The CPS refused ‘in the public interest’ to Prosecute Tory Party in Election Expenses Scandal but TUSC's Chris Fernandez is Gaoled for 15 months for Trivial Electoral Offence
|Christopher Fernandez - TUSC election agent gaoled for 16 months by a judiciary and legal system that turns a blind eye to Tory election frauds|
A prosecution was not however deemed to be ‘in the public interest’ even though the electoral returns ‘may have been inaccurate’. Of course we will never know how inaccurate these limits were as the Establishment, in the form of the Crown Prosecution Service and its reactionary head, Alision Saunders refused to prosecute.
However when it came to an election agent for the socialist Trade Union & Socialist Coalition, Chris Fernandez, who was found guilty of misleading people who sign a candidates proposal form, then a swingeing 16 months sentence was handed out. Chris denies the allegation and argues that he took petitions about the closure of a swimming pool with him in order to demonstrate what TUSC stood for.
No one suggests that Chris Fernandez forged the signatures. Bob Spink, a UKIP candidate and ex-Tory MP was convicted of the same offence. He received a 6 months suspended sentence. Other agents and candidates who have forged peoples’ signatures have got off with a caution.
What is amazing is that the Police, who are always telling us that when it comes to rape and violence against the person, don’t have enough resources yet they were able to visit all 80 electors who nominated TUSC candidates several times.
We should support the demand for Chris Fernandez to be freed on bail and for his sentence to be reduced to a non-custodial one at worst.
For a detailed analysis of the trial see TUSC's Report on the Derby court case involving a TUSC local election agent
|Image copyright PA Image caption|
Outrageous sentence for TUSC agent in ‘misleading electors’ court case
Chris Fernandez, the local election agent for eight Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidates at the 2016 council elections in Derby, was sentenced on 13 February to 15 months imprisonment for ‘electoral fraud’. Chris had been found guilty of misleading voters into signing the TUSC candidates’ nomination papers.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) argued that many electors had signed believing that they were backing a petition against the closure of Derby’s Moorways swimming pool and not a local election nomination form.
It is important to understand that there was no question of votes being fraudulently cast, of ballot papers being interfered with, of people’s right to vote how they wish being denied, of impersonation of voters, or postal ballot irregularities; no public money was misspent.
It was purely a question of the formal process which enables candidates to appear on ballot papers in local elections. That is why the comments of the trial judge, Peter Cooke, that this case ‘strikes at the heart of our democracy’, were ludicrous.
Candidates for the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly and the Greater London authority regional list seats can all self-nominate without having to collect signatures. Do these elections ‘strike at our democracy’?
A 15-month prison sentence is totally disproportionate, even if the offences had been proven beyond reasonable doubt. But what is most disturbing about this case is that there was, in fact, plenty of doubt.
|Eight candidates stood for the TUSC in the 2016 elections for positions on Derby City Council|
TUSC National Election Agent Clive Heemskerk attended the trial and has raised serious questions about the CPS’s case which, unfortunately, were not addressed in the trial.
- There is no statutory test that canvassers are expected to make to ensure that ‘subscribers’ to nomination papers have ‘sufficiently understood’ what it is they have signed. But the CPS, unchallenged in court, set the bar not far from the level of a Mastermind contestant;
- There is no statutory or even informal guidance on what political campaign material canvassers can or cannot take with them when they collect signatures for nomination papers and the closure of the pool was a burning local political issue;
- There was no discussion in court on what responsibility people have for their own actions when they sign a form headed, ‘Local government election – Nomination Paper’, which includes two declarations that the person signing is agreeing to nominate an election candidate;
- There was no questioning of the role of the police, yet officers visited the 80 electors who nominated the TUSC candidates, sometimes on two or three occasions, and spent more time with them than Chris Fernandez did! How did that shape what people remembered from their earlier encounter with Chris?
As Chris begins his prison sentence it is impossible not to draw the contrast between the Crown Prosecution’s approach to this case and that of the Conservative Party’s ‘Battle Bus’ 2015 general election expenses scandal.
The Tories’ extra spending then on the 20 or so marginal seats involved may well have made the difference in their winning the election and everything that has followed from that.
Yet in the ‘Battle Bus’ case, while the CPS accepted that Tory candidates’ election returns ‘may have been inaccurate’ and therefore breaking election law, they decided it was ‘not in the public interest to charge anyone’. Who said what on the doorstep during a municipal election in Derbyshire was obviously of greater concern!
|No Conservatives will face charges for breaches of expenses rules over the 2015 general election "battle bus"|
The vindictive and disproportionate political prosecution of Chris Fernandez should not cower trade unionists, socialists and working class community activists or stop them from taking their battle against austerity and for a new society into the ballot box. This was one case, with specific circumstances, tried in one court. It does not establish ‘case law’, applicable to any other possible instance in the future.
Chris Fernandez himself, when asked by the prosecution barrister whether he supported democracy, replied that yes, the working class has always fought for the right for political representation, from the Levellers in the English revolution to the 19th century Chartists, and is still fighting today. That should be the main message from this trial.
The full report on the trial, challenging the CPS case in close detail, is available here
Letters of support can be sent to Chris Fernandez (21-12-1957), A5447ED, B-wing, HMP Nottingham, 112 Perry Road, Sherwood, Nottingham, NG5 3AG. The envelope should include your name and address on the back.
The wider picture
Since 2008 the Electoral Commission and the police have collated over 2,000 cases of alleged electoral fraud. Just one referred to a possible charge regarding “a voter [being] tricked into signing a nomination form for a candidate under false pretences”. But there is no record of an attempted prosecution in this case. In fact, all the publicly available records of convictions for nomination offences since 2008 have been for cases of false signatures or candidate ineligibility.
Just weeks before the Chris Fernandez trial the ex-Tory MP for Castle Point in Essex, Bob Spink, who defected from the Tories in 2008 to become UKIP’s first MP (he lost his seat in 2010), was found guilty of ‘tricking voters into signing nomination forms believing they were petitions’ in the 2016 local elections. So, no convictions, or attempted prosecutions for this offence (at least since the public records begin in 2008), and then two come along at once. Is there something going on?
What were the CPS thinking?
Bob Spink was formally charged in March 2017, the same month as Chris Fernandez was charged in Derby. In both cases, while local police officers collected the evidence, it was the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) whether or not to proceed to court.
Only a very small proportion of cases of alleged electoral fraud resulted in court action. The publicly available police commentaries include many instances of prima facie breaches of electoral law which were “locally resolved” or “suitable advice given”. In 2014, for example, a clear breach of electoral law in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea did not go to prosecution on the grounds that it was “not in the public interest as he [the candidate] was not elected”. In 2016 a Tory election agent in Preston forged signatures on eight candidate nomination forms and “accepted a police caution”.
Clamping down on dissent
But perhaps the most important ‘interest test’ for the CPS tops – in Derby as in the ‘Battle Bus’ case – wasn’t actually a ‘public’ one but how best to look out for their own careers by appeasing their government masters. This is not to say that the decision to prosecute Chris Fernandez was a ‘Tory conspiracy’ against TUSC (or, for that matter, against their UKIP enemies in the Bob Spink case). But the Tories, as part of battening down the hatches against the accumulating rage at never-ending austerity, are clamping down on democratic rights.
This includes attacks on electoral rights, many of them emanating from the recommendations of the 2016 review, led by the former Conservative Party chairperson Sir Eric Pickles, including a call to prevent “sham nominations and ensure that nominations are validly made”.
The government response to Pickles on this issue is that it will consider giving council Returning Officers greater powers to reject nominations. But in the meantime there’s no harm in sending a message to council officers (and ambitious Police Economic Crime Unit officers and Crown Prosecutors) to make life as difficult as possible for protest candidates and others outside the establishment circles.
The nomination process in local elections is already an obstacle course for inexperienced campaigners and smaller parties. Even getting hold of the electoral register to collect the necessary ten subscribers, for example, is not a straightforward task.
Once someone has officially become a candidate they are entitled to a copy of the register of electors for the ward. But the earliest someone officially becomes a candidate is when the official notice of election is published, just six working days before nominations have to be submitted.
|Bob Crow speaking at TUSC's 2012 London Assembly election campaign launch|
Many council electoral services departments will release a copy of the electoral register to someone declaring themselves as a candidate or election agent before the official notice of election, once they have signed a legal form stating that they will only use the register for electoral purposes. But some Returning Officers do not give the same leeway to local TUSC candidates and agents as they do the establishment parties. Now they might feel further encouraged to be obstructive.
But events are moving against them
The CPS announced that they would not proceed with the Conservative ‘Battle Bus’ case on May 10th, when the 2017 general election was under way and just days after the Tories’ triumph in the local elections. Predictions of a 100-plus seat Tory majority in the forthcoming June poll were widespread. It was obvious to anyone why the CPS tops took the decision that they did at the time that they did.
But, like almost all the establishment, they were to be completely confounded by events. Just five weeks later the rage that has been simmering away since the 2008 crash found an electoral outlet in the surge of support for Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity message.
That process – of finding a vehicle for working class politics – is not over. The Blairites – the capitalist establishment’s representatives within the Labour Party – are clinging on tenaciously to their positions, in parliament and in town halls. Some on the left argue that Labour Party candidates should be supported regardless of whether they are ‘Corbynistas’ or Blairites. But it is also the case that some activists will decide to stand under an independent banner against the Labour right-wing cutters. That is a debate for the working class: it won’t be stopped by servants of the ruling class creating bureaucratic obstacles.
|Bob Spink told the court he had collected more than 1,000 signatures in his career - unlike socialist Chris Fernandez he received a 6 month suspended sentence|
An ex-Tory and UKIP MP has been given a suspended six-month prison term after being convicted of election fraud.
Bob Spink, 69, former MP for Castle Point, Essex, committed the offences during the Castle Point borough council elections in May last year.
He was found guilty in December of four counts of permitting a false signature to be included on a nomination form for a UKIP councillor.
The judge in the case said the offences undermined "democratic structures".
Spink's prison sentence will be suspended for two years. He was also ordered to carry out 150 hours unpaid work.
|Image copyright PA Image caption|
UKIP's election agent at the time, James Parkin, 39, of Canvey Island, who was also convicted of two counts of the same charge and had admitted two, received the same sentence at Basildon Crown Court on Friday.
Both men were ordered to pay £5,000 each towards the cost of the case.
During the trial last year, jurors heard how Spink tricked "elderly and infirm" voters into signing the forms in April 2016, without making it clear what the documents were or which party he represented.
The court heard people in Spink's constituency signed the forms believing they were petitions and had no idea they were supporting the UKIP candidate in the local council elections.
Spink had claimed everything was above board and that residents knew what they were signing.
None of the candidates included in Spink's deception won a seat on the council - although a handful finished runner-up, the court heard.
Sentencing the pair Judge Ian Graham said: "This sort of offending undermines the working of democratic structures in this country.
"The democratic process depends on the good faith of those who engage in it, because a lot of what happens is of course quite difficult to police."
Spink, from Benfleet, Essex, was Conservative MP for Castle Point from 1992 to 1997, and again from 2001.
In 2008, he defected from the Conservative Party and joined UKIP, effectively becoming its first MP.