A COUNCILLOR who was jailed for his part in a drug-smuggling ring has been appointed the co-chair of the county’s police and crime panel.

Liberal Democrat councillor Ross Henning, who was jailed for two years in 1987 after pleading guilty to his role in smuggling £500k of cocaine from Bolivia, has been elected to be the co-chairman of the police and crime panel which oversees the police and crime commissioner.

In May, controversy struck when the winning Wiltshire PCC Conservative candidate Jonathon Seed was disqualified before the count, due to a 1993 drink driving conviction.

Under electoral rules, anyone with a conviction for an imprisonable offence is unable to run for the PCC role. But the same rules do not apply to the police and crime panel.

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Andy Brown, Wiltshire Council corporate director for resources, and deputy chief executive, said: “Criminal convictions don't prevent someone from being a councillor unless they have been convicted and received a prison sentence, or suspended sentence, of three months or more in the five years before the election.

“It is up to the political parties to nominate their representatives on committees, and for the police and crime panel the chair and vice chair were then voted by councillors on that panel.”

The Conservative party is yet to comment.

Cllr Henning believes that as a rehabilitated convict he brings a unique point of view to the panel. He says that since his conviction he has dedicated the last three decades to helping others including setting up the pilot for the Wiltshire Young Offending Team and chairing the Calne Community Safety Forum for eight years.

“I’ve been on the police committee because of my unique experience with policing and I have tried to use my experience to help and benefit others,” he said.

“My convictions are spent, and I’ve spent decades trying to repay society, and to use my experience to help others. So, the two things are not linked at all.”

He added that he was honoured to rise to the position because it shows how far rehabilitation can bring someone.

“We should give people a chance rather than banging them down all the time. This is something I know about, and I know about it from a point of view that not many, in my position, would be able to understand. I've always tried to make amends through that," he said.

Questions were raised about the double standard that this might present, but Lib Dem candidate Cllr Brian Mathew said Cllr Henning has been open and honest about his past.

“I think there’s a big difference between that and keeping something secret,” he said. “Ross has done huge amounts of work with restorative justice and turned what could have been a dreadful thing into a real positive.

“That is the benefit of someone who has been honest and open about his past and the benefit of the people who have worked with him on the Calne Community Safety Forum. To show not just remorse but to use that experience for the betterment and that is something that Ross has certainly done."

Mike Rees who ran as an independent in the previous PCC election said people should not be continually punished for past mistakes.

“People should be given the opportunity to turn their lives around,” he said. “I’ve got no issue with the fact he’s made mistakes in the past and has appeared to turn his life around.”

Jonathan Seed and the Wiltshire Conservatives have been approached for comment.

In 2004, councillors had refused to work with Cllr Henning while he was mayor of Chippenham after learning of his conviction.

Despite calls at the time for his resignation, Cllr Henning refused as he said his past was never hidden.

At the time, he told the Gazette & Herald: “I committed and served time for this crime.

"Even though I have been rehabilitated, I feel the label of a criminal will always be there.”

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Labour PCC candidate and Police & Crime panel chairman, Junab Ali said: "He's done his time. He's put his hand up but look at what he's achieved since. he's been a town councillor, a Wiltshire councillor, Chippenham Town Mayor.

“He's reformed his life; he's done incredible work with children and young people to stop them getting into trouble.

“We put people in prison, but if we don't allow them to reform themselves, it'll just be a vicious circle.

“He has reformed himself and it will be a very useful perspective to have someone who has been on the other side of it, who has seen the other side of the criminal justice system, who has seen what it is to be in prison.

“He made a very serious mistake, and he's had to live with that ever since, but he's put it behind him and that's why I will support him as vice chairman of the Police and Crime Panel.”