Parliament: Boothroyd sends Fiona Jones case back to court

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The Independent Online
THE FATE of the former Labour MP Fiona Jones still hung in the balance last night after the Speaker of the House of Commons declared that her reinstatement was a matter for the courts and not Parliament.

Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, said that it was for the High Court to decide whether Mrs Jones could be restored as MP for Newark after her successful appeal against conviction for election expenses fraud.

Mrs Jones, who won the seat with a majority of 3,000 at the last election, was stripped of office when she was found guilty at Nottingham Crown Court of submitting misleading expenses claims.

However, the High Court quashed the conviction last week, claiming that the jury in the earlier case had been misdirected by the judge.

Both Mrs Jones and the Labour Party expected that she would be swiftly reinstated as an MP, but the Speaker's office decided that it needed time to assess the judgment.

Yesterday, Mrs Boothroyd announced she had instructed the Attorney-General, John Morris, to apply to the High Court for a ruling on how the 1983 Representation of the People Act should be interpreted. She said that the case had given rise to an "unprecedented situation" where the Commons had declared a seat vacant on conviction of its MP, but was subsequently faced with her effective acquittal by a more senior court.

On the one hand there was a need for natural justice to be done, she said, but on the other, whatever the outcome of an appeal, it was interpretation of the Act that was important. "It is for the courts and not for the House to interpret the law. I hope very much that it may be disposed of speedily," Mrs Boothroyd said.

"The court will be invited to make a declaration that following the decision of the Court of Appeal to quash her conviction, Fiona Jones is entitled to resume her seat." The Speaker added that once this case had been resolved, the Act should be reviewed to prevent similar difficulties arising in future.

Given the small size of Mrs Jones's majority, the Government is anxious to avoid a by-election that could give the Tories a much-needed fillip.

Even though the Court of Appeal judges ruled last week that the conviction was quashed and "all consequences" that flowed from it should be quashed, a strict reading of the 1983 Act makes reinstatement difficult. The Speaker's office declared soon after the judgment that there was no provision for reinstatement in the Act. A Labour Party spokeswoman said: "We hope that, in the interests of natural justice, the outcome of this process will see Fiona Jones reinstated."