Nick Clegg denies cover-up over Lib Dem 'screw-up' of Rennard allegations

Nick Clegg: "Now that we have specific allegations we can finally act"

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Nick Clegg has denied a cover-up over the alleged behaviour of ex-Lib Dem chief executive, Lord Rennard, as the party president Tim Farron admitted they "screwed it up as a party".

Mr Clegg said he had only been aware of "indirect and non-specific concerns" about the peer's conduct towards women.

Lord Rennard denies the allegations, which predate Mr Clegg's leadership.

The deputy PM said he would choose different words to Mr Farron, but said Lib Dem processes were "flawed".

Analysis

Nick Clegg maintains he has "got absolutely nothing to hide" regarding the allegations against Lord Rennard.

But his statement on Sunday only seemed to add to the confusion when he admitted that he was aware of "non-specific" allegations that a senior party official had sexually harassed women.

Instead of closing down the story Nick Clegg appeared to point to his chief-of-staff at the time, Danny Alexander, who is now a Cabinet colleague. He said Mr Alexander had put "these concerns to Chris Rennard and warned him that any such behaviour was wholly unacceptable".

Clearly senior figures in the party were made aware of at least some of the allegations.

The man tasked with leading the inquiry into the women's allegations - Tim Farron - has acknowledged to the BBC that "We screwed this up as a party".

That admission from the president of a party still reeling following the resignation of cabinet minister Chris Huhne will only pile more pressure on Nick Clegg.

While Lord Rennard may be the focus of the party's investigations, it is Nick Clegg's handling of the situation, and ultimately his leadership, which is now being questioned.

The growing row comes as the Lib Dems prepare to defend the seat of Eastleigh in Hampshire on Thursday, in a by-election caused by the resignation of Chris Huhne.

On Thursday and Friday, Channel 4 News broadcast allegations by four women of sexual impropriety by Lord Rennard in incidents spanning several years, the first in 2003.

Mr Clegg, who became party leader in 2007, insisted he had not known about the specific allegations until the Channel 4 broadcast.

He said he had acted on "general concerns" expressed about Lord Rennard's conduct in 2008, when his then-chief of staff Danny Alexander warned the peer that any such behaviour was "wholly unacceptable" and Lord Rennard "categorically denied" that he had acted inappropriately.

But he said none of the women concerned, including one who worked in his office, had raised specific allegations with him personally at the time.

"I have nothing to hide," he told BBC Radio Solent. "The party has nothing to hide. We have to listen to the women who feel they were not properly listened to and to get to the truth."

But party president Mr Farron said the Lib Dems needed to "look at itself" as a party and how it handled the concerns when they were first raised.

"The one thing I probably can tell you without going through due process is that we screwed this up as a party," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"There are individuals out there who we had a duty of care towards and we did not fulfil that duty of care. That is something that we have to learn from, apologise for and make sure it never happens again."

'Instant justice'

The Lib Dems are now conducting two inquiries - one into the specific complaints against Lord Rennard, which will be chaired by Alistair Webster QC, a criminal lawyer and former head of the Lib Dem Lawyers Association, and the other - which will be independently chaired - into how the allegations were handled in the past.

The inquiry under the party's disciplinary procedures will also look at whether Lord Rennard stood down in 2009, after six years as chief executive, for reasons other than the health grounds stated at the time.

Profile: Lord Rennard

Lord Rennard

Chris Rennard was born in Liverpool in 1960, and was an active Liberal Party member in his teens and later as chairman of the University Liberals and Social Democrats at Liverpool University.

He went on to become deputy chairman of the Liverpool Liberal Party, organising many of the party's successful election campaigns.

He was the most successful Liberal agent in the country while working in the Liverpool Mossley Hill constituency of David Alton (now Lord Alton of Liverpool), helping achieve a winning 14% swing against the Conservatives in 1983.

A key member of many Liberal/Alliance by-election campaign teams in the 80s, he also wrote party publications on campaigning.

In 1989, he was made an MBE, married Ann McTegart, and was appointed the Liberal Democrats' director of campaigns and elections.

In the 1997 general election, he oversaw the campaign which more than doubled the party's MPs - from 18 to 46. He also directed the 2001 and 2005 campaigns.

As party chief executive from 2003 to 2009, he also chaired the general election campaign from summer 2006 until he stood down.

Source: Liberal Democrats website

Speaking on Monday, Mr Clegg said the party had acted quickly after the specific allegations emerged, adding that he "hoped and believed that people can have confidence" in the investigations being undertaken.

In the face of demands for "instant justice", he said the party must follow "due process" in looking into the complaints but he said he suspected the investigations would find that the party's procedures may have been "flawed".

Labour have called for a fully independent inquiry to ensure "the public have confidence that the truth will prevail and lessons learned for the future".

Two women told Channel 4 Lord Rennard had abused his position by inappropriately touching and propositioning them. One of the women said she had spoken to two senior party figures about her claims, but said no action had been taken. Allegations from more women were broadcast on Friday.

Mr Clegg's former parliamentary aide, Jo Swinson, and now equalities minister, has said she "took action" after some women had confided in her, but she has not specified what form that action took.

The Mail on Sunday reported that one of the women who came forward to Channel 4 News had discussed the allegations with a friend on Facebook in January 2009.

"I just don't know how nick can know and not do anything.. :-( makes me very sad," she wrote, according to the paper.

Lord Rennard, who was also a key strategist and adviser to a succession of party leaders, said on Friday he was "deeply shocked" about the allegations and said they were a "total distortion" of his character.

The peer said he knew of no complaints against him in his 27 years working for the party, but he has temporarily stood aside from the Lib Dems' group in the Lords to avoid "embarrassment" to the party.

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