Usually, being able to show that you’re right is a cause for celebration. For me today, it’s a cause for sadness.
As some of you will know, Michael Crick raised the issue of whether Simon Weston can stand as a police and crime commissioner, or whether a conviction he received aged 14 will bar him. I have looked at the law so many times I can barely see it any more. Every time I have reluctantly concluded that he and others like him are barred. And other lawyers have shared that view.
So I was surprised to hear that Dominic Grieve MP, the Attorney General, has concluded that the bar doesn’t apply.
The relevant wording of section 66 is as follows:
‘(3) 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).
(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’
It seems straightforward to me based on information in the public domain (though I won’t go into the detail here).
However, given the difference in view and my respect for Mr Grieve, I went back to Hansard to see what Parliament thought it was doing when it passed the provision. Where legislation is ambiguous, courts will in some circumstances use Hansard as an aid to interpretation.
The wording above wasn’t in the bill when it was introduced in Parliament. Nick Herbert MP, the Policing and Criminal Justice Minister, proposed the wording in an amendment at committee stage to replace less restrictive provisions.
In that committee, he was asked directly whether the bar would apply to offences committed as a juvenile, and said (emphasis added):
‘The provision will apply to any youth offences, and we need to go back to that. The test is very stringent. With all the debate that we have had—there was the suggestion that the test relating to suspension was not stringent enough, and so on—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.” Well, an imprisonable offence is not likely to be so minor. We apply a test of that standard to police officers, and we are consciously applying a much higher test to police and crime commissioners in a way that is not done for a person in any other elected office.’
No ambiguity there then. It was clearly intended by government, and accepted by parliament, that convictions as a juvenile would act as a bar.
In light of this, and assuming that the facts of Mr Weston’s case are as on Michael Crick’s blog, I don’t see how Mr Grieve could possibly expect his view to prevail in court. If he does, then Nick Herbert (inadvertently) misled parliament on a critical element of the legislation. Not to mention the fact that he would have proposed something that meant the opposite of what he thought it did.
This issue will not go away. It will only fester and get worse. It’s shameful that we’re in a situation where one minister seems to contradict another when clarity is so crucial.
People need to know whether or not they are entitled to stand. They are the ones who face the cost and public humiliation if their nomination is rejected, or if an election court disbars them – not Mr Grieve, Ms May or Mr Herbert.
Since ministers have caused this confusion, the least they can do is agree what they have actually done, and let us all know.