Tory MPs set to be suspended for trying to influence trial of ex-MP Charlie Elphicke
Three Tory MPs are set to be suspended over an “egregious” attempt to influence a former colleague’s legal proceedings, the Commons Standards Committee has found.
Theresa Villiers, Natalie Elphicke, Sir Roger Gale, Adam Holloway and Bob Stewart sought to interfere in a decision regarding ex-MP Charlie Elphicke, who was convicted of sex offences.
The committee recommended that former environment secretary Ms Villiers, senior Conservative Sir Roger, and Ms Elphicke should be suspended from the House for one day, while all five were told to apologise.
All five wrote to senior members of the judiciary raising concerns that a more junior judge was considering publishing character references provided for Mr Elphicke.
“The letters signed and sent by the members in this case were an attempt improperly to influence judicial proceedings,” the committee said.
“Such egregious behaviour is corrosive to the rule of law and, if allowed to continue unchecked, could undermine public trust in the independence of judges.”
The MPs’ behaviour was found to have “caused significant damage to the reputation and integrity” of the House of Commons.
Of the three recommended for suspension, two had “substantial legal experience” while the third, Sir Roger, is both the longest standing of the group and “still does not accept his mistake”.
They were all told to apologise to the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, as well as to the House.
Tory peer Lord Freud has already apologised over the letter after having also been found to have breached the code of conduct.
The parliamentarians wrote to senior presiding judge Lady Justice Thirlwall and Queen’s Bench Division president Dame Victoria Sharp, asking them to consider issues raised by the potential release of character references provided for Mr Elphicke.
Written on headed House of Commons notepaper, the letter was also copied to Mrs Justice Whipple, who had heard the case and was deciding whether to release the references.
Ms Elphicke, Mr Elphicke’s estranged wife and his successor as Dover MP, apologised but raised concerns about the committee’s ruling in a statement.
“My actions were solely motivated by my duty to represent my constituents who had raised serious concerns with me. Those who approached me about this matter were private individuals who I believe have no place in the public eye,” she said.
“It is of deep concern to me that the committee did not fully recognise this.
“However, as I have already acknowledged, I do recognise that there were faults in the way I set about raising my constituents’ valid concerns. I regret and apologise for that and will learn from this experience in the future exercise of my duties as an MP.”
Ms Villiers’ spokesman said she accepts the committee’s findings and she “deeply regrets the mistake” of signing the letter.
“She has apologised sincerely for doing this. The correspondence was well-intentioned, but Ms Villiers recognises that it was wrong to raise this matter with judges when a court hearing was pending,” the spokesman added.
Sir Roger declined to comment on the ruling, but he told the committee during evidence: “I would find a different way of doing it, but would I do it again – would I seek to achieve the same effect? Yes, I would.”
Mr Elphicke was jailed for two years in September last year after being convicted of three counts of assault against two women.
During his trial it was revealed that he chased his first victim around his kitchen, shouting “I’m a naughty Tory” while his wife was away from home in 2007.
He was accused of grabbing the woman by the breast as he pushed her down onto his sofa and tried to kiss her.
Nine years later he twice assaulted a woman in Westminster and was arrested when she went to the police.
In sentencing him in September, Mrs Justice Whipple, described Elphicke as a “sexual predator” who had abused his power and position to target women.
But Rachna Gokani representing Elphicke argued that the judge had wrongly applied the sentencing guidelines and urged the Court of Appeal to reduce the two-year term or suspend it so he could be released from prison.
In their ruling the appeal judges rejected the application to challenge the original sentence.
Lady Justice Carr said: “The appellant was someone prepared to exploit his position of power and trust in order to pursue his sexual desires, as opposed to being sexually clumsy and unable to read social signals, as suggested (on his behalf).
“He used his power to create conditions in which he believed that he could act on his sexual desires without fear of consequence.”