MP wins appeal but still barred

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UNCERTAINTY surrounds the future of former Labour MP Fiona Jones, despite her victorious appeal yesterday against a conviction for election expenses fraud.

The Government initially believed it had been spared a potentially damaging by-election when the Court of Appeal overturned the guilty verdict.

Ms Jones, who won Newark at the 1997 general election with a majority of 3,000, emerged jubilant from court after the ruling and vowed to enter the Commons as soon as possible.

But the judges refused to rule immediately whether Ms Jones could be reinstated as an MP and said decision lay with Betty Boothroyd, Speaker of the Commons. The Speaker's office said it would need detailed legal advice first, but it would be "very unwise" of Ms Jones to take her seat immediately.

Ms Jones, 42, was convicted last month at Nottingham Crown Court of knowingly making a false declaration of election expenses. She was ordered to do 100 hours community service and the seat was declared vacant by the Speaker.

But the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, sitting with Mr Justice Moses and Mr Justice Penry-Davey, yesterday said the judge misdirected the jury. The judges indicated they would also be allowing the appeal of Mrs Jones's election agent Des Whicher, 73, who had been found guilty of the same offence, and fined pounds 750.

Ms Jones and Mr Whicher were alleged to have omitted or under-declared significant amounts of expenditure, in particular on party campaign offices, on their election expenses form. Mrs Jones' counsel, Roy Amlot QC, told the Appeal Court that the trial judge, Mr Justice Jowitt, should have told the jury that an election expense, under the Act, was confined to the promotion of the candidate's "personal" candidacy.

Lord Bingham said that the consequences of the quashed conviction raised "potentially far-reaching questions", but his view was that he and his fellow judges should not rule without first referring to the Attorney- General John Morris and the Speaker.

Lord Bingham said that the court would get into "deep waters" if it started making orders about the internal regulations of the Commons. In what Labour claimed was a clear steer in favour of reinstatement, he said the consequences of allowing the appeal were the same as in any other case.

Mrs Jones, the first sitting MP to be convicted of electoral fraud for 140 years, said after the hearing that she had been told by the Chief Whip that no writ would now be served for a by-election.

"I have had a very raw deal and have been very grateful for all the support from my family and my constituents. It has been a difficult ordeal," she said.