20 Jan 2014

Rennard suspended from Lib Dems

After Lord Rennard’s membership of the Lib Dems is suspended, pending a disciplinary procedure, his spokesman says he is considering legal action against the party if the decision is not reversed.

The announcement of the suspension came as the stand-off between Lord Rennard and party leader Nick Clegg came to a head.

The Liberal Democrat leader’s authority faced a major challenge on Monday, with Lord Rennard saying he would defy an order not to take his place in the upper house.

Minutes before he had been expected to re-enter the house, a Lib Dem statement was issued. It said:

“The regional parties committee, which oversees disciplinary procedures under the English party membership rules, today decided to suspend Lord Rennard’s membership of the party pending a disciplinary procedure. As such, he cannot return to the Liberal Democrat group in the House of Lords.

“Lord Rennard will now be investigated for bringing the party into disrepute on the grounds of his failure to apologise, as recommended by Alistair Webster QC.”

Following an investigation into the allegations for the party, Mr Webster found that the evidence did not meet the burden of proof to act against Lord Rennard, but recommended that he should apologise to the women involved.

‘Enormously distressed’

In a lengthy statement published shortly before he was suspended, Lord Rennard said he was “enormously distressed” and “too ill to attend the House of Lords today”.

More on Lord Rennard's statement: "I was subjected to a humiliating trial by media"

He said he had not done anything intended to distress the four women who made complaints against him, adding that although he “regrets” any hurt, embarrassment or upset they may have felt, he would not apologise because this would leave him “defenceless in a future civil action”.

Describing the decision of the regional parties committee as “extraordinary”, his spokesman said that the peer was:

“taking legal advice with a view to civil action against the party.”

He continued:

“Lord Rennard would like proper consideration to be given to the statement that he made earlier today before there is any further action.

“He does not wish to see legal action between fellow Liberal Democrats, but his membership of the party matters more to him than anything apart from family and friends. Indeed he feels that the party is also his family.

No apology

In his earlier statement Lord Rennard said that the Lib Dems’ chief whip in the House of Lords, Lord Newby, had confirmed last week that the whip was being restored and he urged Nick Clegg and other leading Lib Dems to now “let the matter rest”.

“Courtesy has always been an essential part of my moral compass,” wrote Lord Rennard. “If ever I have hurt, embarrassed or upset anyone, then it would never have been my intention and, of course, I regret that they may have felt any hurt, embarrassment or upset.

“But for the reasons given, I will not offer an apology to the four women complainants. I do not believe that people should be forced to say what they know they should not say, or do not mean.”

Lord Rennard said that he was told last Wednesday by independent investigator Alistair Webster QC that the conclusion of his inquiry into the women’s complaints was that there should be “no further action”. But he said that the party had acted contrary to its own rules by refusing to give him a copy of the report.

How my Rennard question to Nick Clegg got me booed - read Cathy Newman's blog

Nick Clegg had earlier said it would not be “appropriate” for Lord Rennard to return to his party’s ranks in the House of Lords without first apologising to the women who claim he sexually harassed them. He warned the peer on Monday morning: “No apology, no whip.”

Lord Rennard strenuously denies the allegations against him and has so far refused to apologise. Allies of the peer, a former party chief executive, have threatened to take legal action unless he is readmitted to the party’s group in the Lords.

Legal threat?

Some have said that any apology to the women involved could be used as a basis for a potential future legal action against Lord Rennard. On Monday one of the women who brought complaints against him to pledged not to act in such a way.

Alison Smith took to Twitter to say “a specific and sincere apology is always welcome. To use a genuine apology as a basis for legal action would be unethical”.

In subsequent tweets Ms Smith said the reason she had pursued the Rennard issue was to “change the culture for the future. Politics will only be a safer place for women if ALL parties make difficult choices and change from within.”

The independent report published last week by senior barrister Alistair Webster QC found that the women’s claims were credible, but could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt.

But Mr Clegg said that if the whip was restored to the party’s former chief executive without any apology, it would be “in defiance” of his authority. He added: “Clearly, if it were to happen, matters would not rest there.”

Under Lib Dem party rules, Lord Rennard cannot be suspended from the party under the claims made in the report.

But the party’s Chief Whip Lord Newby and the party’s leader in the upper house, Lord Wallace, can decide to withhold the whip from the peer at the centre of the Lib Dem storm.

If they do then Lord Rennard would almost certainly appeal, triggering a vote of the party’s peers on whether to readmit him to the Lib Dem group in the Lords.

Video: ‘Enough is enough. Lord Rennard must go’ – Senior Liberal Democrat Susan Gaszczak, who alleges she was inappropriately touched by Lord Rennard, tells Channel 4 News she is considering leaving the Lib Dems

2002 Lord Rennard allegedly inappropriately touched Alison Smith for the first time, but she did not make a complaint.

2003 Lord Rennard allegedly inappropriately touched and propositioned Bridget Harris during a conference in Swansea. She complains to her line managers.

2004 Alison Goldsworthy alleges Lord Rennard touched her during a black tie dinner.

2007 Alison Smith again alleges Lord Rennard touched her inappropriately. She reports it to Lib Dem chief whip Paul Burstow, but doesn’t hear back from him, so complains again to MP Jo Swinson who, she claims, says her experience is not unique.

2008 Susan Gaszczak alleges Lord Rennard touched her and propositioned her during a future MPs training weekend. Internal emails later that year indicate Lord Rennard’s behaviour is inappropriate and Danny Alexander is tasked with telling him “the behaviour has to stop”. Women are asked to bring future complaints to Nick Clegg’s office.

2009 Lord Rennard stands down as Lib Dem chief executive, citing ill health.

2012 Lord Rennard begins to return to a more active role in the party, including participation in a “speed-chat” event organised by the Lib Dem Campaign for Gender Balance.

Feb 2013 Channel 4 News and Firecrest Films broadcast allegations that Lord Rennard behaved inappropriately and abused his position. A police investigation begins.

Jun 2013 An investigation by Lib Dem supporter Helena Morrisey finds the party’s system for dealing with complaints was too informal, and says she had uncovered wider examples of “low-level sexism” within the party.

Sep 2013 The police announce that there is insufficient evidence to support a prosecution of Lord Rennard.

Jan 2014 A report by Alistair Webster QC finds that the evidence is not sufficient to meet the burden of proof required by the party’s disciplinary procedures. However Mr Webster advises Lord Rennard to apologise to the women involved.