A collector’s £305,000 offer for prized number plate AB1 came two days after West Mercia’s Police and Crime Commissioner John Campion had agreed a much lower private deal to an ex police chief, a scrutiny panel heard today.
The controversy over the sale of AB1 has called into question the judgement of Mr Campion, West Mercia Police and Crime Panel was told.
He acted “naively” and risked his reputation by agreeing to a private sale to former chief constable Paul West after initially launching a public sales process.
The panel voted to write to Mr Campion outlining their concerns and recommending improvements to the way sales of this type are conducted in future.
At the heart of the dispute is registration plate AB1, which adorned the cars of chief constables within the West Mercia region until 2011.
The plate was put up for sale last year to raise funds for frontline policing.
During a heated exchange today, members of the public who had complained about the sale accused Campion of being “a liar” and “brazen” and said the deal “lacked transparency.”
One of them, Tim Brooks, said he was a collector of special number plates and already owned TAB1 and others – AB1, he said, “is the holy grail of number plates.”
He told the panel that the first public advert about the sale that he saw was in the Telegraph on July 15, and he immediately rang and emailed Brightwells, the sales agents, as per the advert. He was advised offers were being sought for £250,000 and expressed his keenness.
He learned two days later from Brightwells that a private offer had been accepted. “I asked Brightwells to go back that morning to West Mercia Police to offer £305,000. That offer was made and I am told that it was received and there was an audit trail.”
But by that time, Campion told the panel, a sale had been agreed with Mr West for the sum of £133,333, plus VAT – a total of £160,000.
Information about the interest from another party came too late to go back on the agreement in principle to sell, he said.
Andrew Knight, who remembers the plate being in his family ownership in the 1950s, said he understood the value of selling AB1.
“You can imagine my utter disbelief when I heard the plate had been withdrawn from sale and a private deal done with a former chief constable Paul West by the current PCC John Campion.
“Without exception, anybody I have talked this through with just cannot believe it can be correct.
“If this happened in any other environment it would be descrived as an inside job. I think the gall, the utter brazenness, the lack of transparency and how this looks and feels is just unbelievable. To say it stinks is an understatement.”
Responding to the public comments, Mr Campion said he “had not come into public office to be called a liar.” He dismissed accusations of dishonesty, and said he had no personal connection with Mr West.
With hindsight, agreed Campion, he would have acted differently, though he disputed he had “snatched” at the offer from Mr West instead of holding on for more offers.
He said he took Mr West’s offer because it was the best submitted to that date (the next highest was £125,000) and doing so privately would avoid commission fees to Brightwells – a decision which he said was in the interests of securing the highest return for the public purse.
The offer was made privately to Campion and accepted ‘in principle’ within days.
Councillor Michael Wood, panel vice-chairman, lamented the adverse publicity that had arisen from the saga, adding: “I have not found this an edifying spectacle to have gone through.” He suggested Mr Campion had been “naive”.
Councillor Kit Taylor added: “I think the Commissioner has been slightly naive in what he’s done; he’s acted in good faith to get the best deal and price that seemed to be available….however, I would say he’s guilty of putting himself in a position where he can be criticised and his reputation can be hit.”
Campion told the panel: “If I could have a time machine I would have not accepted Mr West’s offer and I would have spoken to (the other interested party). It was in my interest to maximise the sale.”
Councillor Vivienne Parry, from Shropshire Council, said: “We would not have been here today if the registration plate had simply been offered at open auction to the highest bidder.
Addressing Mr Campion, she said: “If you’re in a position where people have confidence in you, then you should never jump in and do something quickly – we are liable to the people we are representing to do the right thing.”
Panel members will now draw up a letter listing their concerns and recommendations for future action.
However, as one councillor pointed out: “We are a bulldog with rubber teeth.” The panel has limited powers.
Last month, following a series of complaints from members of the public including former police officers, the Independent Office for Police Conduct was asked to look into the sale.
They decided there was no indication of wrongdoing and announced there was going to be no investigation.
The panel comprises representatives from councils across West Mercia. They are: Brian Wilcox (Chairman) Herefordshire Council; Steve Mackay, Worcestershire County Council; Michael Wood, Shropshire Council; Gerald Dakin, Shropshire Council; Roger Evans, Shropshire Council; Dave Tremellen, Shropshire Council; Stephen Reynolds, Telford & Wrekin Council; Rajash Mehta, Telford & Wrekin Council; Sebastian Bowen, Herefordshire Council; Karen May, Bromsgrove District Council; David Chambers, Malvern Hills District Council; Joe Baker, Redditch Borough Council; Mike Johnson, Worcester City Council; Emma Stokes, Wychavon District Council; Juliet Smith, Wyre Forest District Council; Carole Clive, Independent Lay Member; and Colonel Tony Ward OBE, Independent Lay Member.