England

Charlie Elphicke: Why did it take so long to bring ex-MP to justice?

Charlie Elphicke Image copyright PA Media
Image caption Charlie Elphicke had denied three counts of sexual assault

Former Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke has been convicted of sexually assaulting two women nearly a decade apart - but one of his victims had reported his actions to senior party figures nearly a year before police were called. Why did it take so long to bring him to justice?

After a late-night vote went against the Conservative government in April 2016, Charlie Elphicke was drowning his sorrows by sharing a bottle of champagne with a parliamentary worker.

As they sat in Westminster, the MP for Dover lunged at her, groped her breast, and tried to kiss her. After she had pushed him away, he told her: "Oh, I'm naughty sometimes, aren't I."

Weeks later, the then-45-year-old attacked her again, running his hand up the inside of her thigh.

The woman, in her 20s, feared the impact that speaking out would have on her fledgling career, but eventually confided in Conservative party whips, Southwark Crown Court had heard.

Anne Milton, the deputy chief whip who interviewed the woman in December 2016, told the BBC her priority was to ensure the woman was safe.

"She was very distressed, there was no doubt about it," she said, adding that she directed the woman to counselling services and suggested she visit a doctor to seek sick leave.

Elphicke was interviewed by the party and strenuously rejected the allegations. The woman was told there was nothing more that could be done by the party or House of Commons' authorities - at the time, there was no overarching management structure or complaints procedure for parliamentary workers.

Image copyright PA Media
Image caption Charlie Elphicke was reported to senior Tories almost a year before police were called

"There was nowhere for staff to go if they had concerns about the way they had been treated, either by MPs or other members of staff," said Mrs Milton.

"It was a very unsatisfactory situation. It was terrible to me that there was no independent process for members of staff. I was acutely aware that I could not be judge and jury on the facts before me.

"Essentially it always comes down to one word against the other, which is why there needs to be proper process."

Mrs Milton set out the woman's two options for dealing with Elphicke when they spoke again in January 2017: talk to police or begin an employment tribunal.

Feeling drained and dispirited, the court was told the young parliamentary worker pursued neither course. But, unbeknownst to her, a second woman had been battling with similar feelings for more than a decade.

Image copyright PA Media
Image caption Anne Milton interviewed Charlie Elphicke about the assaults in 2016

When allegations about the now-convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein came to light in October 2017, victims and survivors of abuse and misconduct in other industries around the world began to share their experiences as part of the #MeToo movement.

Among them was a list of allegations against MPs which was published online which eventually lead to Elphicke being suspended by the Conservatives on 4 November and "serious allegations" were referred to police.

Watching the news coverage about the Dover MP was a woman who had been left "hysterical" by his actions against her in 2007.

The court heard Elphicke, then a lawyer and prospective parliamentary candidate, pushed her on to a sofa, placed his knee between her leg and tried to kiss her and grope her breast. He then chased her, chanting: "I'm a naughty Tory."

Image copyright PA Media
Image caption A list of allegations against MPs was published online in October 2016

The woman had confided in friends and family at the time but decided not to take the matter to the police. The court heard she was distressed when she saw her attacker on TV after he was elected to Parliament in 2010 but it was only after reading about the Westminster misconduct scandal that she went to the police on 14 November 2017.

When officers contacted Conservative party whips, they soon discovered the parliamentary worker's allegations. Despite her reservations, she later agreed to support the prosecution, motivated by the idea she might help protect future victims.

After hearing the two women's accounts, which were described by the prosecution as "strikingly similar", a jury convicted Elphicke of all three counts. He will be sentenced on 15 September.

Key dates

June 2007 - Elphicke assaults a woman in her 30s while a prospective parliamentary candidate

April 2016 - As a serving MP, he assaults a parliamentary worker in Westminster

December 2016 - The young woman tells Tory whips

January 2017 - A complaint is made to police, but 12 days later she withdraws the allegations fearing the impact on her career

October 2017 - Allegations against Harvey Weinstein are revealed, leading to the #MeToo movement and a list of allegations against MPs published online

4 November 2017 - Elphicke is suspended by Conservatives

14 November 2017 - The 2007 victim goes to the police, who are directed towards the parliamentary worker by Tory whips

December 2018 - Elphicke has whip restored ahead of a confidence vote in Theresa May

July 2019 - Elphicke is charged with sexual assaults and is again suspended by the Conservatives

December 2019 - Natalie Elphicke is elected MP for Dover, succeeding her husband

Jennifer Temkin, a professor of law at City University, said the publication of the MP abuse allegations was vital in encouraging other victims to speak out.

"It is a very important part of how the criminal justice system works [and] it's particularly important in sexual assault cases, where other women and other men hear about what has happened and this gives them the courage to come forward. The #MeToo movement will have helped some victims to find the courage to report.

"Where a victim discovers that she is not the only person to have suffered at the hands of a particular perpetrator this is likely to assist her decision-making as to whether to report or remain silent. It is extremely common for victims to report years after the event as these experiences tend not to go away.

"When it comes to the actual prosecution, of course a jury is likely to be swayed by the fact it is not just one person saying this. It does add to the weight and credibility of the witnesses."

Image caption Charlie Elphicke joined his wife Natalie on the night she was elected as MP for Dover in December 2019

Nearly four years after Elphicke's actions were brought to the attention of his colleagues, an independent panel has been set up to scrutinise allegations involving politicians and their employees working at the House of Commons.

Mrs Milton said it had been "distressing" to see behaviour continue that "should have changed 20 or 30 years ago" and hopes it will help end the sort of abuse in the workplace that should have been stamped out decades ago.

"We have got to do everything we can to make sure that change continues and the way to do that is to create a safe environment in which people can report allegations," she said.

The Conservative party has been contacted for comment.

Amy Leversidge, assistant general secretary of the FDA, a union representing civil servants and parliamentary staff, said the parliamentary worker assaulted by Elphicke was part of an "incredibly courageous and brave" group that spoke out.

A "critical mass" of allegations showed sexual misconduct in Westminster was not the result of "just one bad apple," she said.

"It was the fact there was this culture of deference there - this culture that allowed bullying, harassment and sexual harassment to thrive," she added.

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites