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15 November 2013, 15:16
A local authority has been criticised by a woman suing a Portsmouth MP for sexual assault for delaying its decision on whether he has breached its code of conduct.
Mike Hancock resigned the Liberal Democrat party whip in June to fight a High Court civil action by the "vulnerable'' constituent, who accused him of sexual assault after she contacted him for help.
The Portsmouth South MP - who is also a councillor in the city - denies the claims.
Portsmouth City Council's governance and audit and standards (hearing) sub-committee was set to decide whether Mr Hancock's alleged behaviour breached its code of conduct.
But the sub-committee - made up of two Liberal Democrat councillors and one Conservative member - voted to postpone its consideration of the matter until after the High Court had completed its proceedings in the case.
The complainant, who cannot be named, said after the meeting: "It's really disgusting, it wouldn't happen to anyone else, he has had every opportunity to have his say.''
Mr Hancock was not at the hearing.
Councillor Donna Jones, the Conservative chairwoman of the committee, who voted against the decision to delay, said: "I am very disappointed with today's decision. I think in the interest of the alleged victim we should have had a timely decision.''
The sub-committee had received a report commissioned by the authority by Nigel Pascoe QC which concluded there was a case to answer. The criminal barrister wrote to the committee again this week urging them not to delay the issue.
The council also received legal advice that if there was a judicial review of today's decision to delay, it would have a 90% chance of losing it.
But the two Liberal Democrat members of the sub-committee, Terry Hall and Les Stevens, spoke of their concern that their decision could be inconsistent with that of the High Court and they would have no way of amending their judgement and punishment to reflect this.
The hearing was told that the sub-committee had no powers to compel witnesses to provide statements or give evidence under oath unlike the High Court.
Mr Stevens said: "It would be better left to the High Court to decide - if we make the wrong decision there's no way of going back.''
A spokesman for Mr Hancock said previously: "Mike asked to meet with the independent investigator and this was denied him despite him raising the refusal with the city council's solicitor.
"The police investigated matters from the complainant thoroughly and they found that there was no case to answer.
"Similar matters by the same complainant are subject to a civil dispute which Mike is rigorously defending. It is not appropriate therefore unfortunately to provide an ongoing running commentary on the matter.
"Mike greatly thanks his constituents for the many warm messages of support that he has had and he will continue to work hard to serve his constituents as an MP and councillor.''
The case is next set to be heard at the High Court on December 16, with a full hearing not expected to be heard for another nine months. The council will reconsider the matter at the conclusion of the court case.
If the sub-committee goes on to find Mr Hancock at fault it can censure him, recommend to his group leader that he be removed from council committees or restrict him from the authority's premises for up to six months.
A spokesman for Mr Hancock, who is the council's cabinet member for planning, regeneration and economic development and who is councillor for the Fratton ward, said: ``Mike Hancock notes that Portsmouth City Council's standards hearing sub-committee, after considering independent legal advice, has decided that the standards complaint against him as a councillor should be postponed until after the conclusion of the civil dispute.
"This independent legal advice said that there was the potential for inconsistent decisions between the court and the council and that the court is best placed to establish matters of fact, not least because it can take evidence under oath which the council can't.
"The police investigated matters from the complainant thoroughly in 2010 and they found that there was no case to answer.
"Similar matters by the same complainant are subject to a civil dispute which Mike is rigorously and fully defending.
"It is not appropriate therefore unfortunately to provide an ongoing running commentary on the matter but Mike looks forward to putting his case in court in the civil dispute.
"Mike greatly thanks his constituents for the many warm messages of support that he has had.
"He will continue to work hard to serve his constituents as an MP and councillor including campaigning for jobs at the dockyard.''