Nick Clegg faces claims of cover-up over party 'sex pest'

Lib Dem minister admits she knew about misconduct allegations against Lord Rennard in 2008

Fresh questions over what Nick Clegg knew about sexual misconduct allegations involving his most senior party official were raised last night when a female MP suggested she had reported the claims to the very top of the party.

Jo Swinson, who is now Lib Dem minister for women, was told by a number of female activists about allegations of improper touching and harassment by Lord Rennard, the then chief executive of the party, as far back as 2008. In an extraordinary statement last night, Ms Swinson said: "I took action and ensured that others took action" – suggesting that she had reported the claims higher up the Lib Dem hierarchy.

The Deputy Prime Minister caved in to pressure over the nature of an investigation into Lord Rennard's conduct after some inside the party expressed concern that it was being dealt with internally, resulting in further claims of a cover-up. Tim Gordon, the Lib Dems' current chief executive, announced that a separate inquiry by the party president, Tim Farron, into how the party dealt with the allegations against Lord Rennard will be backed by an independent panel from outside the party. Suggestions that top officials including Mr Clegg knew about the allegations but failed to act will form part of the inquiry process, The Independent on Sunday understands.

A message on Facebook sent by one of the women to a friend four years ago, revealed last night, suggested that Mr Clegg knew about Lord Rennard's alleged behaviour. She wrote: "I just don't know how Nick can know and not do anything." The Lib Dems said they were unaware of the message, revealed in The Mail on Sunday.

Mr Clegg has denied being aware of the allegations made by several women to Channel 4 News, but the party has refused to say whether he knew about more general allegations of sexual impropriety on the part of Lord Rennard. A Lib Dem party spokesman refused to say what action Ms Swinson took and whether she reported this to Mr Clegg.

Yet it has been established that several members of Mr Clegg's office had been alerted to the allegations. His chief of staff, Jonny Oates, was told about complaints by women that were put to Lord Rennard by The Daily Telegraph in April 2010, a month before the election. Mr Clegg's deputy chief of staff, Alison Suttie, was also informed as early as 2008. This suggests that Mr Clegg either knew about the allegations himself but turned a blind eye or was not on top of events involving the most senior official in his party.

The Deputy Prime Minister, who was on holiday with his family in Spain when the allegations erupted on Thursday, acted after more details emerged of a climate of fear inside the party, with some Lib Dems saying people were "petrified" to come forward for fear of reprisals.

In her statement, Ms Swinson said: "My focus throughout has been to protect the women who confided in me and, our shared objective, to prevent other women experiencing this kind of behaviour. All the time I was careful to respect their wish for privacy and, for that matter, their right not to be harassed by the press.

"I took action and ensured that others took action. I told the women who had confided in me what I had done to try to put a stop to any inappropriate behaviour, and encouraged them to let me know if they became aware of any further incidents.

"I welcome the review into how the party responded to this situation so that lessons can be learned. It is important that a proper process is followed, and I look forward to the opportunity to contribute to the review."

When the first allegations were reported by Channel 4 News on Thursday, Mr Clegg ordered an inquiry to be led by Mr Farron. But The IoS understands that a number of party figures were aghast that the inquiry was being conducted internally.

Anyone who wishes to come forward with complaints about misconduct can contact the party's whistleblowing representative, Baroness (Kate) Parminter, on whistleblower@libdems.org.uk.

Mr Farron will be joined by the Lib Dem peer Baroness Brinton and Jane Smithard, a barrister and Lib Dem activist, and two others.

A female colleague of Lord Rennard told The IoS last night: "He's a very loyal friend and brilliant strategist. I have never seen him behaving inappropriately with anyone. He is absolutely not the sort of person to force himself on anybody. This smells to me like score-settling from the past. The timing of this is very curious."

Lord Rennard has denied the allegations made on Channel 4 News, saying in a statement: "I absolutely deny any suggestion of improper touching, nor did I invite a woman to join me in my room. I note that these alleged instances supposedly took place in public bars with other people present.

"Let me reiterate that in 27 years of working for the Liberal Democrat party, not a single personal complaint was ever made against me to my knowledge."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Apprentice Telesales & Marketing Opportunities

£10400 - £14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing, ambitious, en...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £38,000

£22000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role is a mixture of office...

Recruitment Genius: Web Hosting Support Agent

£17100 - £20900 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the North West's leading...

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Health & Safety Support Tutor

£19000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests