Mon, 27 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Three Tory MPs Suspended For Trying To Influence Judges In Charlie Elphicke Court Case

Three MPs have been suspended from the Commons tomorrow after writing to judges involved in the Charlie Elphicke case (Alamy)

4 min read

The suspension of three Conservative MPs from the Commons for trying to “improperly influence judicial proceedings" in a case involving their disgraced former colleague Charlie Elphicke has been approved.

But there was criticism that Natalie Elphicke, Sir Roger Gale and Theresa Villiers will only miss tomorrow’s Friday sitting in the chamber, where only backbench bills are being debated, rather than a normal sitting day.

The trio were among five Conservative MPs who had written to judges urging them not to release character references they had submitted in support of the former MP Charlie Elphicke, who was found guilty of three counts of sexual assault.

The two others – Adam Holloway and Bob Stewart – were forced to make an apology to the Commons after an investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone.

After Elphicke’s conviction last year, media had applied to the courts to have the character references from the case be released.

In response, the MPs used House of Commons-provided stationery to write to Dame Kathryn Thirwall and Dame Victoria Sharp, arguing that disclosing the references would be a “radical change to judicial practice” which could have a “chilling effect”.

The Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales informed Stone, who concluded an inquiry into whether they had breached the code of conduct earlier this year, saying “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”.

Her report was passed to the standards committee, who agreed and said that while there is no suggestion they actually influenced the outcome of the hearing, the fact they sought to do so “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”.

They 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 committee, which includes MPs from across the parties as well as lay members, ruled that in sending their letters, the MPs “undertook an action which caused significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons”.

They recommended a one-day suspension from the chamber. A motion was tabled this morning to approve their ruling and it was nodded through without a vote.

Discussing the sanction, Labour’s shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire criticised choosing Friday as the day for them not to attend, saying “there is no previous precedent” for it.

“Friday is a sitting day yes, but it's not the same as missing an entire day – we all know this,” she said.

“It’s not a day in which any of these members are going to lose their right to question ministers, table questions, it is a day in which we are having private member's bills.”

Debbonaire added: “Given that many members, including the members concerned, were unlikely to be here anyway, it's not like it's an inconvenience.

“I think if the government believe that to try and unduly influence judiciary, and bring the reputation of Parliament into disrepute, it would have been more fitting for the government to have decided that suspension fall on a normal sitting day.”

She also took a swipe at Boris Johnson, saying the matter “does nothing but undermine trust in Parliament, and it damages our reputation”.

She added: “Unfortunately I have to say, to a certain extent, I'm not at all surprised.

“Because where there is an example from the top, such as when the Prime Minister was happy to prorogue Parliament entirely illegally, it is not surprising that five members of benches opposite, thought that it was appropriate to interfere and improperly influence judicial matters in the trial of a former member.”

As well as their suspension, Elphicke, Gale and Villiers will have to write letters of apology to the Commons and the Lord Chief Justice.

A Tory peer who also signed the response to the judges was investigated separately by the Lords Commissioner for Standards, and was ordered to apologise for a breach of the code of conduct back in February.

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