Nick Clegg: Liberal Democrats have let women down
The Liberal Democrats have "let women down", leader Nick Clegg has said, as a report following allegations of sexual impropriety by former chief executive Lord Rennard was published.
The independent inquiry found Mr Clegg "should have asked more questions" when claims - which the peer denies - arose.
There were "several" missed chances to hold an investigation, the report adds.
Lord Rennard faces a separate Lib Dem disciplinary inquiry and Scotland Yard is looking into the allegations.
City businesswoman Helena Morrissey was commissioned to look into the Lib Dems' attitudes towards women following the claims about the peer, with specific reference to how the party dealt with complaints made against him.
Her report calls for a "paradigm shift" in its attitudes towards women. The party's response was "haphazard but not malicious, and there was no evidence of a deliberate cover-up", but Mr Clegg "should have asked more questions", it says.
The report recommends:
- A stronger anti-bullying strategy
- Establishing an office to deal with such complaints within Lib Dem headquarters
- Greater monitoring of standards
- Giving complaints about staff a "higher priority"
The report reveals that some people Ms Morrissey questioned thought the Lib Dems, and politics in general, was "struggling to genuinely develop an encouraging environment for women".
Lord Rennard was appointed director of campaigns and elections for the Lib Dems in 1989 and became the party's chief executive in 2003.
The report says former leader Charles Kennedy's "relatively relaxed management style", compared to his predecessor Lord Ashdown's, "contributed to Chris Rennard's power base".
Former chief whip Paul Burstow was the first senior figure to be made aware of specific allegations by two women against Lord Rennard in May 2007.
"He did not believe that the women were seeking formal action and believed that they wished to remain anonymous," Ms Morrissey says.
"He now deeply regrets that he did not ask them to make a formal complaint or discuss the allegations with the then party president."
The same two women went to see MP Jo Swinson after meeting Mr Burstow, who made "further discreet inquiries".
But she did not tell Mr Clegg's then chief-of-staff Danny Alexander the names of the women involved as she believed they wanted to remain anonymous.
Mr Alexander - who is now Chief Secretary to the Treasury - was "surprised" by the allegations when told in spring 2008 and raised the matter with Mr Clegg and Mr Burstow, according to the report.
Lord Rennard was confronted in the summer of 2008 and "categorically denied the allegations".
Mr Alexander "told him that it was a serious matter and warned him not to put himself in situations where his behaviour might be questioned".
The report says that Ms Swinson and Mr Alexander acted "in good faith" but their "approach was ultimately not sufficient".
However, the Lib Dems had made efforts to "professionalise" since the alleged incidents took place.
After seeing the report, Mr Clegg said: "It makes sobering reading. It shows that stretching over a 20-year period a series of mistakes were made which left a number of women feeling seriously let down and for that there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever."
He added: "The report also shows that the individuals who dealt with their complaints had the right motives, but there weren't the right processes in place to support the women who'd come forward. And as leader of the Liberal Democrats I take responsibility for that.
"That's why we've made a number of big changes in the party in recent years and why we must and will do more."
The deputy prime minister also said: "Let me be clear: the Liberal Democrats must be a party where even a hint of sexism is taken seriously; where every allegation of harassment is dealt with properly; and where there can be no fear that power or position can be abused."
He promised to implement Ms Morrissey's recommendations "in full and without any delay".
Lib Dem president Tim Farron said it had been the intention to produce a "warts-and-all" report and that Ms Morrissey had done so.
The party would try to live up to its standards in future, he told the BBC News Channel.
Ms Morrissey, chief executive of Newton Investment Management, is the founder of the Thirty Per Cent Club which campaigns to increase the proportion of women in company boardrooms.