Q&A on the allegations against Lord Rennard. (My conclusion: it’s a mess.)

by Stephen Tall on January 17, 2014

Why are the Lib Dems in such a mess about the allegations of sexual impropriety against Lord (Chris) Rennard?

When a complaint is made against a Lib Dem member the party has a documented disciplinary procedure. You can read it here. In theory, it looks quite straightforward – there’s even a flow-chart. A complaint is made, an investigator is appointed, and they make a recommendation of whether action should be taken. Keen to ensure the process was (and was seen to be) fair and transparent, the party appointed an independent QC, Alistair Webster. He reported this week and concluded that under the party’s current rules no further action should be taken against Lord Rennard.

Does that mean he’s cleared Lord Rennard?

No. The party sets a high burden of proof for disciplinary charges brought against a member. It must be proved beyond reasonable doubt that they acted as is alleged, the same standard that would apply in a criminal case. This is a higher threshold than applies in civil cases such as employment tribunals where it need only be shown that the allegation is more likely than not to have happened based on ‘the balance of probabilities’. Alistair Webster concluded that there was a less than 50% chance that the allegations against Lord Rennard could be proved beyond reasonable doubt.

But didn’t Lord Rennard’s friend and counsel Lord (Alex) Carlile say on Channel 4 News that he’d been cleared even on the lower threshold of ‘the balance of probabilities’?

Lord Carlile did say that. He was wrong. In fact, Alistair Webster stated that ‘In my opinion, the evidence of behaviour which violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants was broadly credible.’ This implies that if the party rules used the civil case definition of the burden of proof he would have recommended disciplinary action proceed against Lord Rennard.

So why doesn’t the party change its rules and lower the threshold of evidence needed?

It can do and I’d expect the next party conference to receive calls to do exactly that. However, to change rules to allow action to be taken retrospectively against an individual is contrary to natural justice.

But wasn’t Lord Rennard the Lib Dem chief executive? Why didn’t the party invoke disciplinary procedures then?

Good question. Most of the complaints that have been made public were first raised privately while Lord Rennard was an employee of the Lib Dems. The key failing of the party’s processes is not, in fact, what is happening now: it is what didn’t happen then. Too many people at the top of the party simply wanted a difficult problem to go away, and some at least of the women who made the complaints were understandably very reluctant to push their complaints in order to spare the party embarrassment. As a result, the outcome was fudged. Lord Rennard resigned as the party’s chief executive in 2009 on grounds of ill health without the allegations being resolved. From that point on, the only disciplinary action he could face was as a member (beyond reasonable doubt proof required) not as an employee (balance of probabilities suffices). And, of course, the more time that lapses, the harder it gets to substantiate allegations to that higher threshold.

Lord Rennard is a Lib Dem peer – can’t Nick Clegg as Lib Dem leader at least withdraw the whip?

Technically, no. That’s up to the Lib Dem chief whip and the leader of the parliamentary party in the House of Lords. However, the party leader can normally get their own way. The bigger problem Nick Clegg has is this: what would be his justification for withdrawing the whip? After all, Lord Rennard has not been found by the party’s own disciplinary processes to have committed an offence.

But didn’t Nick Clegg threaten to withdraw the whip from Baroness (Jenny) Tonge for comments she made about Israel?

Yes, he did. But Baroness Tonge didn’t dispute making the comments that she made (though their interpretation was a matter of controversy) and her track record of making inflammatory remarks on the subject had lost her friends even among those who agree with her on Israel. In contrast, Lord Rennard denies absolutely the actions he’s alleged to have committed and is also said to have the support of at least half the Lib Dem peers.

Surely Lord Rennard should at least do as Alistair Webster QC asked and apologise for the distress he caused the women who have made the allegations?

Here I take an old-fashioned view: Lord Rennard should only apologise if he really means it. Any apology extracted now is unlikely to be genuine and I’m not sure it would be accepted by the women concerned (and why should it be if it’s not sincerely intended?). And Lord Rennard will also have taken legal advice that he should be very careful about offering an apology, as it might weaken his defence in the event that any of the women bring a civil claim against him.

So are you really saying there’s nothing that can be done?

Quite a lot has been done. The party commissioned The Morrissey Report, with sound recommendations as to how to avoid getting into this mess again – and its author Helen Morrissey will soon be back to scrutinise progress to make sure they don’t get brushed under the carpet.

But what can be done about Lord Rennard?

It depends to what extent you believe in due process. Plenty will say the process (and the party) has failed the women concerned – and I’d agree. But overturning due process to right a perceived wrong is a very slippery slope, as liberals should be only too aware.

Is that it?

Believe me I’ve tried to think of a more constructive way to end this piece. But it’s a mess.

21 comments

Here's the problem. Natural justice demands a non-criminal level of evidence – otherwise we make it obvious that you can get away with sexual harassment in the Lib Dems.

I've seen members leave two separate local parties because of sexual harassment – and it's been only a few hours since I've heard from the last person who has been sexually harassed in the party. And who knows what anyone reading the media from outside the party thinks – but unless we're chasing the UKIP vote it's not going to help.

So not only is it immoral to allow harassment to happen – at a practical level it's very damaging to our party.

There's really no point in a liberal party if we don't drive out illiberal behaviour in our own ranks. If we have stupid rules then that is no excuse at all.

We have no choice but to act – and if that means us losing more than one peer then we have to.

by Rob Blackie on January 17, 2014 at 9:28 pm. Reply #

I'm open to the argument we should change the rules, Rob, to lower the burden of proof required. But changing them with retrospective effect to apply them to Chris would be quite wrong.

by Stephen Tall on January 17, 2014 at 11:10 pm. Reply #

We don’t actually have to change the rules to do things in the short term.

We know that Rennard is guilty on a civil balance of evidence – so while the party disciplinary investigation can’t throw him out of the party, there are plenty of other sanctions available, like withdrawing the Whip in the Lords.

by Rob Blackie on January 17, 2014 at 11:17 pm. Reply #

“We know that Rennard is guilty on a civil balance of evidence”

Suspect, maybe – but we can’t know that, Rob. Webster could only make a judgement based on the party’s current rules. Everything else is just supposition. It’s precisely because we still don’t *know* things in an objective sense that it’s so difficult.

by Stephen Tall on January 17, 2014 at 11:44 pm. Reply #

Nick Clegg has laid down the gauntlet to the peers in the Lords. I think there will be some who will be furious about that, but others will realise the party will pay a very high price if they do not go along with what Nick Clegg has demanded. I think Nick Clegg will get his way, just.
I think he deserves credit for strong leadership, although it will leave a lot of LD peers – and maybe some MPs – with a terrible feeling of injustice and some will storm out of the party.
It is all a mess and Nick Clegg is dammed either way.

by Geoffrey Payne on January 17, 2014 at 11:27 pm. Reply #

A very fair and informative summary, Stephen. I think we just need to move on, bearing in mind the programme of change in the party’s procedures.

I think expecting someone to apologise when they have not seen the evidence submitted for and against them, is against natural justice. It is asking Chris to sign a blank cheque.

There was a fairly successful Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. That involved drawing a line under torture and murder involving thousands.

Surely it is not beyond the gumption of the Liberal Democrats to organise a reconciliation between five or six people over this, is it not? Sadly, the chance of lancing the boil, through airing the evidence at a hearing, has been lost. But I don’t think Chris should pay the price for that.

There has been great pain on all sides, particularly amidst the women affected.

Consider what Chris and his wife Ann have been through over the last year. It must have been hell for them. Is that not enough punishment for doing something which does not even meet the threshold to terminate his membership?

Enough is enough. We need to move on.

by Paul Walter on January 17, 2014 at 11:28 pm. Reply #

“We know that Rennard is guilty on a civil balance of evidence”

Oh really? And he has been found guilty by what? The debatable interpretation of a few phrases from Alistair Webster’s report? Don’t be ridiculous.

by Paul Walter on January 17, 2014 at 11:37 pm. Reply #

Paul – I would direct you to Duncan Borrowman’s email from 2008, cut & pasted below. To believe in innocence you need to believe in a large conspiracy of people to make things up – for no reason that anyone has come up with.

On Wed, Oct 8, 2008 at 6:24 PM, Duncan Borrowman wrote:
I am sending this to a number of female PPCs/former PPCs etc

The reason I am sending it is either because I have discussed inappropriate behaviour by Chris Rennard towards you in person, or because I believe it has happened from other conversations I have had.

Following the number of conversations I have had, it was clear that there has been a long standing problem with a number of women where the abuse of Chris’s position was clearly inappropriate. There is a very clear pattern to the behaviour with those I have spoken to regarding the type of event, what has happened etc.

As a result I have discussed this today with Jo Swinson, who was aware of a number of cases, which largely didn’t overlap with the ones I was aware of.

Jo tells me that a recent conversation has been had by somebody senior in the party with Chris, and he has been informed that the behaviour has to stop.

Now she is aware that from those I know of that the problem was larger than first thought, she will ensure that TPTB know and take what further action is appropriate.

The reason this has come to a head now is that I have in the last 24 hours become aware of a number more incidents than was initially the case.

I have agreed with Jo that I would contact you to let you knwo what is happening. The important thing is that the past events are being dealt with (and advice on any furtehr action is being taken), but most impotantly that an underatking has been made that it will stop.

As a result, there is one request – if you are aware of any further or very recent incidents, please could you contact Alison Suttie in the Leader’s Office.

For my part I am pretty stunned by what I have heard, please don’t hesitate to call me on xxxxx if you want to discuss further.

Best wishes

Duncan

by Rob Blackie on January 17, 2014 at 11:43 pm. Reply #

“To believe in innocence”. You appear to be imputing a view on me, for which there is no basis.

by Paul Walter on January 17, 2014 at 11:52 pm. Reply #

If two friends of mine, who have no reason to lie, tell me something happened to them, then I know it.

I may not have seen it with my own eyes – but I’m confident they are telling the truth.

If further documents come to light showing that there are additional allegations that are essentially the same, then this strengthens it.

by Rob Blackie on January 17, 2014 at 11:47 pm. Reply #

Rob
The Liberal Democrat Voice Comments Policy has a passage which says:
“Avoid distorting the views of the author or subject of a post or other commenters. Expressing outrage at the views of someone who you have just misquoted is particularly to be avoided.”
I believe that, above, you appear to have strayed slightly on that score.
I have made, here and elsewhere, some comments about the operation of natural justice.
At no stage have I said that I don’t believe the women.

by Paul Walter on January 18, 2014 at 6:40 am. Reply #

My apologies Paul if I’ve caused any offence – I wasn’t intending to imply you didn’t believe them – though, obviously, I expressed myself badly.

I was of course implying that some people clearly don’t believe the women – or haven’t fully thought things through.

My point really is that while these disciplinary procedures may have run their course, that is not the same as saying we can do nothing more.

We should do the most we can to – a) protect people in the future and b) specifically make our party welcoming for women.

In this context an apology from Rennard is the minimum we should ask for – and only the start of a long journey we need to take as a party.

by Rob Blackie on January 18, 2014 at 10:33 am. Reply #

If you are right that the decision to restore the Whip has to be made by The Cheif Whip & The Leader in The HoL then why did The Libdem Lords meet as a group to make the decision ?
Individuals are only in The HoL because The Party Leader put them there, they need to remember that. We elected Nick Clegg & he chooses who goes into The Lords on our behalf.

by paul barker on January 18, 2014 at 11:13 am. Reply #

[…] The Liberal Democrats seem to be getting into an almighty tangle over the Rennard affair. Stephen Tall offers a good overview of the state of play. […]

by Extracting apologies from the unrepentant | Alex's Archives on January 18, 2014 at 11:22 am. Reply #

Paul B. i think it was announced according to Lord Greaves comment on a recent LDV post. In the members forum he has also posted the standing orders of the peers group.

Rob, no offence taken but thank you for your apology. I have great sympathy with your view.

by Paul Walter on January 18, 2014 at 11:32 am. Reply #

“But didn’t Lord Rennard’s friend and counsel Lord (Alex) Carlile say on Channel 4 News that he’d been cleared even on the lower threshold of ‘the balance of probabilities’?

Lord Carlile did say that. He was wrong. In fact, Alistair Webster stated that ‘In my opinion, the evidence of behaviour which violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants was broadly credible.’ This implies that if the party rules used the civil case definition of the burden of proof he would have recommended disciplinary action proceed against Lord Rennard.”

I am not sure we can say categorically that Lord Carlile was wrong in this. I don’t think the words you have quoted from Webster prove he was wrong either. It was rather difficult to make out what Carlile was saying at times in the interview. but when he said that Rennard had been cleared even on the lower balance of probabilities test he added that Alistair Webster has said this “because he said, in terms, that the evidence did not pass the 50% test”.

I think Lord Carlile was referring to this statement from Alistair Webster:

“My view, judging the evidence as a whole, is that there is a less than 50% chance that a charge against Lord Rennard could be proved to the requisite standard.”

So I can see the logic of Lord Carlile’s point here.

In comes back to a point I made on the LDV members forum few days ago :

“”Beyond reasonable doubt” (BRD) versus “balance of probabilities” (BOP). I am presuming that it is possible to draw an approximate little scale which shows where BRD is versus BOP. On that comparative scale, I am wondering where less than 50% on the BRD scale lines up against the BOP scale. Surely, to use the practical example of a set of old fashioned weighing scales, in order to tip the balance, don’t you have to be over 50%?”

by Paul Walter on January 18, 2014 at 12:30 pm. Reply #

Let’s say that BRD is 90% then what Webster is saying, as I interpret it, is that he thinks there is less than a 50% chance of that threshold being reached.

Therefore it’s possible that he thinks that, say, the evidence is actually a 75% chance looked at from a BOP point of view…

Basically two different ways of looking at the same evidence make this extremely confusing.

by Rob Blackie on January 18, 2014 at 2:47 pm. Reply #

Innocent in law until proved guilty – but not if you are a successful middle aged man. Not the society my ancestor fought for at Normandy.

The women who allege offence have recourse to law, and a bandwagon is rolling already in such matters, in this country. If there is smoke here, it must be shown in law that there is actually fire. If guilt were ever shown in a court of law, this changes everything.

A subscription club (as any political party is), without the authority of law, tries to coerce someone into a confession which is not backed up by any lawful verdict. What kind of country does that sound like?

If Lord Rennard now apologises he is potentially incriminating himself (because it will be a tacit admission of guilt), so the subscription club not only takes on the mantle of the law, but would deny him one of the law’s most basic constitutional defences. What kind of club does that sound like?

Sorry if that gives offence (actually, I’m just saying that). The ancestor who survived Normandy taught me to be straightforward.

by Mike Stone on January 20, 2014 at 1:50 pm. Reply #

[…] Stephen wrote on Friday summarising the background to the mess the party finds itself in here: Q&A on the allegations against Lord Rennard. (My conclusion: it’s a mess.) […]

by The Rennard case: what Caron Lindsay and Stephen Tall have said about it on January 20, 2014 at 2:23 pm. Reply #

This is well argued and clear but, in my opinion, it fails to engage with the broader issue at play. The mechanisms put in place to investigate complaints within the party are inadequate and it is an issue that goes way beyond Chris Rennard's conduct or alleged conduct.

Political parties are potentially fertile grounds for bullying because advancement is not related to ability or qualifications but to patronage. As a result powerful players become untouchable, as is argued above in relation to Rennard. This can happen at all levels of political parties.

Rules based around the concept of 'bringing the party into disrepute' are inadequate because ultimately they serve not to control the behaviour of bullies but to control the behaviour of whistle blowers. The individuals in an organisation subjected to bullying (sexual harassment is a form of bullying) struggle to find allies willing to submit evidence because their colleagues can themselves be frightened of the bully in their midst. The victim eventually realises that the local party or other colleagues are not prepared to stand and be counted because of the power of the individual who is causing them problem. There are then only three options: put up with the behaviour of the bully, resign from the party, or go public in the hope that casting light under the stone will lead, finally, to action being taken.

This is an appalling set of options for someone who wishes to try to save their party from the misconduct of individuals who are out of control. It leads to a party that tolerates the presence of bullies and is incapable of removing them. Hardly a hallmark of a functional democratic party. I speak as someone with experience of these matters. More alarming still is the reluctance of the investigative bodies to look at evidence put in front of them, even when this takes the form of a whole string of written statements and documentary evidence from, say, a dozen witnesses.

At heart the problem is this: should a political party base its codes of conduct and morality only with the aim of maintaining the party's public image, or should the codes of conduct and morality be designed and implemented to ensure that all its members are required to behave properly within the party, regardless of whether the public is or isn't aware? I believe that it should be the latter. I want to see all party members protected from the misconduct of bullies regardless of whether the public is aware of what is going on or not. I want the word 'democrat' to have meaning within the party and not simply be a name presented for public consumption: all sides involved in the Rennard case and in others up and down the land deserve better.

Too often I have heard people say 'yes, I know he is a … but he gets things done.' That is profoundly unacceptable and the Liberal Democrats must reform.

by Christian Vassie on January 20, 2014 at 2:56 pm. Reply #

To any of my Facebook friends who wondered why they suddenly got treated to this heavy internal party politics stuff, I am sorry you were bombarded with it. I posted a comment on a Lib Dem blog and for some reason the Lib Dem blog felt that I wanted to pass on my pearls of wisdom to everyone I know. I did not, I was simply commenting on the content of the blog and had no idea it would end up on my Facebook page. I do not regret anything that I wrote but I do regret you all being blasted with it. Apologies. I will be more careful next time.

by Christian Vassie on January 22, 2014 at 12:04 am. Reply #

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