Examination of Witnesses

Elections Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:31 am on 15th September 2021.

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Councillor Peter Golds, Gillian Beasley and Assistant Chief Constable Gareth Cann QPM gave evidence.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath 10:26 am, 15th September 2021

For this panel we have until 11.25 am. I will bring in Cat Smith first and then the Minister, but please take no more than 10 minutes each, in order to leave time for Back Benchers.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement

Q Thank you, Ms Rees. My first question is to the witnesses from local government. What will be the practical and cost implications for electoral administrators and councils of implementing the Bill’s voter ID proposals? Also, what pressure will there be on electoral administrators as a result of having to cope with two different categories of EU citizens when it comes to voting rights—whether they are a qualifying EU citizen? Do you anticipate any difficulties in managing that, and what kinds of resources do you expect to have to increase or bring in to meet those difficulties, as well as the requirements to administer free ID cards?

Councillor Golds:

Is that for me first? Remember that I am an elected councillor, rather than an official, but obviously I can give you some ideas because I am extremely familiar with the electoral services department of Tower Hamlets Council and how it interfaces with the rest of the council. The electoral services department does understand the need to clean up the system we have, and I believe that there is a will within our council to provide extra resources to electoral services, but of course it is the Government who pay costs toward electoral services. One thing that the department often complains about is the adverts that go out when there is an election, because suddenly they will be inundated when tens of thousands of people ask, “Am I on the electoral register?” A quarter of a million people apply to go on the electoral register, but about 85% of them are already on it, so electoral services are sitting there saying, “Yes, yes, yes.” That is expensive and time consuming.

Gillian Beasley:

There are important resource implications for both areas. Looking at how electoral services teams will have to respond, we certainly anticipate that having to produce these new electoral identity documents will require additional resources. We know from experience that voters tend to turn their minds to voting very close to polling day, and if they discover that they do not have the requisite documents to prove their identity and we have to issue those documents, we will probably see a surge at what is the busiest time for electoral services teams, the pre-election run-up, when they are dealing with late registrations, and proxy and postal vote applications, so there will be resource implications for them.

Returning officers, which is what I have been since 1999, will probably have dedicated teams that are able to do that, because when someone discovers that they do not have the requisite documents and they need to bring in other documents, depending on what those are, they sometimes do not bring the right ones and we have to send them home, so there is a lot of administrative burden in that regard. We will also need to train and resource that at polling stations in a better way, because there will be problems in polling stations over this. We need confident presiding officers who understand the law and are trained well, so there will be additional burdens there.

I think that in our arena, in particular, there will be significant resource issues. It is not the case that we do not want to do it; we just need to ensure that is highlighted at very busy times during the electoral process, because of voter behaviour. That has been our experience in Peterborough, and I am sure that it is the experience of other returning officers.

Assistant Chief Constable Cann:

From a policing point of view, it is difficult to estimate with any precision what the resource impact might be. Some elements of the Bill, if put into law, might go some way towards helping. For example, voter ID could potentially help to avoid various demands that we have around it. I do not want to overstate that, because it would not be a huge thing, but it could be helpful. On the other hand, until we understand fully what is involved in the digital imprints regime, for example, it is a little difficult to be precise about the likely impact on police resources at the moment.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement

Q If I may follow up on that, my question to you, Gareth, was going to be slightly different. It is on the policing of electoral fraud, particularly in relation to overseas voters. With regard to overseas voters making political donations that are unlawful, or voter fraud, what powers does the UK have to detect infringements and prosecute?

Assistant Chief Constable Cann:

With regard to any infringements that might be committed overseas or by non-UK citizens, for example, our powers to deal with that are very limited.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Q I welcome all three witnesses. I have one question for each. Councillor Golds, thank you for giving us your time today. Can you tell us a little about the experience on the ground of how people might have been victims of electoral fraud in Tower Hamlets, and perhaps how difficult it can be for some of those stories to come forward?

Councillor Golds:

I have been studying it. I have been involved in elections in the borough for 20 years. I should quickly declare that over the years, I have been an election agent in 13 general elections. In fact, I have been an election agent for every kind of election we can have in this country, from Parliament and European Parliament to GLA, GLC and local council, and I have never seen anything like what I saw in Tower Hamlets.

The thing that always upsets me, and that I find terribly disappointing, is that ordinary people’s votes were effectively stolen. When I knock on a door, somebody will say to me, “Mr Golds, my father used to vote for Mr Attlee.” I smile at them, and then they say, “But what’s the point of voting now?” The problem is that, as both Mr Mawrey QC and Lord Pickles said, those are the people whose votes have been stolen. Most of all, however, there are our Bangladeshi voters, who sometimes come forward and say to me, as their local councillor, “Can you provide this information?” I say, “But you have to go on record, otherwise it is hearsay,” and they will then say, “I’m frightened to do so.”

That is a very intimidating situation, and I have to say it is not only in Tower Hamlets. Mr Shelbrooke read what had happened in Batley and Spen. A few years ago I took a friend of mine, who had contested an election in Calderdale, to meet the Electoral Commission. It was a waste of his time, because the Electoral Commission, as it so often is, was completely uninterested. He had a dossier as large as the one I brought with me today, which he handed to the Commission; as far as I know, it is probably still sitting in an archive, gathering dust.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Q As a brief follow-up, could you please explain what types of fraud people may have encountered? Be specific; is it personation, postal votes or other types?

Councillor Golds:

In the election petition, I submitted eight witness statements and approximately 2,000 pages of backing documentation, covering as much as possible. That includes, for example, where we tracked fraudulent postal votes using postal vote returns in the election data. You can see how things were marked on postal voting.

Tracking personation is much more difficult, but I will give you an interesting example. In the 2010 mayoral election, when Lutfur Rahman was first elected, I wrote one of my many unanswered letters to the Metropolitan Police. At 7.15 on polling day, I was present at Christ Church Primary School polling station in Brick Lane. A man entered and approached the desk where electors from Brick Lane were being processed. He had in his hand a poll card and envelope. However, this poll card was dated May 2010, was issued by the London Borough of Enfield, and referred to the Edmonton general election constituency. He tried to give a name and address in Brick Lane but was unable to accurately do so, by which time he was leaning over to the council staff and trying to point at an electoral register in front of the council and say, “That’s me, that’s me.” Eventually, the council officer started to ask questions, and he left the polling station.

I would add that outside there were supporters of Tower Hamlets First with copies of the electoral register. They mark on the electoral register what we all know exists: the vote return. They know if people vote. They have a list of people who may not regularly vote, and people were coming up, talking to them and effectively being given names to go into the polling station.

If you want another extraordinary example—one that made all sorts of press—it was the incident in the 2006 by-election in the Shadwell ward where a figure, about six-foot-something tall, dressed from head to foot in traditional Islamic gear but with huge red trainers, entered a polling station. An hour later, the same figure entered the polling station, and then an hour after that they entered the polling station.

The Conservative and Labour polling agents then compared notes, rang their agents and were told that the one thing they could do would be to ensure the presiding officer asked the statutory questions. When this person came for the fourth time and the statutory questions were put, he merely hooked up the clothing he was wearing and fled down Bigland Street. Everybody asked the policeman on duty what he was going to do, and he shrugged his shoulders and just said, “Nothing. It’s nothing to do with me.”

Those are two particularly extreme examples, but I can give you examples of cases, exactly as Mr Mawrey said—I have them recorded—where for houses that were boarded up, names appeared on the electoral register and votes were cast, or where people turned up only to discover that their votes had been stolen. Staggeringly, on 6 May this year, Francis Hoar, the barrister for the election petitioners in Tower Hamlets, went to vote in Lambeth and unfortunately his vote had already been cast on his behalf. That is what went on.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Q Thank you very much indeed. I have a brief question for both Gillian and Assistant Chief Constable Cann. Gillian, thank you very much for joining us; it is good to see you again. We have done some work together, because Peterborough was part of early pilots on how to tackle electoral fraud, and you took forward measures about postal and proxy voting. With reference to the measures in the Bill—for example, clause 6, introducing the requirement of secrecy for postal votes—could you explain to us the problems you encountered, how you tried to deal with them and how you think the Bill will affect that?

Welcome and thank you to ACC Cann, as well. Given that electoral law can be a relatively niche area within policing, can you tell us how the wider profession works to ensure that the right knowledge, training and capacity are in place in local forces to enable them to play the role that is needed from the police?

Gillian Beasley:

I will start by saying that we have a very close relationship with the police in Peterborough and our electoral integrity plan is co-produced between us and them. Our police, as well as our electoral services team, have a really good and detailed understanding of the electoral offences in law. There is a lot of co-operation there, which has helped us to home in on where integrity is at risk.

First, I would say that we have seen less personation in polling stations in the recent past. Probably our last prosecution was some years ago, and that is because there are some tight measures not only in polling stations, but around ensuring that we have a good electoral register. We go through our electoral register very carefully, removing duplicate names, and we visit a lot of premises where there are a number of people registered or where we are told there is an empty property, to ensure that they are the right people and that they are real people. Of course, the individual voter registration division has helped tremendously with that.

Where we have issues, as the Minister knows, is in postal voting. That is where our concerns are. The allegations we tend to get are around harvesting. They are allegations of people going into properties where people live—they are proper voters who have applied for a postal vote—and getting that person to make a declaration and signature with date of birth, but not fill the ballot paper. Those are then taken away and the proxies put against the relevant candidate. Those are the allegations. We get allegations about those being taken from properties, and where we get those allegations, we work together with the police in joint operations to visit those premises and make it absolutely clear that there is no tolerance for that and that those properties will be raided. We have never had any prosecutions for that, but we have made a clear statement about not tolerating that kind of behaviour.

The provision on not handing your postal vote to a campaigner is welcome. We will use that as a good communications tool to say to people, “Your vote is your vote. It is important that you post your vote or take it into a polling station.” The restrictions on how many postal votes can go into polling stations is a good provision, and documenting who is going in with those postal votes is important. Harvesting those votes will now be an offence, and although it will be difficult evidentially to get people to make those allegations, to stand by them and to go to court, nevertheless as returning officers we can do some important publicity around that fact: “This is your vote, you must keep it and it is a criminal offence if somebody takes it from you.” I see some strength there, and I support those provisions.

The other area I think is interesting is around undue influence. That is by far the most difficult; we hear allegations, but it is difficult for people who are subject to whatever form of undue influence or intimidation it may be to feel confident to come forward, give evidence and take that through to a court process. We encourage people to do that, but it is still difficult for them.

The change in the provision on undue influence, where you induce or compel somebody not to vote at all, is important; that covers the point that was made about collecting votes where they have not even been marked. My issue as a returning officer is that I send out thousands and thousands of postal votes, and we get them carefully delivered to the correct premises, but what happens behind those closed doors? It is about getting people to confidently give evidence if they are subject to undue influence or somebody comes and tries to take their vote. As I say, we have a really good relationship with the police, who are prepared to take forward and understand the offences. There is a joint communications plan between us and the police telling people that we will take it seriously, take cases forward and investigate every single allegation that is made, but it is still very difficult to get people confident enough to come forward with those kinds of allegations.

Assistant Chief Constable Cann:

In terms of developing police knowledge and capacity, I like the description of electoral law being a niche area. I think that is accurate. The RPA is not a widely known piece of legislation among police officers.

One of the reasons that the national portfolio that I lead was created was to raise awareness through some degree of central co-ordination and training across police forces. One of the first things that we recognise is that we are not on our own with this. Gillian has spoken very well about the importance of partnership working between the police, the Association of Electoral Administrators, administrators more locally, the Electoral Commission, the CPS, the parties themselves and Royal Mail. We form strong partnership relationships with a whole range of people, which helps to build capacity and capability within the police service generally.

More specifically, we have established a network of officers, one in every force. We have SPOCs—single points of contact—who are the lead for that force for electoral-related matters. They are knowledgeable in electoral crime and procedure. They usually sit within economic crime teams, but not always. We have created a bespoke training course that is run through the City of London police, which holds particular expertise of its own in this regard. We hold an annual conference for all those single points of contact and a number of other people. There is a very strong, successful partnership from that conference particularly with the Electoral Commission, and with people such as Gillian and other electoral administrators.

We have developed the scope of the portfolio over the last 10 years or so to cover matters of policing the election itself—not just preventing and detecting any fraud, crime or malpractice, but policing the election, so matters of public order and wider security. We have developed guidance in relation to policing elections, which is available on the College of Policing’s website. It is called “Authorised Professional Practice”, and it is about the way police doctrine is expressed and made available to officers up and down the country.

I like to think that, certainly over the last 10 years or so, we have raised the consciousness in the service of electoral malpractice. It is taken extremely seriously and we have some extremely capable and knowledgeable people involved in the work, but it is fair to say that it is something of a niche area. Most officers will not come across it, and in any event the law is slightly difficult to navigate, even for those who have a particular interest and specialism.

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

Good morning to the witnesses. I have two questions to ACC Cann. Do you think the penalties for those committing electoral fraud are sufficient to deter the bad actors?Q

Assistant Chief Constable Cann:

I think the penalties vary, because there is a blend of a civil and a criminal regime at play here. I do not know, because I am not an elected person, a candidate or anything like that, but I imagine that the harsher sanction will be around matters such as being disqualified from holding office or taking part in future electoral matters, rather than a specific fine or a direct sanction. In that regard, there is some significant deterrence there. Generally speaking, when matters go to the courts, it is generally felt that the courts are quite keen to address the seriousness of the matter before them and hand down a suitable penalty.

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

Q Thank you for that. My second question is this. Mr Mawrey, one of our earlier witnesses, said something like, “Voter ID at polling stations isn’t necessary because there is very little personation.” What is the incidence of personation at polling stations, do you know?

Assistant Chief Constable Cann:

I think it is right to say that we have relatively small numbers of those offences coming through to us so, in that sense, it is not a major issue in terms of workload or demand for policing at election time. I imagine that in any case, part of the motivation behind the proposal for voter ID is an element of deterrence. In that regard, if it were to be brought in, we would see some value in that and would broadly welcome that proposal, notwithstanding the fact that, as I say, we do not tend to prosecute or get asked to investigate a significant number of personation allegations.

Photo of Tom Randall Tom Randall Conservative, Gedling

CouncillorQ Golds, you gave some examples earlier today about behaviour in polling stations. Had there been a voter ID regime in place in Tower Hamlets previously, do you think the behaviour that you saw in polling stations might have been different?

Councillor Golds:

I certainly think it would have improved. We had a byelection as recently as 12 October, where in one polling station—the Sundial Centre in Shipton Street—the police were called on two occasions to disperse unruly crowds outside the polling station intimidating voters. That is one polling station in one byelection held this summer. I have to say that Assistant Chief Constable Cann’s description of the police activity is positively Panglossian in its optimism; I just wonder whether any of this has percolated through to the Metropolitan police.

Photo of Tom Randall Tom Randall Conservative, Gedling

Q In Mawrey’s judgment, he described —possibly unkindly—the behaviour of polling staff and the police as taking the three wise monkeys as their role models. Do you feel that after the Rahman trial, the police picked up the issues that arose from it?

Councillor Golds:

Frankly, no. There was an inquiry organised by the police called Operation Lynemouth, which said in one of its closing descriptions that

“The policing of the election and the subsequent investigation was deficient in too many areas. There was a lack of corporate responsibility, a lack of training and insufficient resources for the SET investigation. In essence, the MPS did not consider the election and investigation a priority.”

Of course, at the time when they were supposed to be dealing with Tower Hamlets, they were also involved in the infamous Operation Midland, which was another subject. Indeed, one or two officers involved in the Tower Hamlets fiasco drifted through Operation Midland, much to my lack of surprise.

One thing about the police that is truly concerning me, as recent as this year, is the need to defend the secrecy of the ballot. The fundamental Act dealing with balloting in this country is the Ballot Act 1872, which says that you vote in secret. That Act has never been repealed. I have before me an email—a complaint—from a resident. They say that upon their visit to their polling station,

“I noticed 2 separate occasions where 2 people were in the polling booths together with the male member ‘influencing’ the female member’s vote.”

That is one person at midday at the polling station where, incidentally, I vote.

This has travelled to the police and is now in the hands of one Trevor Normoyle, who is the detective inspector of the special inquiry team and, to my horror, informed us that he will be in charge of Tower Hamlets next year. He seems to be completely unaware of the requirement for secrecy of the ballot, because he writes to this resident to say, “In relation to the concerns you have raised, inquiries were carried out”—incidentally, the elector reported this to the presiding officer—“and cannot substantiate any allegation that any influence was being exerted within the polling station, nor are any other electoral laws being broken. The reported matter is now closed”. So nothing will be done, but here we had two people effectively instructing others how to vote inside a polling station in London in 2021, which the police are ignoring—

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

Order. Can we move on? We are very short of time.

Councillor Golds:

Okay, but it is an example of the police’s utter failure to look at electoral malpractice in London.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

Thank you to the witnesses. I have a rather technical question forQ Gillian Beasley, but I want to ask Councillor Golds a little bit more. A lot of the examples that we are hearing about in Tower Hamlets were described by the previous witnesses as “extreme” and “isolated”. In a lot of the examples, people have been brought to justice. The elections were annulled and the candidates were disqualified. What you are describing is police inaction. If your contention is that the police are not enforcing the laws as they already stand, what gives you confidence that the Bill will be any more enforceable or make any more of a difference? Is the contention that there is even more going on—there is even more fraud and there are lots of Tower Hamletses out there—and we are just lucky that we are picking up what is happening in Tower Hamlets, and we have to stop it happening elsewhere in the country where we cannot see it?

Councillor Golds:

Let us be absolutely clear that the disqualification was nothing to do with the police, who completely ignored it. It was done by four brave citizens who lost a fortune on it, because they are liable for everybody’s costs, including Lutfur Rahman’s.

On the issue of potential Tower Hamletses, they are out there in other places. Commissioner Mawrey mentioned Slough and he mentioned the problem of Woking, where the returning officer himself said that he did not believe that he had declared an accurate result in all his time as a returning officer. There are issues in Bradford and in other parts of the country. Indeed, we heard from one of your colleagues, who read that extraordinary email that was circulated in the Batley and Spen by-election. That would be typical here.

Outside a polling station, in one of my elections, there were people placed to tell every single Bangladeshi voter two subjects: one, that Councillor Golds is a Jew, and the second, that Councillor Golds is gay. To prove the second point, they had an extract from the election address to ensure that it was understood that the person I have lived with for the past 23 years is male. That was done in London in 2010. Please, as Mr Shelbrooke has said, do not say it is not happening elsewhere. The Bill is essential to clean our elections.

Indeed, we have the appalling situation in Peterborough where a fraudster can sit at a polling station, can turn up at the count, can be present at the reception of postal votes and can stand there smirking for selfies. This is a man who has gone to prison for election fraud and who has been disqualified from voting, but who is taking part in elections. We can all see it. This man Tariq Mahmood tweets it repeatedly. We need the law clearing up so that we do not have what Alec Shelbrooke has said happened in the metropolitan borough of Kirklees, which is repeated in Peterborough and seen in Tower Hamlets. We want clean elections so that people on the Isle of Dogs can vote with the same security as Mr O’Hara’s constituents, the good people of Argyle and Bute.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

Q I want to pick up on some of the questions that Gillian Beasley has been asked about the process of electoral administration. The Bill creates these different categories of EU citizens: EU citizens with retained rights and qualifying EU citizens. How do you anticipate that adding to all the other burdens that we discussed earlier, such as the surge in late voting and the potential surge in late applications for voter ID? How does the creation of yet more categories on the electoral register fit in with the overall package of the Bill?

Gillian Beasley:

Thank you for that question. I was talking to my electoral administrators this week about those divisions, and there is undoubtedly going to be more complexity around that. It is already quite complex, if you walk into a polling station with a presiding officer, working out what all the letters mean and who can and cannot vote. I think it means that we need not only highly trained electoral administrators, but highly trained presiding officers. I think it has got a training burden. We are finding it more difficult to get presiding officers because of the complexity, and we will need some really detailed and careful training packages to make sure that the right people get to vote and we administer the register in a proper way. We do expect there to be some burdens and some additional resource needed to ensure we can administer that properly and carefully.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

Gareth Cann, do you have anything to add?

Assistant Chief Constable Cann:

Nothing specific. Quite a few issues were raised by Councillor Golds there, but nothing specific for me to come back on, other than that it felt to me that the police had not so much ignored that allegation as assessed and investigated it, and unfortunately it could not be substantiated, which they reported back to the interested parties. I have nothing specific to add on the last question.

Photo of Paul Bristow Paul Bristow Conservative, Peterborough

Gillian, it is nice to talk to you in a different context, and thank you for everything that you do to keep elections free and fair in my city. You are right to say that there have been accusations of postal vote harvesting—I have seen it with my own eyes—so it is good to see that you are comforted that the legislation will help you with that. In the most recent elections in the city—certainly when I was elected in December 2019—the city council placed CCTV at polling stations. Will you explain why you felt the need to do that?Q

Gillian Beasley:

In Peterborough, we have a range of measures to make sure that electoral integrity is maintained. The CCTV was a result of personation allegations of individuals going to one polling station to vote and then taking a polling card to another polling station. We decided to observe the polling stations and who was going into them very closely to see if we could pick up evidence of personation and use it in the prosecution.

CCTV is also a deterrent, to a degree. We are open about the fact that we have CCTV. We tell everybody, including the election agents, that that is going to happen, and we say that we will use the CCTV in evidence if we detect that kind of activity going on. Councillor Golds made the point about people congregating outside polling stations. We get to observe that, and if it is happening, we would get the presiding officer—or the police, who are sometimes in polling stations for assistance with personation—to go out and disperse those who are congregating, so that people can walk into the polling station and feel confident that they will not be subject to any intimidation or comment. We use CCTV for a number of reasons: for the purposes of potential prosecution and to keep an eye on what is happening outside the polling station so that we keep it free and enable voters to go in.

Photo of Paul Bristow Paul Bristow Conservative, Peterborough

Q I have one follow-up question. Would you say that CCTV also gives the electorate confidence in the process and that personation and other things will not happen?

Gillian Beasley:

I think exactly that. We want to say that we take it very seriously, and that seriousness is exemplified by the CCTV and the measures we have put in place. It is a confidence mechanism as well, and we communicate that not just to those who are involved in the administration, but to the wider public.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

Gareth Cann, do you have anything to add?

Assistant Chief Constable Cann:

No, nothing on that one.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Q My question is also for you, Gillian, on the nitty-gritty of the increased resources that you said will be needed. I know that my children will certainly want the free ID card to be able to go into pubs and nightclubs, so there will be more demand for them all year round. As you said, there will be a peak about two weeks before the election, when people realise that they need it. How many staff do you think you will need all year round to provide those ID cards? How many additional staff will you need in that peak before elections, and how much will the additional training cost? Have you been able to provide the estimate of all the costs of what the Government have asked for?

Gillian Beasley:

We have not done that yet, but we have started to think about working out how many people we think would apply and how many people would have the ID so they would not have to apply. At the moment, we think we probably need one more administrator just to make sure we have enough before the election. Running up to the election, speaking to my electoral administrators this week, we will probably mobilise a small team of two or three people. The reason for that is because we know that people will come in that surge—people will feel anxious because they will be worried that they will lose their votes, so we need to be responsive and be confident that we can help them. Inevitably, they will not in the first case bring the right documentation—that is our experience—so they will need to go back.

With the surge and the late registration, I think probably one additional person in the team and probably a really good team of about two to three people around the surge period, to deal with the throughput and to make sure that we do not disenfranchise people, which is the worst thing we could do. That is the first thinking that we have, but experience will tell us. We will probably overstate the resource in the first instance so we do not fall foul of it, because we want to make sure that a new provision is properly implemented in our area and gives confidence rather than lack of confidence to the electorate.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Q How much did the CCTV—really innovative work—cost to put in?

Gillian Beasley:

We have worked with the police on that, and they have employed some of their CCTV. We were able to use our own CCTV as some of that is in the right place. The cost of the CCTV was not huge. The biggest cost is when we have to act. The police resource in Peterborough is quite considerable on the day. We have police in a van to help us manage what is happening inside and outside the polling stations. We get a good sign up by the police to give us that resource on the day. We do cost that out at the end of every election and we have our policing plan in mind for the next election.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Q I have a quick question for Councillor Golds. Are you now confident that Tower Hamlets elections are done with integrity? Can the people of Tower Hamlets trust the results of elections now?

Councillor Golds:

In all honesty, no, because we had the by-election in Weavers ward on 12 August. There were two incidents of mobbing in one polling station. I was interested that Gillian Beasley mentioned the steps they take in Peterborough to deal with mobbing. In Tower Hamlets it can reach dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people. I refer you all to a report by an organisation called Democracy Volunteers, which talks about the mobbing of polling stations and about family voting inside polling stations.

The issue of people being unable to reach a polling station is difficult. I was walking down Shipton Street at dusk on 12 August, which I calculate must have been just after 9 o’clock. There was a woman inside; the presiding officer had called the police, and seven police officers appeared, because she could not get to the polling station without being surrounded by men who were canvassing or harassing her. A woman walking down the street at 9 o’clock at night to go to vote does not need 10 men to surround her to instruct her how to vote. This has to be dealt with.

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Conservative, Heywood and Middleton

Thank you, Ms Rees. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Councillor Golds, to pick up on what you said about that going on in other parts of the country, I can attest to that. In Rochdale there is a sitting councillor who, three years ago, accepted a caution for electoral fraud after being caught voting twice. He is still sitting there and did not lose the Labour Whip.Q

As an experienced election agent, do you think the relatively low level of detection of personation is down to the fact that it is so easy to do? I could pick up a copy of the marked register tomorrow, find out whether you vote routinely in elections, turn up to your polling place, claim to be Peter Golds and vote on your behalf. Or do you agree with Mr O’Hara that it is a solution looking for a problem? If you contest that, what would you describe as an acceptable level of electoral fraud?

Councillor Golds:

I disagree with Mr O’Hara. When you have the marked register, if you get the proverbial Sid and Doris Bonkers who have never cast a vote in their life, and someone turns up at the polling station and says, “I am Sid Bonkers,” they are given a ballot paper. If Sid Bonkers does not turn up to say he is going to vote, nothing happens. I have to say that there are far too many instances.

I had one incident of a lady who lives in Woodseer Street, E1, who telephoned me to say that she had gone to vote. She knew that the people next door were off on holiday and furthermore that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses and never voted, but democracy had taken place on this particular occasion. When she was marked off on the electoral register, she saw that their names were marked off. She asked the presiding officer why they were marked off, and he said, “Because they voted.” That is an absolutely classic example. Somebody knew that these people were Jehovah’s Witnesses, somebody knew that they never voted, but democracy took place.

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Conservative, Heywood and Middleton

Q So in your opinion, if I had to turn up with a piece of identification that said, “I am Peter Golds,” and I could not provide it, I should be issued a ballot paper.

Councillor Golds:

Yes—[Laughter.] Sorry, I misunderstood what he said; my hearing is not terribly good.

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Conservative, Heywood and Middleton

If I could not prove that I was you, should I be issued with a ballot paper?

Councillor Golds:

No. If you go to collect a parcel without ID, you are not issued with a parcel. For example, if you go to select a Labour candidate, you have to take ID. We had a selection in 2019 of a Labour candidate, and her document to members of the Poplar and Limehouse constituency Labour party says not to forget to bring photo ID. To go to select Apsana Begum, you had to bring photo ID, but to elect her, or not elect her, anybody can be given a ballot paper.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

Thank you. Have the other witnesses anything to add to that, or can I move on?

Photo of Kate Hollern Kate Hollern Labour, Blackburn

I have a very quick question for Gillian. For local authorities to issue the free voter ID, what evidence would you need from the person applying?Q

Gillian Beasley:

That is something that we really need to think about: what evidence is required when somebody applies if they do not have a passport or driving licence. Evidence of where they live—bills, bank statements and other such identification—is what we used when we did our proxy pilots.

What we need is some really good guidance about what would be acceptable. As a group of administrators, we would like to have a conversation with Government about what we think would be sufficient before that provision is enacted, so that we are all consistent about what is sufficient. We need to learn from the pilots, because there is obviously some learning from the pilots about what kind of identification is sufficient, and to bring that together so that we have a consistent and safe approach. How do we actually make sure that the documentation is secure and safe enough? There are still some conversations that need to be had and there is some discussion around that at the moment.

Photo of Kate Hollern Kate Hollern Labour, Blackburn

Q So there is quite extensive work to go into the actual detail of producing voter IDs. That brings me on to the additional burden on local authorities. You mentioned how difficult it is to get presiding officers, so there is obviously a huge cost implication in this for local authorities—plus the practical solutions of identifying and delivering voter ID. However, surely it would be quite simple for someone to come and say, “I am X, I live at this address and I need an ID card.” Are you looking at photo ID?

Gillian Beasley:

I think that that is the discussion that we need to have as a sector—about what is sufficient. You are absolutely right; my concern would be that somebody would be able easily to produce a false document to say that they lived at a particular address. The conversation that we need to have across the sector, and the guidance that we need, is: what is sufficient ID? That makes the system safe, because we can be sure, or as sure as we can be, that that ID actually locates that person as a real person who we can be confident in giving an ID document to. There is more work and discussion that we need to have around that. Obviously, the Association of Electoral Administrators will have some thoughts on that, and I am sure my team would, as we move forward. That is a discussion that needs to be carefully had.

Photo of Kate Hollern Kate Hollern Labour, Blackburn

Q Thank you. Turning to Peter, like you I was a councillor for 21 years, so I have seen the problems with voting systems over the years, but I am pleased that a number of measures were taken in that long period to address some of your concerns. I was also pleased that in your evidence to the House of Lords you said that there is much more discipline in Tower Hamlets now and that the presiding officer should be the chief executive. In Blackburn, that is exactly what happens.

A number of issues have obviously improved, but you felt the issues that have not improved seem to be the lack of co-operation from the police responding to your concerns and the town hall staff not being equipped or resourced enough to deal with the issues. What do you see in the Bill that will address your concerns about the lack of action and co-operation by the police or the inefficiencies in some town hall services?

Councillor Golds:

That is a very interesting point and thank you for highlighting what I said to the House of Lords. I think it was quite intentional that the senior officers of the council in 2014 all declined to act as returning officer. It was devolved to the head of committee services, who was a junior officer, and he was effectively asked to act as a returning officer. In future Bills I believe that the returning officer in elections should be the most senior officer of the local authority, and that should be written into law. They should not be able to cop out, as they are paid.

Where do I look in the Bill? The Bill tidies up the procedures for postal voting. It strengthens this issue of saying that people cannot turn up to a polling station with a Sainsbury’s bag full of postal votes.

Photo of Kate Hollern Kate Hollern Labour, Blackburn

Q Sorry, we do not need a change in legislation for that. I have been involved with many elections, and it is good practice from parties, both Labour and Conservative, to say in their instructions to candidates and campaigners, “You do not touch a postal vote.” If a resident has some difficulty, we phone the town hall and the returning officer sends someone out to help. It seems to me that the problems that Tower Hamlets have experienced, which we accept have got much better, are actually with management within Tower Hamlets. That does not need legislation to find solutions.

Councillor Golds:

I am sorry; I have to disagree with you there. Obviously, we are all pleased that Blackburn has tidied up its act, and I am interested and pleased that you refer to cross-party co-operation.

I am sorry to say that I do not think it has improved in other places, and I refer to what Mr Shelbrooke has said. When Paul Bristow fought his by-election, I went there to campaign. I was taken to the central part of Peterborough and I felt so at home. It was exactly what you would expect to see: somebody suddenly arriving with the proverbial Sainsbury’s bag full of postal votes and people standing outside polling stations harassing voters. It should not happen. I believe that everybody should have the right to go to a polling station and vote in freedom.

If we voted in France, election day is a day of reflection. There is no campaigning. You go and vote in secret, behind curtains. Here, we have this wonderful Victorian sense of trust and co-operation between people, because we trust each other in many ways. As you have said, your colleagues in Blackburn work with colleagues of another party to ensure that the parties work well together, but where that trust breaks down, it collapses.

Photo of Kate Hollern Kate Hollern Labour, Blackburn

Q But how will the legislation address the issues raised? Surely that is a police matter.

Councillor Golds:

First, we have the tightening of the rules about what you can and cannot say, and where people can be abusive at elections. For example, I have to say that—

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

Order. We have to have short questions and answers now as we are running out of time.

Councillor Golds:

I am happy to submit information in writing if you would like to see it. Would you like me to do that?

Photo of Kate Hollern Kate Hollern Labour, Blackburn

I just want you to answer the question.

Councillor Golds:

Okay.

Photo of Kate Hollern Kate Hollern Labour, Blackburn

Q People are being intimidated outside polling stations—I have experienced it—and the police should deal with that. People are making allegations about candidates—I believe, at some point, there was a leaflet with me in a burqa. How will this legislation improve such harassment?

Councillor Golds:

The legislation tightens up the rules of, effectively, what we would call the Miranda Grell situation, whereby people cannot be abusive. The legislation tightens up the rules, as we have seen, about people turning up to a polling station and just asking for a ballot paper and being given one. It tightens up the rules on postal voting.

There are other matters that I would like to address. I believe that there should be an amendment to reaffirm the secrecy of the ballot, because I cannot believe that the police can possibly argue that we do not have a secret ballot in this country, as they appear to be doing. I would think that, of what—

Photo of Kate Hollern Kate Hollern Labour, Blackburn

Q Sorry. Basically, people intimidating someone on the street should be a police matter. I accept that there should be limits on what can be said and done within a poll, but that is already in the rules. On the secret ballot, you gave a case—I think Gillian addressed it as well—where someone was with a woman actually casting a ballot, and you found that the lady was intimidated. Did she allege it was intimidation, or did she just require support because she did not speak or read English?

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

Order. We need a very short answer. We have two more Members who would like to come in.

Councillor Golds:

The law is clear that you vote in secret.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

I will build on the questions that myQ colleague, Mr Clarkson, posed to Councillor Golds a moment ago, about personation in polling stations and how prevalent it is. In his judgment in the Bordesley Green ward and Aston ward Birmingham fraud trials back in 2005, the election judge, Mr Mawrey QC, stated that,

“there is likely to be no evidence of fraud, if you do not look for it.”

Your teams in the polling booths are the frontline in identifying personation. What tools do you currently have to look for personation fraud?

Gillian Beasley:

When we organise our elections, we graduate our polling stations to the ones where we think the most issues will be. We employ presiding officers who have a lot of experience in dealing with the administration of their polling station. However, more than that, we train them around the issues of personation and ensure that they know the statutory questions. There are also ways in which, when someone comes into a polling station and they ask them to give their names, they are very particular about ensuring that we keep with the processes.

We also always have police in those polling stations. There will be two police officers, and there will also be polling agents, so we give a very clear statement that we take personation seriously. When you walk into a polling station in that area, you will see well-trained staff and police officers, and you will likely see a polling agent. There is training that we do. There is also an incident response, so if staff are concerned about an elector, they have a police officer they can talk to. If a polling agent raises an issue, it can be responded to immediately.

The message goes out there that that is what you will find when you go into a Peterborough polling station and those that we consider to be at risk. That is the approach that we take in ensuring that the training and the experience is really good. As Paul Bristow said, we also have CCTV. It conveys how seriously we take electoral fraud in those stations.

Photo of Aaron Bell Aaron Bell Conservative, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Q I just wanted to briefly ask ACC Cann about polling day, and whether he thinks that the measures around voter ID and undue influence will make polling day easier for the police.

Assistant Chief Constable Cann:

I am not sure I heard the question. I think it was whether the measures around undue influence are likely to make life easier for the police.

Assistant Chief Constable Cann:

Thank you very much. I think, in general, they are potentially helpful measures indeed. It is always difficult for policy makers to strike the balance between an accessible system and a secure system. If the balance was struck in that particular way in any future Act then, on balance, yes, it would probably be helpful for the police if those measures were brought in.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

Order. That brings us to the end of the time allotted for the Committee to ask questions and, indeed, for this morning’s sitting. I thank our witnesses on behalf of the Committee for their evidence. The Committee will meet again at 2 pm to continue taking oral evidence.

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.