Woolas election ban threatens election debate, MPs say

Image caption,
Mr Woolas narrowly won his Oldham East and Saddleworth seat in the general election

MPs have expressed concerns about a court decision to ban former minister Phil Woolas from politics, saying it raises "massive constitutional issues".

The ex-Labour MP is making a second bid for a judicial review of the verdict, which stripped him of his seat over his conduct in the election campaign.

But Tory MP Edward Leigh said it was for "people to evict MPs not judges".

And Labour's David Winnick said it could lead to any defeated candidate challenging election results.

Although the High Court rejected an initial request by Mr Woolas for a judicial review of the election court's ruling, he is seeking a renewed ruling - which is expected to be the subject of an oral hearing potentially before the end of the week.

Labour future

Mr Woolas was barred from standing for elected office for three years after a specially convened election court ruled he was guilty of breaching the Representation of the People Act 1983 for making false statements during the election, in which he won the Oldham East and Saddleworth seat by 103 votes.

The BBC has learned that Mr Woolas - who visited Parliament on Monday - feels he has been hung out to dry and cut adrift by Labour since the verdict was announced on Friday.

Deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman has indicated that Mr Woolas has no future as a Labour MP even if he succeeds in overturning the verdict.

Mr Woolas is said to feel her comments are prejudicial to his attempt to clear his name and deny him the right to a fair hearing, the BBC's Political Correspondent Reeta Chakrabarti said.

After Mr Woolas became the first MP to be expelled by an electoral court in 99 years, Labour is not funding his legal fight anymore.

He is said to need between £50,000 and £60,000 to continue and since the verdict he is no longer in receipt of an MP's salary.

Commons Speaker John Bercow has said MPs will not be able to debate the ramifications of the case until legal proceedings have finished.

'Robust debate'

But, in a point of order in Parliament, Mr Leigh said a debate was urgently needed on the "enormous" implications of the verdict.

"This is first time in 99 years that an MP has been evicted," he told MPs. "It is for people to evict MPs not the judges.

"What worries me about this is that, if this is allowed to stand, it will be virtually impossible for there to be really robust debate during elections.

"People will be terrified of attacking their opponents."

Labour MP David Winnick echoed these concerns, saying he was worried about a precedent being set for decisions to be "taken out of the hands of the electorate".

"In future circumstances can a position arise where an unsuccessful candidate will use any means to say, in effect, what happened during the election was unfair and take the issue to the judges accordingly?," he said.

Mr Bercow told MPs that the court had ruled the election result "void" and found Mr Woolas "personally guilty" of an "illegal practice" during the campaign.

He noted that Mr Woolas had renewed his application for a judicial review and this hearing would be "expedited" as the judge wanted constituents to "know who is their MP as soon as possible".

"I attach a premium to a speedy resolution to these matters in the interests of Parliament, the interests of Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency electorate and in the interests of the country," he said.

This effectively means a by-election will be delayed to avoid the possibility that, if Mr Woolas won his appeal, it could result in the embarrassing situation of the constituency having two MPs.

For the Lib Dems, Alistair Carmichael asked the Speaker for assurances the constituency's voters would "not be denied indefinitely, by untested legal proceedings, the representation to which they are entitled".

'Lack of humanity'

Reacting to the verdict on Sunday, Ms Harman said it was "not part of Labour's politics for somebody to be telling lies to get themselves elected".

But former Labour Party general secretary Peter Watt said Mr Woolas had been treated "disgracefully".

"In the last few days we have seen a complete lack of humanity in our approach to Phil Woolas," Mr Watt - who resigned in 2007 over a political donations row - wrote in his blog.

"Phil may not have been everyone's cup of tea politically," he added.

"He was definitely found guilty of breaching electoral law by telling untruths about one of his opponents. But does that overwrite his history and contribution to the party of so many years?"

The case against Mr Woolas - who served as immigration minister for nearly two years after becoming an MP in 1997 - was brought under Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act.

This makes it an offence to publish "any false statement of fact in relation to the candidate's personal character or conduct" to prevent them being elected - unless they believed it was true and had "reasonable grounds" to do so.

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