To ask Her Majesty’s Government (1) what estimate they have made of the cost of Thames Valley Police’s investigation into Councillor Jonathon Seed subsequent to his election as the Police and Crime Commissioner for Swindon and Wiltshire on 6 May, and (2) following the finding that Councillor Seed was ineligible to stand, what estimate they have made of the cost of the resulting by-election.
My Lords, the police investigation is ongoing and the Home Office does not hold details of the cost. A by-election is due to take place on 19 August. We will not know the exact cost of running the PCC election until all election expense claims have been submitted by the returning officer and have been scrutinised and settled.
The estimate by the council is that the cost will be £1.4 million. Are we talking in those terms? The Electoral Commission was perfectly clear in the advice that it gave, and drunk-driving has been an imprisonable offence since 1925. Mr Seed says that he disclosed his conviction to the Conservative Party when applying to be its candidate and was told to go ahead. He refused to answer questions from ITV News, which could have given him time to withdraw, but then he did withdraw. So who is paying for all this? Does the taxpayer have to stump up every time a disqualified candidate stands in an election? Where is the power and what is the process for recovery from the party or person involved?
My Lords, as to who pays the bill, it is fair to say that public funds, wherever they come from, ultimately come from the taxpayer, but the polls are funded out of the Consolidated Fund. On disclosing his conviction to the local party, I have no information on that. I really do not know whether that is the case or not. The issue is that it is entirely up to the candidate to disclose that conviction—albeit it was many decades old, it is still incumbent on the candidate to disclose it.
My Lords, must we not hope that, when the new PCC for Wiltshire is finally elected, they prove to be someone who keeps their word—unlike the previous incumbent, who announced an independent inquiry into the fatally flawed Operation Conifer, which treated Sir Edward Heath so shamelessly, and then reneged, saying it was up to the Home Office? The Home Office then said it was up to the police and crime commissioner, playing a disgraceful game of pass the parcel with a dead statesman’s reputation. Is it not the duty of the Home Office to take action to rectify injustice where a commissioner fails to do so?
My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in the opinion of many, the provision under Section 66 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, which states that
“A person is disqualified from being elected as, or being, a police and crime commissioner if … the person has been convicted … of any imprisonable offence (whether or not sentenced to a term of imprisonment in respect of the offence)”,
is far too wide in scope? It has meant that individuals, however young they were and however minor the offence may have been, are automatically excluded, for life, from being a police and crime commissioner. Of course, it goes without saying that any serious conviction involving actual imprisonment should disqualify an individual. Will the Government look at this issue again, and might they consider a minor government amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will be debated in your Lordships’ House later this year?
I think that what has happened in this election has thrown up some obvious gaps in the process. On what the noble Lord says about the stringency of standing for office, he is absolutely right—PCCs have the most stringent requirements of all UK elections. But it is right that we should be quite strict about the people who are elected to uphold law and order.
My Lords, following on from the question from the noble Lord, Lord Bach, can I suggest that the Minister looks also at the Elections Bill coming before both Houses in the near future? This is another opportunity to narrow the extraordinarily wide range of reasons for barring candidates for PCCs. They are so wide that they are far broader than reasons for banning Members of Parliament or the Prime Minister.
My noble friend is right; they are incredibly stringent. They were set out in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 and would, of course, require primary legislation to be amended. That is not within the scope of the Cabinet Office Elections Bill. My noble friend outlines that there certainly appear to be gaps in the process, and the Cabinet Office is looking at that.
Previous convictions do not necessarily preclude anyone from appointment as a police officer, as account can be taken of the nature and circumstances of the offence, age at the time the offence was committed and the number of years since the offence was committed. Neither do previous convictions for an imprisonable offence preclude a person becoming Home Secretary, and thus accountable to Parliament for the police and having regular direct contact with chief constables and commissioners, as happened following the pulling down of the Colston statue in Bristol and repeatedly during the Sarah Everard vigil in London. In view of this, do the Government really have no plans to review the strict rules on convictions for an imprisonable offence that preclude people from standing for and taking up the position of police and crime commissioner?
My Lords, my good friends and relations who live in Wiltshire are incandescent at the thought that they might have to pay for the rerun of this election. Is this not the worst example of a party—in this case the Conservatives—failing to exercise due diligence in selecting the ineligible candidate in the first place? What plans do the Government have to introduce legislation to deter and penalise this sort of attack on democracy?
My Lords, as I said earlier, it is entirely up to the individual to declare convictions, whether recent or historic. As I have said before as well, setting such a high bar for election had cross-party agreement. The Cabinet Office will look at some of the gaps inherent in this first and most recent situation that has happened.
My Lords, can the Minister advise on whether the Government are working with the Electoral Commission and other bodies to look at whether the advice and guidance to candidates seeking election needs to be enhanced or revised to help avoid the recurrence of this sort of costly error in the future?
My Lords, we will work with appropriate parties to ensure that we can iron out some of those gaps which have taken place over recent months. It is clearly not a good situation for the public, as the electorate, or indeed the taxpayer.