Statement on the sentencing of the Derby TUSC agent for electoral fraud
Chris Fernandez, the local election agent for eight Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidates at the 2016 council elections in Derby, was yesterday sentenced to 15 months imprisonment for charges of electoral fraud.
After a two-and-a-half week trial in December Chris had been found guilty on 12 out of 14 counts of misleading voters into signing the TUSC candidates' nomination papers.
The case made by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was that a significant number of electors had signed believing that they were backing a petition against the closure of Derby's Moorways swimming pool and not a local election nomination form.
The TUSC national election agent, Clive Heemskerk, present at the sentencing, said:
"TUSC is committed to preserving the integrity of the electoral process and issues clear guidance to our candidates and agents on the rules that must be followed (see the guide produced for the 2016 local elections at http://www.tusc.org.uk/txt/359.pdf).
"But while recognising the jury's verdict in this case it is important to understand that there is no question of actual votes being fraudulently cast, of ballot papers being interfered with, of people's right to vote how they wish being denied, of impersonation of voters, or postal ballot irregularities.
"Nor was public money misspent or any financial or other material gain achieved by Chris's acts.
"It was purely a question of the formal process by which candidates are enabled to appear on ballot papers in local elections. That is why the comments at the sentencing hearing by the trial judge, Peter Cooke, that this case 'strikes at the heart of our democracy', were completely over the top and frankly ludicrous.
"Candidates for election to the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly and the Greater London authority regional list seats, for example, unlike local council candidates, can all self-nominate without going through the process of collecting signatures before they can appear on the ballot paper. Does that make these elections any less democratic? Do they too 'strike at our democracy'?
"In reality a 15-month prison sentence is totally disproportionate, even if the offences were proven beyond doubt. But what is most disturbing about this case is that there was, in fact, plenty of doubt.
"I attended throughout the trial in December and submitted a 22-page account to the TUSC national steering committee, now available at http://www.tusc.org.uk/txt/413.pdf, raising serious questions which, unfortunately, were not addressed in court.
* There is no statutory test that canvassers are expected to make to ensure that 'subscribers' to nomination papers have 'sufficiently understood' what it is they have signed. But the CPS, unchallenged in court, set the bar not far from the level of a Mastermind contestant.
* There is no statutory or even informal guidance on what political campaign material canvassers can or cannot take with them when they collect signatures for nomination papers and the closure of the Moorways pool was a burning local political issue.
* What responsibility do people have for their own actions when they sign a form headed, 'Local government election - Nomination Paper', which includes two declarations that the person signing is agreeing to nominate an election candidate?
* Police officers visited the 80 electors who nominated the TUSC candidates, sometimes on two or three occasions, spending more time with them than Chris Fernandez did! What did they say and how did that help shape what people remembered from their earlier encounter with Chris?
"As Chris begins his prison sentence it is impossible not to draw the contrast between the CPS's approach to this case and that of the Conservative Party's 'Battle Bus' 2015 general election expenses scandal.
"The Tories' extra spending then on the 20 or so marginal seats involved may well have made the difference in their winning the election and everything that has followed from that.
"Yet in the 'Battle Bus' case, while the CPS accepted that Tory candidates' election returns 'may have been inaccurate' and therefore breaking election law, they decided it was 'not in the public interest to charge anyone referred to us'.
"Why they decided that a case about who said what on the doorstep during a municipal election in Derbyshire was of greater 'public interest', resulting in a 60-year old man with no previous convictions being jailed for 15 months, is something only they can explain".
1. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is an electoral alliance involving trade unionists, socialists - either independents or members of established socialist parties - and working class community campaigners who want to contest elections under a common anti-austerity banner. It was set up in 2010 and, since that time, has fielded over 2,000 candidates, polling together over 350,000 votes.
For information and video clips about TUSC see: www.tusc.org.uk
For interviews and any other information requests, please email: [email protected] or call Clive Heemskerk, the TUSC National Election Agent on 020-8988-8773.