Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has admitted his party made “very serious mistakes” handling complaints of sexual harassment against Lord Rennard.
But Mr Clegg stood firm in his insistence that he was unaware of any specific allegations against the former Liberal Democrat chief executive until they were broadcast last week.
He said: “There were some very serious mistakes and the women were not listened to and were let down.
“I so much believe that it is crucial that you treat people with respect and dignity in everything you do – and that is what I expect of people in the organisation I lead.
“That, clearly, did not happen here, to put it mildly.”
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.
Since the allegations surfaced, the party leader has been under pressure to explain what exactly he knew about the claims and what action he took over them.
And yesterday Mr Clegg was grilled about the revelation by ex-MP Sandra Gidley that she spoke directly to him about the concerns surrounding Lord Rennard shortly after he became leader in 2007.
He responded: “She raised it in general terms. She wasn’t aware of any specific allegations and, as she has confirmed today, I didn’t either.”
He also denied having seen the 2010 email exchange between the Daily Telegraph and his now chief of staff Jonny Oates – then communications chief – which contained details of four alleged incidents between 2003 and 2007 and asked if Mr Clegg was aware of them.
“That wasn’t passed on to me. He felt that four days before the general election, because he knew what the answer was – that I didn’t know anything about the allegations – and he would just send an answer back to the Daily Telegraph.
“Clearly something went seriously wrong in the organisation as a whole that people were not talking to each other.”
He added: “The women have been let down, there have been some serious mistakes. My party has nothing to hide, I have nothing to hide.”
Lord Rennard, who retired on grounds of ill-health in 2009, yesterday issued a strenuous fresh denial of any wrong-doing as senior Liberal Democrats met Metropolitan Police officers to discuss the case.
Scotland Yard said the meeting was held to help ascertain whether any criminal activity had taken place, adding: “That work continues.”
A party spokesman said that two internal inquiries into the allegations will continue, adding: “It is important that people with information have the confidence to come forward and that their information is dealt with sensitively and appropriately.”
The Deputy Prime Minister conceded that the controversy could hit his party’s performance in the Eastleigh by-election – itself sparked by the resignation in disgrace of Lib Dem ex-Cabinet minister Chris Huhne after he admitted perverting the course of justice by dodging a speeding penalty.
“It may. We will find out tomorrow,” he said of the poll in which his party is battling its Tory Westminster coalition partners to retain the seat.