16 Jan 2014

Rennard defies calls from Clegg to apologise

Lord Chris Rennard continues to defy calls from Nick Clegg to apologise over allegations of sexual impropriety, amid warnings that women will leave the party in droves.

The deputy prime minister faced questions on LBC’s Call Clegg radio slot on Thursday morning, and said it was a matter of “very real regret” that Lord Rennard had not apologised “so far”.

Mr Clegg has faced allegations of “cowardice” over a perceived failure to discipline Lord Rennard, or eject him from the party. But the Liberal Democrat said his hands were tied by the disciplinary process in his party – something that he said should be reviewed.

Mr Clegg said the burden of proof for taking disciplinary action was “very high”.

An independent report by Alistair Webster QC ruled that the threshold at which Lord Rennard could be charged by the party with “acting in a way that had brought the party into disrepute” had not been met. Mr Clegg, however, said that threshold should be reviewed.

He said: “The report from the QCD has revealed that there is other work to do as the burden of proof that needs to be met is a very high burden of proof and, for me, what the QC has said is he (Lord Rennard) should apologise, the witnesses were credible, but we are not able to take action.”

He added that it was “obvious that these women have been subjected to a behaviour that caused them distress.”

Alison Goldworthy, one of the Liberal Democrat party members who brought allegations against Lord Rennard, told Channel 4 News that Mr Clegg “could have been stronger”, and had taken “the coward’s way out”.

But the Liberal Democrat leader said on LBC that Liberal Democrat disciplinary procedures needs to be consistent, and that the party could not have “kangaroo courts.”

On Channel 4 News on Wednesday Lord Rennard’s friend and legal adviser Lord Carlile said Lord Rennard would not be apologising to the women involved.

“No, and why should he?” he said in response to a question from Presenter Cathy Newman. He said Lord Rennard had not been allowed to see Mr Webster’s report, and therefore should not have to apologise.

What could Nick Clegg have done?

Nick Clegg has aired his frustration at the high burden of proof required in order to take disciplinary action against Lord Rennard – but is his grievance justified?

According to Samantha Mangwana, an employment partner at Slater & Gordon, the burden of proof in the Liberal Democrat procedures appears to be high. She points out that the Liberal Democrats appear to be using a criminal standard of proof, that allegations against Lord Rennard be proved "beyond reasonable doubt", as opposed to the civil standard, "on the balance of probabilities".

One reason for this, she says, is because the party is not a workplace, but a membership organisation.

"It is not that unusual for a membership organisation to do this, especially in a political sphere where allegations could be made for a political reason," she said.

However, she said it was difficult to see in light of what has been said by Tim Farron, Alistair Webber QC and Nick Clegg, how the party did not have grounds to dismiss Lord Rennard under the terms of the party constitution on the grounds of bringing the party into disrepute.

The Liberal Democrat constitution says that membership may be revoked for "conduct which has brought, or is likely to bring, the party into disrepute."

Alistair Webber QC said the evidence against Lord Rennard was "broadly credible", and both Tim Farron, the party president, and Mr Clegg have called for him to apologise.

Ms Mangwana said: "It seems very surprising to me indeed that they do not consider this brings the party into disrepute.

"After all, it is a party which says it stands for equality and championing women in the workplace free from discrimination and harassment. How can they then expect to have any moral authority on this if they do not take action for upheld allegations in their own party?"