Conviction politics

Time for a ‘told you so’ moment. TopOfTheCops has already told you about candidates having problems with their convictions. Criminal convictions that is, not the other kind – this is politics.

Last week the site asked “Are you disqualified from being Top of the Cops?” after a Lancashire candidate from a minor party realised that his drink-driving convictions had already ruled him out of the job. This week Michael Crick took that question to Simon Weston, who wants to run as an Independent in South Wales, and asked him about an incident in his memoirs where, 37 years ago as a teenager, he had been on probation after a guilty plea following an incident where he was found in a stolen car with some friends.

This led to a statement from Theresa May that the law in question was not targetted at people like Simon Weston. Well, that may be so, but it clearly does include people exactly like him, and it could easily have been written differently so as not to. There has been no announcement from the government to suggest that the law will be changed before November, but then neither has anyone answered my previous question of ‘whose job is it to check whether candidates are excluded by a criminal conviction?’

Simon Weston appears to be carrying on. There are only two ways I can think of for getting past the clear meaning of a law like this –

1) Argue that, whatever people think it means, it was not the clear intention of parliament to prohibit such cases. That is a tall order to prove, especially where the language is quite clear. Theresa May’s statement after the fact may look helpful, but it was made after the fact. Had it been made in the House of Commons during the debates, that might have been helpful, but I have seen no evidence to suggest it was.

2) Use the Human Rights Act. That act of constitutional vandalism empowers judges, where they are convinced there is an unjustifiable breach of someone’s rights under the Act, to interpret the Act not on the basis of what it does mean, but on the basis of what it could mean if the possible meaning does not breach the Human Rights Act. There are so many ifs and buts there, including finding an unjustifiable breach in the first place, that such a strategy would seem like a long shot. Imagine the irony though of the government’s flagship police reform depending on the Human Rights Act to retain its credibility.

However, this overstates the issue. Michael Crick has been steadily building a narrative that the government wants successful independent candidates, and that the loss of Tim Collins and now seemingly of Simon Weston means that the Government has failed. This commits a double error.

Firstly, just because the candidates who are emerging are people who Crick has never previously heard of does not mean that they are not successful. There are other definitions of success that don’t involve vast riches or media coverage. Some might think that success that is not predicated on either might be a better form of success.

Secondly, to cut across the whole issue of politics in policing and whether Independents are automatically better, who is to say that members of parties cannot be Independent? Is Boris not perhaps independently minded?

On Friday night at my selection meeting someone asked me what I would do if the government made a decision on policing that my party expected me to go along with, but that the public might not. My reply was that I would make my decisions based on what I considered to be right for the people of Lancashire, that this would probably not always agree with the government, but that the values that led me to join the Conservative party 25 years ago and have kept me with it since then would no doubt inform my opinion and provide a basis on which the party and the public could trust me with the job. Is it evidence of grown-up politics that after hearing that they put me through to the final stage?

Anyway, we are left with the question of who else is caught by the clause on convictions, and whose job it is to check.

So far it has hit Labour’s Terry Renshaw in North Wales, the one-man party of Matt Taylor in Sussex, Tony Johnson in Lancashire, and Simon Weston. Is that really it, or are there people hoping some indiscretion from years ago will not come to light, or who still don’t know the rules?

We are also threatened with elections and prosecutions running in parallel. In Cambridgeshire Conservative PCC hopeful Shona Johnstone had suddenly found herself facing a prosecution for criminal damage, allegedly of a wing mirror. The case comes to court in August, after the local Conservatives make their choice of candidate. It perhaps shows a degree of confidence either in her or in the concept of innocent till proven guilty that the local party, knowing of this case, put her through to the final round (along with Former MP Sir Graham Bright, and Police Authority member John Pye).

One relatively unnoticed provision of the law means that a PCC in Councillor Johnstone’s position could already be suspended without pay. ‘Innocent till proven guilty’ apparently doesn’t apply to PCCs. Could a candidate be chosen and then removed mid-campaign by a conviction?

Ordinary respectable people don’t often find themselves hauled into police stations, though it does happen. It is curious that a PCC candidate should find themselves on trial in the middle of a campaign. I make no comment about this case, as I don’t know the facts, but as a former investigator of miscarriages of justice I am left with the worry that the way the law is structured may encourage allegations to be made against candidates or serving PCCs as a way of denying them office, and thereby subverting democracy.


P.S. As further proof of the relevance of this topic Keiron Mallon, shortlisted candidate for the Conservatives in Thames Valley, has pulled out of the race because of a previous conviction.


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8 Responses to Conviction politics

  1. bunnyson says:

    Is this law on suitability, as indicated by a criminal conviction for PCC unique for an English & Welsh elected office? I cannot recall anything similar, say for councillors or MPs. In B’ham the current Lord Mayor is reported as having convictions whilst a councillor.

    Given the fact that 40% of all white adult males 18-24yrs have a criminal conviction, this law on suitability excludes from becoming an elected PCC far more people than Simon Weston and those you have mentioned. Did the Home Office drafters of the law know this? So many criminal offences have been created in the last twenty years, like that for the Olympics trademark, it is quite easy to fall foul of the criminal law.

    Doesn’t the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act apply? So staying with Simon Weston, is it really valid to cite a conviction thirty-seven years ago, a conviction for an offence today if you made an admission and was the first instance you would not go to court.

    • samchapman says:

      It is certainly stricter than many other requirements. However, you should know it applies to convictions, not cautions, and only to those offences that are imprisonable for an adult.
      Your estimate of the prevalence of convictions seems a little high to me – while I am familiar with a figure of around a third of men having a conviction or caution by the time they are thirty, I have not sourced it, and cannot say how it relates to the very particular disqualification criteria in this report.
      The law will have been drafted by the Office of the Parliamentary Draftsman, if I remember the name rightly, and I know from personal experience that they have at least one of the cleverest lawyers I know, but they don’t decide the law – the main decisions as you suggest will have been made in the Home Office.
      The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act doesn’t apply. I see in Crick’s article that Ros Baston has raised the topic of Human Rights’ law in this context, and no doubt she may have more to say on it.

  2. ianchisnall says:

    I value your comment about Michael Cricks judgement of who is a successful independent. I have tried unsuccessfully (no pun intended) to contact Michael, but perhaps I am not what he is looking for. Clearly Tim Collins who was a Conservative in any case in my view and Simon Weston would be recognised names across the country. However that hardly means more in Kent and South Wales (Simons accent aside) than it does in Sussex and Merseyside, yet it is the local suitability that surely is most important. My big hope is that sufficient ‘small name’ Independents are elected to ensure that some creativity and fresh ideas are brought into the PCC experience for the next round to give more substance to a debate as to what each of us mean by Independents.

    I personally hope all good party politicians are independent thinkers (although not perhaps all like Boris), and occasionally rebel against their party policies. However to take that logic any further seems to me to be as fruitless as it would be for any independent candidate pretending they are not politicians. What they are not is a ‘party politician’! The distinction being their membership in a recent period of a political party. Anyone can resign from a party today and claim tomorriw that the party is not their guide, but personally I don’t find that convincing unless they have spent some time developing ideas and networks that don’t depend on a particular colour rosette and shown themselves to be distinct from the party they used to be part of.

    In terms of the offences, it seems odd to me (if I have understood matters correctly) that someone convicted of careless driving is acceptable as a PCC but not if the magistrates had determined this was dangerous driving. I am also concerned from a logical point of view, that we are expecting less of our Home Secretary, Policing Minister and Prime Minister in this regard than we are of our PCCs. I also wonder if, with her recent conviction for contempt of court if the Home Secretary would now be ineligble for election as a PCC?

    • samchapman says:

      My understanding is that contempt of court is not a conviction, though it can result in imprisonment.

  3. Nice try Sam. But I think you will on reflection realise that you won’t be seen to be Independent if you stand for a political party, no matter how independent you think you are or say you’re going to be. Independent-minded : maybe. But independent: no.

    If you are not seen to be independent, you won’t be able to claim that you are representing all your constituents in the way that backbench MPs or Assembly Members do. This is the single most important qualification to enable you to do the job without dividing the community.

    My prediction is that any politicians who do manage to get elected on a party-political ticket will resign their party membership during their first term so they can start building “a new relationship with the electorate”. That’s the (c)overt signal that at least one senior Labour candidate has already started sending his own party (BBC Radio Wales Sunday Supplement 17 June) – but is anyone receiving? Perhaps it was a bit early in the morning for them to take it all in.

    Why don’t they instead resign their party membership now and start building this new relationship with voters straightaway? It’s a bit unethical to take all that party funding and expect all those party activists to slave away on your behalf for the next 5 months when your not-so-secret plan is to ditch them all. Politicians are just so predictable.

    Richard Hibbs
    Independent Candidate for Police & Crime Commissioner in North Wales

    • samchapman says:

      Perhaps you should give us more information about who said what exactly.
      For me, the party label is a piece of information for voters as to my likely approach. Not everyone reads all the campaign literature or does extensive research before voting, and the party label is a useful shorthand for them.
      Also, I joined the Conservative party 25 years ago because I thought it embodied certain values with which I identified, and that remains the case. I suspect this is true for many Labour and LibDem folk. I don’t view it as simply different coloured teams crambling for electoral success, and willing to compromise anything to do that. There is no point in winning an election if to do so you have to give up the very thing you were fighting for.
      I respect your independence, but I also respect the independence of people in different political parties.

  4. Colin Skelton says:

    The requirement to not have an imprisonable conviction in order to be a PCC is extremely strict, harsh and illogical. However, the law as written is crystal clear, if you have one, you cannot be a PCC. This is only one part of the rules and regulations that appear to me to be undemocratic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m of the view there should be certain rules on being a PCC, serious criminal offences should rule you out for example. But this rule disenfranchies far too many people.

    However, at the moment you have to have, in effect, no criminal record; be wealthy (in order to afford a reasonable campaign and a £5k deposit) and have lots of friends to sign your nomination papers. These alone make it a very difficult task to be a candidate. Far more difficult then standing as an MP or MEP. These barriers are most certainly the reason why strong independent candidates have not come forward so far and are unlikely to do so.

    There will be extremely well qualified, competent, intelligent people who would make excellent PCC’s but who don’t have the money or the clean record to be able to stand. We are all the worse off for this poor legislation.

  5. Jon Harvey says:

    I am trying to decide whether I am surprised or not that it took Cllr Kieron Mallon this long to work out that he could not pursue being PCC…

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