The Women’s Minister Jo Swinson is to face questioning over allegations that she failed to act on information about the inappropriate sexual behaviour of a senior Liberal Democrat official.
On Thursday a former Lib Dem activist revealed that she had raised concerns about the party’s former Chief Executive Lord Rennard with Ms Swinson who was then its spokesperson for women and equality.
But Alison Smith, now a politics lecturer at Oxford University, said Mr Swinson had not acted on her warnings claiming that no-one wanted to make an official complaint.
Yesterday the party announced that both Ms Swinson and the then chief whip Paul Burstow would be questioned by an internal investigation into allegations against Lord Rennard. The inquiry is being led by the Lib Dem President Tim Farron with a panel that includes a senior barrister. It is expected to publish its report in the next three months.
On Thursday Lord Rennard, who was the mastermind behind the Lib Dems election strategy for many years, said he was temporarily standing down from his party duties to avoid “embarrassment”.
The peer resigned from his role as chief executive in 2009 but will now withdraw from the party's group in the House of Lords and also leave from the party's federal policy committee, which is responsible for coming up with ideas for the Liberal Democrat manifesto.
His move came after Channel 4 News broadcast allegations from several former party staff who claimed to have been subject to unwelcome advances from Lord Rennard.
Ms 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.
“He listened very patiently and sounded very concerned and then basically said he would do something about it and be in touch, but he never was,” 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. “It very quickly became quite Kafkaesque. They were saying, ‘No one wants to make a formal complaint’, and I was saying, ‘I’ll make a formal complaint,’ and they were saying, ‘That’s a shame because no one wants to make a formal complaint.’”
Another 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 over coffee at a conference in 2003 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.
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.”
The Liberal Democrats today said that neither Ms Swinson nor Mr Burstow would be making public comment on either the allegations or the investigation until after it had concluded.