Leaders: Legal threat deepens Lord Rennard dispute

Nick Clegg insists that the former party chief executive should apologise. Picture: Rpbert Perry
Nick Clegg insists that the former party chief executive should apologise. Picture: Rpbert Perry
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MESSIER still grows the affair of Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard and the aftermath of a fudged inquiry into allegations of sexual harassment.

His party leader, Nick Clegg, insists that the former party chief executive should apologise for his actions before he can be restored to the party’s group in the House of Lords. Party activists demand that he has brought the party into disrepute and that he should be expelled.

Lord Rennard, who has yet to see a copy of the report, has so far refused to apologise. Should he do so, he may open himself up to civil litigation. Fellow party peers have indicated that he will be accepted back in to the Lib Dem group in the Lords and that the party leader does not have the power to rule otherwise.

Now, as if for good measure, allies of the peer are threatening to take legal action unless he is re-admitted to the party’s group in the Lords.

All this flows from a confused and ambiguous conclusion to the internal inquiry. This found that while there was broadly credible evidence dating back several years of behaviour which violated “the personal space and autonomy” of the complainants, it concluded that allegations of sexual misconduct could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt, as the party’s internal disciplinary procedures required.

Thus, from the point of view of resolving the issue it didn’t get far. On the one hand it found that the peer had acted inappropriately towards female members. On the other it found there was insufficient evidence to substantiate allegations of sexual misconduct.

It is always dangerous to confuse breaches of law with breaches of manners. The first step out of this confusion is to separate these two considerations. On the evidence presented, there were insufficient grounds to prove allegations of misconduct. It would be grossly unfair to Lord Rennard to require a public apology for a crime where the verdict was not proven. However, there is little doubt that his behaviour caused considerable offence, whatever may have been his intentions. And for that breach of manners, particularly in a social climate considerably more sensitive to matters of personal sexual behaviour than many members of the Lords appear to appreciate, an apology would be wholly appropriate.

It is no part of the conduct of someone in a position of authority to behave in a manner that is untoward, open to misinterpretation and which gives offence.

And it is really not all that new. In an earlier era it would be considered a breach of gentlemanly conduct. Wiser counsels close to Lord Rennard should encourage him to view the matter in this light and respond accordingly and with sympathy to the complaints for the offence taken, rather than threatening legal action. This can only make the affair far more difficult to resolve, and when a fitting resolution already offers itself.

Getting in a right pickle over langauge

IN DECLARING that immigrants in the UK who cannot speak English “can’t participate in society”, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has set a formidable challenge for legislators, assuming his suggestions get that far.

What exactly is the legal definition of participation in society? It would seem to be a classification of citizenship, which doesn’t exist in law. And if fluency in English is to be a requirement for incomers, there are many football players – and coaches and managers – who would struggle to qualify.

And how would we fare if other countries made this a stipulation of residence? There are tens of thousands of expat Brits living in Spain, Portugal and Cyprus, for example, who cannot speak the language of the countries they have chosen to live in and have no intention of learning it. The UK is one of the laziest and most complacent countries in the world when it comes to learning languages. So Mr Pickles’s admonition is rich in irony.

The proposal appears to be that immigrants should be encouraged to learn English rather than the government providing taxpayer-funded translators and welfare application forms in dozens of different languages. But to this the Conservatives’ coalition partners are flatly opposed – and Mr Pickles himself admitted yesterday the details of such a policy had not yet been hammered out. “Hammered” would be an apt description of the process.

The remarks look like an attempt to ratchet up the government’s rhetoric on immigration to see off the challenge from Ukip. But with evident opposition from the Lib Dems, and no clear idea of practical application, the Communities Secretary could fairly be said to have landed himself in a right pickle.