Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London Councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.
Every year local authorities are required to publish a revised electoral register. Across the country, people are recruited to check addresses and to hand deliver registration forms. Recently, it came to the attention of registration officials in the London area, that a person employed to undertake this task in a local authority was not actually calling at his allocated addresses. After some investigation, it was established that the person was simultaneously working for several local authorities, undertaking the same task. Of particular concern is that two of these authorities, Tower Hamlets and Slough, had been the subject of high profile election petitions regarding voter fraud which both resulted in the disqualification of the fraudsters. The various authorities concerned notified the police and evidence was gathered from electoral officials. Witness statements were taken and files were passed by the police to the CPS in anticipation of a prosecution. Electoral officials know their law. They had the technology to prove that the contracted work was not being undertaken.
In the event, the CPS declined to prosecute. Firstly on the grounds of public interest. Secondly, on the grounds that witness statements would be required from every voter at every address, which ran into several hundred, rather than a representative sample which had been provided by officials and the police.
This canvasser having not been prosecuted then sought payment from the local authorities for the work that had not been properly undertaken.
One of the problems in dealing with malpractice is that unless legal action is taken, there is no crime. As we know, the solution of the Metropolitan Police has, for too long, been to ignore the complaints or make perfunctory enquiries resulting in no record of malpractice. Therefore there is no problem.
The CPS can now be added to the Electoral Commission and various police forces to produce a troika of officialdom that gives every appearance of doing as little as possible to combat fraud in our electoral system.
This year I acted as an election agent in a shire borough for the local elections. The new nomination papers, produced by the Electoral Commission, were extremely complicated running to many pages. On one matter I sought advice from the commission, from the local Returning Officer, and discussed the matter with a colleague. All gave different opinions and in the event, I followed the advice of the local Returning Officer.
Since May, I have spoken to candidates and agents form different political parties all of whom express concern at the increasingly complicated forms produced by the electoral commission and their less than helpful website which is extremely difficult to negotiate to provide copies of all relevant forms relating to both the nomination process and the return of expenses.
In July, as is well known, the Courts quashed the fine of £20,000 on Darren Grimes who had been pursued by the electoral commission since 2016. He had spoken to the Commission but accidentally ticked an incorrect box and was pursued by the Commission with a relentless vigour. The Court was scathing about the conduct of the Commission.
Similarly last year, another Court judgement ruled against the Electoral Commission regarding advice to Vote Leave in May 2016. This advice was given by a member of their staff verbally and confirmed in an email, which was duly followed by Vote Leave. As is well known, Vote Leave was pursued by the Electoral Commission. When it became apparent that the advice was incorrect, the electoral commission initially declined to publish the email from their own official including his advice until ordered to do so by the Court. Once again the Commission was severely criticised.
Both of these incidents give credence to the perceived bias of the Electoral Commission. The hapless performance by the chief executive, Bob Posner, before a recent Commons Select Committee suggests that the commission is out of its depth on any number of matters about which it should be expert.
Disturbingly, the Electoral Commission is seeking an extension of its powers. Its record is such that Parliament should consider returning the administration and policing of elections to the Home Office where questions can easily be asked of ministers.
Whilst the Commission exists, one quick reform should be removing the right of the Speaker of the Commons to approve commissioners. The Commons speakership has now become an extension of the political process and as such the office should be removed from exercising personal preferences in such sensitive organisations.
The problems the police have concerning election law has been overwhelmed by the fallout from the disaster of Operation Midland. As a political activist, I remember the period between 1975-1985 when Lord Bramall was the most senior figure in the armed forces. This was a time when the IRA were committing atrocities targeting the armed forces and politicians. A soldier in his position would not have moved anywhere without security, which would have been known throughout the police service and the armed forces. It would appear that nobody in Operation Midland checked this easily obtained information out.
In March, during the turmoil over parliamentary votes for the withdrawal agreement, the final Report of Operation Lynemouth, the enquiry into the police investigation of Lutfur Rahman, was published.
The report is extremely critical both of the police actions and what passed for investigations into Lutfur Rahman.
The opening, when referring to the cost of the report, states:
“This could (the costs) have been avoided had the MPS treated the election and subsequent investigation as a priority at the time.”
It later goes on to say:
“the policing of the election and the subsequent investigation were deficient in too many areas.”
and refers to:
“ a lack of corporate responsibility, lack of training and when another MPS investigated allegations other than electoral fraud, potential lines of enquiry were disregarded.”
How this happened is never fully explained.
One of the most disturbing quotations from the report is below:
“When the MPS announced, in March 2016, that the initial investigation was to be closed the CPS which was referred to in the MPS’s public statement, was not consulted beforehand about its content and disputed its accuracy.”
It is unusual for the CPS to dispute the accuracy of a statement by the police.
Worse for Tower Hamlets is the failure to investigate the overwhelming evidence of wholesale corruption in elections up to 2014. I read every word of the judgements in the Birmingham, Slough and Woking petitions. Thames Valley Police in Slough and Surrey Police in Woking prosecuted offenders. I studied the relevant court cases and from what I had learned from this research I tested against evidence of similar malpractice in Tower Hamlets. Not once, before, and in the immediate aftermath of the Tower Hamlets petition was I interviewed and asked to disclose this evidence, identify witness leads, or give what would be admissible statements for a criminal prosecution.
In one respect the police are very good at selecting dates to release information. Budget Day 2016, US election Day, the period building up to voting on the withdrawal agreement, were all dates in which the MPS chose to release material relating to Tower Hamlets. The decision to close the investigation into Lord Bramall was made public at 8.27am on a Friday – the slowest day of the week for news.
Both the House of Commons and the Lords are currently looking into concerns regarding election law, with the Commons investigating the consolidation of the array of election law which has built up over the past 130 years.
This cannot be before time. The 1983 Act, which is the basis of much of our law, became an Act at a time when fax machines were a novelty and mobile phones, twitter, and the internet were not thought of.
In 2017 numerous people tweeted that they had voted more than once in the general election, yet not a single prosecution resulted. These tweets included pictures of offenders, ballot papers, and boasts about multiple voting.
During the May European elections, there were a number of well publicised incidents which showed ignorance of election law and procedures, but gained ridiculous levels of publicity.
It is long-established election law that nominated candidates and political parties are provided with copies of the electoral register to enable them to communicate directly with voters. In May, the writer Carole Cadwalladr tweeted that her mother had received an election leaflet from the Brexit Party at her home address. She duly published the leaflet suggesting that her mother’s address had been corruptly obtained. Although she redacted the address, so enthusiastic was she to circulate this conspiracy she did not redact parts of the leaflet which could have identified the address!
This was followed by Dan Snow who told his many thousands of followers that New Forest Council had included a Brexit Party leaflet in his postal vote envelope. Jolyon Maugham QC started tweeting election law; conspiracy theorists suggested that they heard that this had happened to other New Forest voters. The BBC duly reported at length. The Council investigated and said that it was not possible. Eventually, Dan Snow sheepishly said that he had been away from his home and was opening a pile of mail and that the election leaflet was probably delivered normally with the rest of his mail.
Finally, in my own polling station, two German citizens intended to vote in the European elections in London. Their reason was that they wished to vote against “fascism and racism.” They had written, produced and starred in a film called “Don’t mention the B word,” which does not appear to have made an early hours showing on Channel 4. The process to register European voters is complicated across Europe as other countries seek to ensure that voters do not vote more than once. In the event the couple arrived at the polling station, with a Guardian journalist, who proceeded to film a discussion between the electors and polling officers. The journalist had no legal right to be presenting at this polling station and certainly no right to be interrupting the process of voting and she was escorted off the premises. Election law was broken for a Guardian publicity stunt.
In the event, the two German electors voted. As the Liberal Democrats, Brexit Party, Labour, Green and Conservative Parties all presented slates of candidates from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, they had a wide and diverse choice in their wish to vote against “fascism and racism.”
After Brexit is resolved there needs to be an overhaul of our election process. The number of people that I have met and who contact me to express concern about postal voting on demand and being handed a ballot paper simply by giving a name and address rises all the time. International election observers have expressed concern at the fragility of our system.
Another concern is so-called “family voting” about which I have written previously, noted by Democracy Volunteers in the recent Peterborough by-election. That itself is a scandal which must and should be stopped.
However, there is the problem of regulation and enforcement of the law.
In Birmingham, Slough, Woking, and Tower Hamlets it was local people that stepped in to challenge fraudulent elections. In all of these cases, the petitioners won the case, but costs remain their responsibility despite them acting on behalf of the public. In Tower Hamlets, the costs were enormous and the petitioners have paid, not Lutfur Rahman. Surely the Justice system should pick up the bill for delivering justice, particularly when the police and electoral commission have repeatedly failed.
Former Greater Manchester police officer, Maggie Oliver, has published a harrowing account of the child abuse scandal in Rochdale. Towards the end of the book is this quotation from the former Chief Crown Prosecutor for the North West of England :
“Nazir Afzal, recently conceded that the Home Office sent a secret email to all police forces in 2008 directing them not to investigate the sexual exploitation of young girls across the UK.”
Was there a similar email regarding the investigation of election fraud? If so it should not remain secret any longer.
In April 2020 Lutfur Rahman will have his disqualification lifted. In his supporters eyes he is completely innocent and has been told so by the police. He will be free to stand in the 2022 local elections. Will the police have learned anything?