As the bell announcing the afternoon sittings in Parliament rang across Westminster, the Lib Dems announced that Lord Rennard will have his membership of the party suspended pending a new disciplinary procedure for failing to apologise to the women who he allegedly behaved inappropriately towards. A spokesman said:
'Nick Clegg made clear last week, and again this morning, that it would be inappropriate for Lord Rennard to resume the Liberal Democrat whip unless he apologises. Lord Rennard has refused to do so.
'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.'
Rennard will not be attending the Lords this afternoon anyway, his spokesman has announced.
Nick Clegg's leadership has been questioned so many times since the Webster report was published that he was unable to leave this be. Now he and the party committee which oversees disciplinary procedures seem to be flexing their muscles in the face of open revolt. The problem is that there will also be great trouble as a result of this decision, too, from those who support Rennard.
As for how the disciplinary procedure works, here is a very Lib Dem flow chart that 'explains' it:
Update, 14:45: Lord Rennard has now issued this lengthy statement:
It is impossible to describe how enormously distressed I am by this situation and I am certainly too ill to attend the House of Lords today.
In the interests of my party and all concerned, I will now release a statement that I have prepared:
In 2009, I was the subject of a smear campaign in relation to House of Lords allowances. The timing of this campaign was clearly chosen as it was in the middle of major election campaigns, for which I was then responsible. I warned Nick Clegg how I considered that the party might be damaged in those elections as a result of those allegations. I said that I would bring forward my planned resignation as the Liberal Democrats Chief Executive on health grounds. I had not intended resigning until after helping Nick and the party through the 2010 General Election campaign.
I worked for the party professionally for 27 years, I helped it to recover from many crises, helped to win 13 parliamentary by-elections and triple the number of Liberal Democrat MPs at Westminster. But the lifestyle involved did great damage to my health. I was diagnosed as a diabetic in 1994, my control was very poor and by 2007 I was warned that I was entering a high risk zone for a stroke or heart attack.
I explained that health grounds were the reason for resigning. Despite having helped many of my friends in the party and all of the Leaders with ‘crisis management’, I could not handle my own. I was suffering severe stress, anxiety and depression as I have done much of my life. I did not cite this publicly as I considered this to be a private matter and I knew that it would produce very damaging headlines for the party. I know how much of the media behave, and there would have been ‘Stressed and depressed Lib Dem Chief Quits’ headlines in the middle of major elections. It was clear to me then that the smear campaign was run by people with personal grudges against me. I was exonerated by the House of Lords authorities in relation to allowances in October 2009.
During the 2010 General Election, I was again subjected to more personal allegations. The depth of depression that I felt and the consideration of self harm is difficult to describe so I will not do so. I was assured by the party that nobody was making any complaints against me. But at least two women were subject to some media pressure in an attempt to persuade them to make allegations. Immediately after the General Election, I offered to meet them with the Party President at the time, Baroness Scott, to understand what may have upset them and to seek some closure of any issue. I was given the response to my offer to meet. I was told that neither woman wanted to make any complaint or have any action taken. One woman refused to meet. One agreed to meet at a later date. When I did meet her in January 2011, I made it clear that I did not know what had upset her, but said that, “if there is anything that I have ever said or done that caused you any harm or embarrassment in any way, then that was not my intention.” We did not discuss what may have caused this upset at any point, but my expression in front of Baroness Scott, was clearly accepted. This acceptance was repeated later in the day when I received two text messages from the person saying “you are not a bad man” and that “I should not suffer any period of ‘purdah’ as a result of allegations made. We continued the friendly relationship that we have always had.
I had been told by the party previously (2008) that there were questions by some of the media about inappropriate behaviour’ being made. I was never given any names of potential complainants by the party, or told of any complaints (indeed I was assured then that nobody wanted to complain). I said that I had never acted inappropriately and would certainly not want to cause anyone any embarrassment. I felt, however, that the ‘whispering campaign’ from those bearing personal grudges against me meant that my role in the 2010 General Election was limited (at some cost to the party) and I did not help the AV referendum campaign in any significant way.
I heard no more until autumn 2012 when it appeared that a parliamentary by-election in Eastleigh was a distinct possibility. I was involved in some of the essential preparations for the campaign. Shortly after Chris Huhne resigned, I was told that people from Channel 4 were investigating allegations against me and it was clear that I could not help the campaign any further. A broadcast was made on February 21st 2013, which was exactly a week before the most important parliamentary by-election of the Parliament. One of the people featured went to the police with her allegations on the eve of poll of the by-election. I was subjected to a humiliating trial by media and a ‘lynch mob’ mentality from some in the party who knew none of the facts. I tried to protect my party by making only the short, written statements that crisis management required and giving no interviews. Ann and I stayed in hiding for some weeks whilst family friends, and in particular, Alex Carlile QC supported us.
The only communication to me from the party was simply to send me a copy of a complaint form showing that two women were now seeking my expulsion from the party. This was soon overtaken by news that the party were talking to the Metropolitan Police, who would undertake an investigation to see if any ‘criminal activity’ had taken place. At no stage did the party, or anyone from Nick Clegg’s office, ask me for any of my evidence or comments on these matters.
I was shocked to have become the subject of a seven month police inquiry. Whilst I was never arrested, I had to be interviewed under caution. My discussions with the Police provided me with the first opportunity I had ever had to refute the basis of the allegations against me. I was interviewed in June and had to wait until late September when I was actually told by the BBC that there would be no charges. The Police had confirmed with my solicitor Richard Cannon that there would be no charges, that this was a Police decision and that no file of evidence had been given to the Crown Prosecution Service.
The party headquarters did not communicate with me about the Police decision, seek to ask why the Metropolitan Police had come to such a clear conclusion, or even express any relief that I would not be charged with a criminal offence. Before I could make a press statement, the party issued their own saying that their internal investigation into whether I should be expelled would now resume. The party had issued a series of e-mails to all party members saying that I was accused of ‘serious allegations of sexual assault’.
Fortunately, I was familiar with the rules of the English Party’s complaints procedures which were introduced in 2008. There were various attempts to change these rules, but with the help of Alex Carlile, I was able only with the threat of legal action to say that the inquiry should begin as prescribed in the rules.
I formally offered mediation in October 2013 as a route forward via the Independent Investigator. This was completely rejected by the ‘complainants’.
I then felt threatened and bullied by wild rumours that there were many people who would complain against me. I felt that I was being urged to resign my party membership of 40 years on the basis of these rumours.
Following public calls for evidence, when the deadline for receiving complaints passed (November 22nd 2013), I was made aware of complaints from three women (including the woman who had accepted an apology two years previously). This was of course a smaller number of complaints than the number of women who gave interviews to Channel 4 News last February attacking me All the publicity did not result in a single complaint, other than those featured in the Channel 4 programme.
I submitted my evidence which strongly refuted what had been alleged. I had many very powerful evidential and character statements in support of my case. I then waited for the conclusion of the Independent Investigator. Under the rules only two possible conclusions are allowed at this stage. Either the investigator must say that there should be ‘No Further Action’ (as the Metropolitan Police did) or charges must be listed and then subjected to a hearing. The report must be given to just two people, the chair of the party body responsible, and to the person complained of.
I waited for the report to which I was entitled. Alex Carlile QC on my behalf consistently pressed for disclosure of the report to me, as the affected individual. I waited for two days to see it. Then I was informed indirectly by telephone that the party had decided not to accept it, which is against the rules for an independent investigation. I believe that that report concluded that ‘there should be no further action’ and it should have been given to me. The party decided to allow a further complaint to be admitted after the deadline had passed and which had been extended already. I then responded with my evidence to the fourth complainant (who had initially refused to assist the inquiry). Alex Carlile described some of my evidence obtained by research to be ‘devastating’. The party should have done this sort of research a year ago. Assessing the fourth complaint clearly did not change the outcome of the independent inquiry’s conclusion as it was again a ‘No further action’ conclusion.
Last Wednesday, I should have been given a copy of the report. Instead I was told that the party had advice that they could not do so under the Data Protection Act. This is strange since the rules have been in place since 2008; many bodies including Parliament publish reports of this kind and any personal data could have been redacted. I did not ask for the report to be published. I simply asked to be given it, as required by the rules. I have been advised firmly that there is no legal basis for refusing me a copy of the report in appropriately confidential circumstances.
I was informed by Alistair Webster QC at 11 am last Wednesday morning that the conclusion was ‘No Further Action’. He went on to say that there would be a press statement accompanying this saying that I should consider an apology and that some of the evidence against me was credible. He told me that the words accompanying the ‘No Further Action’ statement were not his responsibility and that if I objected to them, then I had to take this up with the party and not with him. I had made the offer to the party to co-ordinate and agree responses to the report’s conclusion (whatever it was) in advance. This offer was not taken up. Mr Webster was advised that the proposed press statement in his name was entirely inappropriate.
I immediately rang Lord Newby, the Lib Dem Chief Whip in the House of Lords, and told him that there would be a major problem if I was asked to do something that I could not do. My legal advice was that, apart from anything else, any apology would leave me defenceless in a future civil action. I believed that this would follow and could then result in my being expelled from the party after all. In any event, I made it clear to Lord Newby that any apology for something that I had not done was not appropriate and could not be accepted by me.
I explained this carefully to Dick Newby who said that there was little that he could do to persuade anyone to change the wording. It then emerged that both Nick Clegg and Tim Farron would issue further statement along similar lines. I did everything that I possibly could in the short time available to say that I should have the report, that I could not apologise and it would be most unwise to demand this.
I did however at the end of the meeting confirm that I was resuming the Lib Dem Whip in the House of Lords at that point, having in the interests of the party voluntarily stood aside from it, pending the conclusion of all inquiries. Dick confirmed that I was re-admitted and we shook hands.
I made my statement last Wednesday, which criticised nobody at all, and there the matter should have rested.
On Friday, I offered the party a way out. The four complainants announced that they would appeal against the conclusion of the inquiry. I suggested that the party should simply recognise that you cannot be expected to apologise when an appeal has been launched.
I am a Democrat, as well as a Liberal, and I believe that Conservative attempts to change parliamentary boundaries in their favour and change the voting registration to deny many people the vote could have resulted in permanent Conservative government for this country. I was happy to work with Nick Clegg to prevent this. My work for the Liberal Democrats over many years helping to win seats for the party, together with Nick Clegg’s brilliant performance in the General Election, prevented a Conservative majority in 2010.
I have not spoken to, met with, or heard from Nick Clegg in eleven months. I would ask him, now that he has more knowledge of the facts, to ask for any threat to me to be withdrawn and to insist that I see the report, to which I am entitled, and to let me help him and my party again in future.
I very much regret the wounds that have opened up within my party because many people have acted without being aware of the facts. I am particularly grateful to my friends and colleagues in the Liberal Democrat group in the House of Lords for much personal support.
I would advise my friends in the party to let the matter rest, as it should have done, with the simple conclusion of the Independent Investigator that there should be no further action.
Courtesy has always been an essential part of my moral compass. 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.
Ann and I have both been members of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats for over 40 years. Ann has also made great personal sacrifices for the sake of letting me help my party as much as I can. I am of course most grateful to her for sustaining me through this difficult period, together with our families and very many friends in the Liberal Democrats and elsewhere.
Finally, I would like to re-iterate my most grateful thanks also to Alex Carlile QC, who has acted for me as a friend on a pro-bono basis throughout the last year.
I hope that the matter will now be closed by a response to this statement and all threats withdrawn.