North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale has been suspended from sitting in Parliament for one day and ordered to write a letter of apology following an investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
Sir Roger was one of five Members of Parliament who were under investigation in connection with an attempt to lobby judges ahead of a court hearing for disgraced Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke.
The parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, also investigated Adam Holloway, Bob Stewart, Theresa Villiers and Charlie Elphicke’s estranged wife, Natalie, who currently holds the Dover and Deal seat.
The allegations were that the group used official Commons stationery to write to judges in a bid to get intervention so references of support could be admitted when former MP Charlie Elphicke was sentenced on sexual assault charges last September.
The disgraced Tory was jailed for two years after he was found guilty of sexual assault against two women.
Commissioner Kathryn Stone investigated the five for “use of facilities [stationery] provided from the public purse” and for “actions causing significant damage to the reputation of the house as a whole, or of its members generally.”
The identity of the group became public after a request was lodged by the Guardian newspaper last year.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards concluded that, by privately requesting the intervention of two senior judges, and then following the letter with further correspondence, the five Members had attempted to interfere in a judicial process. She found that this amounted to a breach of the parliamentary code.
The Commissioner also found that House-provided stationery should not have been used, and that the letters also breached the Code.
The Commissioner’s report says: “The letters signed and sent by the Members in this case were an attempt improperly to influence judicial proceedings.
“The Members concerned had several avenues open to them by which they could legitimately have raised their concern over the issues at stake in the case. These included making representations to the court through the proper channels, as they were invited to do, and approaching the Government’s point of liaison with the judiciary, the Lord Chancellor. Despite having these alternative options, they chose to write privately to two senior judges to request their intervention in a decision that properly belonged to Mrs Justice Whipple and that would be made in accordance with the court’s normal processes.
“Their letters were, appropriately, disregarded and they were rebuked by the Lord Chief Justice. There is no suggestion that the Members concerned actually influenced the outcome of the hearing. But they sought to do so, and by acting as they did risked giving the impression that elected politicians can bring influence to bear on the judiciary, out of public view and in a way not open to others. 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.
“By using House-provided stationery in order to do so, Mrs Elphicke, Sir Roger, Mr Holloway, Col Stewart and Ms Villiers also breached paragraph 16 of the Code.”
While acknowledging that all five Members acted in unison, the Committee reported that it “has only imposed a single day’s suspension on the two Members who had substantial legal experience, and the one Member, of longest standing in the House, who still does not accept his mistake; all three of whom should have known better.”
The longest standing MP is Sir Roger Gale.
In the investigation a letter sent to the Commissioner by Sir Roger, Adam Holloway and Col. Bob Stewart said: “During the eight months since our original letter was written no evidence to substantiate the claim that we have ‘taken action which would cause significant damage to the reputation of the House of Commons as a whole or to its Members generally’ has been proffered and there is no evidence to support the claim that we have not adhered to the instruction that ‘members shall ensure that the use of public resources is always in support of their parliamentary duties’.
“We have adhered resolutely to Section III Paragraph 6 of the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament and have been mindful of the United Kingdom’s obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998 and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. As such we do not see a case for an apology in the terms offered with regard to the Lords’ Commissioner’s findings and we respectfully request that the Committee does not accept the Commons Commissioner`s findings in full or in part.”
The MPs letter also said: “The pre-sentence references that were provided in mitigation were offered in the knowledge of Mr Elphicke`s conviction on serious charges and simply in the expectation that his previous public service to his Country and to his constituents would be taken into account when determining his future.
“By the time that three national newspapers sought the release of all of the references—some containing confidential and private constituents’ information —Mr. Elphicke had been sentenced and the case had concluded. Our actions were taken in defence of the rights of ordinary and innocent citizens and not of Mr. Elphicke.”
However the Committee recommended that Natalie Elphicke, Sir Roger Gale, and Theresa Villiers be suspended from the service of the House for one sitting day, and should apologise to the House by means of a letter to the Committee.
The Committee recommends that Adam Holloway and Bob Stewart should apologise to the House by means of a personal statement.
All five Members should also apologise to the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales by letter copied to the Committee.