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

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.

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29 Comments

  • Martin Land 21st Oct '09 - 3:02pm

    Perhaps our MP’s could disclose their letters by a certain deadline?

  • Ok, this is getting annoying.

    Both you and Mark are taking it as read that the investigation has fully exonerated Rennard, but if you take the time to read it, it does no such thing.

    It presents evidence that the allegations are not true now.
    It presents Rennards own claims that the allegations are not true now.
    It clears Rennard on the basis that the rules are poorly defined.

    What it does not do is show that the sunlight centers allegations at the time they were made were false. To try and mislead your readership (who are mostly I presume like me Lib Dem supporters) is frankly grubby as hell.

  • Herbert Brown 21st Oct '09 - 3:12pm

    “It presents evidence that the allegations are not true now.”

    Frankly, it doesn’t even do that, because on Rennard’s own account he must be spending well under half his time in Eastbourne.

    On that basis, his residence in Eastbourne would fail the test that applies to MPs “main residences”. It appears to be only because a Lord’s “main residence” is completely undefined that the complaint was not upheld.

  • Stephen, I don’t assume he’s guilty. I really have no anti-Rennard agenda, I’d love to see a robust defense showing up Guido & Sunlight as over-zealous in going after Lib Dems. It would be lovely if Lib Dems could be shown to never do anything wrong.

    I fully agree with the meat of your article. The Lib Dems have done better on this in terms of campaigning to reform the system and in their behavior which has come to light. It is hugely frustrating that despite being better we’re not getting any real improvement with the Electorate!

    Now I think that a big part of the problem is any voter who bothers to dig into our scandals will find Lib Dem party organs behaving with hypocrisy and grubbiness. Sure, Labour and the Conservatives are much worse, but it’s a pretty hard sell “Vote Lib Dem, we’re mildly less bad than the other two!”.

    When the the Rennard story broke we swept it under the carpet, then when the expenses scandal gave it a renewed importance we had loud exclamations that the Fed was looking into it. Then he stepped down with no mention of what the Fed had found.

    Clegg tried to maintain that he hadn’t really done much wrong with his clever capital gains maneuver, until Legg started poking and now he’s paid money back.

    Now LDV is following in this trend by taking the headline dismissal of the complaint and ignoring that the dismissal says nothing about the truth of the allegations. The perception is that the Lib Dems talk a good talk on policy, but when it comes down to actually behaving with integrity in their own affairs they fall short and spin like mad.

    As a supporter this deeply saddens me, no Rennard is not guilty, he has not been proven to be guilty. Chris Rennard has not been proven to be anything. Given his colleagues presumably know when he was in the office and if he was doing a 3 hour commute, I’d rather like for them to step forward and exonerate him fully.

  • Herbert Brown 21st Oct '09 - 8:14pm

    “I thought the Fedex commissioned some sort of independent audit of the LibDem Lords’ expenses, didn’t they? In which case what happened to that?”

    I think a lot of people got that impression from the statement in May, but evidently the reference was not to any assessment on behalf of the party, but to an official House of Lords assessment, which is apparently now being carried out by the Senior Salaries Review Body.

    As far as I’ve heard, there has been no party enquiry into Lords’ allowances at all.

  • There are lots of things that FedEx could have done. They could have listed those Lords who did and did not claim the “I don’t live in London” allowances. They could have asked whether those who claim not to live in London:

    1) Lived in London prior to becoming Lords.
    2) Are on the electoral register at their non-London residence
    3) Where they voted in the last general election
    4) Whether their spouse works in a place compatible with their non-London residence
    5) Whether their kids go to school in a place compatible with their non-London residence

    When this scandal broke I googled 10 of our Peers team. The websites of two claimed that they lived in London when they told the Lords’ authorities that they did not. A year ago the partner of one of our peers told me that they had recently acquired a weekend home. Now I know why they did – they have registered it as their main home.

    And they could recommend that any person who does not answer their questions should be suspended from the party. If Nick is serious about cleaning up politics, he would have supported this.

    Or FedEx could sit on their hands and do nothing.

    And as an ordinary party member there is nothing I can do. I can’t even vote to clear FedEx of the useless people who seem to think their job is to do nothing at times like this. It makes me sick.

  • Herbert Brown 21st Oct '09 - 10:16pm

    Mark
    “The impression that there would be an independent enquiry carried out by the Federal Executive stems from a misinterpretation of Ros Scott’s original statement by Alix Mortimer.”

    No it didn’t.

    I interpreted it in exactly the same way as Alix. I’m sure others did as well. I think it was a perfectly natural interpretation of the statement.

    It is unfortunate that none of those “in the know” made any effort to correct that widespread false impression of what had been announced.

  • Herbert Brown 21st Oct '09 - 10:22pm

    Anyhow, one thing the Federal Executive did manage to announce in May – I’m not sure how, in view of your assurance of its impotence in these matters – was the following:

    “By mid-June the Chief Whips in both Houses, working with other relevant parts of the party will produce a Code of Conduct for Liberal Democrat parliamentarians. The party’s Audit and Compliance Board will outline principles which will inform this Code of Conduct. …
    All Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidates will agree to abide by the Code of Conduct as a condition of selection. Other state parties and the European parliamentary party will be asked to produce a Code of Conduct which will similarly apply to all candidates.”

    Has any of that happened? Certainly when I asked Lord McNally in July he appeared to know nothing whatsoever about it.

  • Herbert Brown 21st Oct '09 - 11:18pm

    Mark

    What part of my previous comment didn’t you understand? The misconception didn’t “stem” from what Alix Mortimer wrote, because other people independently made the same interpretation of the ambiguous statement from the Federal Executive. I know, because I was one of them!

    But as you seem to have slipped back into your accustomed role as unofficial presidential spokesman, perhaps you can respond to my other question about the Code of Conduct that was meant to be produced more than four months ago. If you’re not “in the know”, maybe you can ask someone who is …

  • Mark

    My questions would be a start, and as you say would work for at least some peers. Of course peers can explain their behaviour – as you say, someone who has been a peer for 30+ years may well have moved. No doubt the collective wisdom of FedEx could do better at devising questions than I managed in 5 minutes, and of course people should have the right to explain themselves, although those explanations should be public.

    It would be better if the Lords chief whip was on board, but do you really think that if FedEx had come up with a decent proposal and Nick had backed them on that, that the peers would have insisted on covering everything up? If so, then yes, FedEx should do everything in its power, de jure and de facto, to ensure that the full weight of the party, leadership, state, regional and local, be brought to bear on any such individual.

    I am not a conference rep because I can rarely make it to conference. To be a conference rep in those circumstances would be to deny someone else in my local area the right to play a full part in our party’s democratic processes, which I think would be unreasonable and undemocratic of me. I can hardly stand as a conference rep under the slogan “Vote for me, I can’t attend conference”. As a result I am powerless to do anything except to resign from the party, or reduce my level of activity.

    Tim

  • Herbert Brown 22nd Oct '09 - 1:06am

    Mark

    “You can get the information yourself, some of which can be found by dint of some easy Googling…”

    Perhaps you missed my previous comment, where I explained that I’d asked the leader of the party in the Lords about this Code of Conduct that was meant to have been formulated more than four months ago – and he hadn’t even heard of it.

    But as that is the case, I think a moment’s reflection will show that a silly bluff along the lines of “I can’t be bothered to answer the question – you can find out using Google” isn’t going to fool anyone.

    Do you really think that posting this kind of nonsense does the party any good?

  • Herbert Brown 22nd Oct '09 - 1:14am

    And as for the arcane debate about the best way of determining which of their homes is a peer’s “main residence”, I think this kind of thing must make ordinary people wonder which planet we’re living on!

    If a peer has a home in London, why on earth should they expect to be paid £20,000 a year from the public purse for sleeping in their own bed, under their own roof?

    Reimburse reasonable expenses, by all means. But I can see no earthly reason why peers should be given these huge handouts when they are staying in their own homes and incurring not one penny of additional expenses.

  • Paul Pettinger 22nd Oct '09 - 1:19am

    The Party could have done and could still do a lot more about the sleaze that pervades the Liberal Democrats in the Lords if it wanted Mark. It could use its soft power to ensure that Lib Dem Lords are properly investigated and ultimately withdraw party membership from fraudulent Peers. If could even communicate that flipping your designated home for financial gain was some how objectionable. Instead the Party and its President have chosen to lavish praise on Chris Rennard at Autumn Conference, when he was invited to speak at the rally (I am afraid I do not know what he said – I had walked out by that point). There is a lot that still could and can be done, I guess it comes down to how important you believe proper standards in peoples personal financial affairs are, as well as how serious you consider accusations of fraud and corruption in pubic office to be.

  • Malcolm Todd 22nd Oct '09 - 9:07am

    Mark

    “You can get the information yourself, some of which can be found by dint of some easy Googling…”

    I may not be much of a Googler, but I can’t find any evidence of this code of conduct for parliamentarians having been published – just multiple references to the promise made in May that it would be forthcoming by mid-June. Could you provide some guidance on search terms to use, or perhaps even a URL to take interested readers straight to the Code?

  • Herbert Brown 22nd Oct '09 - 10:30am

    Iain

    That’s all very well, but the more I think about it, the less justification I can see for paying someone £20,000 a year for sleeping in their own home, just because they happen to own another home elsewhere. If there is an argument to be made for this system, I wish someone would explain it to me.

    Surely the only real justification for an overnight subsistence allowance is that peers should be reimbursed for the additional expense they incur by having to stay overnight in London when attending the House of Lords.

    Why not simply adopt this system and require peers to produce receipts for their overnight accommodation expenses (like people in the real world)?

  • The question I would like answered is this: of all the days when Lord Rennard signed in for his allowance in the Lords; for how many was he present for (let’s say) three hours a day in the Palace of Westminster, voting, holding meetings with Peers and MPs or researching. And for how many did he spend NO time additional to that involved in “signing in”?

    I expect a deafening silence and a closing of ranks to protect other “Working” Peers.

  • Herbert Brown 2nd Nov '09 - 4:16pm

    To be fair, most of that activity would be unrecorded – or at least finding records of it would take a lot of effort. You could look at his voting record, but I can’t see that that alone could prove anything either way.

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