The party’s investigations into allegations against Liberal Democrat 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.