How Parliament walked eyes wide open into the Bob Ashford mess

Would-be Labour Police and Crime Commissioner candidate Bob Ashford is rightly getting a positive press and sympathy from across the political spectrum today for discovering he’s disqualified from standing thanks to a £5 fine he paid 46 years ago.

It is absurd that he can’t stand. It is an absurdity that Parliament deliberately decided to enact, for the ban does not arise from unintended side effects of another measure or from poor drafting. Instead, it was a deliberate decision to introduce an unprecedented restriction on who can stand in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections and to do so knowing it would cover people who did something whilst a child.

Take this example of the debate from 8 February 2011:

Nick Herbert (Minister of State, Justice; Arundel and South Downs, Conservative)
At present [as the Bill was then drafted], the disqualification criteria are limited to those who have served a sentence of three months or more, which is the same relatively stringent test that applies in local government elections.

However, I have reflected on a general agreement—it is certainly the view of the Association of Chief Police Officers—that the importance of the police and crime commissioner post means that it requires a higher standard.

I agree, because those elected individuals will hold a police force to account, and members of the police force are themselves held to a higher standard for obvious reasons. There is a case, therefore, for treating PCCs differently from those in other elected posts. That is why I brought forward the amendment…

The nature of the post demands a higher standard. The standard is higher than any that has been suggested in either Government or Opposition amendments. It is a stringent measure.

Labour was of the same mind:

Vernon Coaker (Gedling, Labour)
Whatever our differences about the role of the police and crime commissioner, this debate is not about whether the model is right, but about the model working as well as it can and the position having credibility if it is set up. All of us would want that, whether we agree with the model or not.

We cannot overestimate the importance that members of the public will put on the integrity of the person who is standing for police and crime commissioner; it would be inconceivable not to have the most stringent test for a PCC. I am pleased that the Minister agrees and has brought forward the amendment…

As the Minister rightly said, that is an exceptionally tough condition of eligibility to stand, but it is right.

What’s more their further exchanges included this:

Herbert: I do not think that we can agree to such stringency but then say, “They may have committed a relatively minor offence when they were young.”

Coaker: I understand the point he made about the provision applying to any imprisonable offence committed by an under-18. He makes the point very well—this agrees with the point that I am making—that the necessity of the credibility and integrity of the person being above reproach is such that the test has to be the same as for a chief constable, or indeed any police officer. It is simply not tenable to have it otherwise.

Cross-party agreement to do something that front line staff have called for sounds great in theory. As this case shows, it can be far from great in practice.

* Mark Pack has written 101 Ways To Win An Election and produces a monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats.

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11 Comments

  • And what did any Lib Dem say about this? Bearing in mind our being standard bearers for “liberalism”?

  • Richard Dean 9th Aug '12 - 3:42pm

    I hope that there is a mechanism by which this can be corrected before the PCC elections.

    It seems to me fair to require that PCC’s be on a par with Chief Constables as regards demonstrable integrity and absence of blackmailability. Minor offences many years ago ought not to disqualify either one – and may even contribute positively to the experiences needed for the jobs.

    Perhaps what is needed is some form of statute of limitations, with different offences having different delays? This might also be reasonable in a wider context – a record of Mr Ashford’s minor offence, which appears to have resulted in no damage to anyone and anything, does not seem to serve a useful purpose 46 years later.

  • Richard – there is very little remedy for Parliament passing dumb-assed legislation except Parliament passing something sensible.

    Bob Ashford was a Labour Councillor in Somerset when I was down there (stood against David Heath in 97)

    BTW Theresa May doesn’t understand her own legislation
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-18512605

    (FWIW the legislation says:
    s66(3)(c) (disqualifications0
    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)….
    s66(4)For the purpose of subsection (3)(c)—
    (a)“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, or
    (ii)for which, in the case of such a person, the sentence is fixed by law as life imprisonment;)

  • A layman looking at the quote from the legislation would think what is all the fuss. And most MPs and Lords come across as layman in this respect. At least in a council chamber you can ask for an officer’s opinion in Westminster they must consider themselves too important to as for a expert’s opinion.

    So are motoring offences covered? If so I would guess the majority of the population would be barred as all you need would be one 3 points on you licence to prevent you standing.

  • Paul Zukowskyj 10th Aug '12 - 9:29am

    There is a serious question about motoring offences as a speeding offence is punishable by imprisonment, indeed there was a recent case where a motorcyclist was given a suspended sentence, I believe, for truly excessive speed. Does that then disbar anyone who has been convicted of speeding? That would be truly bonkers……

  • Paul Zukowskyj 10th Aug '12 - 9:38am

    Just to clarify the above, the motorcyclist in question was judged to have committed the offence of ‘Dangerous Driving’ as the speed was truly excessive (+150mph). The maximum penalty is 1 yrs imprisonment. As I understand the case, at no point was the motorcycle out of control. The person riding fell into the category of ‘unreasonable speed likely to be judged by other motorists as exceptionally excessive.

  • Jason Gardner 11th Aug '12 - 4:43pm

    You can be sent to prison for a committing a summary(minor offence). There are also serving police officers, customs officers that have criminal records. A barrister,doctor,teacher or even serving senior police officer  would not necessarily lose their job for driving a vehicle whilst above the legal limit, but it can result in a maximum sentence of six months imprisonment. Very disappointing!! Why have we just passed a bill called Protection of Freedoms Bills,amended the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act through LASPO, and allegededly scaled by the use of criminal records to ‘common sense’ levels, yet allowed this garbage to go through?

  • “There are also serving police officers, customs officers that have criminal records.”

    There is even a Deputy Prime Minister.

  • As an academic point what would be the situation for someone who had a conviction for buggery pre the legalisation of homosexual acts. IIRC the Freedom Bill wiped such offences from the record completely?

    Chris@9 – Nick’s offence was committed in Germany so I don’t think he’d be caught under these provisions. (though your point is a good one).

  • “There is even a Deputy Prime Minister.”

    True true true
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7003100.stm

    Although I’m not sure that he would have to declare it (if he was running for this post as a ‘normal’ member of public) as it committed abroad?

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