Friday, 3 December 2010

Phil Woolas loses bid to overturn election court ban

Phil Woolas has lost his bid to overturn an election court's ruling that stripped him of his Commons seat and barred him from politics. He narrowly won his Oldham East and Saddleworth seat in May but the result was declared void by an election court over his conduct in the campaign. He argued that the election court's interpretation of the law was flawed. However, three High Court judges upheld the election court's decision. If he does not appeal there will be a by-election.

Lord Justice Thomas, Mr Justice Tugendhat and Mrs Justice Nicola Davies said that, although Mr Woolas was entitled to have one of the findings against him set aside, there had been "illegal practice" by the former immigration minister. Mr Woolas retained his Oldham East and Saddleworth seat in May - beating his Lib Dem opponent Elwyn Watkins by just 103 votes. But the result was declared void by a specially convened election court in November, which ruled that Mr Woolas had made false statements as he sought to hang on to his seat during a closely fought campaign.

Although Mr Woolas is no longer the MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, a by-election has not yet been called while legal proceedings continue. The election court heard that Mr Woolas had stirred up racial tensions during the campaign. It found that, although made in the context of an election campaign, comments in campaign material suggesting Mr Watkins tried to "woo" the votes of Muslim extremists clearly amounted to an attack on his personal character and conduct.

The court ruled he was guilty of breaching the Representation of the People Act 1983 and barred him from standing for elected office for three years. Lawyers for Mr Woolas argued during a two-day hearing in November that the election court's interpretation of the law was flawed. They argued that the election court misdirected itself in law, when it found that Mr Woolas had made attacks on his Lib Dem rival Elwyn Watkins' "personal character or conduct" with "no reasonable grounds for believing them to be true, and did not believe them to be true".

Mr Woolas’s lawyers argued that the statements were about the "political conduct" of his Lib Dem opponent - not his personal character - and suggested the election court's interpretation was inconsistent with free speech. The case is the first time an MP has been found guilty of making false statements of fact in an election petition since 1911.