Oldham East and Saddleworth Day 3, Part 3: Joseph Fitzpatrick’s Evidence

The third witness called yesterday, and the final one of the case, was Joseph Fitzpatrick, Phil Woolas’ election agent.

Before Mr Fitzpatrick was questioned, Helen Mountfield QC, Elwyn Watkins’ lead counsel, rose to clarify an issue relating to Mr Fitzpatrick. In the original election petition submitted by Mr Watkins, Mr Fitzpatrick was named in the document as an “interested party”, rather than simply as a witness. At the preliminary hearing for the case, Gavin Millar QC, lead counsel for the Respondent (Mr Woolas), argued that section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 made no provision for anybody other than the Respondent to be named in the petition as an interested party. This was accepted by the Petitioner (Mr Watkins) and his legal team, and this clause was removed.

Mrs Mountfield rose today because it was her contention that election agents, who are referred to specifically in the text of the statute, could be guilty of corrupt or illegal practices as defined in the act, just as the Respondent could. Mrs Mountfield suggested that there might have been evidence put before the court that Mr Fitzpatrick could be guilty of an offence contrary to section 106 of the Representation of the People Act.

She suggested that, if it was accepted by the judges that it is at least a theoretically possible outcome that Mr Fitzpatrick might be found guilty of such an offence, he should be given notice of that.

After deliberation on the matter, the two judges hearing the case decided that Mr Fitzpatrick should be served with such notice, and he duly was. He was also invited to seek legal advice and asked if there was any further evidence he would like to provide to the court over and above his witness statement.

He declined, saying: “I am happy to proceed. I have committed absolutely no offence.”

Mr Fitzpatrick was cross-examined extensively by Mr Laddie about the claims made in the three leaflets that form the basis of this case.

Mr Fitzpatrick was asked initially who was responsible for taking decisions about the size of print-runs of election leaflets. It was established that it was his responsibility. Mr Laddie then asked why the decision was taken to print only 30,000 copies of The Rose, when the usual print run for leaflets was roughly 40,000. Mr Fitzpatrick responded that the decision was taken because it was his assessment that the campaign did not have the capacity to deliver more.

Mr Laddie suggested that Mr Fitzpatrick must, therefore, have considered which were the best areas of the constituency to deliver the 30,000 leaflets. Yes, he replied, “the white areas”.

Mr Laddie then went on to question Mr Fitzpatrick about how he and others had come up with the figure of “£200,000+” which, in The Examiner and in The Rose, they alleged Mr Watkins had spent on leaflets for his campaign over a five month period up to the election. Mr Fitzpatrick indicated that it was Mr Battye (Mr Woolas’ Parliamentary Researcher), and not him, who had done the sums, but that they had come to this figure by establishing a unit price per leaflet, and then including costs of delivery. Mr Fitzpatrick indicated that he believed Mr Watkins was delivering leaflets through the royal mail and by paying delivers. Asked how much he thought Mr Watkins was paying people to deliver leaflets, Mr Fitzpatrick replied “£3 an hour”.

Mr Laddie asked Mr Fitzpatrick how he knew how much volunteers were being paid. “Rebecca”, he replied. Rebecca McGladdery, Mr Laddie pointed out, had told the court earlier that no-one was paid for leafleting.

It was put to Mr Fitzpatrick that he did not believe that Mr Watkins paid anyone for leafleting. He replied that he did believe it.

Mr Laddie pointed out to Mr Fitzpatrick the Royal Mail invoices that were submitted by the Liberal Democrats as part of their election expense returns. Mr Laddie pointed out that during the ‘long campaign, the Liberal Democrats had paid the Royal Mail on four occasions to a total of £1300. In the short campaign, their election expense returns show they paid nothing to the Royal Mail. Over the entirety of the election campaign, from January to May 2010, the Liberal Democrats spent a total of £1300 with the Royal Mail, Mr Laddie put to Mr Fitzpatrick.

Mr Fitzpatrick replied: “I believe the records to be false.”

Mr Fitzpatrick was then questioned extensively and in detail about the “extremist” groups that he believed were operational in Oldham East and Saddleworth, and his opinion of them.

Mr Laddie then asked Mr Fitzpatrick about the claim that Mr Watkins had adopted the position of calling for Israel to be banned from arms sales, but not Palestine, in order to “woo extremists”. Mr Laddie asked Mr Fitzpatrick if he was aware at the time of an article in the Jewish Chronicle which quoted Mr Watkins as saying that he does not support the sale of arms to Hamas or Hezbollah. Mr Fitzpatrick said that he was aware of it. Asked if he had read it, he replied that he had had sight of it.

Mr Laddie referred Mr Fitzpatrick to an article on Mr Watkins’ website in which he is quoted as stating that arms should not be sold to either side in the Israel/Palestine conflict. Mr Fitzpatrick accepted that he would have seen this article on Mr Watkins’ website at the time, and accepted that Mr Watkins was unequivocal in what he was calling for.

Mr Fitzpatrick was asked how he “squares” having known these facts with the article that was subsequently written for the Examiner publication. He replied that what the article meant was that Mr Watkins was undertaking a “standard Lib Dem policy” in sending different messages to different groups, because in a letter wishing Muslim constituents Eid Mubarak, Mr Watkins referred to his belief that arms sales should be banned to Israel (i.e. in contrast to his website on which Mr Fitzpatrick believes he was sending a different message).

Mr Laddie asked Mr Fitzpatrick if he was suggesting that only white (non-Muslim) members of the constituency would read Mr Watkins’ website. He suggested that a statement published on a website is publicly available for anyone around the world to see. Even someone in Borneo, he contended, could read it. Mr Fitzpatrick replied that someone in Borneo was not likely to read it. Mr Laddie suggested that this was significantly more likely now.

Mr Fitzpatrick was also questioned about the claim in the Labour election address mailshot leaflet that Mr Watkins had “reneged on his promise to live in the constituency”. Asked what the ‘promise’ this referred to, Mr Fitzpatrick replied that he believed it meant the “promise to move to the constituency”.

Mr Laddie then questioned Mr Fitzpatrick about what basis he had to believe such a promise had been broken. Mr Fitzpatrick contended that at the time he had been assured that Mr Watkins was not on the electoral roll, and that he’d not “heard any reports” of Mr Watkins living in the constituency.

Mr Laddie pointed out a letter in the local newspaper from Mr Watkins himself that pre-dates the publication of this leaflet and in which Mr Watkins clearly states that he is living in Delph, in the constituency, and in which he invited the letter writer to whose letter this was a response to go round to the house, have a cup of tea with him and discuss politics. Mr Fitzpatrick was asked why he did not believe this to be a “report” of Mr Watkins living in the constituency. He replied that he did not believe Mr Watkins was telling the truth in this letter.

Following Mr Laddie’s cross-examination, Mr Fitzpatrick was questioned by Mr Woolas’ lead counsel, Gavin Millar QC.

Mr Millar, referring back to an earlier question asked by Mr Laddie, asked why Mr Fitzpatrick had decided that the Labour Rose leaflet was going to be delivered predominantly in the “white areas” of the constituency. He replied that the aim of the leaflet was to ensure turnout was as high as possible, and it was in the “white areas” that he believed that turnout was going to be lower.

This brought to an end the evidence from witnesses. Today the court will hear summations from each side on the points of law relevant to this case.