Lib Dem leadership candidate Norman Lamb removes two campaign team members over 'push polling' claims

The police and the Information Commissioner have been approached by concerned party members over phone calls made on 19 June

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  • Solicitors acting for Mark Gettleson contacted The Independent on 27 May 2016 to inform us that a Panel convened by the Liberal Democrat Regional Parties Committee to investigate the allegations reported below, found that the case against Mr Gettleson (that he had breached Data Protection legislation and the Party’s internal data protection rules) was not made out. Since the case was not made out, the Panel did not report Mr Gettleson to the police or the Information Commissioner’s Office. We are happy to update matters. – 24/6/16

The Liberal Democrats are engulfed by scandal after the leadership contender Norman Lamb was forced to remove two high-profile volunteers from his campaign team over potential breaches of the Data Protection Act.

The police and the Information Commissioner, which regulates compliance with the Data Protection Act, have been approached by concerned party members over phone calls made on 19 June.

It is alleged the members were called by people who presented themselves as being from the central party (as opposed to Mr Lamb’s campaign), before asking questions that seemed to suggest that the leadership favourite Tim Farron was not a suitable candidate.

A member who received one such call said the pollster discussed Mr Farron’s voting record on gay marriage – he abstained on the issue during the last Parliament – and his views on abortion, which have included support for reducing the time limit on termination. Using a poll in a way that seeks to influence the interviewee’s views is known as a “push poll”, a tactic often associated with the US right-wing.

Mr Farron’s and Mr Lamb’s campaign teams both have access to the full party membership lists and, if the allegations are correct, the way this information has been used could breach both Lib Dem rules and data protection laws. It is understood the party started a formal disciplinary process against the two volunteers, Gavin Grant and Mark Gettleson.

Mr Grant is a former chief executive of the RSPCA and a former UK chairman of the public relations giant Burson Marsteller. He also advised Sir Menzies Campbell, a key backer of Mr Lamb, when he was leader and is the Lib Dem western counties chairman. Mr Gettleson once  worked for the Howard League for Penal Reform and has helped Mr Lamb develop an eye-catching policy of halving the prison population within a decade.

There will be a formal discussion with the party’s data controller tomorrow morning over a potential self-referral to the Information Commissioner. It is yet to be decided whether it is for Mr Lamb or the party to refer themselves, but both have pledged to do so if that is the controller’s conclusion.

Mr Lamb told The Independent on Sunday: “Volunteer members of my team acted without my authority. As soon as it was clear what had happened, I had to be decisive and removed them from my campaign. As soon as I saw Tim [on Friday night] I talked to him about it and said I won’t tolerate it from my campaign. In a situation we [the Lib Dems] are in at the moment we cannot allow ourselves to fall-out or behave irresponsibly.”

It is understood that Mr Lamb’s camp has apologised to Mr Farron and to Tim Gordon, the party’s chief executive, and that they also think the Data Protection Act might well have been breached.

The news comes at a difficult time for Mr Lamb, as leadership ballots are being sent out this week. Although Mr Farron, a former party president, has long been considered a shoo-in for the top job – Paddy Power has him at 1/16 against 13/2 for Mr Lamb – the former health minister is thought to have narrowed the gap with confident hustings performances.

Asked whether the news had damaged his hopes, Mr Lamb said: “I think ultimately the membership of the party will decide which of us is the best leader. Even in dealing with something like this you have to show leadership. I’ve demonstrated over the past 24 hours no dithering, no uncertainty, that I can lead from the front.”

The Lib Dems suffered a humiliating general election result last month, winning only eight seats with 8 per cent of the vote. In 2010 the party had 57 seats on 24 per cent, and seemingly suffered a loss of left-leaning support after going into coalition with the Conservatives.

But the Lib Dems were also scarred by a number of scandals, including the jailing in 2013 of the former Energy Secretary Chris Huhne after he asked his wife, the economist Vicky Pryce, to take speeding points on his behalf.

There was also a botched inquiry into accusations of sexual impropriety against Lord Rennard, the former party chief executive, that threatened to split the party.

Mr Grant said that he had “had no contact at any point with anybody from Lib Dem HQ”. He added: “I would be very surprised if any such activity had taken place. Second, it is simply a fact that I have no access to the Lib Dem Party’s national membership list nor have I had any dealings with a polling company.”

A Liberal Democrat spokesman said: “We have been made aware of an alleged breach of party rules and are looking into the issue as a matter of urgency. The Liberal Democrats take any alleged breaches of party rules extremely seriously. The party has contacted both teams to reiterate rules on the leadership process.”

A spokesman for Mr Farron said: “Tim will keep running a positive campaign talking about the issues the party faces and his policies to rebuild the party.”

Mr Gettleson did not respond to requests for comment.