‘Haphazard, not malicious’: Incompetence behind Lib Dem sex allegation fiasco

Nick Clegg should have asked for a formal investigation into sexual harassment allegations against the Liberal Democrat chief executive, an independent probe into the party's culture has found.

Helena Morrissey, the chief executive of Newton Investment, said she had not found evidence of a cover-up but said multiple failures occurred because of "haphazard, not malicious" reasons.

Her report, published this afternoon, provided evidence of a party struggling to cope at every stage of the process.

She found that the women accusing chief executive Chris Rennard were not in a position to provide substantiated allegations because there was not a "safe environment" within the party for such a process to take place.

When the allegations were brought forward senior party leaders failed to initiate a formal investigation, Morrissey found.

And when the news story broke in February this year further mistakes were made in which damage limitation efforts spectacularly backfired.

"Mistakes were definitely made by Jo Swinson, Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg," Morrissey said.

"I think the women have every right to feel disappointed."

Clegg had said he had only heard of the allegations "indirectly and anonymously" at the time.

Morrissey has established that Jo Swinson, then a junior MP, had been approached by two of the women making allegations against the Lib Dem peer.

She then raised the issue with Danny Alexander, then Clegg's chief of staff, but did not mention their names because she believed they wanted to remain anonymous.

"I believe Jo Swinson handled the matter in good faith," Morrissey's report states. "One problem was that she was something of a confidante to the women rather than taking on a formal role in a process."

This afternoon she said Swinson's account "rang so true".

Rennard has consistently denied the allegations strenuously and stepped down from the Lib Dems in 2008, ostensibly on health reasons. It has now emerged the sexual harassment allegations "formed part of the background to his departure".

Nick Clegg said in a statement he found the report made "sobering reading" and that he would implement its recommendations in full.

"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 said.

"The report also shows that the individuals who dealt with their complaints had the right motives, but there weren't the right processes in place to support the women who'd come forward. And as leader of the Liberal Democrats I take responsibility for that."

Morrissey hit out at the Lib Dems' complicated internal organisation as part of the problems underlying the party.

She recommended that the party does more to create "a better environment for individuals working in the party in either a paid or a voluntary capacity".

The latter is especially important because of reports she received from local Lib Dem offices which "shocked" her.

The party must do more to make complaints a higher priority, set goals at all levels of the party to improve under-representation of woman and others and measure and advertise progress and the pace of change, she said.