THE Liberal Democrats' claims to be the champions of equality have taken a serious knock with allegations from several women of sexual harassment and inappropriate touching by the former chief executive Lord Rennard.

But the handling of the complaints, particularly by their leader Nick Clegg, has done far greater damage.

At first Mr Clegg said he knew nothing about the allegations, which Lord Rennard denies. Later he said he had been aware of "indirect and non-specific concerns" about Lord Rennard's conduct towards women in 2008.

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His then chief of staff, Danny Alexander, put the claims to Lord Rennard and warned him that such behaviour was unacceptable.

Mr Clegg says that, because his office received the claims anonymously, there was a limit to how they could be taken further. It now transpires that in 2010 five specific allegations about Lord Rennard's conduct were put to the LibDem leader's chief of staff Jonny Oates. If Mr Clegg was not informed of these, there are questions to be answered about why the allegations were not passed on or investigated. By this time, Lord Rennard had resigned on health grounds but if that led to an assumption that the matter was closed, it betrays an organisational culture which failed both to value its staff and uphold Liberal Democrat principles.

Jo Swinson, MP for East Dunbartonshire and now Equalities Minister, has said she took action after some women raised their concerns with her but she has not specified what form that action took.

Whatever the details of who knew what and when, it is essential for the LibDems' credibility that they now deal effectively with the complaints that have been made. So far their response has been so bedevilled by muddle and confusion that it is difficult to disagree with the party president Tim Farron that it had "screwed up" the handling of the claims of sexual harrassment. They have belatedly set up an inquiry into the allegations and there is to be a second inquiry into what went wrong. Mr Farron has acknowledged that as an employer the party failed in its duty of care.

That is a vital first step which Mr Clegg seemed curiously reluctant to take. Any organisation which fails to investigate allegations of abuse as soon as they are made or report them to superiors is colluding in a cover-up. As we have learned elsewhere, that is what leads to institutional abuse.