UK Politics

Nine Tory bully victims 'will not give evidence to inquiry'

Elliott Johnson Image copyright PA
Image caption Elliott Johnson took his own life in September after complaining of bullying by Mark Clarke

Nine Tory activists whose claims are at the heart of the party's bullying scandal say they won't give evidence to the inquiry set up to investigate it.

They told BBC Newsnight they have lost faith in the inquiry set up after the death of activist Elliott Johnson.

A Conservative spokesman said it was "not appropriate to comment" while the probe is ongoing.

Clifford Chance, the law firm undertaking the inquiry, insists it has made "significant progress to date".

Shortly before he died, 21-year-old Tory activist Mr Elliott complained he was being bullied by Mark Clarke, the director of a campaign which ferried hundreds of young Tories to target seats across the country before last year's general election.

The investigation was set up in November following his death. The news that several victims won't give evidence has raised new fears about its credibility.

Mr Clarke has denied the allegations - but the Conservative Party has revoked his membership and commissioned an investigation amid numerous other claims of bullying and harassment.

Image copyright RoadTrip
Image caption Tory activist Mark Clarke is at the centre of a bullying scandal - he denies all the allegations

The scandal has already led to the resignation of Grant Schapps, a former Tory chairman, and there have been calls for Andrew Feldman, the current Tory chair, to step down too.

Nine potential witnesses have now told Newsnight they have lost faith in the investigation.

Some say it lacks true independence, while others fear they could be targeted for reprisals if they give testimony.

A letter sent out to potential witnesses from the firm appeared to give no firm guarantees that anonymity would be respected.

It said: "We will try to protect the identity of witnesses that give evidence about bullying and harassment by others. However, we may need to put such evidence to other witnesses to hear their version of events. We will try to do so in a way which does not identify the source of the evidence, but we cannot guarantee this will be possible."

One woman invited to give evidence told Newsnight she was too afraid to speak to the firm.

"I am worried that Mark Clarke and his associates will find out who I am, put my ID concretely with what I have said, find out where I live, who I am where, where I work - and that he and his associates will come after me and try to use force and intimidation to try to get me retract what I said."

She added: "If you cannot obtain the confidence of those you are interviewing and those who have been significantly damaged and affected... there is no point conducting an inquiry."

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Josh Hitchens, President of Conservative Future, the activist wing of the Conservative Party at the London School of Economics, said he would not give evidence either.

Last month a confidential complaint he had made to the Tory party last year about Mark Clarke was leaked to the media.

He told Newsnight: "We don't believe that it is an independent inquiry. That very fact that there is a perception of lack of independence and integrity in the process nullifies it because a lot people who have crucial bodies of evidence aren't willing to submit that evidence because they don't believe it is a fair and independent inquiry."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Grant Shapps resigned over the scandal at the end of November

In a statement to Newsnight, law firm Clifford Chance insisted it would protect potential witnesses.

"We take issues of confidentiality extremely seriously. Where witnesses previously gave evidence to the Conservative Party and were told that their evidence would be kept confidential, or where they request that our discussions with them remain confidential, we will not use that information in our report without their consent."

A Conservative spokesman said: "An investigation is currently underway and it is not appropriate to comment until we can establish the facts.

"The Crossbench Peer Lord Pannick QC has agreed to review the investigative process and to certify that it is objective, appropriate and comprehensive."

Update 12 January 2016: This article has been amended to remove an allegation by one alleged victim, which has been contested by Clifford Chance

More on this story on BBC Newsnight on Monday 11 January at 22:30 GMT on BBC Two and afterwards on iPlayer. You can follow Newsnight on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube

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