Chris Rennard allegations: where we’re at

Today’s press makes grim reading for the Lib Dems. Three of the Sunday papers lead on the allegations that Lord (Chris) Rennard behaved sexually inappropriately during his time as chief executive, and — more worrying still — that the party covered it up.

On Friday I published an opinion piece Chris Rennard allegations – the party needs to do better than this, arguing the party needed to set up a confidential whistle-blower’s email address to which further complaints could be sent, and that the review of the allegations needed to be independent of the party.

Over the weekend senior party figures have moved some of the way towards that. Tim Gordon, the party’s current chief executive (Chris Rennard’s successor-but-one) wrote here yesterday that:

… currently [we are] looking at ways to strengthen the independence of this review – we will add non-party members to the group and will seek professional advice from external sources. … The Party’s whistle blowing representative, Kate Parminter, has agreed to be a single point of contact for all those wishing to contribute to either review. Kate can be contacted at [email protected]. She is the only person with access to this email and all complaints will be dealt with on a strictly confidential basis.

I stand by my view that it is unfair to expect Tim Farron as party president to be tasked with asking the kinds of tough questions that will need to be asked of his parliamentary colleagues and others he has known for years. Moreover, an external review is the only kind that is likely to carry credibility with the press and public.

As for today’s newspapers, the front page which shouts loudest is the Mail’s: Bombshell email: Clegg knew about sex scandal. The paper’s clear implication is that this is a ‘smoking gun’ email from or to Nick Clegg which shows his direct knowledge of the allegations.

It turns out to be a Facebook exchange between one of the three women in the original Channel 4 News report (one who preferred to remain anonymous, described as “well connected at Lib Dem HQ”), who believes Nick will have known about them. The party’s review will have to find out whether her belief was accurate. But Nick Clegg’s office has been emphatic, with a spokesman saying again today that Nick “categorically did not know” about the claims, which Chris Rennard denies.

Alison Smith, who went public with her allegations against Chris Rennard last week, has been highlighting on Twitter her reasons for doing so now. This follows some speculation among party members that the timing of the story — one week before the Eastleigh by-election — might have been politically motivated:

Interestingly, Alison also re-tweeted the following point from MattB_UK last night:

alison smith retweet

Where does all this leave us: well, in a mess, that’s for sure. These allegations are serious ones. They must be investigated as thoroughly as possible. I am sure Tim Farron and the review team — which Tim Gordon promised would include “at least three women, representing a cross section of the party [and] will specifically include people with strong legal and HR backgrounds and people independent of the individuals involved” — will do their best. For their own sake, as much as for the party’s, I still hope they opt for an independent review.

In the meantime we can expect the press and the party’s opponents to make political capital out of this story. Such is politics — and it won’t do any of us any harm if we feel that’s unfair to think how often the shoe has been on the other foot.

But the over-riding concern here must be to ensure justice is done and seen to be done. Justice for the women bringing forward these allegations, as well as justice for those against who their complaints are levelled: notably Chris Rennard, but also named individuals within the party who are said not to have done enough to make the party’s internal processes work.

A word about comments: I know some people feel that LibDemVoice’s decision to switch off comments relating to earlier reports of this story was excessive, even illiberal. I understand the concerns. However, we took the view — and I believe it was the right one — that given these claims are serious but contested, and given that LibDemVoice and its editorial team would be liable for any actionable comments posted which we failed to moderate, it was our only option. Comments on this post are switched on but will be closely monitored. I would ask all those who want to comment to please exercise care in what you say about the allegations and especially about any named individuals.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • In considering who knew what when about the allegations, it’s worth noting that in substance they were clearly known to Paul Staines – and to readers of his blog – as far back as 2009:

  • I repeat my point from another thread. The BBC chose to go with a story from the Mail based on a Facebook message containing someone’s hypothesis about what Nick Clegg may or may not have known.

    The BBC should be ashamed of its devastatingly poor standards of journalism here.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 24th Feb '13 - 10:57am

    Dear Colleagues,

    I feel obliged as a former police officer, and someone who cares passionately about ‘Justice’ to ask that people refrain from discussing this case any further. With freedom of speech comes responsibility, and this means acknowledging that if a fair and just investigation is to take place, then it must not be hampered by ‘uneducated’ and other comments that have no evidence to corroborate them.

    In order for the victims and suspect/s, and the public to have confidence in the process, they all need to know that the investigation is being undertaken without any prejudice or other bias, and that those people who have evidence are free to speak openly to the investigation team, without the fear of potential future harassment and victimisation.

    Please allow due process to take its coarse, without external comment otherwise people may feel hindered to raise their genuinely held concerns in a safe environment.

    This is NOT a theoretical discussion, this is real, and peoples lives are affected, so please respect and support the process that will need to be followed if we are to resolve this situation.

    I personally thank you all for respecting all parties in this by remaining neutral in this forum, which is monitored by both friends and critics of the Party.

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera
    English Party Diversity Champion
    07886 799 256
    [email protected]

  • Stuart Mitchell 24th Feb '13 - 11:00am

    Stephen, the other day you said: “Like many in the party I’d heard rumours along the lines of those which have now surfaced against Chris Rennard for years.”

    And we know for a fact that complaints were made to senior Lib Dems including Jo Swinson.

    How could nobody have thought to mention any of this to Nick Clegg? As an outsider – I find this absolutely extraordinary.

  • As they said,”expect it to get nasty”

  • I’ve been really impressed by your honest stance here – covering things up, turning a blind eye or whatever rarely ends well for anyone – and there are many awkward questions that need answering before the Party can move on.

  • Stephen, I think you made a very important point when you said in an earlier piece that you could find no trace of the party’s whistleblowing procedure. Presumably the party has grievance and other procedures and protections for paid staff. Volunteers (and people often forget that PPCs are just that) have been left to fend for themselves.

  • I agree with Stephen that an independent review is needed here.

  • I entirely agree that an external inquiry is required for precisely the reason given. An internal inquiry would look as though the party was not taking the allegations seriously.

  • Simon Wilson 24th Feb '13 - 1:55pm

    Review must be independent, transparent and far-reaching. No rush job to satisfy media-must take the time to hear stories, test allegations and act accordingly

  • any review of these specific allegations that is conducted by a party member will look like (and be spun by political opponents and hostile press alike) as a cover up. Still, that appears to be the direction the party had chosen to go down. Batten down the hatches, then.

  • The problem with senior people in the party claiming that they knew nothing about these claims until last week is that the News of the World had allegedly been investigating them in 2009, while Rennard was still Chief Executive, but had been deterred from publishing by the threat of legal action. One can only say that if the party leader was not aware of such a situation, then he should have been.

  • Tony Dawson 24th Feb '13 - 3:12pm

    I think the decision to turn off the ‘Comments’ was sensible: except that you did not collectively turn off the ‘Comment’ from Stephen Tall which has been heavily-used by our political opponents to try to justify some of their outrageous and politically-motivated ‘angles’ on all this. 🙁

  • Tony Greaves 24th Feb '13 - 3:39pm

    An open and democratic organisation like the Liberal Democrats is very different from many other kinds of organisation. If the inquiry were to result in a cover up it would be people in the party itself that led the revolt.

    By the way, without commenting at all on the current complaints and allegations, I can say that having trawled my memory over all the years concerned, and as someone who has been closely involved in the party at all levels including national (and someone who keeps my ear to the ground) I don’t believe I heard any such rumours at the time or until the C4 broadcast. I state this simply to refute the idea that such rumours were “widely heard” in the party during that time.

    Tony Greaves

  • Liberal Neil 24th Feb '13 - 5:26pm

    @Ruth Bright – I can’t remember whether there was a specific ‘whistleblower’ policy as such when I worked for the Federal Party but there was, as you would expect, standard Terms & Conditions of Employment, line management structure, grievance procedure etc. I’m sure most of us who have worked for the party in recent years would have understood that we also had a duty of care to volunteers we worked with.

  • Tim Nichols 24th Feb '13 - 5:28pm

    I commend Stephen for his call for an independent review.

    I worked for 5 years in parliament for the party and the Lib Dems are part of a broader parliamentary culture of male egos, machismo and also the deluded and vane confusion of one’s position of power with one’s sexual appeal. It many times struck me as pathetic and occasionally struck me as deeply concerning, with behaviour I either witnessed or heard about from friends whose testimony I would personally consider reliable.

    The party should do this and do it properly. The other parties have their dark secrets: matters swept under the carpet and hidden away in files in whips’ offices. An independent inquiry in the Lib Dems would help serve notice on the other parties and ensure that when any of their dark secrets come to light, it will be hard for them to avoid an independent inquiry too, or to explain why similar matters in whips files today may yet still remain under wraps protecting reputations of people who do not deserve such protection.

    Perhaps it will even help others come forward in the coming months who are effected by the kind of behaviour alleged of Lord Rennard in the male dominated UK political culture beyond just the Lib Dems, so that instead of it reflecting badly on the party, it will eventually reflect well on the party that it was Lib Dem women who refused to let this ugly part of the broader UK political culture be hidden.

    An Independent review should have a remit that considers any failings or cultural problems of the Lib Dem firstly with a focus on individual failure where it has happened, secondly with a focus on Lib Dem institutional failure, but also thirdly in the broader context of the parliamentary culture as this may be necessary to help understand – but certainly not excuse – why the matter was not dealt with as it should have been back in 2008.

    And finally an independent review is essential as the only acceptable message to send to any woman considering becoming actively involved in the party, or perhaps seeking to become a candidate. The Lib Dems need to become a party in which many more women are candidates, MPs, Peers and in the top jobs in the parliamentary party.

  • David Pollard 24th Feb '13 - 6:07pm

    How is it that C4 broadcast this story in time for the Sunday’s to do their worst the weekend before the Eastleigh by-election? I think we should be told.

  • Stuart Mitchell 24th Feb '13 - 6:25pm

    BBC now reporting that Nick Clegg is to “admit knowing of general concerns”.

  • It’s not enough to say that the party president would find it hard to question colleaguesabout such allegations – that goes with the territory surely? it also mskes the point again that the president really should be from outside. this is not to say that Tim Farron is not effective, he is, but the president should be disinterested

  • While it is possible that the complaints were made in good faith, it is absolutely certain that the media hoo-ha is politically motivated. The media interest in Operation Fernbridge, which is looking at far more serious allegations against politicians and other public figures, has been much less intense, with the notable exception of the “Daily Mirror”. It cannot be coincidental that most (though not all) of the politicians being probed by Fernbridge are Conservatives, while Lord Rennard is a Liberal Democrat (and there’s a crucial byelection next Thursday). Sadly, a few people still believe what they read in newspapers. Like Lord Greaves, I had never heard a whiff of these rumours in all the years I’ve been in the Party.

  • Richard Harris 24th Feb '13 - 7:42pm

    Just today we’ve heard from Cable that apparently Nick Clegg knew nothing of these accusations, but tonight (according to the BBC tonight – see we’re expecting a statement that Clegg knew something, but nothing specific. Clegg has had how many days to make a statement on this and has taken until now to do so. Where did the libdem promise of a new kind of politics vanish too? – so far this is looking like good old fashioned damage limitation political maneuvering.

  • Ruth Bright 24th Feb '13 - 7:48pm

    But Neil that “duty of care” is too nebulous to have any meaning. I made complaints against two male councillors (one in 2006 and one in 2011) and no action resulted on either occasion. I stand by what I said that volunteers in this party are left to fend for themselves.

  • well for one I do not trust the right wing Tory press who are trumpeting headlines mainly let’s face it to boost the campaign of an appalling Tory candidate in Eastleigh!

    second in my book everyone is innocent until proven innocent – no trial by press please; haven’t we learned from Levenson

    third good luck to the perfectly decent Liberal candidate in Eastleigh – i’m sure the voters will concentrate on the issues and candidates and not other issues!

  • I think that it’s important to presume innocence until guilt is proven. Whatever the substance of any allegations may be, trial by media is not the answer. When I write this I am not thinking so much of comments on this site but of the media focus in general.

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