Ex-MP's relief after police ordeal ends

A former Norfolk MP cleared of involvement in an alleged multi-million pound fraud last night told of the “devastating” ordeal of being arrested following a dawn raid at his home.

A former Norfolk MP cleared of involvement in an alleged multi-million pound fraud last night told of the “devastating” ordeal of being arrested following a dawn raid at his home.

David Prior said the three-month police investigation had put a massive strain on his family, tainted his reputation and turned his world “upside down”.

Speaking exclusively to the EDP, he vowed get his life back - starting with throwing his hat in the ring for his old job as chief of the Norfolk and Norwich University Trust, which he gave up following his arrest in November.

Mr Prior, a qualified lawyer, who lives at Swannington, near Norwich, with his wife Caroline and two children, was questioned as part of a major investigation, codenamed Operation Meridian, following allegations of fraud and financial irregularity at Cawston Park, an independent psychiatric hospital near Aylsham, where he was a non executive chairman.

Yesterday, the 52-year-old, a former Conservative MP for North Norfolk, was released from police bail and cleared of any involvement in the alleged fraud.

He said he felt an overwhelming relief that the nightmare was over and paid tribute to family and friends for their unswerving support.

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But he was critical of the process which saw police carry out a dawn raid at his home and said he felt the “cornerstone of British criminal law” - the presumption that someone is innocent until proven guilty - had been lost.

“One of our children was asleep upstairs but when we came down to find the police on our doorstep we thought the other one, who was staying at a friend's house, had been in a car crash and had been found upside down in a ditch,” he said.

“The process of being arrested in the early hours, being put into a police car and driven away for questioning, leaving my wife behind as the house is being searched, then the attention and publicity that followed is devastating. I would not wish it on my worst enemy.

“When you are innocent and on the receiving end, the process and methods employed in a police investigation put massive psychological, financial, business, family and social pressures on the individuals concerned.

“The last three months have been a nightmare for my family and me in which my entire life has been turned upside down.

“There have been many times when I have been close to despair and felt that the presumption of innocence, which is the cornerstone of British criminal law, had been lost.

“I have no complaints to make about any individual police officer, in all my dealings with them they were courteous and kind but it is the process that they implement that needs reform.

“I have met a number of people in the last three months who have been in a similar situation and they have told me that the pressure has meant the break-up of marriages, wrecked careers, bankruptcy and led to mental breakdown.”

Mr Prior, also an EDP commentator and columnist, always protested his innocence but said that going out in public was like having a bell hanging around his neck.

“I want to get things back to normal again, it has almost been like our lives have been on hold for three months. When I went out in public it was like I had a ringing bell hanging around my neck, what we have to do now is pick up the pieces.”

He plans to start by applying for his old job as chairman of the N&N Trust.

“Apart from the incredible support of my family and friends, the good wishes from hundreds of people at the N&N is what has sustained me during this ordeal and the thought that one day I would be able to go back to the job I loved is what has kept me going,” said Mr Prior.

The Appointments Commission, which oversees appointments to senior positions within the NHS, is due to appoint someone for the role next month.

Mr Prior said he felt giving up the post, which saw him in charge of a £300m budget, was the only thing to do in the circumstances.

There was a massive outpouring of support from staff who yesterday welcomed the news of his exoneration.

Paul Forden, N&N chief executive, said: “We are absolutely delighted that David Prior has been cleared of any involvement in an alleged fraud. He has been an outstanding chairman for this trust and we always had the utmost belief in his integrity.

“We have been overwhelmed by the messages of support for David from our staff.”

A Norfolk police spokeswoman said: “Of the four people arrested in relation to the Cawston Park enquiry, one has been released from police bail. Our investigations are continuing therefore it would be inappropriate to comment any further.”