UK Politics

Lord Rennard: Clegg admits failings over harassment claims

The Lib Dems have mishandled the sexual harassment allegations made against Lord Rennard, Nick Clegg has admitted.

Mr Clegg said the Lib Dems had "not responded in the right way" in the past and he took full responsibility for a lack of "proper leadership".

But he defended his actions in recent days and said it was only fair to ask the Lib Dem peer to apologise.

He also said media reports suggesting his wife had pressed him to act against the peer were "total garbage".

Lord Rennard is considering legal action after he had his party membership temporarily suspended.

At a meeting of Liberal Democrat peers on Wednesday afternoon, there were calls for the party to resolve the Lord Rennard saga through an independent mediator.

Addressing the meeting, Mr Clegg praised Lord Rennard personally but said that party processes must be followed and they will not not halt disciplinary proceedings against him, despite requests from some peers.

'Messy and difficult'

Lord Rennard, the party's former chief executive, denies claims that he sexually harassed female party members but has been asked to apologise for the distress that he caused a number of women.

Speaking on his weekly phone-in on LBC 97.3, Mr Clegg acknowledged failings in the party in dealing with the allegations, some of which date back nearly a decade, and that "leadership was not executed properly in the past".

"I accept the way we handled it last year was not great, it was not ideal"," he said.

He accepted it was a "messy and difficult" situation and the party needed to "turn a page and introduce a new culture" when it came to the treatment of women.

But he said he had been right to insist on an apology from Lord Rennard after an independent report recommended it. The peer's failure to do so was "not fair to the process, not fair to the women and not fair to Lord Rennard himself".

'Furious'

While Lord Rennard had been a "huge figure" in the party for many years, Mr Clegg said the dispute was now threatening to "overshadow his achievements".

Asked about claims that his wife Miriam was the driving force behind the party's hardening stance against Lord Rennard, Mr Clegg said this was "totally untrue" - adding that he did not want his family to be brought into the dispute.

The Daily Telegraph reported that Miriam Clegg was "furious" at the peer's refusal to apologise.

Lord Rennard insists he has done nothing wrong and is expected to seek a court order within days to try to halt disciplinary proceedings against him.

Alison Smith, one of the women who has accused the peer of making unwanted sexual advances and touching them inappropriately, said she was "open" to some form of mediation but only if the Lib Dem peer was willing to confront his actions.

'Enough is enough'

"Chris Rennard would need to come to the table within an open mind and, at the moment, he does not seem to be in that mindset," the former activist, who is now a lecturer at Oxford University, told BBC Radio 4's Today.

She suggested the peer needed to understand his actions were an abuse of power and "why it matters that he (Lord Rennard) had control over women's careers when he was making advances on people".

She added: "We would not have to start with an apology but what is at stake here for me is the principle of what is acceptable behaviour in the workplace."

The reaction of some Lib Dems, she suggested, seemed to be "just a hand down the back of the dress, what are the girlies worrying about".

"The issue is, of course, women in the 21st century are saying enough is enough and I think that is one of the reasons why this story has resonated so much."

The BBC understands Lord Rennard has instructed a senior QC to advise him on the lawfulness of the party's action in suspending him following the allegations.

The party's original internal investigation, led by senior barrister Alistair Webster QC, concluded the claims against Lord Rennard by four women could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt.

But it also said the evidence of the women who lodged complaints was "broadly credible" and urged the peer to apologise.

Lord Rennard has expressed concerns that an apology would be an admission of guilt and make him liable to potential legal proceedings by his accusers.

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