8 Aug 2012

More trouble over PCC criminal record rules

Labour’s candidate for police commissioner in Avon and Somerset, Bob Ashford, today stood down.  Astonishingly, it was all because of two minor offence committed 46 years ago when he was just 13, and for which he was fined a total of £5.

It’s another illustration of the incredibly strict rules about who can stand for the new PCC jobs, an issue I’ve raised at length over the past few weeks.  What’s happened reflects badly on the Home Office, who seem to have been all over the place on this matter, but also on the Labour Party who failed to make proper checks. 

Bob Ashford has issued a couple of statements today explaining his position.  This is the more detailed account.

The story dates back to 1966, says Ashford, when he was 13 and lived on a council estate in Bristol.  A group of lads from school knocked on his door one day and demanded he come out with them.  He felt he had no option.  They went off to a railway embankment, he says “and I felt very uncomfortable about this”.  He continues:

“One of the lads pulled out an air gun and started shooting at cans. I never touched the air gun and felt unable to leave, as I was frightened at what might happen at school. A goods train passed and presumably the guard reported our presence to the police who arrived a short time later. The lads with the air gun ran away whilst I and two others froze and were arrested.

“My next memory is of the police coming to my house and talking to my parents in a separate room. The police never questioned me to my knowledge. I then went to court and was to the best of my knowledge charged with trespass on the railway and possession of an offensive weapon. I was told to plead guilty to the two charges even though I had never touched the air gun. I was fined £2 and 10 shillings on both counts.”

Ashford’s problem is that both of his offences count as being “imprisonable” – in other words an adult who was convicted of the same offences might – might – have been sent to prison.  And the 2011 Police Act, which set up the rules for the new PCC jobs, says that nobody can stand who has been convicted of an “imprisonable” offence, even if that offence was committed as a juvenile.  The act is very badly worded, and might be easy to misinterpret, but the Police Minister made it very clear when the legislation went through Commons committee that this is what was intended, and that juvenile offences were included too.  The legislation excludes any idea of spent convictions, or rehabilitation of offenders.  Originally the Police Bill was a lot more lenient, but ministers came under huge pressure from the police chiefs union, ACPO, to institute tight rules to bar anyone with the slightest suspicion of criminality in their past. 

And Bob Ashford is only the third casualty of this rule.  Seven weeks ago Kieron Mallon, a Conservative councillor from Banbury, withdrew from the contest to be PCC candidate in his area once he realised he’d be disqualified by the fact that in 2001 he was fined £500 for an assault on two youths.  In his case I suspect a lot of people would agree someone with such a quite recent conviction should be barred from being the person with oversight of the local police force.  But it was a touch embarrassing as Mallon was hoping to become PCC in Theresa May and David Cameron’s own patch, Thames Valley. 

A few days later the Falklands war hero Simon Weston announced he was giving up his ambitions to become police commissioner in South Wales.  He said the official reason was that the race had become “too political”, but I had warned him that he might be disqualified anyway because of a very similar problem in his past to that we now know of with Bob Ashford.  Thirty-six years ago, when Weston was 14 in the 1970s, he was among a gang of boys found in a stolen car, and was fined £30.  Weston denies the rules were a reason behind his withdrawal, and says he was assured by ministers he would be allowed to stand, but it’s hard to see how he could have stood.

And it’s clear that ministers have been pretty unclear about what their own law says on this.  Both Theresa May and Dominic Grieve have expressed the view that Simon Weston and others in his position were not barred by the Police Act, and should be allowed to stand.  But Nick Herbert has subsequently admitted that the act would disqualify Weston, a view taken by his Home Office officials. 

Most people would think this is terribly unjust.  I can’t imagine there’s more than one person in a hundred who thinks a juvenile offence like those mentioned, and from so long ago, should disqualify Ashford or Weston many decades later.  That’s not to say there’s not a good case for making the rules for police commissioners tougher than for other political posts, given they specifically have to oversee the work of the police.

The Home Office and ministers are at fault for not wording the Police Act more clearly, for not drawing its rules to people’s attention as they went round the country urging people to stand, and also for being pretty clueless as to what the position is.

But the political parties have been lax, too, in not carrying out proper checks on this.  The parties should specifically have asked every contender whether they had ever been convicted of ANY offence, even as a juvenile, and then explored whether any such offences were imprisonable.  Bob Ashford hasn’t hidden his teenage conviction and has often declared it before when applying for jobs.

And if they’ve failed to conduct proper checks in the past, the parties should do them right now, and ask each candidate one by one, at length, in detail.  Criminal Records Bureau checks aren’t enough, as offences such as Ashford’s and Weston’s probably wouldn’t come up on the CRB computer.  Indeed I have already advised party figures to this effect privately.  And Independent candidates should consider their own positions very carefully indeed, and if in doubt consult a decent lawyer.  If they don’t they are only storing up a lot more trouble for the future.  Sam Chapman, who was the first person to raise this whole issue, on his Top of the Cops website, has today very sensibly asked candidates publicly to declare that they fulfil the rules on criminal records –   that may flush out a few more problem cases – possibly unfortunate ones like Bob Ashford and Simon Weston.

Labour is in a bit of a mess in Avon and Somerset, and will have to go about picking a new candidate.  But it would have been a lot worse if Bob Ashford’s juvenile convictions had come to light during the campaign, once nominations had been closed, since Labour would have been left without a candidate.  Worse still, would have been if Ashford been elected and then faced an expensive challenge through the courts.  

ACPO tell me that they didn’t specifically press for the strict qualification rules in the 2011 Police Act which have caused problems for Bob Ashford and others. What worried police chiefs, I’m told, was whether they would feel confident about briefing future police commissioners with highly sensitive information on a confidential basis. ACPO’s proposal was that PCC candidates should therefore go through some form of vetting, though they were never specific as to who might carry out such vetting.

But the Home Secretary Theresa May wasn’t happy with the idea of political candidates being vetted before they could qualify for election. And one can understand why she feared this might be a dangerous precedent, and cause huge public controversy. Hence these strict rules on criminal records which the Home Office put into the legislation instead.

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