If The Lib Dems Care About Women's Well-Being, They've Got A funny Way Of Showing It

Mr Hancock, who has been married to wife Jacqueline for 43-years and has two children, has been accused of taking advantage of the woman, who suffers from borderline personality disorder (BPD) – a condition which has led her to self harm. Hampshire police were alerted to the situation by the woman’s family support worker, who alleged inappropriate sexual advances had been made towards her. Mr Hancock denies the allegations
— The Telegraph, 27 September 2010
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Vince Cable has been a bit quiet lately on the scandals of sexual harassment of women and young men that is wrapping itself round Parliament. I've not seen anything at all from Alistair Carmichael MP, the Lib Dem whip who supposedly 'investigated' the circumstances whereby one of their own MPs crossed the line (and then some) with a vulnerable constituent, 'Annie'. I find it strange behaviour - especially when the Lib Dems reckon they care about women's well-being and mental health. I've got a whole archive of Lib Dem leaflets telling me just how much they care - all with photos of women being looked at very caringly by a Lib Dem politician or a health practitioner.

The Scandal of Mental Health and Access to Justice

For me it is a glaring Liberal Democrat dichotomy that whilst the party's members regularly boast of their support for mental health initiatives in their literature, some of their number have participated - and continue to participate - in behaviour that denigrates and demeans people with mental health issues, and some of them seem to have a real issue with women. In fact I think it's more than a dichotomy - it's a disastrous hypocrisy that feeds into an unpleasant narrative that anyone who has ever spoken of having a mental health issue, must naturally lack credibility and integrity, and be a liar and a 'nutter'.

I know from reports from a few Lib Dems who are still acquaintances of mine that a number of paid-up members of the Portsmouth Lib Dems, at least one of whom is a serving councillor, say exactly these things about me and my writing - that I'm basically 'mental', so cannot be believed. This, despite the fact that everything I've written in this Blog has been carefully researched and evidenced. As an archaeologist and historian, it's kind of ingrained in me.

Personally I think that the treatment of Hancock's victim 'Annie' has been an unparalleled disgrace. Annie's story belongs to her, of course, but it also illustrates so many of the general issues of mental health and the scandal of why it's so hard for people with mental health problems to get justice when they are wronged. It illustrates the strands of prejudice and structural inequality that exist, tied to the existence of opportunistic abusers and their enablers.

Some Facts and Figures

A New Statesman article published in 2013 laid bare existing research about the hurdles faced by women with mental health issues, and how hard it was for them compared to others to live their lives free from abuse, and to find justice subsequent to abuse being inflicted upon them. The following year a report carrying the credentials of, among others, University College London, observed that women with severe mental illness are up to five times more likely than the general population to be the victims of sexual assault and two to three times more likely to suffer domestic violence.

These reports, and the previous research that informed many of the underpinning studies and subsequent findings, were widely disseminated in professional publications and mainstream media, and should have been well-known to any organisation serious about associating itself with mental health issues and promoting the well-being of people with mental illnesses.

The Liberal Democrats seem to give a nod to women in their literature on people with mental health problems - in fact in all the examples I have come across, the 'patients' or 'distressed persons' are female - but, given the behaviour of some of their members discussed below (who have never been suspended), I am left wondering if that's less about empathy with women and more about casual stereotyping.

How Annie's Allegations Were Received

When Annie made her allegations against Hancock, she had a mountain to climb. The whole story is told elsewhere in a number of publications, including a number of broadsheet and tabloid newspapers; and parts of it are told from my own personal perspective in previous blog posts.

She was quite candid with the media, wanting to be heard and wanting justice. I think her desire to be listened to and taken seriously is palpable. The Telegraph reported in its article of 27th September 2010, 'The woman told the Sunday Times: “I told him from the start about the condition I had been diagnosed with and I also told him I had been sexually abused when I was younger.” By 17th October 2010, the Sunday Times was reporting, 'A woman alleged to have been sexually assaulted by the Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock has had eating and sleeping problems since her involvement with him, says an independent mental health report.'

Hancock was not even suspended from the Liberal Democrat Party until the publication (on the Guido Fawkes website, Order Order) of the Pascoe Report in late January 2014 - a report that had previously been seen by a number of Portsmouth Lib Dem councillors. Nigel Pascoe QC, the author of the report - which he was clear he wanted to be published - was candid in his positive opinion of Annie's veracity and credibility.

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But some Lib Dems - and not just Hancock - did and said some things that had a detrimental impact on Annie's mental health, by saying stuff about her using the privilege they had of operating on a public platform, and being able and willing to comment to the press; and Hancock circulated literature unchallenged by Lib Dems in his circle. Indeed, on the latter point, there is evidence that assistance was obtained in its publication and distribution from more than one member of the Lib Dem Party.

Two well-known examples are in the public domain:

  • Hancock's wife Jacqui when asked about the allegations against her husband was reported as saying 'it's just nutters making up claims';
  • GVJ appeared on the BBC's Sunday Politics with political journalist Peter Henley and responded to a question about the allegations with the comment that it was 'one person trying to get some money from somebody else'.

A less widely-known example is also worth noting here. A member of Hancock's staff at the time wrote to Annie's family, without her knowledge or permission, alluding to Annie's mental health issues and asking for their help in discrediting Annie. (I've seen this email. It shocked me.)

Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied

That justice delayed is justice denied is a well-known tenet of judicial and moral fairness in the civilised, democratic world. Delayed justice, or obstructed justice, is particularly painful for victims with mental health vulnerabilities for a number of reasons.

There were 'investigations' supposedly going on at the Council into 'Annie's' serious allegations - and the evidence from others, of course - against Lib Dems Cllr Mike Hancock MP. The Portsmouth City Council standards panel which was convened to investigate the allegations comprised Cllr Donna Jones (Con, Chair), Cllr Terry (Theresa) Hall (Lib Dem) and Cllr Les Stevens (Lib Dem). But this panel, for many of us, seemed to be proceeding at an eyebrow-raising snail's pace. There simply seemed to be little appetite from the Lib Dems to proceed at any kind of rapidity with the necessary process.

The delays in 'Annie's' search for justice did not just leave her feeling aggrieved - it was reported that they left her feeling depressed and suicidal. A Daily Telegraph report from the 23rd January 2014, is surely painful for anyone to read, knowing what we now know. 

The woman who says she was sexually assaulted by Mike Hancock MP has said his alleged behaviour drove her to the brink of suicide. Speaking for the first time since the Portsmouth South MP was suspended by the Liberal Democrats, the woman, known only as “Annie”, said the Lib Dems should ‘hang their heads in shame’ for not taking action against him sooner.
— The Telegraph, 23rd January 2014

Even after the Pascoe Report was made available and Lib Dem HQ finally suspended Hancock, the Portsmouth Lib Dems initially voted to keep Hancock in their ruling Council Cabinet (and this was what compelled me to resign from the Lib Dem Group and the Lib Dem Cabinet the following morning - I felt the Group was broken).

Eventually others outside the Lib Dem Group of councillors brought pressure to bear, and ran a proper vote, and Hancock was not only out of the Lib Dem Group but off the Cabinet. But, as Political Scrapbook reported, at the very next Full Council Meeting on the 11th February 2014, when a motion was put forward that was critical of Hancock trotting off on a 'jolly':

Who more appropriate to defend him than ... someone from the standards panel investigating the alleged misconduct!
— Political Scrapbook, 11th February 2014

Cllr John Ferrett tweeted:

Now we’re getting a eulogy to Mike Hancock from Cllr Terry Hall - yes the same Terry Hall who is hearing the complaint against him.
— Twitter, @John_Ferrett, 8.39PM - 11 Feb 2014

And then, that same evening, the Portsmouth Lib Dems' coup de grace - Cllr Lee Hunt gave a speech which gracelessly referred to former asylums as 'loony bins'.

All this was conducted in public, sometimes with 'Annie' sitting in the public gallery as part of her search for justice - and many of the Lib Dems knew exactly who she was - and more often than not relentlessly reported in the press and social media.

I was still in the Council chamber, now sitting as a 'non-aligned' member on the back row, also having to listen to a load of deluded crap and self-justifications from my former colleagues. It was a hideous time and there was almost a complete lack of grace from most of the Portsmouth Lib Dems towards both 'Annie' and me.

Eventually, after a truth of sorts had come out via Hancock's High Court settlement and public apology, Cllr Terry Hall did have something to say in public, at a Full Council Meeting, apologising to Hancock's victim for her role as a standards panel member in the delay of justice.

A Final Insult? The Conduct of Cllr Margaret Foster

Even after Hancock's clear public apology and the admissions therein, and even after the clear and unequivocal directive from the High Court that 'Annie' was to receive life-long anonymity, and even after Cllr Margaret Foster had consciously taken and signed her oath to observe the Councillors' Code of Conduct - it seems that Margaret Foster just still didn't want to 'get it'.

A close friend of Hancock's wife Cllr Jacqui Hancock, Foster was found to have conducted herself in a manner which fell far short of the standards expected of her in the Council Chamber.

I was still a Member of Portsmouth City Council, sitting as an Independent having resigned from the Lib Dem Group, and clearly remember a young women hurriedly leaving the public gallery in distress, trying to cover her face with an A4 pad of paper, as she was being filmed on a phone by Foster.

I remember the subsequent row outside the council chamber, involving a number of councillors, about what had just taken place. I remember saying pointedly to GVJ - who was making an 'explanation' of sorts about what Foster had done, hadn't done, and had agreed to do, regarding her phone - 'Oh for goodness sake, Gerald, it's a matter of common decency'.

A resident made a complaint about what had happened, and the incident was judged by a standards panel. As reported in the Portsmouth News:

A standards sub-committee at Portsmouth City Council agreed Cllr Foster had been ‘disrespectful’ to woman and has ordered her to give a full formal apology.

In a statement the victim said: ‘I felt awful at that council meeting. They filmed me and were pointing up at me, sneering.’

She added: ‘Being there was like being in a really bad dream and I was very scared.’
— Portsmouth News, 26th October 2015

Annie, however, once again had to wait a long time for this judgement, and even longer for the apology to arrive; and even then, the apology was, well, a bit shit. In fact, Annie wasn't convinced that Foster wrote it herself - and having seen the letter and having known Foster and her letter-writing habits for many years, I have to say my money's on Annie's instincts here.

In her apology letter, Cllr Foster wrote that she was ‘very sorry that this happened’ and ‘in particular for any distress that I may have caused you’ – but the woman says that’s not good enough as Cllr Foster hasn’t owned up to what she did.

And she criticised the letter for its ‘legal speak’ and doesn’t believe Cllr Foster wrote it herself.

But the councillor said the letter is in her own words and believes the matter should now be over.
— Portsmouth News, 30 December 2015

Foster lost her seat in 2016 (Labour win). I understand that the Liberal Democrat Group discussed sending her flowers. Jacqui Hancock lost her seat in 2014 (UKIP win) and failed to be re-elected in 2015 (Labour gain). In fact their losses allowed Labour not only to regain its foothold in inner-city Portsmouth but to smooth a path for the political career of Labour Cllr Stephen Morgan, who is now Portsmouth South's first ever Labour MP.

But yet I think it's very likely that either Foster or Jacqui Hancock will be selected to stand again for the Liberal Democrats in Portsmouth.

And So ...

The Lib Dems, if they actually care anything like they say they do about women's well-being and mental health issues, should be at the forefront of challenging these myths and the damaging stereotypes. Instead, too many of them seem to revel in their insidious perpetuation of appalling prejudices; and still, there are some in their number who defend Hancock and attack his victim; and still, there is at least one in their number who apparently thinks that mental health issues, even those issues being treated, controlled, faced up to and bravely managed, equate to the person being a nutter and a liar. That these views have often come from people who themselves have been publicly exposed as liars or who have been found to have behaved inappropriately is a massive insult to those managing their mental health issues and is a very bitter pill indeed to swallow.

I also think the Liberal Democrat Party has some proper apologies to issue, and needs to take a long, hard look at who it counts among its members and who it allows to stand in its name for elections. Clegg fucked this up as leader, but now he's gone. Farron fucked this up as leader, but now he's gone. More worryingly, lots of very good Lib Dem women are no longer involved in the party. And if a Vince Cable SPAD is reading this - the same Vince Cable who attended GVJ's 50th birthday party in Portsmouth - you'd better understand that this is not just going to drift away. It's not over.

And Theresa May is far from off the hook, as far as I'm concerned. She was written to by Portsmouth City Councillors about Hancock and the faults in the system a long time ago. As far as I can see, all those faults in the system and loopholes for inaction and obfuscation are still there, from Parliament to the police and the CPS.

And Annie's story remains unresolved.

Ever the rebel as a councillor - refusing to point at the road for a leaflet

Ever the rebel as a councillor - refusing to point at the road for a leaflet