Legal row means more delays for probe into Mike Hancock

INQUIRY Fratton councillor Mike Hancock. 'Picture: Ian Hargreaves  (103955-5)
INQUIRY Fratton councillor Mike Hancock. 'Picture: Ian Hargreaves (103955-5)
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THE final outcome of an investigation into Mike Hancock’s conduct could be delayed for months because of conflicting legal advice.

Portsmouth City Council has been investigating since March whether the Fratton councillor sexually assaulted a woman who went to him for help. A panel from the governance and audit and standards committee has been asked to determine whether Cllr Hancock has breached the council’s code of conduct.

It’s due to reach a conclusion on November 15, but the main committee is now meeting on Thursday to decide whether the panel needs to make a decision on whether the process should be put off while there is a civil case against Cllr Hancock.

As previously reported, the alleged victim, who cannot be named for legal reasons, is suing him in the High Court and a date for a hearing has not been set.

The potential delay is being considered after Elizabeth Laing QC said that, because of the court case, there ‘is a risk of inconsistent decisions’ being made – but also said that holding a final hearing now would not be in contempt of court. But another QC, Ian Wise, has warned that the victim’s legal team Birnberg Peirce & Partners could take the council to a judicial review if the decision was delayed, which it would have a ‘90 per cent chance’ of losing.

It could also face costs of up to £50,000. Cllr Donna Jones, chairwoman of the panel, said she didn’t understand why councillors may be asked to go over old ground.

She said they had decided at a previous meeting that there was a case to answer and Cllr Hancock’s plea for the investigation to be put on hold should be ignored.

‘I am not sure why the sub-committee is being asked to make a decision about this,’ said Cllr Jones. ‘We have already resolved this. It’s in the public interest and in the interest of the alleged victim that this case is concluded as a matter of urgency.’

If the main committee agrees that the panel should take Ms Laing’s advice into account, it will hold a meeting to determine whether the final hearing should be postponed. As reported, up to £45,000 has already been spent on the investigation on legal fees and public meetings.

Ms Laing has also said the council’s powers to protect the public were ‘limited’ and confidential information about the investigation had been leaked, though no-one knows where from. Cllr John Ferrett, leader of Portsmouth’s Labour group, said: ‘I am extremely concerned about the idea of the council taxpayer paying out even more money on an investigation which quite frankly should have been concluded many months ago.’

If the panel decides to go to the final hearing, it could rule that Cllr Hancock didn’t break any rules, that he did but no action needs to be taken, or that he is guilty and should be censured.

Cllr Hancock could be banned from the council’s premises for up to six months or the committee could call for him to step down as cabinet member for planning, regeneration and economic development. Nigel Pascoe QC would be invited to present a report that he has compiled into his conduct.

Cllr Hancock, who has stepped down from the parliamentary Liberal Democrat party until matters are resolved, said: ‘No-one has spoken to me. I have always thought this should be settled in the court. No-one has heard my side of the story.’