Sexual harassment ‘fairly widespread’ in Lib Dem party says accuser who claims nine more women victims

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  By a Newsnet reporter
 
A woman who has alleged she was the victim of inappropriate sexual behaviour by Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard has claimed she knows of nine other women who also suffered similar experiences.
 
Known only as ‘Susan’, the woman who is a former Lib Dem councillor, has said she was propositioned by the senior Lib Dem peer at a training conference when he touched her leg after she had emerged from a woman’s rest room at the conference.

Today the scandal that has engulfed the Lib Dem leadership escalated when the woman claimed that sexual harassment in the party was “fairly widespread”:

Speaking on BBC Radio 4, she said: “I have spoken to nine women who are involved in this, which is a fair number,” she claimed that the victims had been reluctant to make formal complaints “because we didn’t want any of this fuss”.

The woman, who said she wanted to become a Lib Dem MP, has described there being a “fundamental problem” at the heart of the Lib Dem party structure and said her allegations had been a “great shock” to party.

She added. “The last few days have been horrific as a party member, let alone someone who has fallen prey to this.  It has rocked the party to the core.  It’s been like telling the party faithful that Santa Claus isn’t real.”

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has come under pressure after it emerged he was aware of allegations against Lord Rennard in 2008 despite initially insisting he only learned of them last week.  Mr Clegg has defended his earlier denials by insisting that he was aware of “indirect and non-specific concerns” over four years ago but not the more specific claims raised by Susan.

Questioned today by reporters outside his home, the Deputy Prime Minister appeared irritated and said: “I understand there are many people who appear to want to act as self-appointed detectives trying to piece together events that happened many years ago, but the only way that we are going to get to the bottom of the truth, the only way we are going to ensure that the women whose allegations were broadcast on television last week are properly listened to, the only way we are going to establish exactly what happened and who knew what and when, is by allowing the two investigations that I established immediately after the Channel 4 broadcast to do their job and, indeed, to allow the police, whom we have now approached, to do their job as well.”

Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander has also been drawn into the affair after it emerged that, when Nick Clegg’s Chief of Staff, he was asked to investigate allegations against Lord Rennard, who denied any inappropriate behaviour.  Lord Rennard stepped down as Lib Dem Chief Executive the following year.

Commenting on his involvement, Lib Dem MP Alexander said: “I did not know about these specific allegations until the Channel 4 broadcast.

“When indirect and anonymous concerns about Chris Rennard’s conduct came to the attention of Nick Clegg’s office, in late 2008, we acted immediately. As Nick’s Chief of Staff, I put these concerns to Chris Rennard in strong terms and warned him that any such behaviour was wholly unacceptable. Chris Rennard categorically denied that he had behaved inappropriately as he continues to do. Chris Rennard subsequently resigned as Chief Executive on health grounds.

“As these concerns were received indirectly and anonymously, as those involved understandably wanted to maintain privacy, there was a limit to how we could take this matter forward following Chris Rennard’s resignation.  The party has rightly set up inquiries into these matters and I will participate fully in those processes.”

However, the statement from Mr Alexander has been contradicted by Lord Rennard who has said that in 27 years of working for the Liberal Democrats he was aware of no complaint or allegation about his behaviour.

Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown has also now confirmed that he was aware of “rumours” about the peer some time before these specific allegations surfaced.

Campaigning in Eastleigh, Lord Ashdown said: “We all picked up the rumours some time before the Channel Four thing.”

Pressed later on when exactly he first heard complaints about Lord Rennard, he said: “There were rumours starting to circulate around Westminster and I expect they were heard by all people from all parties.”

Other reports allege that in 2004 a former young researcher for the party ran from Lord Rennard’s room ‘in tears’ after an incident.

Yesterday The Daily Telegraph published a 2010 email exchange with Mr Clegg’s chief of staff Jonny Oates, that contained details of the dates and locations of four alleged incidents between 2003 and 2007 involving Lord Rennard.  The communication made clear the identities of the women who had complained were known.

Another senior Lib Dem figure who has come under pressure to explain her own role in the affair is female Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson.  According to the Daily Mail, the young high flyer has admitted speaking to several of the alleged victims of Lord Rennard but denied their claims that she deterred them from speaking out.

According to the Daily Mail, one Lib Dem insider who says she spoke to Miss Swinson in 2004 about Lord Rennard said: “Jo Swinson said to me that Rennard had an issue about women but you have to put up with it if you want to get on in the party.”

The allegations against Ms Swinson are potentially very embarrassing, given her Women’s Equalities role which involves promoting women’s rights.

In a statement issued this weekend, 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. 

“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.”

Police are now investigating whether any “criminal activity” may have taken place as a result of the allegations levelled against the Lib Dem Peer.

Lord Rennard has strenuously denied all of the accusations made against him.

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