (and volunteers) to investigate, in order to protect the interests of everyone – alleged victims, the accused and everyone else. In this case, the ambiguity now over whether all the women did in fact want to remain anonymous would not exist if a proper and prompt investigation had been instigated.
Complaint to line manager
It was wrong that the line manager concerned did not follow up on the initial complaint.
Again, given the nature of the allegations, the Party should have taken on the responsibility to investigate in 2008, irrespective of the desire of some of the women to remain anonymous.
Baroness Scott involvement
Again, there was no way of resolving these issues without a full investigation.
The resignation from office of someone accused of unacceptable behavior does not mean that the issue has been resolved. The potential for further problems for the accused, the alleged victims and the Party was strong.
Was there a cover-up?
I have looked carefully at the media coverage in the week of the Channel 4 News programme in February 2013, which obviously coincided with the run-up to the Eastleigh by-election called as a result of Chris Huhne’s resignation. Again, I explored this for evidence of any deliberate ‘cover-up’. Classic ‘crisis media’ handling is to tell the whole truth right away. It will come out and any obfuscation at the start compounds the damage. In this situation, the Party was limited in what it could say as it had not conducted a proper investigation and did not know the truth. Nick Clegg was therefore not in a position to ‘cover-up’.
Overall, this is a salutary lesson in what can go wrong if due process is not followed. Unresolved issues fester and come back to haunt everyone. It is not fair on the women, not fair on the accused and causes great propensity for misunderstanding and further accusations. I do not believe that these mistakes were deliberate or malicious or that the leadership at the time did not take them seriously, but it is evident that much more could and should have been done. In particular, the addressing of complaints needs to be a higher priority for the Party and not just something to be dealt with in a crisis. There will always be something else competing for attention. Media interest will often peak when other issues are preoccupying the Party.