THE Liberal Democrats were in turmoil today after Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was forced to deny a “cover-up” of allegations of inappropriate behaviour of a senior party member towards women.
Mr Clegg’s aides had insisted he was only made aware of the claims of harassment against the party’s former chief executive, Lord Rennard, when they surfaced as part of a Channel 4 News investigation last week.
But following reports yesterday of a Facebook discussion about the allegations, implying he had known some years ago, Mr Clegg issued a “clarification” last night.
The Deputy Prime Minister, MP for Sheffield Hallam, said his office had heard of “indirect and non-specific” claims about Lord Rennard’s conduct in 2008, and “acted to deal with them”.
“My Chief of Staff at the time, Danny Alexander, put these concerns to Chris Rennard and warned him that any such behaviour was wholly unacceptable,” Mr Clegg said in a statement.
“Chris Rennard categorically denied that he had behaved inappropriately and he continues to do so. He subsequently resigned as chief executive on health grounds.
“As my office only received concerns indirectly and anonymously, as those involved understandably wanted to maintain their privacy, there was a limit to how we could take this matter forward following Chris Rennard’s resignation.”
Last night’s statement came after Channel 4 News reported on Thursday that two women had claimed Lord Rennard touched them inappropriately.
One of them, Alison Smith, a Lib Dem activist who is now a lecturer at Oxford University, said she had spoken to both the then Lib Dem Chief Whip, Paul Burstow, and the party’s spokeswoman for women and equality, Jo Swinson, about her claims, but claimed no action was taken.
A fresh report by the programme on Friday said more women had come forward with similar stories.
Lord Rennard – a key party strategist and adviser to a succession of Lib Dem leaders before standing down through ill health in 2009 – has said he is “deeply shocked” by the allegations, which he “strongly disputes” and regards as a “total distortion” of his character.
Mr Clegg said the allegations had been “extremely serious and distressing to the women involved”.
“It is critical they are investigated thoroughly and dealt with properly and they will be,” he insisted. “But I would like to make one thing crystal clear. I did not know about these allegations until Channel 4 informed the party of them shortly before they were broadcast.
“I have today spoken to one of the women in the broadcast whom I respect and admire and who confirmed that she had never raised the issue with me. I am angry and outraged at the suggestion that I would not have acted if these allegations had been put to me.
“Indeed, when indirect and non-specific concerns about Chris Rennard’s conduct reached my office in 2008, we acted to deal with them.”
Mr Clegg said there were “legitimate concerns that issues raised with the party were not handled as well as they should have been”.
He said an independently chaired review would be held into Lib Dem procedures and how they were applied at the time. A separate investigation will be carried out into Lord Rennard under the party’s disciplinary process.
“I am absolutely determined that both these investigations will be carried out thoroughly and comprehensively,” he went on.
“These investigations may well reveal flawed procedures, and clearly the women concerned feel they were not properly listened to. But I totally reject the insidious suggestion that my office or I are responsible in any way for a deliberate cover-up.
“The full truth of what happened and what failed to happen and who said what to whom will be revealed by these investigations.
“But in the meantime, I will not stand by and allow my party to be subject to a show trial of innuendo, half-truths and slurs.
“The important thing is that we respect the women who have come forward and do everything to get to the truth. That is what will now happen.”
Details of a Facebook discussion about the allegations, dating from 2009, were published yesterday in which a party worker wrote: “I just don’t know how Nick can know and not do anything.”
An internal party investigation will now take place into specific allegations against Lord Rennard alongside a review by party president Tim Farron into the way the Lib Dems has dealt with such cases.
Current Lib Dem chief executive Tim Gordon has said it appeared the party “did not fully live up to our political ideals” in dealing with complaints about the peer.
Posting on the Lib Dem Voice website, Mr Gordon added: “I want to assure you that the Party, and I as Chief Executive, are taking these questions very seriously – both as regards the specific allegations that were made, but also about the Party’s procedures for handling complaints of this sort.”
“I fully understand the concern from some that, given the nature of the allegations now emerging, an internal review is insufficient.”
“We are therefore currently looking at ways to strengthen the independence of this review – we will add non-party members to the group and will seek professional advice from external sources.”
The development is particularly ill-timed, coming ahead of the by-election in Eastleigh this Thursday. The Lib Dems are tipped to win even though former MP Chris Huhne is awaiting sentencing for perverting the course of justice.