Rennard’s expenses clearance: Party needs to learn some lessons in transparency

by Stephen Tall on October 21, 2009

What’s the correct response to the news that Lord (Chris) Rennard has been cleared by the Clerk of the Parliaments of any wrong-doing over his allowances claims? I ask because I think there are some important issues at play here for how we, the Lib Dems, as a party can help restore trust in democracy.

First, we need to separate the personal from the political (and, incidentally, this applies just as much to Chris’s critics). Most of us who have met, or in some way know, Chris will be pleased for him on a personal level. The allegations that he’d somehow fiddled the system has dogged him since April, and brought about a more-hasty-than-planned exit to his time as the party’s chief executive.

Above all, though, Chris’s friends and the wider party will be relieved. The allegations against him have hung like a dark cloud over the Lib Dems’ pronouncements on expenses for several months now.

To be blunt, it’s been an embarrassment, and one which the party has handled poorly – precisely because we’ve failed to separate the personal from the political. The fact that Chris was not only a Lib Dem peer, but also the party’s chief executive, and one of its most loyal servants for decades, led to a paralysis in what was owed to Chris, to the party, and to the wider public: namely, an independent system of due process to resolve the allegations.

The response from the highest level within the party to this case has, I’m afraid, been severely lacking. The party’s Federal Executive meeting of May left it unclear how the allegations against individual peers would be dealt with; and there has been no subsequent statement from the Federal Executive on the issue. Instead of openness and transparency, there has been embarrassed silence. And that is, quite simply, not good enough.

Before writing this post, I re-read my Lib Dem Voice article from May – Papering over the crack of the elephant in the room – to see if I’d been in any way unfair to Chris in the light of the allegations against him being dismissed. I think I can stand by its every word, especially this section:

Of course these things are never easy. Allegations involving friends and colleagues never are. But if we cannot get right the processes for dealing with our internal difficulties, how can we convince anyone else (or ourselves) that we would be any different and better at reforming the wider political system?

My criticism of the party’s response to the expenses row is not restricted to the leadership, by the way. There are still 21 Lib Dem MPs whose Legg letters remain (to the best of my knowledge) secret, despite the recommendation of the whip’s office that they all issue a statement on their websites.

This is frustrating stuff – most especially because the Lib Dems have been the one major party which has consistently fought for greater transparency of Parliamentary expenses, and for real reform of our systems of government. A quick search through the LDV archives shows just a handful of the ways the party has been pushing for change for years, often in the teeth of opposition from Labour and Tory MPs:

In short, the party needs to walk the talk, and prove that our commitment to expenses reform – to openness and transparency – apply to all our Parliamentarians, regardless of the position they hold or the esteem in which they’re held.