Jo Swinson speech at the Spring Conference Rally

March 8, 2013 6:38 PM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

I vividly recall how activists trekked to Fife, finding the experience of pounding the pavements and listening to voters unexpectedly therapeutic.

And over the last 3 weeks, as we have pulled together as a party, pouring our energy into Eastleigh has had a similar effect.

But no doubt many of you have been shocked at the revelations on Channel 4 News.

And whilst I've had numerous invitations to talk to the media about this, conference, I wanted to speak to you directly.

When a friend, Alison Smith, told me she had experienced unwanted advances I was shocked and concerned. When it was suggested that this was not an isolated incident I was deeply troubled, and sought advice.

I think it's fair to say that back then our party processes for dealing with this kind of situation were lacking. So it was a case of trying to deal with it in the best way possible - while recognising that great sensitivity was needed and the important liberal principle that you are innocent until proven guilty.

A number of women confided in me about similar experiences. We shared the objective of preventing other women from experiencing this kind of behaviour - they wanted to make it stop.

The women also had an entirely understandable wish for privacy which I was careful to respect - so of course I didn't name names when I spoke to people in the leader's office to express these concerns.

I made sure that further action was taken, and as you know Danny Alexander made clear that any such behaviour was unacceptable and had to stop.

I told the women who had confided in me what I had done, and encouraged them to let me know if they became aware of any subsequent incidents. If there were fresh reports of this kind of behaviour, I would have insisted on further action.

Let me be clear, to this day, I have not heard any account of inappropriate behaviour subsequent to the action Danny and I took.

Liberal Democrats, I'm sure we have lessons to learn. And the best way to learn those lessons is a thorough, independent, considered review that can gather all the facts, both from people who are willing to speak publicly, and from those who are not.

The findings will rightly be published. Transparency is important to give the whole of our party confidence that the Liberal Democrats have recognised our duty of care, reflected on our past shortcomings and that we are resolute in our determination to put things right for the future.

I wanted to tell you about what had happened directly. As you know, there is now a police investigation and two party investigations. The allegations have been made and they have also been denied. That is for the police and the investigations to resolve.

Conference, you know I have spent more than a decade campaigning for women to be respected for who they are and against their sexual objectification.

Contrary to some comments in the press I most certainly do not believe that women should ever have to put up with unwanted sexual advances to be successful in politics - or any walk of life for that matter. This has never been my view.

Anyone who knows me will immediately realise this would never have been said by me.

Conference, there has been intense scrutiny on the experiences of women in the Liberal Democrats.

But let's be clear, this is not just a "Liberal Democrat" problem

It's not even just a problem in politics

Or in business

Or the media

It's part and parcel of a wider problem. The year is 2013, but society is stuck in the past.

One in four women experience domestic violence

One in three girls have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school

In less than a year, the Everyday Sexism project has been overwhelmed by 20,000 women posting their experiences:
- A 12 year old schoolgirl catcalled by grown men on her way home
- Baby t-shirts for sale online with the slogan "Where's my bottle, bitch?"
- Countless women sharing shocking stories using the hashtag #followed

Anyone who thinks the battle for equality has already been won is sadly mistaken.

We will only build a stronger economy if women play a full part in the boardroom, in the newsroom and in the Cabinet room.

We will only build a fairer society if we challenge the casual culture where men are dominant by default.

That's why we should resolve today, on International Women's Day, to keep fighting for fairness.

As citizens in our communities, as activists in our party, and as Liberal Democrats in our government.

Conference, we have made great strides in government - with shared parental leave, flexible working and getting more women on boards.

But we must do more, we will do more.

Together we can make society fairer.

For women, for everyone.