Bob Ashford visited Belfast where he was interviewed by BBC Radio Ulster, Good Morning about the Wipetheslateclean campaign. In the afternoon, he spoke at NIACRO‘s AGM and answered questions from the audience. The radio interview can be found here
The letter above is from the Minister of State for Policing and Criminal Justice, Damian Green. It is in response to the letter I sent to him on 4th October last year, following my resignation as the PCC for Avon and Somerset. I didn’t even receive an acknowledgement of the letter or any other communication until the Guardian featured the campaign in a full page spread on the 4th December. A short email then arrived from the Home Office on 6th December stating:
“A ministerial response is due shortly to your letter. Many apologies for the delay in replying.”
The response has therefore taken almost 3 months to arrive and quite frankly doesn’t answer the points in my letter. I asked the Minister two questions:
What action your government intends to take to :
• Reforming the legislation relating to the bar on PCCs and criminal convictions and;
• Taking a wider and proactive approach to the rehabilitation of ex-offenders.
On the first question the answer appears to be nothing. And this is despite the universal condemnation of the barring legislation, which conflates “seriousness” with “imprisonable offences”, and which led me and other well-qualified people to resign as PCC candidates for minor offences committed many years ago.
On the second question the response is wholly tied up with “Payment by Results”, a policy being rolled out nationally despite research on pilot schemes not yet being available. The response completely misses the many other available options which have been well tried and tested in the past and really could bring about a “rehabilitation revolution”.
The sentence I have most issue with is:
“I can understand how disappointing it must be to have to resign from the PCC candidacy however the Government feels that the nature of this role requires the highest standards of character- similar to that which a police officer would be held”
The implication is crystal clear. Despite a lifetime career in social care and criminal justice and being successfully vetted by the Home Office to work on security sensitive issues, my character is flawed and forever defined by two offences I committed when I was 13 years old, 46 years ago. The statement is also incorrect, for many serving police officers at every level have been convicted of imprisonable offences. In advertising recent Police and Complaints Commissioners, who will oversee complaints against the police and PCCs, the Home Office requires a lower level of barring than that of PCCs and therefore in their own words they would allow people without “the highest standards of character “ to judge the actions of the police and Police and Crime Commissioners.
I am hugely disappointed by this response on a personal level, but also once more for the message it sends to those who have found themselves in trouble with the law, no matter how long ago and how minor their offences. It underlines the wasted opportunity to truly bring about a “rehabilitation revolution” which would be of benefit to victims of crime, local communities, and taxpayers alike by recognising that people who have offended (who make up 30% of the adult male population) have worth and should be encouraged and helped to reintegrate into society, not punished for the rest of their lives.
I will be responding to the Minister. I also sent a copy of the letter to the Home Secretary, Theresa May on 4th October : I have yet to receive a reply.
When the Parliamentary committee discussed the possible disqualification for Police and Crime commissioners Nick Herbert, Minister for Policing, was unequivocal:
“The importance of the police and crime commissioner post means that it requires a higher standard….. 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. Under the amendment, any person convicted of an imprisonable offence at any time will be permanently disqualified from standing as a police and crime commissioner. I emphasise “an imprisonable offence”; the amendment does not suggest that the person has to have been sentenced to a term of imprisonment. That is a very high standard that is unprecedented for a UK election. The position, however, is unprecedented, too, and 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, but it is right, so I hope that the Committee will understand why I tabled the amendment. “
Despite the committee having little grasp on the nature of “imprisonable” offences (the majority of offences are imprisonable including trespass on a railway embankment!) the cross-party committee agreed the test. This of course led to my resignation and that of several other prospective candidates who had been found guilty of offences in their childhoods. This week the Home Office advertised two posts for Independent Police Complaints Commissioners (IPCCs). The role:
“From 22 November 2012, police authorities were replaced by elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). The IPCC will be responsible for investigating all criminal allegations against PCCs, and their equivalents in London as well as complaints against the police and including Chief Constables.”
As the Chief Executive of the IPCC Dame Anne Owers says:
“The IPCC performs a role which is central to our democracy. It exercises its powers on behalf of society as a whole, not necessarily in a way that the individual complainant or police officer would want. It operates in a highly adversarial and emotionally charged context, subject to intense and often critical public and media scrutiny. We are seeking truly exceptional people who will relish these challenges, demonstrate independence and lead the IPCC through the next phase of its life. “
One would think then that the standards for these posts in terms in individuals would be even higher than those for Police and Crime Commissioners given that they will be policing the police and PCCs? Think again because the main disqualification bar in terms of past criminal offences is:
“People who have received a prison sentence or suspended sentence of three months or more in the last five years. “
Now I have absolutely no issue with this level of disqualification but it does highlight how one government Department, the Home Office, who are responsible for both posts, can get this so badly wrong. It raises again the absurdity of the original disqualifications of the PCC posts and the arbitrary way that issues concerning the rehabilitation of offenders are dealt with across government.
It’s time for a new and radical approach not just the PCC posts but how we view and treat people with past criminal convictions.
Bob Ashford Wipetheslateclean.