A senior figure in the People’s Vote campaign has stepped down ahead of an investigation into alleged sexual harassment of female staff, it is understood.
Patrick Heneghan, the acting chief executive of Open Britain, has been accused of inappropriate behaviour towards three women who work for the second referendum campaign. He denies the allegations, labelling them ‘politically-motivated’.
According to the PA news agency, a letter to the board of Open Britain – the largest of five organisations behind People’s Vote – states that Mr Heneghan will stand down while the investigation is conducted.
It comes after weeks of turmoil in the pro-European campaign, which has seen staff go on strike and take over the organisation’s social media.
The letter, from board member Anne Weyman, states: ‘I met yesterday with a number of female staff members of Open Britain. I explained that I was there to listen to their views.
‘Their main concern was that they did not feel safe working in the office while Patrick Heneghan was there. They did not consider that alternative reporting arrangements would work with him being in the office as interim CEO.’
It continued: ‘At the outset of the investigation into the allegations against Patrick, we took the decision that the investigation could be undertaken with him remaining in post…
‘Roland (Rudd, the campaign chairman) has spoken to Patrick, who has, with a heavy heart, come to the same conclusion. He also believes that the best thing, now, is for him to take a leave of absence for the period of the investigation, and is determined to clear his name.’
Mr Heneghan said in a statement: ‘I totally deny these politically-motivated allegations.
‘I’ve already fully complied with an initial investigation and will now take a couple of weeks of leave to comply with another one.’
Stuart Hand, who previously worked on elections for the Conservatives, has been appointed as his replacement.
People’s Vote campaign staff said in a statement: ‘Almost two weeks since Roland Rudd took a wrecking ball to the best political campaign in the UK, the person he imposed as acting CEO has been suspended.
‘This decision will at least allow women, who warned the Open Britain board that Patrick Heneghan’s presence represented an unsafe working environment, the chance to re-enter the office.’
It comes after a number of difficult weeks for the campaign, which has seen staff members pass a motion of no confidence in Mr Rudd, the wealthy chairman of Open Britain.
Employees also staged a walkout in protest at moves to force out two directors last month.
They criticised the decision to appoint Mr Hand ‘without any consultation with the European Movement’.
The statement continued: ‘There is a real danger that the errors of the past fortnight will be compounded unless the board of Open Britain finally grasps the opportunity to open a proper dialogue with these organisations and the staff.
‘This campaign is about more than boardroom machinations and power. It is about the future of our country.
‘We want nothing more than to get back to work in this crucial General Election to stop Boris Johnson forcing his hard Brexit on the people of the UK.’