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.