In Rochdale, is there a lack of curiosity at the top?THERESA May’s ostensible reason for calling a General Election is that her slender majority of 12 was an obstacle to passing the legislation needed to cope with the fallout from the UK leaving the EU. The cynical amongst you might wonder if it was not also an opportunity to distract attention from the fact that criminal charges are being considered by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) against at least 30 individuals in the Conservative party. Some have been MPs in the 2015 parliament and contributing to Theresa’s slim majority, some will be candidates in this election and could be re-elected. Electoral fraud isn’t just something that happens in other countries it happens here too.
It’s not just the Tories who have played fast and loose with the rules on election expenditure. In recent years Labour and the LibDems have both been fined by the Electoral Commission for breaking election expense rules. What makes the Tory case different is that the CPS is investigating whether there is evidence that candidates and their agents may be guilty of filing false spending returns. If they are both could be charged with fraud.
This type of fraud is easy to detect once you are alerted to what is happening. There’s always a ‘paper trail’. In fact a year ago as part of its ‘Check a Tory’ campaign the Daily Mirror put the election expenses of Tory MPs on line and invited readers to scrutinise them. What’s much harder to detect is when a small group, with or without the tacit agreement of local party bosses, exploit weaknesses in the system to rig the ballot. Having a system which ‘on paper’ is foolproof, is fallible if the people who are supposed to implement it fall down on the job.
In August 2015, the government put out a press release announcing that, ‘Sir Eric Pickles, the Government’s Anti-Corruption Champion’, was to review the question of electoral fraud.
A year later it was published.
So far so good. But as I noted above any system is only as good as the people who implement it. This is what the Electoral Commission have to say about those people:
‘Local Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) and Returning Officers (ROs) manage elections, and are uniquely placed to detect and prevent electoral fraud. They should have robust plans in place to identify any suspicious behaviour and should work with the police to investigate any potential electoral fraud.’ (my emphasis)
But what actually happens when something ‘suspicious’ does occur. Just how easy is it to get anyone to take notice? Things seem to have changed in Rochdale since 2011 when ex-council leader Colin Lambert was outspoken about what needed to be done.
A few weeks ago Northern Voices was sent the extremely well documented correspondence between a candidate in the Spotland and Falinge ward at last years Rochdale Council elections, and the various bodies which are supposed to deal with questions of electoral fraud. It runs to some 22 pages.
At that election a 'marked register' went missing. It should have been handed to the Returning Officer at the point at which the ballot box and other official documents were delivered by the Presiding Officer at the close of poll. It was either accidentally lost or deliberately stolen. There can be no reason why one of these alternative explanations should be favoured over the other. If we are to take the fight against electoral fraud seriously the ‘precautionary principle’ suggests that in the absence of evidence to the contrary it should be assumed that it was stolen, the police should be informed to that effect and a full investigation launched. It did not happen.
What is clear from this correspondence is that, in spite of Pickles bluster in The Telegraph:
'We should never be frightened to look under the rock when what is crawling underneath threatens us all. It is time to take action to take on the electoral crooks and defend Britain’s free and fair elections', when a complaint is made, no one wants to shoulder the responsibility for making sure that a proper investigation is launched. It seems that Pickles was right about one thing, ‘the authorities are in a “state of denial” and are “turning a blind eye” to election fraud.’
Equally worrying is that the complainant, Carl Faulkner, who stood as an independent candidate, claims that he was not informed of the loss of the missing register as he should have been and that he was told ‘all candidates were informed about the missing register'. Northern Voices made an effort to contact the other candidates to find out if and when they were told about the missing register.
Mick Coates, the Green candidate, was quite clear that he had not been officially informed that the mark register was missing.
Enquires with the Lib-Dems suggested that this was also the case with their candidate Matthew Allen, and Ian Duckworth, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, was unable to confirm that their candidate, Steven Scholes, had been informed either.
Wendy Cox the Labour candidate did not answer the question directly but said:
'Thank you for your email. I have passed this to the electoral officer.'
Quite why she felt she had to ask the electoral officer whether she had been informed, is unclear at this point. A week later she was asked if there had been any response and replied suggesting that NV should contact the electoral officer directly. On the 10th April the joint editor of NV wrote to the RMBC Chief Executive, Steve Rumbelow for clarification.
(His reply is printed below together with the response of the original complainant, Carl Faulkner. Copies of the full correspondence between the complainant and the various bodies which are supposed to deal with questions of electoral fraud can be made available by e-mail from Northern Voices. It shows clearly that it was the complainant who initiated the contact with the Cabinet Office, Electoral Commission and Police not RMBC.)
The possibility that the register was in fact stolen has been excluded from consideration a priori, even though at the time an exhaustive and unsuccessful search was made at the polling station, and even of people’s cars. The consequence of deciding that a register was ‘definitely lost’ not ‘possibly stolen’ is that there is a convenient ‘fall guy’ in the form of whoever was in charge of that polling station. They are deemed to have ‘lost’ it and their reputation must suffer as a consequence.
In all this the one thing that is very clear is that whoever told the complainant that ‘all candidates were informed about the missing register' was telling a porky pie. And these are the people we have to trust when it comes to combating electoral fraud. Robust plans to identify potential electoral fraud? I think not.
Dear Mr Bamford
Thank you for your recent enquiry. Please accept my apologies for the delay in response.
To clarify, the marked register is the copy of the electoral register used in polling stations. It serves as the record of who has voted in the election, and it is kept for a year after the election. The marked register does not indicate who electors voted for, nor does it contain ballot paper numbers.
Legislation provides that a variety of parties are eligible to access copies of the marked register after an election. Anyone can inspect the marked register, but only certain people can purchase a copy.
This includes individual candidates and political party representatives. Usually, copies are requested by and provided to party representatives who would then disseminate the information to their colleagues, including candidates.
All those who requested copies of the marked registers were informed that a register had not been returned following the close of poll and the steps that had been taken in an attempt to locate it, both immediately after the close of poll and in the days following the election.
In addition, the Council has been in contact with the Cabinet Office, Electoral Commission and Police on the matter who were satisfied with the steps that had been taken and the measures put in place to prevent any future issues of a similar nature.
And here are Mr Faulkner’s observations:
1) Without him actually stating it, it is clear that people were only going to be informed if and when a copy of the register was requested. That is not the same as informing all candidates as a matter of course. It reiterates my position that there was a concerted attempt to conceal the incident by keeping quiet about it.
2) I feel he is attempting to downplay the importance of the marked register, by portraying it as nothing more than a post-election tool for political parties /candidates / interested persons. This is not the case - it’s primary purpose is as an anti-fraud document - but one which can be utilised by political parties etc.
3) All contact with the police, Cabinet Office and Electoral Commission was initiated by me. They contacted RMBC - not the other way round as his response could be taken to mean.
4) What are the ‘steps’ put in place that did not exist before? The issue is not about how, who, why or exactly when the register went missing but that no candidates nor the police were informed at the time or during the following 21 days.