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Lord Rennard: Good news, but MORE questions

By Angela Harbutt
February 24th, 2013 at 9:27 pm | 3 Comments | Posted in Uncategorized

Good news from the Party today that the investigation will NOW be “independently chaired”. Why such an obvious decision was not easily made at the outset is concerning. From what I can gather, they seem to have taken this decision without any conversation with the women concerned [but will happily be stand corrected]. But it is good to hear that our concerns (and others) were listened to. Special mention here goes to Stephen Tall , who piled in behind us on Friday. No news yet on who the “independent Chair” is to be or how they will be appointed.

Questions: Following suggestions that the person at the end of the “whistle-blower” hotline appears to be too intimately connected to the party, on too many levels. I assume that the hotline will now likewise be put in the hands of someone out side of the party. And quickly.

This isn’t to suggest any aspersions about the fair-mindedness of either Tim Farron (who was originally slated to head up the inquiry) or Kate Parminter (who manages the rather under-advertised hotline), but surely these things properly need to be placed under the command of those who don’t have a long history at the senior levels of the party?

Finally, it has to be asked, for the umpteenth time, who exactly is managing the party PR machine? Had the party line on Friday not been so hapless, some of the weekend’s newspaper speculation, and embarrassing statements from Cable and Browne could probably have been avoided.

Added to that, the statement made by Nick Clegg this evening, and the press office follow up,  seem to leave more questions than answers. Nick’s tone of indignation was utterly inappropriate. And he is already having to issue clarifications about the difference between his knowledge and his office’s. This is exactly the sort of running commentary that he said, rather optimistically, he wished to avoid. He is unlikely to be able to do so over the coming days.

Update: We are delighted that the party has announced that a new independent whistleblower group will deal with complaints: Telephone number 020 7404 6609

It has also announced that it has appointed Alistair Webster QC to lead the formal internal investigation under the Party’s disciplinary rules into the specific allegations made about the conduct of Lord Rennard.

Finally the party has said that it will also be announcing an independent Chair for the investigation into party procedures and to thoroughly examine how allegations made in the past have been handled.

 

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Lord Rennard : What next ?

By Angela Harbutt
February 22nd, 2013 at 1:37 pm | 4 Comments | Posted in Uncategorized

News broke last night that Lord Rennard is being investigated for sexual impropriety.

Lib Dem Voice can hardly bring itself to mention the words, referring to it rather obliquely as “Party launches investigation over C4 News allegations“. You would not know the allegation was even about Lord Rennard, had they not put up a statement from Lord Rennard’s solicitors. Likewise the rest of the blogs seem unusually quiet on the issue. Shock? Fear? Denial?

The Channel 4 investigative report is admittedly, truly shocking. Put simply, the programme states that women who worked for the Liberal Democrats have told the programme that Lord Rennard abused his position for years by inappropriately touching and propositioning them – and that leading Lib Dem MPs and peers who knew – failed to take any meaningful action. Lord Rennard has responded through a solicitor saying he has no recollection of any inappropriate behaviour and is unaware of any complaint about his conduct ever being made against him.

It is too early to get into the specifics of the allegations made about Lord Rennard. This may well end up being a police or legal matter. It is worth stating that those appearing in the Channel 4 programme all came across as highly rational women with no particular axe to grind. There was no payment involved and the motivation for them speaking up was said to be the concern that, having quit as Chief Executive, Lord Rennard was being re-integrated into the party.

The women should be applauded for their actions. It was a terribly brave thing to do. Who knows how many other women may feel emboldened to come forward as a result of their willingness to put themselves in the firing line. Who knows what this may eventually uncover.

There are three things that the party needs to do. It has not had much time, and thus far gone some way to addressing them, though there are as many questions as answers raised by the Party statement made to date. And some things that feel, well, just wrong. Let me go through them:

1. We need full investigation into claims made against Lord Rennard.

The party has stated that an internal investigation into the specific allegations raised by Channel 4 has begun under the Party’s disciplinary procedures.

The allegations made in the programme are individually serious and collectively devastating. An investigation must happen. But the suggestion is to conduct an internal investigation. Is it really appropriate given the allegations made? Have the women concerned been asked how they would like to see this conducted? After all, one of the women was quite clear that she had already tried the internal complaint route. Would she be happy treading the same path again?

Surely, and mindful that I have not spoken to the women either, wouldn’t it be better if this job was conducted by an independent arms-length body or individual. People, perhaps still active in the party, may feel more comfortable coming forward, if the investigators they have to speak to are NOT their colleagues, bosses, or leading members of the party.

We also do not know where this investigation may take us, who may come forward, and what they might say. Though we all hope it is not the case, supposing other members of the party are accused of harassment or bullying? At what point does an internal investigation into internal issues become an impossible mess?

All in all, we do need an investigation, but I urge the party to consider consulting with the women first this time, and probably putting this investigation into hands of a third party, giving them full reign to investigate where they will with impunity. That is surely the only way to be sure of the best outcome for everyone.

2. We need a full investigation into the actions of Paul Burstow, Jo Swinson and Ros Scott

The party says there are a number of questions that have been raised and that the review will ensure it properly addresses all of them.

I assume this refers to the fact that at least one of the women, Alison Smith, states that she took her complaint to not one but two parliamentarians.

The first person she says she took her complaint to, “within a week” was Paul Burstow, the then Chief Whip. She says he listened to her complaint and did nothing. Paul has to be allowed to have his say of course. But this has to be investigated, and if true, he must face serious sanctions. It really is that simple isn’t it?

Alison Smith then says she took her complaint to a second member of Parliament, Jo Swinson, the then spokeswomen for the party for “women and equality” [She is also the MP who put down a motion in parliament for "unwanted touching and harassment"]. According to Alison Smith, Swinson did at least agree to investigate her complaint and, indeed appears to have done so. But again says nothing happened.

Again Jo must be given the opportunity to answer the claims made. But if she was indeed “aware of a number of cases”, and let the matter get swept under the table then she too should face serious sanctions.  Certainly she would have to cease to pronounce on women’s issues forthwith.

Finally we must ask what the party president knew. In a statement she gave to Channel 4 News, Baroness Scott refused to comment on why Lord Rennard resigned. Why? It was ill health wasn’t it?

According to Alison Smith, Ros Scott told her that Chris Rennard had been forced to stand down because of these allegations. Ros Scott did say to Channel 4 that she was “aware that there were issues about his behaviour” She says that she received no formal complaint; but says that as a result of the allegations she instigated a review of the party’s whistle-blower procedures. This is puzzling. She was sufficiently concerned about allegations she had heard to instigate a better protocol for whistle-blowing, but appears to be insufficiently concerned about the lives of the young women to investigate, or demand to be told who had investigated the situation, and what the outcome was.

There may be others.

We cannot stand on platforms espousing equality, women’s rights and commitments to tackling sex discrimination in the workplace whilst turning a blind eye to what may be happening within our own ranks. That would be hypocrisy. If the cries of help from women have been ignored, then anyone who ignored them, failed to take action, or stood by and allowed nothing to happen, must all face the music. .

3. Getting it all out

The party is urging anyone to contact the Chief Executive or the Lib Dem confidential whistle-blower procedure if they have issues they wish to raise as a result of Channel 4’s report.

That is welcome but insufficient. We cannot sit back and “hope” that word gets around that that an investigation is underway. If we are serious about this we need a letter written to every Liberal Democrat member, informing of the investigation and asking anyone with information to come forward. We need a specific name to contact (not “the Chief Executive”) a hotline telephone number, and a confidential email address people can write to. Every member of staff should be encouraged to come forward, if they have anything meaningful to report, using the “confidential whistle blower procedure” (whatever that is).

As well as putting this investigation into the hands of an arm’s-length third party, we should also ask the party to a commitment to reporting back its findings. I do not mean the specifics of the allegations against Lord Rennard. But at the very least we should expect a report detailing the findings of the broader investigation, conclusions and outcomes. To date there has been no mention of what the outcomes may look like. This must be addressed.

It is fair to say that collectively we are in shock. But we must get over that. If we are to move on from this we have to get to the truth, and be seen to get the truth. If that means asking questions about how the party is to conduct this investigation, and demanding more of it, if we find it wanting, so be it.  Mostly we must ensure that the women in this are given every opportunity to have their say in how this process is conducted.

Update: Earlier this evening  I received an email from Alex Folkes , a leading Lib Dem photographer for many years , asking that I immediately take down the photo of Lord Rennard because it was “unauthorised and uncredited”

Alex Folkes is in Georgia so I gather he was unable to contact me by telephone.

Following an email exchange with him, I am delighted to confirm he is now content for the image to appear on our website.

Liberal Vision is pleased to confirm that Mr Folkes is the copyright owner of this image and we are grateful to him for allowing us use of it.

 

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Plain packaging – a dirty war alright!

By Angela Harbutt
March 13th, 2012 at 2:49 pm | 6 Comments | Posted in Uncategorized

Some of you might have read the Independent article today “The PM, his pro-smoking aide, and a dirty war over cigarette packaging“. In the article it says (amongst other things…)

“…The All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health has asked Vince Cable, the Trade and Industry Minister, for reassurances that Mr Littlewood will not be advising on tobacco-related matters because of his “clear conflict of interest”.

“….Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the anti-smoking organisation ASH, said: “Mark Littlewood is not independent, he has nailed his colours to the mast by supporting the tobacco industry-funded campaign against plain packs, just as he did its campaign to bring smoking back to our pubs.”

Nailed his colours to the mast ? Too right he has – and years ago. Mark Littlewood (founder of, and former blogger here at LV) has been a passionate smoker, and blogger on the issue for years – and not just on tobacco. He has stood up to governments on tobacco and alcohol and drugs and gambling and a number of other lifestyle issues time and again here on this very blog, on the media. You name it Littlewood has been there.

…And long before he started this blog, when he was the spin doctor for the Lib Dems  he was positively evangelical about people’s freedoms, civil (co-founder of no2id) and  personal.

And who did he report to when working at the Lib Dems ? A certain Lord Rennard. The same Lord Rennard who just happens to be the vice chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health – (which is also chaired by Stephen Williams MP – also a Lib Dem) – the group that happened to make the complaint about Mark Littlewood to erm… fellow Lib Dem Vince Cable. Priceless! What is that about? Memory loss?

There can be nobody on the APPG – not Lord Rennard the vice chair or Stephen Williams the chair, nor anyone at ASH or indeed Vince Cable that doesn’t know Mark’s stance on tobacco – nor that he has held this stance for decades.

Surprised the Independent didn’t seem to know any of that  – or perhaps just chose not to mention any of that in their article. No – Their stance is to allude to what monies Mark Littlewood’s current organisation might receive from tobacco. As if this would make any difference to Mark Littlewood. It would be laughable were it not all so darned serious.

Personally I find it utterly hypocritical that the entire anti-tobacco health industry feels free to spout their “personal heart-felt beliefs” on smoking to Andrew Lansley and the Department of Health without any qualms. Indeed self-confessed tobacco-haters are commissioned and paid for by the Department of Health  to produce “independent” government policy papers on smoking. Yet these people – or their mouthpieces – go charging off to the Trade and Industry Minister as soon as someone, whose personal beliefs are at odds with theirs, gets anywhere so much as a foot into the doors of power. And who was it I wonder that gave this story to the Independent?

What ever the “Independent” might imply or the APPG disingenuously assert, this attack has nothing to do with tobacco funding any organisation.  It is indeed, as the “Independent” headline says, a dirty war. Because this is an attempt to use the power and privilege of parliamentary position to blacken a man’s name; to cow Mark Littlewood personally into shutting up, or attempt to force his employers into gagging him. I sincerely hope that neither will occur.

As for the APPG on Smoking and Health – a group that receives funding, “admin support” and “briefing papers” from the anti-smoking campaign group ASH – well it is about time this parliamentary loophole to power and influence was plugged once and for all.

Angela Harbutt is a proud campaigner for the Forest run campaign Hands Off Our Packs , opposing the introduction of plain packaging of tobacco.

Update : read also related pieces here – Velvet Gove Iron Fist , Alex Massie at the Spectator and Simon Clark-Taking Liberties

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FEDERAL EXECUTIVE MEET

By Angela Harbutt
July 14th, 2009 at 4:12 pm | 13 Comments | Posted in Uncategorized

The Lib Dem Federal Executive met last night. The contents of the meeting will (if they have any sense) be made public in double quick time.

This will be a big test for the group AND for its chair Ros Scott. Will this have been (1) a useless talking shop about do-nothing-unimportant side issues – or will they have (2) tackled the serious and important issues facing this party regarding expenses & allowances ?

I am of course, expecting clarification on what is happening with regard to the Lord Rennard, who was/is the Party’s Chief Executive – employed by the Federal Executive  and who recently resigned claiming ill health. Co-incidentally he also still has serious fraud accusations  (relating to allowance claims) hanging over him that, until now, the FE has been unwilling to deal with.

It now seems generally accepted that he is in fact away running the Lib Dem Norwich North by election campaign. IF TRUE, then how can we face the electorate with any seriousness at this or any other election? If we are willing to continue to employ somebody who has such serious question marks over them – that we leave unaddressed – we will face the consequenses sooner or later.   If it is NOT TRUE , well it just highlights how important it is for the FE to get a grip on this.

Investigate him and either clear his name, or take sanctions against him as an employee of the Party. Surely this is the ONLY option available to the FE ? And should have been item 1 on last nights agenda (if not the previous meeting).

The clock is ticking as we wait for the report from the Party President. And if it turns out that they have ducked this issue again, the clock might just start ticking on the FE itself and perhaps more importantly, its chair.

Or maybe, they will surprise us.

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Lord Rennard reported to the Privileges Committee

By Mark Littlewood
June 26th, 2009 at 7:31 pm | 8 Comments | Posted in UK Politics

I hear that Lord Rennard has been referred to the Privileges Committee over his expenses claims – particularly, but not uniquely, his claim that his primary residence is in Eastbourne.  He has been reported by the Sunlight Centre for Open Politics.

Those with long memories will remember the resolution of the Federal Executive Committee meeting, over a month ago, on 20th May 2009. This promised, amongst other things, a code of conduct to be published by mid-June. If it has been published, I can’t find any sign of it on the official party website (although as I can’t find a way of actually searching the party website, it’s hard to be sure).

Click here for the letter calling for an investigation

More to follow.

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