As the SKWAWKBOX reported last week, thirty Tory MPs and election agents are facing referral for trial by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) over allegations of fraud involving their election expenses. This was announced by the head of communications for Channel 4 News last Tuesday.
The Tory party has already received a record fine from the Electoral Commission for its involvement in the breaches, but the MPs and their election agents face the possibility of serious criminal prosecution.
The knowledge of the impending prosecutions – more than enough to potentially cost the Tories their parliamentary majority – may well have played a significant role in Theresa May’s decision to call an election she had promised would not happen.
C4 and others are now asking what will happen to the prosecutions given that the General Election campaign will be underway when the clock runs out on the process. But there is a further question to be answered that is vital to the public interest:
Why aren’t there (at least) thirty-one?
in 2015, Weaver Vale Tory MP Graham Evans was a beneficiary of the Tory ‘battle bus’ and associated campaign. He did not, according to Channel 4 and other news media, declare any of the cost as part of his local campaign expenses. According to Channel 4, doing so would have taken him over his legal spending limit:
In this – as with the other 30 MPs and election agents – he is alleged to have broken the law.
In this respect, he appears to be no different from the 30 Tories that are facing prosecution – and in fact, he was one of the MPs named specifically in Channel 4’s original announcement of the police investigation into Tory election expenditure and reporting.
In interviews published back in 2015, a Conservative publication inadvertently revealed that the Tories were fully aware that their spending on the ‘battle bus’ and the campaigners who accompanied it were absolutely targeted on specific seats and supporting specific candidates – a ‘smoking gun‘ that showed the falsehood of later Tory claims that they thought the expenses were national and not local.
A number of police forces – and subsequently the CPS – clearly agreed, hence the referrals for prosecution.
But Cheshire Police – looking at the same circumstances that have triggered CPS involvement in all 30 other cases – appear to have decided not even to refer the Evans matter to the CPS for consideration.
A Weaver Vale constituent took issue with the Cheshire Police’s lack of enthusiasm in pursuing a situation that is being treated with universal seriousness by other forces and wrote to Channel 4 News:
I am a constituent of Graham Evans, MP for Weaver Vale in Cheshire. He was one of the alleged MPs who had the Tory battlebus visit his constituency, but who did not declare part of it as Local Spend. You have cited him in your news coverage as has the Daily Mirror.
The chair of Weaver Vale Constituency Labour Party has written to the Cheshire police to ask why they have decided not to refer Mr Evans to the Crown Prosecution Service, as 15 other constabularies have done. Specifically, how his case differs from the other that have been referred to the CPS.
On the face of it, there is no difference between Mr Evans Case and the others accused.
The police responded [to a written complaint to them] avoiding answering the question. The follow up complaint was also dismissed, again without answering the question or focusing on the issue actually raised.
The constituent also gives Channel 4 details of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request that Cheshire Police had failed to answer within statutory time limits – and then, after even further delay, announced they were not going to answer for a further month.
This additional delay, according to Cheshire Constabulary, is to give them time to decide whether to apply a public interest exemption to in order to reveal the information.
Section 30 (1) (a) (b) (c) Investigations and Proceedings Conducted by Public Authorities allows public authorities to withhold information that is being used as part of an investigation. However, it is subject to a ‘public interest‘ test and must be disclosed if the public interest requires it.
Here is what the ICO’s (Information Commissioner’s Office) notes on Section 30 say about the public interest:
Since Cheshire Police appear to have decided not to refer Mr Evans’ case to the CPS, it is hard to see how they could hope to refuse to release the information, since they would not be protecting an investigation or prosecution – and the information about the overspending is in the public domain, so there is no ‘confidential source’ to protect.
Cheshire Police have given themselves until 17 May to answer – or to say that they’re not going to. As soon as their response it received, an update will be published on the SKWAWKBOX.
However, the police’s failure to respond within the statutory period raises means serious questions about why they have not referred the matter to the CPS when other police forces have done so in similar cases.
It also means that the people of the marginal Weaver Vale constituency face at least a month of crucial General Election campaigning without knowing why the Tory candidate who won there in 2015 isn’t facing prosecution for reporting his election expenses in a way which has 30 other Tory figures anxiously waiting to find out whether they will face criminal prosecution.
Mr Evans’ office was contacted three times for comment on the matter, but has so far declined to respond even though the imminent publication of this article was made very clear.
He has not, of course, been found guilty of any offence and may never face prosecution, but the reasons for that in the context of his 30 worried colleagues are, of course, a matter of serious public interest.
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