DEPUTY Prime Minister Nick Clegg has waded into the row over the delayed suspension of a Weymouth LibDem councillor accused of child sex offences.

Mr Clegg criticised local Liberal Democrats for failing to notify the leadership that Ryan Hope had been charged with serious offences.

Mr Hope, who represents the Westham North ward on Weymouth and Portland Borough Council, was finally suspended as a member of the party six months after he first appeared in court on charges of rape and sexual assault.

He denies all the allegations and is due to stand trial at Bournemouth Crown Court in April.

Mr Hope remains a borough councillor.

Speaking on his weekly radio phone-in on LBC 97.3, Mr Clegg said it had been a ‘very serious mistake’ by the local party not to notify the leadership.

The Lib Dems said the delay in suspending Mr Hope, 22, was due to a ‘failure to communicate’ but the party was unable to confirm yesterday whether there would be an inquiry.

Mr Clegg said: “The local party did not tell anyone in my office or in the party centrally what was going on. That was, in my view, a very serious mistake.

“At the moment it was finally brought to my attention, we suspended him immediately.

“Clearly, when a local party is aware of allegations of that gravity, of that seriousness, and chooses not to pass it up the food chain, something has gone wrong.

“I am not happy at all, to put it mildly. Of course, there are rules in place which say that if there are allegations that come to light like that, then action should be taken promptly. When people don’t follow those rules, that is something which I both regret and is a source of immense frustration to me. I’ll make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Lib Dem group leader on the borough council Ian Roebuck denied the matter had not been reported to the central party.

He said earlier in the week that it was ‘probably said’ to him that he ought to suspend Mr Hope’s membership, but he did not think he had to.

He has now accused the South Dorset Labour Party, which wrote to Mr Clegg’s office asking why Mr Hope was still in the role, of carrying out a ‘character assassination’.

Coun Roebuck said: “Obviously there was some confusion as to what should happen and if that is the fault of anyone then that is myself.”

Coun Roebuck said he would not resign over the matter.

He added: “In this country it is still the case that someone is innocent until proven guilty.

“I would like to think the South Dorset Labour Party would accept that instead of attempting character assassinations.”

Labour group raised the matter with LibDem leadership

SPEAKING on behalf of the South Dorset Labour group, Rachel Rogers said: “Irrespective of the outcome of Coun Hope's criminal trial, these are serious allegations which must impact on his ability to carry out his public duties.

“South Dorset Labour group raised this issue at least twice with the Liberal Democrat group leadership.
“It is hard to believe that (Coun Roebuck) didn't know that there were explicit rules covering situations of this kind. People deserve more transparency and responsibility.”

Mike Goodman, leader of the Conservative group on the borough council, said Mr Hope’s party suspension was a matter for the Liberal Democrats.

He added: “It’s an incredibly serious issue that’s way beyond any political comment.”

Issue causes further embarrassment for party

THE issue of Ryan Hope's suspension is a further embarrassment for the Lib Dem leadership, which has been under fire for its failure to act more swiftly in the cases of MP Mike Hancock - accused of making unwanted sexual advances towards a vulnerable woman constituent - and former chief executive Lord Rennard, who is accused of sexually harassing women activists. Both men deny the allegations against them.

An internal inquiry found the allegations against Lord Rennard were credible but there was insufficient evidence to bring any disciplinary action against him.

He is now considering legal action after being suspended from the party for refusing to apologise for his conduct.