Nick Clegg insist he has “nothing to hide” as sex allegations crisis deepens
Published 25/02/2013 | 11:04
BRITISH deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg insisted today that he has "got nothing to hide" over the way he dealt with concerns raised over alleged inappropriate behaviour by the Liberal Democrats' former chief executive, Lord Rennard.
The Deputy Prime Minister faces questions over a cover-up after he yesterday admitted knowing five years ago about claims of alleged sexual harassment by the peer.
Mr Clegg said today that he "didn't use the word 'screwed up'" about the way the party had handled the incident - a description used by the party's president, Tim Farron, this morning.
But he said he "suspected" the inquiries he has ordered into the allegations would show party procedures were flawed.
He said: "I totally understand people have got lots and lots of questions but I hope I have given a full, frank, honest account.
"I have got nothing to hide, the party has nothing to hide. We have now got to listen to the women who feel they weren't properly listened to and get to the truth and that is what we will do."
Mr Farron acknowledged that the party had "screwed this up" and failed in its duty of care.
He said a "completely full and open inquiry into how we got this wrong" was under way and insisted that he had heard only a "general rumour" before the complaints were broadcast.
"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."
Asked when he first heard of allegations against Lord Rennard, he said: "A general rumour I heard a year or so ago but no specifics, not even who or what or when or anything.
"In my job you come across quite a lot of gossip and it is difficult to know how you separate out general unspecific gossip from specific complaints.
"That is why we, as a party, with independent help and with real rigour, are now going to look at ourselves.
"My job as party president is not to defend the Liberal Democrats in this, in fact quite the opposite: it is to find out what happened and ensure these women get justice because I'm afraid they are the people who have been lost in... all the political furore."
Asked if he believed Conservatives were trying to whip up the controversy, he said: "They have to answer for that. All I can do is make sure I deal with the real job at hand."
Mr Clegg said the party had confronted Lord Rennard with the concerns, which had been made anonymously, and he strenuously denied them.
The Lib Dem leader said he did not know that a woman he worked closely with had made claims about the peer until the Channel 4 investigation.
He added: "I've got absolutely nothing to hide, why would I? I happen to know some of these women very well. One of them worked for me. I spoke to her just last night. She never, ever said anything about this until now.
"I know her well enough and I'm actually very fond of her so I feel for her and I want us to do, of course, the right thing, which we will do by these investigations.
"The problem, as I explained yesterday, is that until last week no very specific allegations were put to me. We acted on general concerns which had been expressed sometime ago but, of course, now that those general concerns have evolved into specific allegations, we can act and we will."
Mr Clegg's former chief of staff Danny Alexander - now Chief Secretary to the Treasury - confronted Lord Rennard with the claims and "warned him that any such behaviour was wholly unacceptable" after general concerns were raised in 2008.
The peer - a key party strategist and adviser to a succession of Lib Dem leaders before standing down in 2009 - has said he is "deeply shocked" by the allegations, which he "strongly disputes" and regards as a "total distortion" of his character.
An independently chaired review will be held into Lib Dem procedures and how they were applied at the time, he said.
A separate investigation will be carried out into Lord Rennard under the party's disciplinary rules.
The Channel 4 News expose featured several women who claimed Lord Rennard touched them inappropriately.
One of them, Alison Smith, a Lib Dem activist who is now a lecturer at Oxford University, said she had spoken to both the then Lib Dem chief whip Paul Burstow and the party's spokeswoman for women and equality, Jo Swinson, about her claims, but said no action was taken.
Ms Swinson - now Equalities Minister - has confirmed she looked into the claims.
"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," she said.
Lord Rennard said in a statement on Friday: "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.
"I am disappointed and angry that anonymous accusations from several years ago are once again being made public in this manner in a clear attempt to damage my reputation.
"Let me reiterate that in 27 years working for the Liberal Democrat party, not a single personal complaint was ever made against me to my knowledge."
Simon Hughes, party president between 2004 and 2008, insisted that no specific or general concerns were raised with him at the time.
Asked if pressure was put on Lord Rennard to leave because of any allegations, Mr Hughes told BBC Breakfast: "No, no. I would have known. I was federal president for the longest period of anybody in this party for over four years, I would have heard about any allegations that came to the party as the senior elected person responsible for the party, they did not come to me.
"I knew of no reports that suggested that Chris Rennard resigned for anything other than health reasons that I am aware of.
"I saw nothing and heard nothing that suggested there had been inappropriate behaviour.
"I am not saying nothing happened at all. The whole purpose of an inquiry is that we go into that historical period."
David Cameron's official spokesman said today that the Prime Minister regarded all forms of harassment as "unacceptable".
But the spokesman declined to comment directly on the allegations against Lord Rennard.
Asked about the Rennard affair at a daily Westminster press briefing, the PM's spokesman said: "I am not going to get into the allegations that have been reported in the press in recent days.
"I would simply make a general point that of course harassment of all kinds is unacceptable.
"With regard to the current series of allegations, that is a matter for the Liberal Democrat party."
Asked if Mr Cameron had full confidence in Mr Clegg and in Ms Swinson, the spokesman replied: "He does."
The Daily Telegraph reported today that it had asked Mr Clegg's chief of staff, Jonny Oates, about detailed allegations relating to Lord Rennard as early as 2010.
The paper published on its website an exchange of emails, in which Mr Oates - at the time Liberal Democrat director of electoral communications - denied that Mr Clegg had been made aware of the allegations or had ordered an investigation into them.
An email sent by the Telegraph to Mr Oates in April 2010 listed five allegations, one of which was blacked out when the correspondence was published on the website today. The message gave dates and locations for the alleged inappropriate acts and made clear that the newspaper knew the identities of four of the women involved.
The email also suggested that Ms Swinson and Mr Alexander had been involved in investigations into Lord Rennard's alleged conduct.
However, Mr Oates responded in April 2010 by saying: "It is untrue to state that Mr Clegg was made aware of the incidents you allege. Given this fact, it is obviously untrue to state that Mr Clegg asked Jo Swinson or anyone else to carry out an investigation into the incidents that you allege."