LONDON // A former British government minister who narrowly held on to his parliamentary seat after falsely claiming his opponent was sympathetic to Muslim extremists has been banned from sitting as an MP.
Arrangements for a fresh election in the constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth in north-west England are due to be announced today in the House of Commons.
Phil Woolas, the immigration minister until Labour lost its parliamentary majority in the May poll, succeeded in keeping hold of the seat by a 103-vote majority over his main challenger, Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins.
But an electoral court has now found Mr Woolas guilty of deliberately making false statements about his rival and has declared the election void. The court banned Mr Woolas from holding public office for three years - the first ruling of its kind for 99 years.
Justice Nigel Teare and Justice Griffith Williams, the two judges who heard the case, pointed in their judgment to comments made in Mr Woolas's campaign material in which he accused Mr Watkins of trying to "woo" the votes of Muslims who advocated violence.
The judges also said that Mr Woolas had accused his rival of refusing to condemn extremists who had made death threats against the Labour ex-minister.
Mr Woolas had "no reasonable grounds for believing [the allegations] to be true and did not believe them to be true" the judges ruled.
The court had heard last month that Mr Woolas, who feared he was heading for defeat, had made the allegations against Mr Watkins to "make the white folk angry", in the hope they would turn out and back him.
After the court judgment, Harriet Harman, the deputy Labour leader, announced that Mr Woolas's party membership was to be suspended because it was "not part of Labour's politics to try to win elections by telling lies".
Since the judgment on Friday, Mr Woolas has announced that he will attempt this week to obtain a judicial review of the decision in the High Court, although Ms Harman has said that the Labour Party would not support him.
Sir Alistair Graham, former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said that the case contained "a serious warning to all politicians".
He added: "In multi-faith, multi-racial Britain, you need to be very careful about the accuracy of the public statements you make during general election and presumably by-election campaigns".
But he said the "damning" part of the judgment was that Mr Woolas had made false statements deliberately.
House of Commons Speaker John Bercow will make a statement to MPs today regarding the judgment and its implications. He could call a by-election immediately or postpone it until the conclusion of any legal action brought by Mr Woolas.