Helena Morrissey’s report: my first impressions

by Stephen Tall on June 12, 2013

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 Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.