'Groping' Lib Dem peer to be quizzed by police

A criminal inquiry was under way last night into claims a Liberal Democrat peer molested party activists.

Lord Rennard, who was the party’s powerful chief executive, now faces being questioned by detectives.

Scotland Yard said interviews with alleged victims since the scandal broke in February justify a full probe.

The peer is accused of behaving inappropriately towards a number of women in the party, but has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing

In further highly damaging developments for the Lib Dems it emerged that:
Up to 20 potential victims and witnesses have been interviewed by a team of five detectives;
The allegations against Lord Rennard date back to the early 1990s, up to a decade earlier than thought;
Sources said the peer had already agreed to be interviewed by detectives under caution;
Party leader Nick Clegg, Treasury secretary Danny Alexander andwomen’s minister Jo Swinson may all face police questioning.

In his key party role, Lord Rennard presided over ‘training’ weekends attended by hundreds of female party hopefuls.

Some of them claimed he tried to entice them back to his bedroom and one threatened to blow the whistle at a tribunal before she was paid off by the party. Others say they were left ‘shamed and humiliated’ during his alleged campaign of sexual harassment.

One alleged he put his hands where they had ‘no business being’ and another branded him ‘repugnant’ for allegedly forcing his hand up her dress as they posed for a photo.

Alleged victim Alison Smith has said she decided to go public because Lord Rennard appeared back on the scene

The scandal erupted in February when two female party activists – Alison Smith and Bridget Harris – spoke to Channel 4 News. The Lib Dem leadership was quickly accused of turning a ‘blind eye’.

Scotland Yard officers initially worked to establish if the allegations against Lord Rennard could constitute criminal offences.

As with other inquiries into ‘historic’ allegations, they contacted the potential victims and witnesses to see whether they would be willing to speak openly.

Last night, a police spokesman said they were ‘carrying out inquiries to corroborate those allegations’.

Detectives had asked the Lib Dems to suspend their own inquiry into Lord Rennard and to hand them any information from a whistleblowing hotline.

It is understood that a major trawl of emails and other documentation has taken place with a dossier of information handed to police.

In an intriguing twist, potential victims and witnesses have been warned not to speak to the media as their actions may prejudice the inquiry.

This suggests that detectives believe there is a possibility that a jury may eventually be asked to rule on criminal allegations against Lord Rennard.

The Lib Dem leadership was quickly accused of turning a ¿blind eye¿ when party activist Bridget Harris spoke to Channel 4 News

At least ten women are alleged to have made complaints that constitute evidence of criminal sexual assault.

Senior party figures face embarrassing questions about their own botched ‘inquiry’ into the allegations around five years ago. Mr Clegg, whose office asked two senior MPs to look into the claims, is yet to explain fully what he knew and when.

The Deputy Prime Minister admits he knew of ‘indirect and non-specific concerns’ as early as 2008.

His office asked Mr Alexander, his then chief of staff, to look into the claims. Mr Alexander spoke to the peer to warn him that any such behaviour was unacceptable.

Mr Clegg’s deputy chief of staff, Alison Suttie, also asked Miss Swinson, then party spokesman for women and equality, to carry out a probe.

Serious allegations: Lord Rennard presided over training weekend attended by party hopefuls

She was asked to ‘quietly interview’ party workers making claims against Lord Rennard.

She did so, but no action was taken and she referred subsequent complaints back to Miss Suttie in Mr Clegg’s office.

Miss Swinson is also accused of telling a colleague that Lord Rennard had an issue with women but ‘you just have to put up with it’.

Former Lib Dem chief whip Paul Burstow was also informed about the claims against Lord Rennard but did nothing. A year later, in 2009, the peer stepped down as chief executive and took early retirement, ostensibly through ill health.

When the furore broke, David Cameron called on Mr Clegg to ‘get to the bottom of it’. The Lib Dem leader criticised the ‘self-appointment detectives’ of the Press but was later forced to thank them for exposing the allegations.

Last night John Mann, the Labour MP who first called for a police inquiry into the allegations, said Mr Clegg had questions to answer.

‘We need to leave the police to do their job, and I’m sure all concerned will co-operate fully with the police inquiry,’ he added.

‘Clearly there will be questions to answer. The Liberals have handled this very, very badly.

‘Moving from no real inquiry at all, to a police inquiry is a big gulf, and it indicates that Liberal party processes are not robust enough and will need to be re-examined. This is more than embarrassment for Nick Clegg, it is a problem because they should have investigated the allegations properly.

‘He is the Deputy Prime Minister. You’ve got to run your own party properly and he clearly hasn’t, or it wouldn’t have got to this stage.’

Lord Rennard’s lawyers have insisted he ‘always strived to conduct himself responsibly and appropriately at all times’. He strenuously denies any wrongdoing.

A Liberal Democrat spokesman said: ‘There is no indication that the police want to speak to Nick.

‘The police are continuing their ongoing investigation into allegations made against Chris Rennard.

‘The party continues to liaise with the Met, and has been since the allegations were first raised by Channel 4 in February. The party encourages anyone with information they feel may assist the police with their inquiries to contact them.’

He said there was no indication police wanted to talk to senior party figures involved in the 2008 party investigation.

A Met spokesman said: ‘As is standard in cases of an historic nature, officers’ initial inquiries are made to establish if allegations of crime are being made and if there are potential victims and witnesses who are prepared to speak to police.

‘Officers then carry out inquiries to corroborate those allegations, and in this case that process is on-going.’