I almost feel I should apologise for banging on about this topic, because there are several other things I want to write about today (South Parade Pier, St James’ Hospital, the new aircraft carriers) but alas I haven’t got time to do them all.
But as I have previously shown, the Lib Dem inquiry into allegations of bullying in Portsmouth is a sign of a broken party, in denial and out of touch. It is absurd to have Cllr Vernon-Jackson and his colleagues getting in a tizz about “cleaning up Pompey” over the decision to cancel their dog-poo fines contract while at the same time their own party is in such a mess. Someone needs to get into 220 Fratton Road and 1a Albert Rd (Portsmouth Lib Dem HQ and Mike Hancock’s Kremlin respectively) with a big bottle of bleach and a scrubbing brush.
I had written that Kath Pinnock is a friend and colleague of Cllr Vernon-Jackson from the Association of Lib Dem Councillors, which is undeniable. In itself that undermines the notion that her visit could have the character of an independent inquiry. But it goes further than that: she sits on the Lib Dem Federal Executive, the highest of the number of Lib Dem governing bodies along with Nick Clegg and……Gerald Vernon-Jackson.
It is impossible for Eleanor Scott, Les Cummings, or anyone else to have faith that they will get a fair and independent inquiry into allegations of bullying all the time it is being handled by someone who is a colleague of Cllr Vernon-Jackson. These allegations are serious, and as with other such issues arising now elsewhere in politics, it is time to have a proper, independent and thorough inquiry carried out by someone distanced from the Lib Dem hierarchy. It is important given what we know now that the political mistreatment of Les Cummings forms part of any inquiry into Portsmouth Lib Dems.
Nick Clegg and Tim Farron should establish an inquiry into the allegations and get someone in from outside the party to run it – a QC would be the usual choice. There is some danger that the local Lib Dems will smear anyone who investigates them, as they did with Nigel Pascoe QC when he was investigating Mike Hancock, but I am sure someone outside the Lib Dems will be prepared to take the case on.
Today’s edition of The News carries a story featuring Les Cummings, who was a victim of child abuse in a care home and who had to fight for years to get any recognition from PCC under the Lib Dems. He is still angry that the Lib Dem administration refused him an apology, and has written a letter to Cllr Mason attacking him for his stance.
The way the previous administration handled Mr Cummings’ case was shocking. There were rumours of a cover-up, extending to keeping back some information from the Cabinet. There was an attack on Mr Cummings’ integrity. But eventually there was an out-of-court settlement from PCC over the claims of abuse suffered by Mr Cummings dating back to his childhood. However there was no apology; that had to wait for the Lib Dems to be ejected from office, after which it was given by the new regime.
What caught my eye in The News’ story was a typical bit of Lib Dem flippancy.
“Cllr Mason also thought the situation would have been put to bed years ago after Mr Cummings got a £3,000 payoff from the council in 2009 for what happened in return that he did not pursue legal action.”
It’s a shame we don’t have the exact quotation in the story, because at face value it is an outrageous statement. The Lib Dem leadership attacked Mike Hancock’s victim, “Annie”, as being someone who was “doing it for the money”, and here we have a presumption by Cllr Mason that Mr Cummings should shut up because he’s had a payout. The idea has taken root in Portsmouth Lib Dems that people who suffer grievous personal wrongs are motivated to bring them to light by a desire for money, and it is a most repugnant assumption.
It is all very well Portsmouth City Council apologising corporately to Les Cummings, and putting right the historical wrong. I’m glad this has happened, but it doesn’t undo the hurt caused by the culture of denial and criticism under the Lib Dems, who owe him an apology of their own. Cllr Mason in particular owes Mr Cummings an apology, for his remarks reported today no less than the way Mr Cummings was treated in the past.
The media today are rightly concerned with the lapses in safeguarding of children in care that undermined the entire care system for decades. Les Cummings’ case is one part of a huge scandal that requires, and is getting, independent consideration and Police scrutiny. I am cautious about succumbing to any widespread panic about the presumption that the country is currently waist-deep in paedophiles, which the media and politicians sometimes seem to encourage, but it is clear that there were massive problems in the past resulting from those being abused feeling they had no way of getting a hearing.
It is that inability to get a hearing, or the feeling that justifiable concerns are being ignored by people in a position to do something about them, that has such a resonance in the cases we see in Portsmouth in recent years under the Lib Dems. The Hancock case, that of Cllr Eleanor Scott, even the constant failure of the old regime to carry out proper consultations on its plans, the “not our fault” culture which even now pervades the Lib Dem group (see my next blog on St James’ Hospital for some grade-A examples of that), all are signs that the party locally is completely cut off from normal standards of decency in public life. It got arrogant in power and is in denial about its past wrongs now it is out of it.
As I reported in my last blog, local Lib Dems are now anxious to engage with the public via social media, and are trying to get up a petition to call on the new PCC regime to retain the uncosted and unwise deal the Lib Dems wanted to strike with an outside company to issue Fixed Penalty Notices for dog fouling and other littering.
The irony of the Lib Dems suddenly loving petitions as a vehicle for public concern is rich, given their past attempts to restrict the presentation of petitions for debate to full City Council meetings. They were terrified of scrutiny then, and they are still terrified of it now unless they control the inquiry themselves.
I think it would be more useful to have a petition calling on Nick Clegg to stage a proper, fair, unbiased, and independent inquiry into the activities of Portsmouth Lib Dems. Until we get such an inquiry, everything else the Lib Dems do locally deserves scorn. I was sorely tempted to start such a petition, but it occurs to me that it would be misplaced activism. Until the Lib Dems have a procedure for investigating individual complaints properly, collecting piles of thousands of signatures to try and catch Clegg’s attention would miss the point entirely.