Claiming back investigation costs is the wrong choice

A fixed-odds gambling machine Picture: Daniel Hambury/PA Wire

NEWS COMMENT: A move in the right direction but still not a win for all

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The Mike Hancock saga is one of the shabbier episodes of this area’s political history and sadly shows no sign of ending.

The News holds no candle for Mr Hancock – indeed in June, after he apologised for his conduct and made the first admission that his behaviour towards a vulnerable constituent was wanting, we called for him to resign. We haven’t changed our opinion – although he has given many years of service to Portsmouth, he let down his office and his city and the chapter should have been closed there and then.

But this call for Mr Hancock to repay the costs of the investigation into him are misguided.

Whatever one thinks about Mr Hancock – and on the evidence of the last 12 months there are not many who would sing his praises – it is not right that the focus, or target, of an investigation should be liable for its costs.

We understand the arguments in favour, which allege that delaying tactics, and an admission of guilt made months after it could have been, meant Mr Hancock increased the cost to the council, and therefore to taxpayers.

But at root these do not counter the basic principle that it was the council that ordered the investigation. And they also do not mask the fact that it was, at best, a botched process: it took almost a year rather than three months, and the panel contained not just Lib Dem councillors but ones who were friends of Mr Hancock.

And there’s a more fundamental principle at play here too. As we have argued before, justice – whether in the courts or within government – must be both impartial and accessible. We accept civic institutions because they are both of those things, working for the public good. This sometimes involves spending money, but the principles of fairness should override any squeamishness over cost.

The process of the investigation was to establish wrongdoing or innocence, not to impose financial damage, and its success should be judged on that. Trying to recoup costs may play well to the gallery, but deciding to retrospectively bill the subject of an investigation is a dangerous precedent.