MP Claudia Webbe found guilty of harassing partner's female friend

13 October 2021, 17:15 | Updated: 13 October 2021, 20:05

MP Claudia Webbe, 56, was found guilty of harassing a female friend of her partner
MP Claudia Webbe, 56, was found guilty of harassing a female friend of her partner. Picture: Alamy

By Asher McShane

Leicester East MP Claudia Webbe, 56, was found guilty of harassing a female friend of her partner Lester Thomas.

Westminster Magistrates' Court heard she made a string of threatening calls to 59-year-old Michelle Merritt between September 1 2018 and April 26 last year because she was jealous of her friendship with her boyfriend.

Following the verdict, Ms Webbe said she was "deeply shocked" at the outcome of the trial.

She said: "I am innocent and will appeal this verdict. As I said in court and repeat now, I have never threatened violence nor have I ever harassed anyone."

Her lawyer, Raj Chada, head of criminal defence at social justice law firm Hodge Jones & Allen added: "We will be appealing this unjust verdict. The recording of the call Ms Webbe made has been taken out of context. We are sure that Ms Webbe will be vindicated at an appeal."

Following the guilty verdict on Wednesday, a Labour spokesman said: "The Labour Party strongly condemns Claudia Webbe's actions and she should now resign."

Westminster Magistrates' Court heard Webbe made the threats in a string of phone calls between September 1 2018 and April 26 last year.

In one, Webbe called Ms Merritt "a slag", threatened her with acid and said she would send naked pictures and videos to her daughters.

In another call, recorded by the complainant, Webbe is heard telling the victim to "get out of my relationship" some 11 times.

Webbe, from Islington, north London, denied harassment, claiming she only made "courtesy calls" to warn Ms Merritt not to breach coronavirus regulations by meeting Lester Thomas.

Paul Hynes QC, defending, read out a string of character references from figures including former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, ex-shadow chancellor John McDonnell and former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott.

But Chief Magistrate Paul Goldspring found her guilty on Wednesday following a two-day trial.

"I do not find the defendant to be cogent, compelling and truthful in all aspects of her evidence," he said.

"Some of the things she said I believe were made up on the spur of the moment."

He added: "In short, I find Ms Webbe to be vague, incoherent and at times illogical and ultimately I find her to be untruthful."

Mr Goldspring adjourned sentencing to November 4 and released Webbe on unconditional bail, but warned her she could face prison.

"Threatening to throw acid at somebody and to send intimate photographs to family members crosses the custody threshold," he said.

Her lawyers said she will appeal against the conviction and Webbe added in a statement: "I am deeply shocked by today's verdict.

"I am innocent and will appeal this verdict.

"As I said in court and repeat now, I have never threatened violence nor have I ever harassed anyone."

Webbe, who entered the Commons in December 2019 after winning the seat formerly held by Labour veteran Keith Vaz, was living with Mr Thomas at the time of the allegations.

The couple arrived at court holding hands and he sat in the public gallery throughout the hearing.

Ms Merritt said she had known Mr Thomas for more than 15 years and they were "good friends", having previously dated.

The prosecutor said Webbe made a series of silent phone calls from a withheld number before the "harassment escalated" on Mother's Day, March 31 2019.

Giving evidence from behind a screen, Ms Merritt earlier said Webbe told her she was "Lester's girlfriend" in an "angry" call, culminating in 'You're a slag and you should be acid'.

"She confirmed she knew where I lived and would send pictures and videos to my daughters," she said.

Mr Goldspring said he was satisfied Webbe had "threatened to throw acid at Ms Merritt", adding: "I find she was jealous of the relationship between Lester and Michelle, whatever the nature of that relationship, she certainly thought it was something she was not happy with."

Ms Merritt complained to police, who warned Webbe not to contact her, but the calls continued.

In a recorded conversation on April 25 last year, the MP can be heard saying: "I have seen all of your naked pictures, I have seen all of your relationship with Lester, get out of my relationship otherwise I will tell your whole family and show them all your pictures."

Webbe claimed she was in an argument with Mr Thomas at the time and had been referring to a picture of him "naked from the waist up" taken while he holidayed in St Lucia.

She said she was telling Ms Merritt to get of the relationship in the context of an "inappropriate bubble" during lockdown.

But Mr Goldspring described her explanation as "frankly incredible and unbelievable".

Webbe claimed she was the victim of "domestic abuse and coercive control" and said she was being "goaded and gaslighted" during the row, which resulted in police being called after a neighbour reported her screams.

During the call, Mr Thomas can be heard asking his partner: "Are you mad?"

Prosecutor Susannah Stevens suggested to the MP the comment was made "because you had gone mad".

Webbe said: "I'm not mad, I'm a member of Parliament."

In character references, Ms Abbott said Webbe was "very committed to working to support women", describing her "warm empathetic manner".

"I regard her as a very honest woman," she said.

Mr Corbyn said she was "very committed to ensuring the administration of justice is done" and prepared to "state uncomfortable truths when it matters".

"I have no hesitation in recommending her as a person of good character who makes a positive contribution to our world."

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