Thursday, 17 January 2008

Crimes and Misdemeanours

The other day, I witnessed what I can only describe as an ‘altercation’ between a motorcyclist and a traffic warden. The latter had just issued a ticket to the former for illegally parking in a bay marked 'Loading only'. The motorcyclist's response was to complain bitterly about the fact that there had been no warden around earlier when he had seen some cars double-parked in the same street. The traffic warden was less than entirely impressed with this as a defence, and made it clear that he thought that he had the motorcyclist 'bang to rights’. Hard to argue with him really.

In a roundabout way, this brings me back to our beloved Secretary of State. The case for the Defence seems to rest in part on the fact that other people have also been naughty girls and boys, and in fact (in the judgement of Paul Flynn, inter alia) have committed far worse offences than Mr Hain. His only sin, it is claimed, is a degree of incompetence in the way he managed his campaign staff. I'm really not sure that this line should be of much more help to him than it was to the motorcyclist.

Sure, all three of the Plaid MPs were caught out breaking the rules of the House of Commons on the way in which their Communications Allowance was spent. Completely unjustifiable, and the line that they sought advice first was another pretty feeble piece of defence work. They were hauled up before the Standards Committee, and found wanting. In the view of many they were lucky to get off as lightly as they did.

Sure, the Conservatives seem to be involved in a degree of chicanery over donations which looks to be every bit as bad as some of Labour’s recent sins. There is no excuse for not holding a full and proper investigation into the situation.

Sure, some of these things are misdemeanours rather than crimes, in the sense that they break the rules of the House of Commons rather than the criminal law. However, the distinction, from the point of view of public perception, is a fine one; and it ill behoves those guilty of one type of offence to be baying so loudly for the blood of others.

What none of these diversions can in any way alter is the fact that there was a legal requirement on Mr Hain personally to provide a full and accurate declaration of costs and donations within a specified time period. Events have shown that he not only failed to comply with this requirement, but that he failed in a fairly spectacular fashion. He may be lucky, and get off lightly with a slap on the wrist. If he does, he may well salvage his career, if not his reputation. There is a danger, though, that the Electoral Commission starts to look like a paper tiger – a bit like a traffic warden who only points out people’s sins, but never issues any tickets.

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