Saturday, July 21, 2007

Cash for Honours Investigation closed - no prosecution but lessons to be learned

As the Scotsman reports, "IT TOOK 16 months, cost £1 million, unearthed 6,300 documents, led to four arrests and the interviews of 136 people including the then prime minister.But the prospect of charges being brought in the cash-for-honours affair was dashed in just one statement.The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) defused the row that had rocked the foundations of Westminster's party funding system with two words: "Insufficient evidence"

Go here to read the CPS statement, and here to read the Metropolitan Police Statement.

After all the 'leaks' from the investigation a few had hoped for prosecutions but, as expected by many familiar with the workings of the law as it is currently on these matters - there was ultimately not enough evidence to bring a prosecution .. and even if there was, would it have been in the national interest to do so ?

Being able to question a policy when it appears somewhat at odds with the law is easy, but being part of that same culture, and having a few skeletons in the cupboard when shouting the odds against such things, tends to limit one's credibility as some have pointed out in the claims & counter claims on this affair.

Life goes on, and some people can at least be satisfied the public know a lot more about what goes on in the honours system now and how much it costs to get a peerage, than they did before SNP MP Angus Neil filed his complaint ...

Perhaps the outcome of the Cash for Honours investigation will ultimately be of benefit and has given the SNP themselves, a little more experience of issues of injustice in this case, & other areas of the legal system. Doubtless valuable lessons for the future can be learned by those who began this investigation - on how to better handle such investigations & inquiries into political scandals and what issues to pay attention to more closer to home.

And finally, solicitors, campaigners & readers alike, before you ruin your eyes reading the weekend press on frvolous debate over 'Cash for Honours', go out and buy "Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows" instead and have a good read at that. You know its the right thing to do in this slightly crazy world !

'Insufficient evidence' ends investigation into cash-for-honours affair


IT TOOK 16 months, cost £1 million, unearthed 6,300 documents, led to four arrests and the interviews of 136 people including the then prime minister.

But the prospect of charges being brought in the cash-for-honours affair was dashed in just one statement.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) defused the row that had rocked the foundations of Westminster's party funding system with two words: "Insufficient evidence".

Allegations of leaks had dogged the investigation for more than a year - so it was with some irony that the CPS's decision was first reported 12 hours before Carmen Dowd, the head of its Serious Crimes Division, had a chance to make a brief appearance before the cameras.

She concluded there was "insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction against any individual for any offence in relation to this matter".

The investigation had overshadowed the final year of Tony Blair's premiership and arguably helped the Scottish National Party bring Labour's 50-year reign over Scotland to an end.

It also shook the establishment out of its complacency over party funding, forcing leading members to seek a way to distance themselves from the wealthy financiers who bankrolled politics.

The decision was met with relief by all those implicated - not least Mr Blair, who said he was "very pleased" that no-one would face trial.

He had become the first serving prime minister to be quizzed by police.

All those concerned had been put through a "terrible, even traumatic time," Mr Blair said.

Lord Levy, Mr Blair's chief fundraiser and one of three arrested in the investigation, told reporters he started the day with champagne. But by mid-morning, the relief began to wear off to be replaced with frustration.

He stopped short of criticising police, but hit out at a series of leaks from the inquiry which he branded "misleading, factually inaccurate and personally damaging".

Ruth Turner, the Downing Street "gatekeeper" who left No10 to continue working alongside Mr Blair and who was another one of the three arrested in the probe, said: "Although I was confident I had done nothing wrong, it has been a very stressful time for me and my family."

While the Blair team was largely relieved, the entire row was inadvertently sparked by Labour supporters.

It was a senior MP's private joke with opposition parties - suggesting that without party donors, the House of Lords would be empty - that sounded the alarm for one inexperienced MP.

The indiscretion was seized on by Angus MacNeil, the SNP MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, who was also incensed by Geoff Hoon, then Commons Leader, shrugging his shoulders when confronted with the allegations.

Mr MacNeil's researcher, Ann Harvey, then dug out an obscure piece of legislation that was still on the statute books: the 1925 Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act.

A letter was fired off to Scotland Yard by the new MP, without much expectation by anyone at Westminster.

But a seed had been planted by one of the party's key supporters just a few days earlier.

Chai Patel, head of the Priory rehabilitation clinics, had protested to the Lords Appointments Committee - which vets peers - that his nomination for a peerage had been blocked.

It transpired that he had loaned the Labour party £1.5 million.

Two other wealthy donors had also had their peerages stopped.

That revelation led to Jack Dromey, Labour's treasurer, saying he did not know anything about loans made by wealthy businessmen to the party.

It appeared that the deals had been brokered directly between No 10 and the donors.

The simmering scandal was brought to boiling point when John Yates, assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, declared he would indeed investigate the complaint.

It reached new heights when Mr Yates arrested his first suspect less than a month after the MP had written to him.

Des Smith, a former headmaster and adviser on city academies to the government, had been caught by a tabloid trap, saying donations to the controversial programme could lead to an honour.

The other man arrested in the investigation, biotech entrepreneur Sir Christopher Evans, was furious yesterday, accusing an unnamed Serious Fraud Office official of a dirty tricks campaign.

Sir Christopher, who was arrested as police looked into a £1 million loan he made to Labour in 2005, accused the SFO member of making "a completely untrue, malicious" allegation to police that he was expecting a peerage in return.

Amid the relief came fury from Labour. Lord Foulkes, who is a Labour MSP, said it was "astonishing" that the police had "fallen for an SNP stunt".

He added: "I think some apologies are now due to some people who have suffered extensively over the last 16 months."

But perhaps most furious was Mr Yates himself. He made no apologies for the length of the inquiry, hinting that he blamed obfuscation and stalling from some witnesses for the delays.

The row has also re-ignited the debate over Lords reform.
Politicians and police furious over CPS decision

THE cash for honours row raged on last night, despite the decision by the Crown Prosecution Service that no one would face criminal charges.

There was fury from Labour and those implicated in the police investigation over how the inquiry had been dragged out. Police have also made clear their displeasure at the controversial decision.

Carmen Dowd, head of the CPS specialist crime division, concluded: "Having considered all of the evidence in this case I have decided that there is insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction against any individual for any offence in relation to this matter."

But Glyn Smith, chairman of the Metropolitan Police branch of the Police Federation, said the public should "judge for themselves" whether charges could have been brought.

Officers are prepared to hand over the documents acquired during the 16-month investigation to MPs on the Public Administration Select Committee. The committee suspended their own probe into honours so as not to prejudice the police inquiry and will meet on Tuesday to decide its next course of action.

Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner John Yates defended the time his investigation had taken, saying: "It is a search for the truth." He also appeared to blame the delays on some of the individuals quizzed.

"With any investigation you go where the evidence takes you and during the course of the investigation it became necessary to consider whether there had been a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. This investigation would have been concluded much earlier if this latter aspect had not arisen," he added.

Angus MacNeil, the SNP MP who made the original complaint to police, said the senior officer had the right to be furious that his hard work had amounted to nothing.

He added: "It is extraordinary that this investigation has gone on for so long without any charges. There is much circumstantial evidence that people were raking in funds in exchange for the expectation of honours and indeed that such transactions were being kept secret."

Those arrested in the investigation are furious at the length of time and style of the inquiry and the way their reputations had been inevitably trashed.

• PARTY funding has been ratcheted to the top of the political agenda by the cash-for-honours row, with the main leaders agreeing there is a need to move towards some form of state funding.

A review led by Sir Hayden Philips, a senior civil servant, gained fresh impetus in its search for a solution after party co-operation stalled over whether Labour should be allowed to continue to rely financially on single unions.

David Cameron, the Conservative leader, said the way politics was financed now had to change. " It is not healthy," he said.

Mr Cameron said there should be limits on party donations from businesses, trade unions and individuals. "We need to make sure that not so much money is wasted and we need to cut the cost of politics," he added.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman also pointed out the parties were all still in talks with Sir Hayden about how to take funding forward. Sir Hayden wants parties to reach agreement by next month.

Any move to state funding is opposed by the SNP, however, which insists that taxpayers should not be forced to pick up the tab.

Cash for Honours Scandal

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