The Liberal Democrats are facing demands to review a number of previous allegations of sexual impropriety against senior party figures, following damaging claims against an influential peer.
The party is reviewing its procedures for investigating claims of sexual harassment after Channel 4 News disclosed that Lord Rennard had been accused of pestering several female staff – a claim he denies. The women claimed that the allegations were reported to senior figures in the party, including Paul Burstow, then the party's chief whip and a minister until last year, and Jo Swinson, who is currently minister for women, but were not taken seriously.
The development comes as the party faces a growing crisis over plunging support, and amid fears that it will lose next week's Eastleigh byelection triggered by the resignation of Chris Huhne.
Nick Clegg has asked Tim Farron, the party president, to establish an "immediate review into all our procedures for dealing with these issues, including a thorough examination of how allegations made in the past have been handled" following the claims against Rennard.
Solicitors for a constituent of Mike Hancock, the Lib Dem MP for Portsmouth, wrote to the party on Friday asking it to reopen an internal inquiry into his behaviour. Hancock is being sued for alleged sexual assault against the woman, who suffers from a mental illness, after she had approached him for help with noisy neighbours in 2009. He is alleged to have sent a number of emails to her in which he referred to her as "sexy" and "my princess". He denies the allegations. The Lib Dems cleared Hancock in February last year of any wrongdoing.
In a letter sent on Friday, Harriet Wistrich, solicitor for the woman, asked the Lib Dems to include the claims against Hancock in their current review.
"In light of yesterday's statement by your leader and the further information which we have now provided to you we ask you to include within the announced review the handling of this historic allegation," she said.
In a separate development, a victim of Cyril Smith, the former Lib Dem MP for Rochdale, called on the party to examine whether it properly investigated published claims that Smith was a serial child abuser. The victim told the Guardian: "Given that allegations of child abuse against Smith were published in Private Eye and another magazine in 1979, I would like to know if the Lib Dems have ever conducted their own inquiries into whether Smith was a paedophile, and then another into why they did not discover that he was a serial paedophile."
Responding to calls for an explanation of the party's processes when examining allegations against Smith, a spokesman for the Lib Dems added: "The allegations against Smith were never raised with the party. If anyone has been a victim they should contact Greater Manchester police and we would co-operate with their inquiries."
Rennard, who has been the party's chief executive and election strategist, has been accused by several women connected to the Lib Dems of touching them inappropriately or propositioning them. Former party staff told Channel 4 News on Thursday that Rennard behaved inappropriately towards them at events.
Bridget Harris, a former special adviser to Clegg, said that in a hotel bar at a party conference, the peer repeatedly touched her legs without permission. "I had to physically move away from him," she said. "He suggested that we take our coffees upstairs to his room."
Harris said she reported the incident to party managers, but nothing was done.
Alison Smith, now a politics lecturer at Oxford University, alleged that six years ago she and a friend were invited back to Rennard's house after having dinner with him in central London. "He just very suddenly got up and plonked himself between us and then he started moving his hands down our backs and places where they had absolutely no business being," she said.
Smith claimed thatshe reported what had happened to Burstow, who was then the then chief whip, but never heard anything back from him. "He listened very patiently and sounded very concerned and then basically said he would do something about it and be in touch, but he never was," she said.
Smith said she then went to Swinson, the party's then spokesperson for women and equality, who is now minister for women. Smith said Swinson agreed to investigate and spoke to other women who had also alleged Lord Rennard had behaved inappropriately.
Smith added: "She certainly uncovered … that this was a very serious pattern of behaviour."
Swinson, according to Smith, told her that the problem with taking it forward was that nobody wanted to make a formal complaint.
"It very quickly became quite Kafkaesque. They were saying, 'No one wants to make a formal complaint', and I was saying, 'I'll make a formal complaint,' and they were saying, 'That's a shame because no one wants to make a formal complaint'," Smith told the programme.
In a statement, the party confirmed that it was reviewing both the allegations against Lord Rennard and its rules for dealing with complaints.
"An internal investigation into the specific allegations raised by Channel Four has begun under the Party's disciplinary procedures.
"There are a number of questions that have been raised and our review will ensure we properly address all of them.
"We will not tolerate harassment in our party and we urge anyone to contact the chief executive or use our confidential whistle-blower procedure if they have issues they wish to raise."
Channel 4 News broadcast further claims on Friday from two women who said, anonymously, that they had faced inappropriate behaviour from Rennard.
One current Lib Dem activist claimed she was persistently touched and then propositioned by the Scottish peer at a conference for aspiring Lib Dem women.
"You did wonder whether you were wrecking your chances of any career move by turning him down," she said.
She raised her concerns informally with Swinson and Norman Lamb, now a health minister. She has now formally complained to the party, she added.
Farron said that he found the allegations shocking and that the alleged victims were "believable" but said that Rennard would be treated as innocent unless proven guilty.
Lawyers for Rennard told Channel Four News: "Lord Rennard has always strived to conduct himself responsibly and appropriately at all times and has no recollection of any inappropriate behaviour.
"In addition, our client is unaware of any complaint about his conduct ever being made against him… In addition, Lord Rennard describes as completely untrue, any suggestion that he resigned as chief executive as a result of allegations about inappropriate behaviour."
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