Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk made his name by campaigning against child abuse, and in particular by exposing the sexual misbehaviour of one of his Parliamentary predecessors, Cyril Smith. He now faces political and perhaps personal ruin after his own sexual behaviour has been criticised, ironically enough in The Sun, a paper for which he wrote regularly.
His immediate problem is that in July of this year, not long after his marriage to the selfie-obsessed Karen broke up, he was approached on Facebook by a teenager called Sophena Houlihan. Miss Houlihan asked about the possibility of working for him in his constituency office. As she put it:
“I was keen for a career in politics and he is a very high-profile MP and I was in awe of him.”
That there are teenagers, or for that matter people of any age, who are in awe of Mr Danczuk may seem surprising viewed from the South of England, but in Rochdale and Greater Manchester generally, he is the very embodiment of a VIP.
The two started to exchange messages, and in a midnight conversation on 14th August, Mr Danczuk asked her how old she was. She told him that she was 17. He replied “Good for you.”
Miss Houlihan had posted a picture on Instagram of herself in a dress. Mr Danczuk was very taken with it and he told her so.
Just before last year’s Labour Party Conference he asked for another picture, and she responded by sending him one. Apart from the detail that she was wearing a “white body suit,” no more details have emerged of what the picture showed. Whatever it was, it seems to have inspired Mr Danczuk to even greater ardour. We need not go into details, and in fact the Sun, claiming to be a respectable family paper, has – as lawyers like to say – “redacted” some of Mr Danczuk’s words. It suffices to say that he described himself variously as “horny,” “hard” and keen to meet and perhaps to “spank” Miss Houlihan. Many of these messages were sent in the small hours of the morning, perhaps when Mr Danczuk was not distracted by the attentions of his then girlfriend, Claire Hamilton.
Unfortunately for him, Miss Hamilton did eventually discover the messages and this led to her unceremoniously dumping him.
Now that all this has been made public it is difficult to see how Mr Danczuk can ever regain the moral high ground that he claimed immediately after his exposure of Cyril Smith. He appears to be heading towards, and perhaps below, the moral ground occupied by the former MP Harvey Proctor, who was prosecuted for the consensual spanking of a 19 year old male prostitute, at a time when such things were still illegal.
He has been suspended from the Labour Party and, even more ominously, Greater Manchester Police are said to have become involved.
Mr Danczuk’s local police force now takes a highly censorious line on sexual misconduct: earlier this week they spent some time unsuccessfully trying to track down a man in his fifties “in lycra cycling shorts with an erection” seen loitering near a busy tram stop.
This could worry Mr Danczuk. He turns fifty this year, and in one all important respect he fits the description very well. According to The Sun one of his messages to Miss Houlihan was: “you would not believe how hard [redacted] right now.” Fortunately for him this message was sent last September, rather than last Tuesday when the mystery man was sighted. Two things, however, put him in the clear: first, he is very rarely seen in lycra (he favours brown suits); secondly, given his local celebrity status, Mr Danczuk, lycra clad or otherwise, would have been immediately recognised at a Manchester tram stop.
If Erection Man was a priapic politician it is far more likely to have been Ken Livingstone, the Labour Party’s new defence policy supremo who, unlike Mr Danczuk, would not be recognised by that many Mancunians. Despite now being in his eighth decade, Mr Livingstone still has a comparatively youthful appearance (he could just about pass for 59), and he has previously claimed – on this issue there is no reason to disbelieve him – to be “like a broom handle in the morning.” What is more, for many years now the former Mayor of London has made no effort to conceal his enthusiasm for trams. It is easy to imagine him getting carried away while admiring Manchester’s smoothly efficient urban trams.
It ought to be made clear that it is not – yet – a criminal offence to possess an erection at a tram stop, although if the man is ever identified and caught I am sure the police will want to craft an ASBO to deter him from ever again becoming sexually excited in the vicinity of trams, and for that matter any other busy public transport hubs.
Anyway, back to Mr Danczuk. Just as having an erection at a tram stop is not in itself an offence, so it is not an offence to exchange sexual messages with a seventeen year old girl. According to a “source close to Danczuk” the Greater Manchester Police have already concluded that there is “no case to answer”. The use of unattributable sources is a classic politician’s technique, so we should approach this assertion with caution. There has been not yet been an announcement from the police.
Instead, according to the Sun, Rochdale Police’s specialist sexual abuse unit has been called in to investigate.
What offences might they be looking for?
It is a common misconception that the law criminalises the possession and distribution only of indecent pictures of children under the age of 16. In fact since 2003, under the relevant legislation, a “child” has been defined as a “person under the age of 18.” If he had asked Miss Houlihan to send him an indecent photograph of herself then he would be in very hot water indeed. At the time in question she was 17, and he knew it.
Much depends on the picture that he solicited and received. Before Mr Danczuk could be convicted it would be necessary to prove that it was “indecent.” One person’s tasteful nude is another’s erotic art and even an erotic picture is not necessarily “indecent.” The question is whether the jury consider it indecent: see R v. Dodd  EWCA Crim 660. All we know about it is that Miss Houlihan was wearing a “white body suit”. That does not mean he is automatically in the clear: just as a picture of a naked child is not necessarily indecent nor is one of a clothed child necessarily decent, but it seems to point away from it. Probably wisely the Sun has not published the picture, although a number of papers have published a picture of her posing a provocative cleavage in a way that is rather reminiscent of Karen Danczuk: I assume that she was 18 when that photograph was taken.
At the less serious end of the scale of child pornography offences is the simple possession of an indecent image of a child. Under S.160 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 it is punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment.
There are, however, other possible, and more serious charges.
S.1 of the 1978 Act makes the distribution of an indecent photograph of a child an offence. Nobody is suggesting that Mr Danczuk distributed such a picture, or had any intention of doing so, but if the photograph that he asked Miss Houlihan to send him was indecent then she could be guilty of the offence. It is inconceivable that she would be prosecuted, but there might be scope for prosecuting him for an offence under S.48 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, of intentionally inciting child pornography (again “child” in this context means a person under the age of 18). It carries a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment. An alternative might be S.44 of the Serious Crime Act 2007 for doing an act “intended to encourage the commission of an offence.” In fact, a deliberate attempt to persuade a seventeen year old Miss Houlihan to send an indecent image would be an offence in itself, even if no such image was sent. The Rochdale sexual abuse unit will presumably want to comb the exchange of messages very carefully.
Although the possible sentences for offences relating to indecent photographs of children are very severe, in practice even if – and it is of course a very big if – he were to be charged and convicted it is almost inconceivable that Mr Danczuk would be gaoled in relation to a single photograph of a seventeen year old.
Finally, as was kindly pointed out to me by Graham Smith, he may be investigated for the offence of sending an “indecent or obscene electronic communication” under S.127 of the Communications Act 2003. It is a summary only offence with a maximum sentence of 6 months’ imprisonment.
What of the political consequences?
Under the Representation of the People Act 1981 an MP imprisoned for 12 months or longer is automatically disqualified from the House.
If an MP has not been convicted but has behaved disgracefully the House of Commons has a very rarely used power to expel its own members. Its own proceedings are expressly excluded from the Human Rights Act, although not from the oversight of the European Court of Human Rights, raising the potential for an interesting constitutional wrangle. Strangely enough, an expelled member is at perfect liberty to put his case to the voters at the consequent by-election, as the radical John Wilkes did successfully in 1769. In this century the power to expel where there has been no conviction has been used only once, against the former Daily Mirror journalist and Labour MP Gary Allighan in 1947, who was found to have falsely accused some of his fellow MPs of having sold confidential information to the press.
The Labour Party has suspended Mr Danczuk, and Mr Corbyn has announced that there will now be an “independent investigation” into his behaviour. The last such suspension was of Andrew Fisher, who remains a senior aide to Mr Corbyn despite having allegedly urged people to support a “Class War” candidate against the official Labour candidate at the General Election. It is unlikely that the same indulgence will be extended to Mr Danczuk, a forthright opponent of the current leadership.
The Labour Party’s disciplinary process is so complex that I will leave it for another post. Those who are interested can start by reading the 2013 Constitution, which should sate their appetite for the time being.