Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Lib Dems investigate claims of Lord Rennard sex harassment

Former party chief denies that he inappropriately touched female party workers

The Liberal Democrats have launched an investigation into allegations that the party's former most powerful official abused his position by inappropriately touching and propositioning female party workers.

An investigation by Channel 4 News spoke to several former party staff who claimed to have been subject to unwelcome advances from Lord Rennard, the party's then chief executive.

One of the women Bridget Harris, who until a few months ago worked as a special adviser to Nick Clegg, told the programme that Lord Rennard behaved in a sexually inappropriate manner towards her in 2003 over coffee at a conference in Swansea.

"As we carried on talking he was touching my legs and my knees and he did it two or three times and the first time I thought it was an accident and I crossed my legs," she said.

"Then the second time I realised he was actually doing it. Then when he tried... the third time I basically had to physically move away from him," adding that he went on to invite her to his room, "clearly not noticing the signals".

She said the episode "made me feel embarrassed, upset and disappointed". She reported the incident to her line managers immediately afterwards.

Another woman Alison Smith, now a politics lecturer at Oxford University, said that six years ago when she was a Lib Dem activist she and a friend were invited back to Lord Rennard's house after having dinner with him in central London.

"He just very suddenly got up and plonked himself between us and then he started moving his hands down our backs and places where they had absolutely no business being," she said

Ms Smith said she reported what had happened to Paul Burstow, who was then the party's chief whip, but she says she never heard anything back from him.

She said she then went to Jo Swinson, the party's spokesperson for women and equality, who is now Minister for Women. Ms Smith says Ms Swinson agreed to investigate and spoke to other women who had also alleged Lord Rennard had behaved inappropriately.

Ms Smith added: "She certainly uncovered...that this was a very serious pattern of behaviour." But Ms Swinson told Ms Smith the problem with taking it forward was that nobody wanted to make a formal complaint.

A spokesperson for the Lib Dems said: "In view of the serious allegations put to us by Channel 4 and the concerns raised about how such issues have been handled in the past, Nick Clegg has asked Tim Farron, the Party President, to establish an immediate review into all our procedures for dealing with these issues, including a thorough examination of how allegations made in the past have been handled."

Lord Rennard's lawyers said he'd "always strived to conduct himself responsibly and appropriately at all times and has no recollection of any inappropriate behaviour. In addition, our client is unaware of any complaint about his conduct ever being made against him."

They added: "In the case of Ali Smith, he denies behaving improperly and confirms he has worked with Bridget Harris since 2003 and is unaware of her having grounds for complaint. In addition, Lord Rennard describes as completely untrue any suggestion that he resigned as chief executive as a result of allegations about inappropriate behaviour."

Profile: 'An extraordinary figure'

Described by former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy as "a quite extraordinary figure in British politics", Chris Rennard was employed by the party for nearly 30 years as a professional campaigner and agent and wrote many of its publications on election campaigning and party organisation, becoming director of campaigns in 1989 and chief executive in 2003. He masterminded 12 parliamentary by-election wins for the party, out of 78 held between 1988 and 2009 – a success rate of 15.4 per cent. In 1989 he married Ann McTegart and was made a life peer ten years later. His expenses came under scrutiny in 2009 following a complaint but it was found he had not broken the rules.

A diabetic, he stepped down as chief executive in 2009, citing health and lifestyle reasons. Now 52, he is Treasurer of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Diabetes and a Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health.

Emma Bamford