Nick Clegg was last night forced to admit he knew of concerns about alleged harassment of women by a senior Liberal Democrat colleague.
The Deputy Prime Minister said his office had heard of “indirect and non-specific” claims about Lord Rennard’s conduct in 2008, and “acted to deal with them”. Several women had claimed Lord Rennard touched them inappropriately, it emerged last Thursday.
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 no action was taken.
Lord Rennard – a key adviser to Lib Dem leaders before standing down due to ill health in 2009 – has said he is “deeply shocked” by the allegations, which he regards as a “total distortion” of his character.
Both Business Secretary Vince Cable and Home Office minister Jeremy Browne insisted yesterday that Mr Clegg had not been aware of the claims, before their leader’s statement last night.
Mr Clegg, who flew back from holiday in Spain yesterday, said Danny Alexander – now Chief Secretary to the Treasury – had “put these concerns to Chris Rennard and warned him that any such behaviour was wholly unacceptable”.
Mr Clegg said: “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.”
The Lib Dem leader said the allegations made on Channel 4 News last Thursday 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.”
In a statement last night Mr Alexander said: ‘As I said yesterday, I did not know about these specific allegations until the Channel 4 broadcast.
“When indirect and anonymous concerns about Chris Rennard’s conduct came to the attention of Nick Clegg’s office, in late 2008, we acted immediately.
“The party has rightly set up inquiries into these matters and I will participate fully in those processes.”
Mr Clegg 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.
Mr Cable insisted yesterday that the Deputy Prime Minister was “absolutely not” aware of complaints against the peer.
He added: “Nick Clegg has also said he was not aware of these allegations until they appeared on TV last week. But they are serious, and we take them very seriously.”
Lib Dem Home Office minister Jeremy Browne also insisted yesterday that Mr Clegg was “not aware of these allegations”.