Lib Dems suspends Lord Rennard amid apology row
20 January 2014 Last updated at 15:05 ET
Lord Rennard suspended from Lib Dems amid apology row
The Lib Dems have suspended Lord Rennard from the party after its former chief executive refused to apologise over sexual harassment claims.
The peer said he felt “regret” if he had unintentionally “hurt” any women but would not apologise for something he “had not done”.
He was considering a legal bid to reverse the suspension, the peer added.
Bridget Harris, one of his accusers and a former adviser to party leader Nick Clegg, welcomed the action against him.
It signalled that “this kind of behaviour is not tolerated”, she explained on Sky news.
“I absolutely welcome the fact that the Liberal Democrats have taken the very strong message that if someone is not willing to apologise and they’re not willing to accept responsibility for their behaviour then they shouldn’t be entitled to be a member of the Liberal Democrats.”
Lord Rennard resigned the party whip last year amid claims, which he denies, that he had made unwanted sexual advances to several women and touched them inappropriately.
The allegations were investigated by senior barrister Alistair Webster QC, who concluded they could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt.
But he also said the evidence of the four women who lodged complaints was “broadly credible” and urged the peer to apologise.
Lord Rennard says he cannot apologise for legal reasons, as it would be an admission of guilt.
In a 2,600 word statement, he said he had suffered from “severe stress, anxiety and depression” as a result of the allegations.
“If ever I have hurt, embarrassed or upset anyone, then it would never have been my intention and, of course, I regret that they may have felt any hurt, embarrassment or upset,” he said.
“But for the reasons given, I will not offer an apology to the four women complainants. I do not believe that people should be forced to say what they know they should not say, or do not mean.”
The party has been convulsed by a deepening row over how to handle the fallout from the Webster report.
After hours of speculation as to whether the Lib Dem peer would rejoin his party in the Lords, the Lib Dems confirmed they had decided at a meeting of their Regional Parties Committee to take fresh disciplinary action against him.
He is suspended from the party while it investigates whether he has brought it into disrepute by refusing to apologise.
A further statement issued on behalf of Lord Rennard added: “He does not wish to see legal action between fellow Liberal Democrats but his membership of the party matters more to him than anything apart from family and friends. Indeed he feels that the party is also his family.
“He believes that the suspension of his membership announced this morning should be lifted… and that Liberal Democrats should act in the best spirits of the party that he joined as a teenager.
“In the light of the extraordinary decision by the English Regional Parties Committee, Lord Rennard is having to take legal advice with a view to civil action against the party.”
BBC deputy political editor James Landale said the suspension would not draw a line under the saga.
Lord Rennard will still be able to attend Parliament and vote in Lords debates as an independent peer.
The BBC understands the Lib Dems want a “short and sharp” disciplinary process – likely to be led by a independent legal figure – to begin as soon as possible.
If he is found to have brought the party into disrepute, the peer could face potential expulsion from the party.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast before the action was taken, Mr Clegg suggested Lord Rennard should apologise as a matter of “basic decency”.
He added: “I have a duty of care not only to those women… I have a duty to say loud and clear as leader of the Liberal Democrats that I expect everybody to treat each other with civility and dignity… particularly people in a position of authority.”
One of the other complainants, Alison Smith, said: “The reason we pursued the Rennard issue doggedly is to change the culture for the future.
“Politics will only be a safer place for women if all parties make difficult choices and change from within.”
But Lib Dem Euro MP Chris Davies backed the former chief executive, saying he had been “through a year of hell”.
“This is a good, decent man who is being punished by the party with a leadership that seems to be showing scant regard for due process and the presumption of innocence,” he said.