He urged Lib Dems to take a “long, hard look in the mirror” in the wake of complaints made against Lord Rennard, the party’s former chief executive.
The Deputy Prime Minister took the unusual step of making the opening speech of the Lib Dems’ spring conference, and he tried to rally his troops by pledging to take whatever steps were necessary to prevent a repeat of the controversy. He said sexism had no place in the party, adding: “I won’t tolerate it.”
Mr Clegg acknowledged the party’s treatment of the women who claimed to have been propositioned by Lord Rennard had been inadequate. The Lib Dem peer denies he behaved inappropriately.
Mr Clegg said it was the responsibility of the whole party to tackle the harassment claims – not just the members of his team who had originally tried to deal with the allegations.
With the Lib Dems also reeling from the fall-out of the Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce case, Mr Clegg announced an inquiry to examine the party’s procedures and look at how harassment claims had been handled.
The inquiry will be led by Helena Morrissey, a high-flying businesswoman and mother of nine. It comes on top of the investigation being conducted by Alistair Webster, QC, into the allegations themselves.
The Lib Dem leader said: “The women involved feel let down. They deserved to have their concerns and allegations examined thoroughly and properly dealt with. But, clearly, that has not always been the case.
“When concerns were brought to the attention of members of my team, we acted to address them.
“But this should not have just been the responsibility of a few individuals acting with the best of intentions. It must be the responsibility of the party as a whole to make sure we have the processes and support structures in place now and in the future. We didn’t, and as a result we let people down. Liberal Democrats, that is not acceptable to me.”
Mr Clegg said a whistleblower hotline, run by the group Public Concern at Work, had been set up for those seeking advice and counselling services would be available. “Sexism must have no place in the Liberal Democrats. Harassment must have no place in the Liberal Democrats. Abuse of power and position must have no place in the Liberal Democrats. I won’t tolerate it. Our party should be better than that,” he said.
Mr Clegg was speaking the day after Pryce, the ex-wife of former Lib Dem minister Huhne, was convicted of attempting to pervert the course of justice. Her defence that she was coerced into accepting her then-husband’s speeding points was rejected by the jury. Huhne had earlier admitted perverting the course of justice. Both now face a jail sentence.
Pryce’s court appearance caused yet more difficulties for the Lib Dems when e-mails disclosed in court suggested she told Business Secretary Vince Cable, his wife, Rachel, and Mr Clegg’s wife, Miriam, about the offence well before the claims emerged in newspapers. All three have denied knowing about the points swap.
The controversy threatens to derail the leadership’s hopes of using the gathering in Brighton this weekend to build on last week’s Eastleigh by-election win.
Instead of waiting until the end of conference to deliver his leader’s speech, Mr Clegg tried to boost morale by opening the event.
However, there are still likely to be showdowns with activists over secret courts legislation and welfare cuts. Labour has also challenged Mr Clegg to break coalition ranks by supporting the introduction of a mansion tax – long favoured by Lib Dems – in a Commons vote next week.
Lib Dem president Tim Farron had cautioned the party was in a “critical state” and should not assume it had a right to survive. But, arriving in Brighton, Mr Clegg denied the Lib Dems were in crisis. “No, not at all,” he said. “We are in good spirits.”
On the conference platform, Mr Clegg said it was “right that, following the events of recent weeks, we take a long, hard look in the mirror”.
He said: “No doubt you will be aware of the recent allegations that have been made about sexual harassment in our party. I won’t talk about the specific allegations. They will be investigated thoroughly and independently and we must respect due process. And we must remember that due process is for the accused as well as the accusers.”
He reminded activists it was International Women’s Day, saying it was time for a culture change to break down the old boys’ network.
He told them: “It is often said that Westminster is an old boys’ club. It is. Parliament is stuffed full, in both the Commons and Lords, of hundreds and hundreds of men and precious few women. Men outnumber women by nearly four to one.
“Too often, barriers are put in front of talented and committed women to stop them progressing. It’s a male world, made by men for men, occupied for centuries by men and designed to work to the advantage of men.
“And Westminster is far from the only boys’ club in our country. In business, in the legal profession, in journalism and in countless workplaces up and down the country, men dominate and men make the rules.”