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UK Conservative Party accused of mishandling assault complaint

LONDON — A member of No. 10 staff was barred from involvement in the last Tory general election campaign after being accused of groping a woman at the Conservatives’ annual conference.

The case increases pressure on the Tory party, which has faced sustained criticism for its handling of allegations of abuse by Conservative MPs and staffers, in particular for the opaque nature of its complaints process.

The individual, whom POLITICO has decided not to name, was accused of pinching a woman’s buttock at an event attended by the prime minister at the Conservative Party conference on September 30, 2019.

The woman who said she was assaulted at the Tory conference was a senior government employee. She wrote to the party with a formal complaint after the conference. The individual accused strongly denied the allegation and continues to do so. Despite the allegation, Conservative Party Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) raised no objection to his appointment during vetting when No. 10 recruited him.

At the time of the complaint, CCHQ launched an investigation led by its head of HR, Sara Mathews. The investigation reviewed footage of the event and found no evidence or witnesses. It ruled that the complaint could not be upheld, but nonetheless, senior Tory figures decided that the accusation warranted barring the individual from involvement in the upcoming general election campaign, according to someone familiar with the case.

The woman was informed of this decision informally. The accused was told informally that he had been cleared and was never informed he had been barred from involvement in the election campaign as he had not sought a role, according to someone else with knowledge of the case.

Caroline Nokes, the Conservative chair of the House of Commons women and equalities committee, said: “The victim in this circumstance thinks action has been taken and [the accused] thinks he’s been completely cleared. It’s not helping people to come forward in future with their allegations if they don’t have confidence that there is going to be a rigorous process that is followed properly, and the outcome communicated to all parties that at least matches.”

The Conservative Party has faced criticism over the way it has handled multiple allegations of sexual misconduct in the past few years. Rob Roberts, an MP who has been suspended from the parliamentary party over sexually harassing one of his staff, had his membership restored last year after a 12-week suspension. 

Andrew Griffiths and Charlie Elphicke, two MPs who were at the time subject to sexual misconduct allegations, were readmitted to the Tory fold in time for them to vote in a no-confidence vote in former Prime Minister Theresa May. A civil court ruled last year that Griffiths raped his wife when she was asleep and subjected her to coercive control. Elphicke was jailed in 2020 after being found guilty of three counts of sexual assault.

Anne Milton, the former deputy chief whip who supported Elphicke’s victims in securing his conviction, said: “When you work for a political party, reporting instances like this to that party is always going to be problematic. Political parties must be able to reassure potential victims that their allegations will be investigated outside the structure of the organization.

“A written down, formal, open process where it is clear to both sides of a complaint what to expect, and what actions have resulted is critical and should always be in place,” she added.

The Labour Party is having to introduce an independent complaints system after the Equality and Human Rights Commission found it had broken the law in dealing with allegations of anti-Semitism during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Hannah White, deputy director at the Institute for Government, said: “Dealing with sexual assault allegations internally is particularly difficult in small organizations where personal and professional relationships may shape perceptions of fairness. This is where introducing an independent element can help.”

A spokesperson for the Conservative Party said: “This matter was investigated and closed at the time.”

A government spokesperson said: “All prospective government employees are subjected to necessary checks and vetting. We do not comment on individuals.”

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