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Nick Clegg criticised in report into Lib Dems' handling of Rennard allegations

Party leader and three ministers 'could have done much more' to investigate claims of sexual harassment against party chair

Nick Clegg and three other Liberal Democrat ministers have been criticised for failing to properly investigate allegations of sexual harassment against the party's former chief executive Lord Rennard, according to a review of the party's internal culture and handling of the complaints.

Businesswoman Helena Morrissey, who conducted the inquiry, criticised the roles of the deputy prime minister as well as the chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, equalities minister Jo Swinson, and the health minister Paul Burstow for failing to launch a formal investigation after alleged victims came forward.

She said: "I think that he [Clegg] made a mistake by not calling for a formal inquiry. Mistakes were definitely made by Clegg, Danny Alexander and Jo Swinson – they could have done much more to bring about an inquiry into these allegations which were serious and demanded further scrutiny".

The report is a damaging blow for Clegg and his party, coming a week after the MP Mike Hancock resigned the whip to fight allegations that he molested a constituent who had approached him for help with noisy neighbours. Although Lib Dem insiders say the party has at last tried to address some of the problems of sexual discrimination, unlike rivals.

Several Lib Dem activists and party workers alleged in February that before he stood down as the party's chief executive in 2009 Rennard made unwanted advances, but when they reported it to party MPs – including the chief whip – little action was taken.

Four women made allegations against Lord Rennard, but Morrissey said her review also uncovered wider examples of "low-level sexism" and a "reluctance to investigate" within the party.

Burstow faces some of the most strident criticisms. Two women made allegations against Rennard to Burstow in May 2007 but he failed to act upon them, according to the report. "Given the seriousness of the allegations and Rennard's role in the party, for the sake of all concerned and as he subsequently realised, Burstow should have proactively taken the issue top the president," Morrisey says.

The women took their claims to Swinson, who did not take notes. She consulted Norman Lamb, the current health minister, who encouraged her to pursue the matter, according to the report.

In spring 2008, Swinson went to see Alexander – then Clegg's chief of staff – about the allegations. He raised the matter with Clegg and Burstow, the report states, and it was decided that Alexander would confront Rennard with the allegations. But again nothing was written down, according to the report.

Rennard denied the allegations. More allegations were raised in October that year with Swinson, and again the allegations were passed on to Clegg and Alexander and raised again with Rennard.

Morrissey said there was "little evidence to suggest a conscious attempt to cover up problems … Instead, there has been a tendency for the party to try to 'handle' complaints rather than to fully and properly investigate them in a timely, professional manner".

"Individuals appear to have been generally acting in good faith but without realising the importance of adhering to process or being aware of the processes in place," the report said. "While this may appear a benign mistake, it has caused problems to fester unresolved, to the detriment of all involved."

Morrissey, the chief executive of Newton Investment Management and founder of the 30% Club, which campaigns to increase the proportion of women in company boardrooms, did not interview Lord Rennard "on the advice of his lawyers" although he "was initially willing" to answer questions. Rennard is now subject to a police investigation. He denies any wrongdoing.

Morrissey said she has heard 32 complaints from party members and was "shocked" to hear that some party members and employees were making claims of persistent harassment from colleagues. Incidents she heard about include a male parliamentarian who propositioned a young male researcher and a male Lib Dem councillor who resigned because of inappropriate behaviour towards a female office worker.

Morrissey consulted 60 people during the three-month inquiry. "I was disappointed and somewhat shocked at some of the allegations that arose on a local level. I was taken aback and filled with empathy about some of the people who came forward," she said.

Clegg said he would implement all the recommendations made in Morrissey's report "without delay" and had asked her to check on progress in 12 months. "It shows that stretching over a 20-year period a series of mistakes were made which left a number of women feeling seriously let down and for that there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever," he added.

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