Exclusive: Inquiry into Tory conference ‘gay-sex party paid on expenses’

Parliamentary watchdog ‘deeply worried’ by claims public money funded £2,500-a-night hotel suite

Whitehall Editor

Parliament’s expenses watchdog is to investigate claims that the taxpayer indirectly funded a hotel suite that was used for a gay-sex party during a Conservative Party conference.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) said it was “deeply worried” by allegations that public money was used to pay for a suite of rooms used where the party took place.

It said it would be investigating the claims, which come in the wake of revelations about inappropriate relationships between young Tory researchers and MPs following the Nigel Evans trial. Mr Evans was cleared of a string of sexual assaults on young men following a five-week trial at Preston Crown Court.

The Independent understands that a suite of rooms costing up to £2,500 per night was booked at Manchester’s Light ApartHotel by an organisation called the Policy Research Unit (PRU). The PRU, which is overseen by senior Conservative figures, provides “parliamentary research” for the party’s MPs that is carried out by a team of mainly young researchers and interns. 

The majority of the PRU’s £437,725-a-year income comes directly from the taxpayer via MPs’ expenses. Tory MPs each pay nearly £4,000 a year to the PRU which they claim back through Ipsa.

The organisation states on its website that it only carries out “the same work which would otherwise be permitted to be undertaken within a member’s own office by their own publicly funded staff”.

If the PRU paid for the suite of rooms in Manchester it may have been in breach of parliamentary expense rules – regardless of what went on there. Ipsa’s rules clearly state that “staffing expenditure may not be claimed for any party political activity”. The rules add that “attendance at political party conferences or meetings” cannot be covered by parliamentary expenses.

Last night an Ipsa spokesman said: “MPs who use a parliamentary research company, such as PRU, can seek reimbursement for the cost as a perfectly reasonable claim. Allegations that the PRU has misused public money are deeply worrying and pose serious questions for the PRU board to answer.

“We have received the proper assurances and evidence from all MPs who claim through PRU but, in the light of these concerns, we will be contacting PRU to seek further assurance about their work and that the claims fall within Ipsa’s scheme.”

The Independent understands concerns were raised with senior Tory officials after the gay networking application Grindr was used to “advertise” the party which took place during the Conservative Party conference in 2011.

While there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing on behalf of anyone involved, it follows revelations in yesterday’s Independent that a number of Conservative MPs regularly got drunk, “flirted” and made passes at young male parliamentary workers during Commons drinking sessions. The Independent has been told that some of these researchers may have worked for the PRU.

Separately, earlier this month Iain Corby, director of the PRU, resigned from his job to “return to the commercial world”. His departure was not linked in any way to the booking of the Manchester hotel rooms.

Oliver Heald, the Conservative MP who was at the time the chairman of the PRU, confirmed that members of the unit would go to party conferences and that this was paid for by the organisation.

“They did used to go,” he said. “Three or four people from the unit would go. It was all approved by the Treasurer (of the PRU) and it has all been audited.” Mr Heald said he was unaware that such expenditure might have been breach of Ipsa’s rules.

Henry Bellingham, the Conservative MP and current chairman of the PRU, confirmed that the majority of the PRU’s income came through the parliamentary expenses scheme. He said that, to his knowledge, no one from the unit had attended the Conservative Party conference since he took over in 2012.

Meanwhile, the Director of Public Prosecutions defended the decision to prosecute Mr Evans, the former Commons Deputy Speaker, saying people who have been sexually assaulted do not always consider themselves victims.

Alison Saunders told the BBC that the CPS did not take “weak” cases.

She said decisions to prosecute were normally based on police documents and video interviews, saying “evidence is tested in court in a way in which we are not able to when we make our decision”.

She added: “Victims may not always think of themselves as victims. It rather depends on the relationship they are in with their alleged abusers, so if someone is in a position of power... We have seen it in grooming cases where victims think they are not victims because their abusers love them and take care of them.”

Nigel Evans case: The ‘victims’ who didn’t think they were victims

Several of the seven alleged victims in the Nigel Evans trial told the court they did not believe the MP had committed any crime, seriously damaging the prosecution’s case:

Case One

A Westminster worker allegedly touched by Nigel Evans while drinking with friends at a Soho bar in 2003. According to the case for the prosecution, the man considered it a drunken pass rather than an indecent sexual assault. The two men remained friends.

Case Two

He was contacted by police two weeks after Mr Evans’s arrest in 2013 over an alleged assault said to have taken place at a Tory party conference in Blackpool 10 years earlier when the MP was accused of twice putting his hand down the younger man’s trousers. He believed the incident had been dealt with effectively at the time and did not want to press charges.

Case Three

The prosecution claimed Mr Evans attempted to kiss him in a corridor outside the Strangers’ Bar in the House of Commons. The complainant said he was “embarrassed and bewildered” by the incident but did not feel like a victim of crime. He did not wish to make a complaint.

Jonathan Brown

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