Friday, 24 June 2011

Scotland Office Minister faces court date over election expenses

An extended version of the short in today's Herald:

Tom Gordon

SCOTLAND’S only Conservative MP is facing a court appearance to explain an overspend in his general election expenses, after a judge yesterday [Thursday] said he wanted to hear oral evidence on the matter.

David Mundell, a Scotland Office minister, could now take the witness stand in the autumn.

Mark McInnes, Director of the Scottish Conservatives, and Joe Dawson, Mr Mundell’s election agent, may also give evidence.

Last year, the Sunday Herald revealed Mundell exceded the spending limit on the last leg of his election campaign by almost £500, a potential criminal offence which could have led to a £5000 fine and expulsion from Parliament.

Mundell, 49, Scotland’s sole Tory MP since 2005, spent more than £40,000 defending his 1,738-vote majority in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale last year.

He and Dawson later filed elections returns stating they spent £11,599 on the last leg of the campaign, against a legal maximum of £11,814.

However an invoice for a £681 "Re-elect Mundell" advert in a local newspaper was wrongly accounted for, and Mundell had in fact overspent by £466.

The MP later admitted he signed off the returns as "complete and accurate" without checking the paperwork himself, saying he had entrusted the job to Dawson and staff at Conservative HQ.

Dumfries & Galloway police began an investigation and interviewed Mundell last September.

Mundell and Mr Dawson also petitioned the Court of Session under the Representation of the People Act to be granted relief from any legal sanctions of the spending breach, which they said was due to "accidental miscalculation".

The Crown Office subsequently announced there would be no criminal prosecution, but the pair’s civil case continued.

At a hearing at the Court of Session yesterday, Advocate Leonard Wallace, for the petitioners, said it was "odd" the Crown had "pre-empted the decision" of the civil court by announcing no prosecution, but the two men wished to carry on nonetheless.

He said filing the inaccurate returns amounted to an "illegal practice" under the RPA.

"Both petitioners are of the view that this was an innocent mistake, it was an inadvertence. "Really what they’re seeking is an order to that effect - it puts and end to the matter."

Mr Wallace asked the court to grant the order on the basis of documentary evidence, including signed statements - though not affidavits - from Mundell, Dawson and McInnes.

However Temporary Judge John Beckett QC said the signed statements were not enough.

"Given the responsibility of the court in a case of this kind... I do not feel able to grant the relief sought without hearing parole [oral] evidence," he said, adding it was for the men to choose the witnesses, but it would be "helpful" to hear the petitioners and McInnes.

He stressed that should not be taken to imply he thought people had acted in "bad faith".

Earlier, South of Scotland Labour MSP Claudia Beamish, Mr Mundell’s main opponent in the general election, withdrew her objection to the MP’s defence, after previously accusing him of failing to take all reasonable steps to check his returns.

At the start of proceedings, Judge Beckett, a former Solicitor General in a Labour-LibDem Scottish Government and former Labour Party member, said he had considered whether to recuse himself because of the political nature of the case.

However he had decided that was not necessary, and Mr Wallace raised no objection.

No date was fixed for the next hearing, but one is not expected until September or October.

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