Councillors back sex claims MP
Liberal Democrat councillors have allowed an MP accused of "appalling" sexual allegations to retain a powerful position on his local council amid internal party clashes over the handling of the case.
Mike Hancock was suspended from the party this week after the leaking of a QC's report into allegations - which he denies - of inappropriate behaviour towards a constituent with mental health issues.
The Portsmouth South MP had already resigned the parliamentary party whip last year, but was still sitting as a Lib Dem local councillor until the local group last night ruled that his suspension meant it must strip him of the party banner.
But the group, which has previously accused the party leadership of suspending Mr Hancock without due process, also made clear it had been effectively forced into the decision and allowed the MP to retain his seat on the council's cabinet.
In a statement, Portsmouth City Council's Liberal Democrat group said: "Councillor Mike Hancock no longer remains a member of the Portsmouth City Council Liberal Democrat Group because, having had his membership suspended by the party at national level, it is not possible for him to remain a member of the city council group until the suspension is lifted.
"The group acknowledges that the suspension has been imposed before the issue to which suspension relates has been properly and fairly determined through due process in the courts.
"The group decided that the Independent Councillor Mike Hancock should retain his seat on the cabinet of the city council. This was decided because Councillor Hancock is best placed to fulfil the role of cabinet member for planning, regeneration and economic development."
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg yesterday insisted he had taken immediate action after learning of "appalling" allegations levelled against the MP as he came in for criticism for failing to do anything in the three years after the party was notified of the complaints.
The Deputy Prime Minister, who is also facing criticism over the handling of separate sexual harassment allegations against Lord Rennard, said he had acted last year as soon as he heard that a civil case was being brought against his MP.
"When I was given the specific allegations at the beginning of last year I immediately asked our chief whip to investigate," he said. "As a result Mike Hancock ceased to be a Lib Dem MP.
"When those allegations were then supported by the QC's report that has come to light this week again we acted immediately and Mike Hancock has been suspended from the Lib Dems altogether."
The Deputy Prime Minister added: "The first time I was given specific allegations was when there was a notification of legal proceedings, which I was informed of at the beginning of last year.
"You can only react to things that are put to you.
"That is when I acted. I acted immediately because I was as appalled as anyone by the seriousness of these allegations."
After a Hampshire police investigation concluded there was no case to answer, Portsmouth City Council launched an inquiry into whether Mr Hancock had breached the council's code of conduct, but that has now been put on hold pending the outcome of the civil court action.
The report, carried out by Nigel Pascoe QC for the council, found "compelling" evidence of "serious and unwelcome sexual behaviour" towards a vulnerable woman constituent. She suffered a mental health disorder and had been sexually abused as a child.
Her solicitor, Harriet Wistrich, said it had taken the Lib Dem leadership three years to take action after the complaints about his conduct first came to light.
"There seems to be a pattern here of Lib Dems not dealing with the matter," Ms Wistrich told Sky News.
"My client's wish is for him to be held properly to account for his misconduct. We are exploring all avenues. It has taken us three years to reach this stage because every time she has gone down one regulatory procedure or another, there's been no investigation or no decision made.
"I think that the Lib Dems have very belatedly suspended him from party membership. The council have been appalling in not taking action earlier. He still is a councillor, they could proceed now with the allegations that he has breached their council code of conduct."