If an MP’s researcher is accused of sexual assault, what should the MP do? Co-operate fully with the police, of course, which is what Chris Skidmore claims he did when his assistant ended up in court. The Tory MP and minister for universities strenuously denies that he refused to provide the police with evidence. But questions still remain after what an officer said during the trial at Southwark Crown Court.
You might have heard about the case: 27-year-old Callum Warren, Skidmore's former staffer, was cleared last week of molesting a teenager. The court heard descriptions of a legislature that runs on an endless supply of cheap lager and eager young graduates.
But the trial itself brought up interesting questions about how helpful the minister was. Skidmore was accused of failing to provide a police statement. This is an accusation that Skidmore denies. The Conservative party has said that the minister felt he shared everything he knew and that when he explained that to the police they accepted his response. But evidence presented to the jury suggests Skidmore could have done more to help.
Detective constable Sam O'Callaghan told the jury the MP initially provided notes from a meeting he had with Warren where Skidmore first told him about the claims. However the officer went on to say Skidmore had since declined to give a further account to police.
DC O'Callaghan described his requests for evidence from the minister, saying:
“'I had various contact with him. Initially he provided me with paperwork in relation to Mr Warren and his interview with him. He agreed to provide me with a statement, dates were proposed but weren't suitable.'
The officer said he continued to email Skidmore and his office:
'These were eventually either not responded to or ignored. On the 23rd of August this year, he provided me with an email declining to provide a statement.'
This supposed refusal to speak to the police potentially denied the jury helpful evidence. Skidmore is the only person who saw how Warren reacted when he was first informed of the allegations. And the only record of that interview was provided by Skidmore himself.
The police felt they needed to interrogate that evidence further. But they say they were refused that opportunity by a member of the government. Skidmore refutes the police officer's claims, claims he made from a court witness box while under oath.
A Conservative party spokesperson said:
'Chris Skidmore reported these allegations immediately to the Whips Office and the Parliamentary Authorities. When this became a police matter, Chris immediately suspended the individual and voluntarily provided the police with the notes from the interview he had conducted with the accused. Chris Skidmore offered his full support to the police investigation, complying fully with what was required and his actions allowed the case to be handled in the appropriate way.'
It is understood that Skidmore felt he provided everything that was needed of him and had nothing more to add. The minister and his office also believe they responded to every email from the police.
But clearly the police do not feel Skidmore offered his 'full support'. In fact, they feel they were ignored by the minister and his office.
Skidmore is not the only one who came in for criticism. The Serjeant at Arms, the ancient office tasked with security on the estate, was also accused by police of failing to provide evidence.
‘Essentially, I was either ignored or “someone would get back to me” – they did not,’ DC O’Callaghan explained.
When the House of Commons authorities were first approached for their response, they replied saying:
‘We cannot comment on security matters, which includes any liaison with the police.’
When pushed on the point that perhaps it might look as though the Commons wasn’t taking sexual misconduct allegations seriously, they decided they could in fact comment on their ‘liaison with the police’.
A spokesperson said:
‘There is zero tolerance in Parliament for abuse or harassment and we work closely with partner organisations including the Police to ensure that allegations are investigated thoroughly. Over the past 18 months Parliament has made significant progress in improving processes around the reporting and handling of allegations of harassment, including sexual harassment. We continue to review these processes to ensure that robust systems are in place to safeguard those working on or visiting the Estate.
‘We are urgently looking into any contact that was made by the Police so as to establish the facts and, if necessary, review our processes.’
The police have since made it clear that they stand by what their officer said in court. The question remains then: did Chris Skidmore do everything he could to assist the investigation?