Teenage crime set to disqualify war hero Simon Weston
Simon Weston, the Falklands war hero, expressed surprise today when I told him that he might be disqualified from standing for the post of police and crime commissioner in South Wales. The problem is a criminal conviction from 37 years ago when he was just 14.
I rang Weston, who is now 50, this afternoon after I had closely examined the relevant section of the 2011 Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act, the legislation which sets up the new PCC posts. Weston has never made any secret of the fact that as a teenager police in South Wales arrested him when he in a stolen car with two or three other males who aged between 18 and 27.
Weston has always said he was not aware the car was stolen, but on advice, he pleaded guilty at the subsequent trial. He was fined £30 and put on probabtion for three months, but has never made any secret of the incident. He has occasionally spoken about it, and he even wrote about it in his memoirs. Indeed, it was this episode, he says, which led to him joining the army.
The news of Weston’s possible disqualification as a PCC candidate will come as a big blow to ministers who were delighted that such a well-known, distinguished and popular figure was willing to contest the elections. And it will no doubt upset many of Weston’s supporters nationwide.
The South Wales police area, where Weston lives and grew up, looked set to be one of the most interesting contests this November. Labour today announced they had picked the former first minister of Wales Alun Michael as their candidate.
Weston, a Falklands war hero who has since pursued a successful career as a businessman, writer and public speaker, looked set to be Michael’s most formidable challenger, and he planned to stand as an independent rather than on any party ticket. Indeed Weston was by far the best-known of all the independent candidates who’ve put their names forward for any of the 41 contests so far in England and Wales.
I reckon Simon Weston may be disqualified from standing under the act which set up the new police and crime commissioner posts. Section 66, clause three of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 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)”
And the act explains 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”
The Home Office has explained to me this means that people are barried 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.
A Home Office spokesperson says: “The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 disqualifies a person from standing for election as a PCC if they have at any time been convicted of an offence for which a person could be sent to prison; whether or not they themselves were sent to prison for that offence. This high standard was set with cross-party agreement because PCCs will hold police forces, whose duty is to uphold the law, to account.”
At the time that the teenage Simon Weston was convicted, which was around 1975 or 1976, the normal law for prosecuting people caught as a passenger in a stolen car was section 12 of the 1968 Theft Act. The maximum jail term under the act in the mid-1970s (before it was amended) was three years. That would appear to disqualify Simon Weston for standing for PCC, even though his offence was committed 36 or 37 years ago, and he was only a juvenile.
This development could be hugely disappointing not just for Simon Weston and his supporters, but also Home Office ministers such as Theresa May and her police minister Nick Herbert. They had expressed the hope that the PCC elections would attract a strong field of independent candidates, and contenders with a strong back ground in fields outside politics.
When the 2011 Police Act was first considered in parliament the proposed rules for candidates were a lot more lenient, and Simon Weston would have had no problem qualifying. But there was widespread concern at Westminster (and outside) that the new PCC posts might attract people with undesirable backgrounds, and even with serious criminal records. So the government agreed to toughen up the disqualification criteria. In doing so, many observers will feel they have gone too far, and that a crime committed when somebody was 14, and not repeated, is irrelevant at the age of nearly 51.
Weston has always said the incident was a one-off event. He believes it would be grossly unfair if the law disqualified him from standing for PCC when many other people in public life have much more serious records. I understand that he has spoken to the Home Office about his position, and to a lawyer, and he remains confident that he will be allowed to contest the election.
In most other fields, of course, Simon Weston’s teenage offence would be regarded as a “spent conviction” and disregarded, but the 2011 Police Act is extremely tough and makes no allowance for spent convictions. Ironically, it is even tougher than the actual criteria for serving as a police officer, where police forces have discretion as to whether to take on people with criminal records. On most measures of integrity, Simon Weston would probably score very highly with the general public.
In tightening the legislation, ministers may have shot themselves in the foot. My news of Weston’s possible disqualification will be a huge disappointment to supporters of the new crime commissioners within the government. This development comes only a few weeks after the Iraq war hero, Col. Tim Collins, withdrew from the Conservative contest to be PCC candidate in Kent. Although several other former servicemen are planning to stand in the elections, none is anything like as well known as Weston or Collins. And South Wales looked set to be one of the battles to attract considerable media attention.
Election lawyer Ros Baston, who used to work as a senior official with the Electoral Commission, and publishes a newsletter for prospective PCC contenders, thinks the qualification rules are far too strict:
“The law is drawn very tightly. While it’s fair to require police and crime commissioners to be of good character, it isn’t fair to require them to be saints. If they had to declare such convictions when standing, the electorate could judge their fitness for the job on the merits. Also, as police officers can have convictions, the bar for PCCs could be a breach of human rights.”
Simon Weston’s remaining hope must be that he wasn’t, in fact, convicted under section 12 of the 1968 Theft Act, but some other, less strict, piece of legislation which doesn’t carry a possible prison term if convicted as an adult. It is hard, however, to see what that law would have been. And the fact that Weston (on his own account) got three months’ probation for his crime (on top of his £30 fine) suggests that whatever the specific offence, it almost certainly carried a possible prison term if committed as an adult.
Weston’s case also raises the question of whether any other prospective PCC candidates, including the list of 41 names announced by the Labour Party today, are also disqualified under these strict rules about criminal records.
Both Simon Weston and Alun Michael declined to make any public comment.
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