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Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Hain conundrum

Having listened to former Welsh Secretary Peter Hain on the Politics Show this afternoon I am not convinced by his story that he is the victim of a massive conspiracy cooked up in the Electoral Commisson's offices.

Let me be clear, Peter Hain is a man of integrity. Whatever our political differences I have always made it clear that I have great respect for him as a politician. There is no doubt that he has acquitted himself well as a Minister and proved himself a safe pair of hands in government.

I also accept that the last ten months have been stressful and traumatic for him and his family. The whole affair has no doubt cost him money, which he will not be able to claim back. It has also cost him his seat at the Cabinet table.

However, the fact remains that the late declaration of donations remains an offence. That nobody was prosecuted seems to be because his campaign did not have clear lines of accountability with the result that the Police could not find who was responsible. This lack of organisation may well be the reason for the non-declaration in the first place and will have contributed to his failure to be elected Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, despite outspending his opponents. It is also the case that Mr. Hain still faces a Parliamentary Standards inquiry.

We should not forget that Mr. Hain is an experienced and senior political operator who must take some responsibility for the shambles that he allowed to develop around him. He did not keep a tight enough grip on what was being done in his name and he paid the price for that. There is no dishonesty here or any suggestion of fraud but there was a case to answer on late declaration and that needed to be resolved.

Meanwhile, here is something else I agree with Mr. Hain on, the Electoral Commission needs to be overhauled. Mr. Hain is right that they do not have the flexibility to deal with complaints in their own way without involving the police. But whose fault is that?

Peter Hain was a member of the Government when the Electoral Commission was established by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Most party managers know that this act is not fit for purpose and that the Commission it established was unfocussed, knew nothing about the political parties it was regulating and had little experience of running elections.

My view is that the Electoral Commission had no choice but to refer the complaints about Peter Hain to the Police. They did not do so because they had an agenda as he suggests but because it was their duty. Hain complains that other politicians have been treated differently, I would suggest that is because their case is different. He is also confuses in his complaints late declarations on the register of interests in the House of Commons, which is regulated separately, with political donations to individual campaigns.

I think that it is time that Peter Hain stops railing against his accusers and takes some responsibility for the mess he got himself in. I also think that it is time that the government reformed the Electoral Commission so that genuine mistakes and omissions in declaring donations are no longer criminalised.

The Commission should have the power to mete out its own punishments. It also needs to be more realistic in the way that it deals with local political parties run on a shoestring by volunteers and there needs to be a resolution to the issue of double declarations that seems to confound so many MPs (and MSPs).
Mr. Hain is an experienced and senior political operator who must take some responsibility for the shambles that he allowed to develop around him. He did not keep a tight enough grip on what was being done in his name and he paid the price for that.
At best, his judgment in appointing people to act for him has been poor.

It should also be pointed out that it was the police, not the Electoral Commission, which initiated the investigation into the Labour deputy leadership contest. From the BBC news story:
Mr Hain ran to be Labour's deputy leader but came fifth out of six in the contest in the summer of 2007 and initially declared £77,000 in donations to the Electoral Commission.

But donations to the Labour Party came under the spotlight in November, when it emerged property developer David Abrahams had donated more than £650,000 over several years using other people's names and police launched an investigation.

One wonders whether any of these donations would have been reported if it had not been for assiduous journalists picking up the trail.

But I agree that the law should not have been involved in an internal party election. The Hain campaign was not attempting to deceive the general public; the effect of the failure to declare was to conceal the nature of some of the donors from Labour Party members.
Well if you cannot think of a reason for having £100,000 in your account and not know about it then how is he going to do his job. The problem is for years donations were seen as a gift to be used, and not so much as money for a precise reason. Is Hain Guilty of anything oh yes the same guilt as Blair and his idea of donations.
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