27 Jun 2012

Law doesn’t disqualify Weston, Grieve reckons

The Attorney General Dominic Grieve believes that Simon Weston is allowed to stand for one of the new police and crime commissioner (PCC) posts.  My suggestion in a blog last week, that Weston might be barred because of a teenage conviction, seems to have caused quite a stir at the highest levels in Whitehall.  Weston, who plans to stand in South Wales, was the best example of a big-name serious independent candidate to emerge in the PCC elections so far.

Home Office officials reacted with some dismay last week when I published my blog saying that the 2011 Police Act seemed to be so strict as to disqualify Mr Weston. This was because of an offence Weston committed around 36 years ago when he was just 14. The Falklands war hero was convicted in South Wales of being in a stolen car, fined £30 and put on probation for three months. The Home Secretary Theresa May told me at a Common lunch last week that the law was not designed to disqualify Weston. I also understand that she is confident the law allows Weston to stand.

I suggested in my initial blog (after contact with several lawyers) that Simon Weston might be disqualified from standing under section 66, clause three, of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, which says:

“A person is disqualified from being elected as, or being, a police and crime commissioner if –

…. (c) the person has been convicted, in the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, or the Isle of Man, of any imprisonable offence (whether or not sentenced to a term of imprisonment in respect of the offence)”

The act says that “imprisonable offence” means “an offence – (i) for which a person who has attained the age of 18 years may be sentenced to a term of imprisonment”.

Home Office officials explained to me last week that this means people are barred from standing for PCC if convicted of something at any age for which they might have been sent to jail had the offence been committed when they were 18 or older.

I have now learnt that the Weston case has even been drawn to the attention of the Attorney General.  While Grieve accepts that the 2011 act lacks clarity in the way it is worded, I understand that he has studied it carefully and concluded that it does not bar Weston from standing.  I can only presume this means that Grieve has interpreted the line (see above) defining “imprisonable offence” rather differently to Home Office advisers, and as exempting people under 18 at the time the crime was committed rather than including them.

But it’s not up to Grieve ultimately to decide who is qualified to stand in an election, or Theresa May.  Indeed, it would be a very worrying development if individual elected politicians had this say.

The act may have to be tested in the courts.

And the PCC legislation does seem to be extremely tough, reflecting wide concerns in and outside Parliament, that PCCs, who will have oversight of local police forces, should be whiter than white, and subject to much tougher rules than MPs or government ministers.  Earlier this week Kieron Mallon, a long-standing Conservative councillor from north Oxfordshire, announced that he was withdrawing  from the contest to to be Tory candidate for PCC in Thames Valley, on the grounds that he was disqualified by an assault conviction from more than ten years ago (though he was an adult at the time).  It’s all slightly embarrassing for the Home Secretary and Grieve, both of whom are MPs for the Thames Valley area where the Conservatives seem to have had great difficulty finding a suitable candidate.

And I suspect the act will end up causing surprise casualties among one or two other PCC contenders who don’t yet appreciate how tough it is.

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