The Fabian Women’s Network exists to build, support and encourage women to take an active and confident role in political and public life, and its recent success in mentoring a wide range of women in political and public life is a demonstration of the way in which it has successfully done so. However, this success depends on a range of other, external factors, including the culture and attitudes towards women in parliament. This is why we have chosen to make this statement.
We, as members of the Fabian Women’s Network executive committee express our disappointment at Lord Rennard’s failure to apologise in light of an investigation by Alistair Webster QC into allegations of sexual harassment after it was recommended by Mr Webster that he do so. We’d also like to express our profound disappointment at the failure of the senior leadership in the Liberal Democrats to follow the appropriate process in an investigation of this nature.
We wish in particular to draw attention to a statement by End Violence Against Women (EVAW) who have highlighted some of the irregularities in the investigation process and we call for a fresh investigation in light of these irregularities. We wish to express our solidarity with those who have experienced unwanted sexual attentions or harassment in these circumstances and those who have come forward in this instance – all women and men are entitled to feel safe and confident in their workplaces. It is always difficult to come forward with allegations – we recognise and respect that, and we wish to secure parity of treatment for women across all political parties and to ensure that policies and procedures are in place for tackling these instances in all political parties.
We must recognise that the Rennard affair is the symptom of a culture that often excludes and alienates women from participation in public life. We all, as women and men committed to a progressive agenda and equality between genders, need to take steps to tackle and challenge that culture. We look to the senior leadership of all political parties to ensure that this happens. The statistics alone show us that this is an issue – 12.2% of Liberal Democrat MPs are women, 16% Conservative MPs are women, and 33% of Labour MPs are women. The Labour party is the only political party to have introduced all-women shortlists in order to ensure that parliament looks like the electorate – 50% of whom are women. These figures demonstrate that we have a long way to go before parliament is fully inclusive of women.
With these considerations in mind the executive committee of the Fabian Women’s network call on the Liberal Democrats to:
- recognise that they and other political parties have a responsibility by virtue of being in public office and in virtue of being mainstream political parties to women of all ages, races, ethnicities, and sexualities to create a public sector culture that is inclusive
- recognise fully that sexual harassment runs counter to such a culture and that appropriate, substantial steps must be taken to investigate instances of sexual harassment and misconduct where they appear
- Reopen the investigation into allegations of Rennard’s sexual misconduct applying a civil burden of proof (‘on the balance of probabilities’) as is usually the case in relation to workplace claims, as called for by the End Violence Against Women campaign group, rather than the criminal burden of proof (‘beyond reasonable doubt’) as has been currently applied. We also call for a new investigation to consider public misfeasance in office – also applying a civil burden of proof. The Liberal Democrats should then take the necessary legal steps which follow.
- Ensure that Rennard delivers a public apology to those women who feel they have been subjected to sexual misconduct as recommended by Alistair Webster QC.
We also call on all political parties to ensure that they have the appropriate policies and complaints procedures in place to deal with instances of sexual harassment effectively, including the Labour party, as outlined in the recent Refounding Labour submission by the Labour Women’s Network.
As executive committee members of the Fabian Women’s Network we recognise and understand that women often make significant personal sacrifices to ensure women’s voices are heard and to ensure that the powerful are held to account. We reach out to them across party political divides.