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Fiona Onasanya

On 1 May 2019, Fiona Onasanya, the Labour MP for Peterborough, became the first MP to be expelled from the House of Commons.

She had been caught speeding. She claimed that someone else was driving when he was actually in Russia at the time. She was sent to prison for perverting the course of justice.

The Labour party expelled her and asked her to resign, which she refused. An MP imprisoned for one year or more is automatically expelled. An MP imprisoned for a shorter period is now subject to recall under Recall of MPs Act 2015. This requires at least 10% of constituents to sign a petition. In this case, 27.6% signed.

It is clear that what she did was wrong and deserving of punishment. But can we really say that the punishment was proportionate to the offence?

Let us consider the two offences of speeding and perverting justice.

Speeding is an offence of which I happened to be caught (for a fourth time in 40 years of driving) around the same time. When I first got 3 points on my licence, I asked my insurance company if this affected my premium. They said no because “everyone has 3 points on their licence.”

I admitted that I was the driver, paid my £100, and got another three points. When I told the insurance company that I now had 6 points, all they did was add £11 to my annual premium. When I spoke to the police, who had sent the wrong form, they were almost apologetic for having to issue the notice. The courts were not involved. I happened then to be standing for election to the local council (where I was unsuccessful). I told the election sub-committee who were not interested.

In short, nobody cared.

The reason is that this is an artifical offence. The two elements of criminal law are intention and action, or the actus reus and mens rea. I can only be prosecuted for assaulting someone if I intend to hit them and I do hit them. If either element is missing, I have committed no offence if I accidentally hit someone as there was no intention. Nor have I committed an offence if I intend to hit someone but cannot find them. Although the sin is in my soul, that is not punishable under English law.

Speeding, like many motoring offences, is an absolute offence. There is no requirement to show that I had any malevolent intent nor that I had caused any injury, loss or inconvenience to any other person or to society in general.

I know it can be argued that speeding makes it more likely that if I hit someone they would be killed or injured. But that argument is the same as making it a crime to get angry because that makes you more likely to hit someone. I was driving along a clear road with no houses or pavements, and no speed limits that I noticed, perfectly safely on a clear sunny day.

So then we turn to the more serious charge of perverting the course of justice, which I did not commit.

How has justice been perverted? All that has happened is that someone has covered up a bit of wrongdoing. When I worked as a company secretary, it was well known that reps’ wives often “took the points” by pretending to be the driver so that the rep did not lose his licence. It is wrong, but we all know it goes on.

Chris Huhne MP did the same thing. His wife only revealed this ten years later when he went off with another woman. He and his wife both were imprisoned for perverting the course of justice.

Every day in our courts, people plead not guilty to offences they have committed. They are not arrested for perjury or for the falsehoods they said in the witness box.

If anyone needs charging for perverting the course of justice, it is the courts themselves which currently have a dreadful reputation for mislaying files, not disclosing documents, allowing wealthy litigants to buy anonymity, and more.

If covering up wrongdoing is really such a serious offence, then most of the population from the age of 2 should be banged up.

Fiona Onasanya has been imprisoned, expelled from the Labour party, expelled as an MP, lost over £200,000 as salary, and probably will be struck off as a solicitor.

In 1735, Alexander Pope wrote “who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?” The Times famously quoted this when Mick Jagger was briefly imprisoned in 1967 for drug offences. He had brought back medicine legally acquired in Italy but which needed a prescription in the UK.

The only perversion of justice I see in this case is the disproportionate penalty on Onasanya for doing no more than committing an offence and then covering it up.

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