POLICE are investigating “whether or not criminal activity has taken place” following allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards women by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard.
The news came as pressure continued to mount on party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, with Lib Dem president Tim Farron admitting the party had “screwed up” its response to allegations of improper behaviour by the party’s former chief executive.
After initial denials he had been aware of complaints made by a number of women about Lord Rennard, Mr Clegg confirmed on Sunday his office had heard “indirect and non-specific concerns” as far back as 2008, and had taken action at the time.
The party said last night that criminal lawyer Alistair Webster, QC, a former chairman of the Liberal Democrat Lawyers Association, had been appointed to lead the formal internal investigation.
Lord Rennard has strenuously denied “any suggestion of improper touching” of women.
The independent whistle-blowing authority Public Concern at Work will act as the main point of contact for anyone wishing to come forward with further allegations or information relating to the peer.
In a radio interview yesterday, Mr Clegg said that “no very specific allegations” were put to him until a television news investigation broadcast last week.
But a 2010 e-mail exchange with Mr Clegg’s chief of staff, Jonny Oates, has been published by a national newspaper, in which details of the dates and locations of four alleged incidents between 2003 and 2007 involving the Lib Dem peer were discussed. The paper made it clear it knew the identities of the women who had complained.
Mr Clegg said that his former chief of staff Danny Alexander – now chief secretary to the Treasury – confronted Lord Rennard after concerns were raised anonymously in 2008 and warned him that such behaviour was “wholly unacceptable”. The peer firmly denied any wrong-doing.
Speaking ahead of Thursday’s crunch Eastleigh by-election, Mr Clegg said: “I totally understand people have got lots and lots of questions, but I hope I have given a full, frank, honest account. I have got nothing to hide, the party has nothing to hide. We have now got to listen to the women who feel they weren’t properly listened to and get to the truth and that is what we will do.”
But the newspaper published details on its website of an e-mail sent to Mr Oates – then Lib Dem head of communications – in April 2010, spelling out the nature of the allegations and asking whether Mr Clegg was aware of them and whether it was true that Mr Alexander and Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson had looked into them.
Mr Oates responded at the time: “It is untrue to state that Mr Clegg was made aware of the incidents you allege. Given this fact, it is obviously untrue to state that Mr Clegg asked Jo Swinson or anyone else to carry out an investigation into the incidents that you allege.”
Ms Swinson, now equalities minister, has subsequently confirmed she did look into the women’s claims, but was “careful to respect their wish for privacy and, for that matter, their right not to be harassed by the press”.
Mr Farron acknowledged that the party had “screwed this up” and said a “completely full and open inquiry into how we got this wrong” was now under way.
“There are individuals out there who we had a duty of care towards and we did not fulfil that duty of care,” the Lib Dem president admitted.