Page last updated at 13:38 GMT, Saturday, 13 February 2010

David Cameron wades into Nicola Sturgeon fraud plea row

David Cameron
Mr Cameron said he would not have written a similar letter to a court

David Cameron has said Scotland's deputy first minister has "serious questions" to answer over a letter she wrote on behalf of a fraudster.

Abdul Rauf is awaiting sentencing after being convicted of conning the benefits system out of £80,000.

Nicola Sturgeon's letter to the court asked the sheriff to take into account Rauf's ill health and appealed for alternatives to prison be considered.

The SNP said Ms Sturgeon's actions were "entirely appropriate and proper".

Conservative leader Mr Cameron said the letter had "crossed the line".

He was speaking following his keynote speech at the one-day Scottish Conservatives conference in Perth on Friday afternoon.

Mr Cameron told BBC Scotland: "I wouldn't have written that letter and I think she has got some serious questions to answer.

I think in advising that there should not be a custodial sentence that does seem to me to cross a line
David Cameron
Conservative leader

"It is right though that members of parliament are called upon to take up cases sometimes with people that you profoundly disagree with, and you have to do that.

"I remember taking up the case of someone who was imprisoned overseas - of course you have to take up these cases, but I think you have to be careful in what you say and how far you go.

"I think in advising that there should not be a custodial sentence that does seem to me to cross a line, so having read the letter that she sent I must say there are some parts of it where she has some very big questions to answer."

Ms Sturgeon was heavily criticised by opposition parties at Holyrood last week over the affair, with Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray calling for her to resign over the "appalling lack of judgement".

But she has said she was "duty-bound to make reasonable representations" as Rauf's constituency MSP, adding: "Ultimately it is for the court to make a decision about the disposal of the case."

Ms Sturgeon's letter pointed out to the sheriff dealing with the case that Rauf suffered from ill health and had started to pay back the money he owed. She urged a non-custodial sentence to be imposed on Rauf.

Strong support

The conviction is Rauf's second for fraud after he was given a four-year prison sentence in 1996 for taking nearly £60,000 in pension and benefit payments when he was a sub-post master at Tollcross in Edinburgh.

In the latest case, Sheriff Alan MacKenzie told Rauf that a jail term was "at the forefront" of his mind but said he would defer sentence for three months and released him on bail.

Ms Sturgeon has received strong support from First Minister Alex Salmond, who defended the Govan MSP's decision to ask the court to consider alternatives to custody in the case.

An SNP spokeswoman said: "David Cameron has admitted that he made representations on behalf of a constituent of his who was imprisoned overseas, and said it is 'right though that members of parliament are called upon to take up cases sometimes with people that you profoundly disagree with, and you have to do that'.

"It is entirely appropriate and proper for Nicola Sturgeon to represent a constituent when asked to do so, as every MSP should have a duty of care to try and help their constituents, just as Gordon Brown did by writing to the courts to help one of his constituents who was charged with cultivating cannabis at his home worth £10,000."



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