Examination of Witnesses

Elections Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:29 am on 15th September 2021.

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The Rt Hon Lord Pickles and Richard Mawrey QC gave evidence.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath 9:31 am, 15th September 2021

Q We will now hear evidence from Richard Mawrey QC of Henderson Chambers and Lord Pickles. Before calling the first Member to ask the first question, I remind hon. Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill and that we must stick to the timings in the programme motion. This session will end at 10.25 am. Will the witnesses please introduce themselves?

Lord Pickles:

My name is Eric Pickles. I am a Member of the House of Lords and I also had the honour of sitting in the House of Commons. I wrote a report for the Government on trying to secure the ballot box, some of the recommendations of which are incorporated in the Bill. It is an honour and a privilege to be with Members of the House of Commons again.

Richard Mawrey:

My name is Richard Mawrey, I am a QC at the London Bar, practising in the Temple. I have sat as an election commissioner—election judge—in most of the high-profile disputed local authority elections in the past 20 years, particularly those elections involving electoral fraud and other malpractice. In particular the elections in Birmingham, where the trial took place in 2005, and that concerning the former Mayor of Tower Hamlets, where the trial took place in 2015.

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

Thank you. Minister, would you like to ask the first question?

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

Q I would. First, may I welcome our witnesses? It is an absolute pleasure to have you here. You begin our day with the highest quality.

Richard, you highlighted in your judgment on Tower Hamlets and elsewhere how we see interlocking types of fraud that all together create broad criminality. Would you be able to talk us through the extent of that?

Richard Mawrey:

Tower Hamlets was a particularly bad example. There, you had a political culture where winning and retaining power was everything. If there were rules, they were to be, at best, circumvented and, at worst, broken. Not only was there electoral fraud in the sense of false votes—almost all postal votes—but the system developed so there was misuse of public funds, which I later decided was bribery, largely as a result of Lord Pickles’ initiative to employ a top firm of accountants to investigate the doings of the council, from which it appeared that large sums of money had been diverted for political purposes.

In Tower Hamlets, the trickiest thing of all was manipulation of voters by religious means. That operated within one community: members of the Bangladeshi community, at the instance of the Mayor and his cronies, were being induced by their religious leaders to back one lot of Muslin politicians against another lot of Muslim politicians. It was not, as you might expect, Muslims versus the rest. They were saying, “If you are a good Muslim, you will vote for Lutfur Rahman and his chums. If you are not and you vote for someone else, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, you are beyond the religious pale.” Clearly, that was unacceptable, therefore I made my findings of undue religious influence.

There were also other things, such as the provision in the Representation of the People Act 1983 whereby you cannot make false statements about the personal characters of the other candidates. You may remember the case of Phil Woolas up in the Manchester area. If you go beyond that limit and go public saying, basically, that your principal opponent is a racist who supports racists organisations, when it is totally untrue, that is, again, unacceptable.

You have virtually the whole catalogue of offences laid down by the 1983 Act; they were almost ticking the boxes, one by one, as they did it. That is what happens when you have a political culture that gets corrupted, in all senses, into the belief that, “The rules don’t apply to us. We do what we want in order to get the results.” That is the danger that one perceives. Of course, Tower Hamlets was an extreme case.

The other cases that I tried were largely cases of straightforward voter fraud using postal votes—misuse of the actual votes themselves: stealing them, altering them, and that sort of thing—or putting on the register people who had no right to be there, either because they lived somewhere else or because they did not exist at all. Those are the problems that I have seen, although I must emphasise that my experience is entirely with local authorities, naturally, because parliamentary elections are tried by proper judges, so to speak.

However—I think that Lord Pickles will agree with me here—local authority elections are the easiest to manipulate. You have relatively small electorates, a relatively small geographical area, and communities, although not necessarily racial or religious communities, that can operate as a sort of support mechanism in any frauds that you are perpetrating. I do not expect a large amount of fraud in parliamentary elections, referendums, or anything like that, but it is a serious problem in local elections. I do not think that Lord Pickles would disagree with that.

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

Q Across a selection of your cases—Tower Hamlets, Birmingham, and Slough—we see the range of corrupt practices, also known as crimes or elections fraud, including, as you say, postal voting practices, proxy voting practices and personation, notably, in Slough.

Richard Mawrey:

Not so much proxy. Proxy votes are very rare, and proxy fraud is very rare. It is mostly personation, of both kinds: putting the wrong people on the register—what the Australians call “roll stuffing”—and misusing genuine votes for genuine people by diverting them, altering them, or, in some cases, simply destroying them.

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

Q Thank you. Two questions, if I may: would you agree that, where one of those avenues may be cut off by the law, criminals might turn to others? Criminals, by nature, are able to use a range of techniques, and, naturally, wish to do so. Secondly, may I ask for your assessment of who the victims of such crimes are? Where does the harm fall?

Richard Mawrey:

I think the harm falls on the community as a whole if you have someone who is elected as a councillor, let us say, but has no right to be because the votes cast on their behalf are false. Take Birmingham, for example: in the two wards that I tried—although it was actually fairly common in all the wards with a substantial Muslim population—approximately half of the votes cast for the winning candidates were false. That is serious. The winning candidates got between 3,000 and 4,000 votes each. It was three per ward, so they got that, and their rivals got 200 or 300 below.

Of those 3,000-odd votes, somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 were completely bogus. They were votes that had been harvested in various ways—not, funnily enough, by putting bogus people on the register. They had stolen voting papers. They had applied for votes to be sent to the wrong address. They had gone down streets collecting the voting papers from houses in multiple occupation—they would get themselves in and there was a huge pile of voting papers. They knew they would be there because they had applied, without the knowledge of the voters, for those votes to be postal votes. They went in, there was a pile of postal votes and the inhabitants of the block did not know. They collected the lot and filled them in.

If any of the people living in those houses went to vote in person, they were told, “Oh no, you voted by post,” much to their annoyance, as you might imagine. I had witnesses called before me who said, “I went down to the polling station expecting to vote, but they said, ‘I’m sorry, Mr Jones, but you’ve already voted.’” He said, “No, I haven’t,” and they said, “Oh yes, you’re marked: we’ve got your ballot paper.” So they, of course, are the losers.

The other thing is that if you have a culture of political corruption, it seeps into all other life. I think of the money in Tower Hamlets that could have been spent for the benefit of Tower Hamlets but that was actually being spent on providing, in effect, free meals for voters—which is what they were doing, among other things—and subsidising organisations that had not asked for a subsidy. Tower Hamlets is not a borough that has money to spare or to throw around, and I felt that the people who had lost out—I said this in my judgment—were what I might call the rank-and-file members of the Bangladeshi community that they were claiming to represent. They were the losers. If they were looking at it in any sort of tribal way, they were doing down their own kind—the people they were claiming were their power base. That is not tolerable.

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

Q Eric, you then had the opportunity to follow up on Richard’s work and to say what ought to be done about it. Is it still your view that something ought to be done about all of those things?

Lord Pickles:

Yes. In terms of vulnerability, there might be the odd seat in the House that is vulnerable, but this is about local government. I think it would be a big mistake to say that this is just about voting, democracy and elections. It is actually about power and money. A place like Tower Hamlets has a budget of £1 billion. Many of the large cities have budgets of large sums of money. Even a small district council has considerable ability to dispose of assets and to make appointments.

The reason I put commissioners in Tower Hamlets was, like many things, based on quite a small thing. I looked at the small grants that were available to many organisations, some of which could be distributed by councillors. They were there to relieve poverty. I had a map that showed me where the grants had been distributed and another map that showed me where the deprivation was, and there was no relationship between the two. Then, I looked at the number of decisions that had been overturned by councillors and the number of decisions they had granted without a business plan. It was on that basis that we decided to put the thing through.

I was asked to look at it and we started taking evidence on the types of fraud. I have been involved in politics for a long time and have seen most things on the street, but I was quite shocked by some of the frauds that were being committed. Richard will be able to tell you about warehousing. There was a warehouse in Birmingham, I think, where they were literally changing the ballot papers on an almost commercial basis. There were things like carousel fraud, where a ballot is palmed—a fresh ballot is taken out, filled in and given to another person and it is palmed—as a way of controlling the election; landlords insisting on seeing a photograph of their ballot being completed; and people suddenly finding out that their landlord has registered six or seven people at their house just before an election, only for their names to disappear afterwards.

It is really important to understand that that is not endemic within the system; it is an example of how vulnerable the system is. If Tower Hamlets represents the future, we have to ensure that that future is terminated. We probably will not be burgled, but we lock our houses. The measures in the Bill are moderate and reasonable, and they ensure at least that we will not find some of our large cities run by kleptocrats—this is about rewarding friends; it is not necessarily about politics. Sorry, I went on a bit there.

Richard Mawrey:

Could I just come in here on what Lord Pickles has said? The Bill addresses something that was a real problem in Tower Hamlets: the registration of political parties. The Electoral Commission blithely signed off Tower Hamlets First as a party, but it was a joke. It had no premises, and it had—as I discovered to my amazement by asking questions—no bank account. I said to Lutfur Rahman, “If I want to give a donation to your party, do I have to come along with an envelope of used non-consecutive fifties?” Obviously, he was dying to say yes, but that would clearly have been the wrong answer. You can see the levels to which it has come. If anyone can just say, “I am a political party,” and give themselves a name, you lay yourself wide open, particularly once they are registered and can say, “I am a registered political party and have all the rights of a registered political party.”

Lord Pickles:

The system is vulnerable. To misquote John Major, it is about old maids cycling to evensong and drinking warm beer, and in most places, that rather twee, gentle system kind of works. When I was a councillor, in gentle rural villages in my own wards, it was fine, but where there is money, we have to protect the integrity of the ballot and of governance.

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

Richard, can I start with you and the Tower Hamlets examples that you have already outlined? Thank you for that. You said that in Tower Hamlets there was a wide range of different types of electoral fraud that was used to try to manipulate. I was particularly struck by what you said about public funds being diverted for political advantage. Does anything in the Bill prevent public funds being diverted for political influenceQ ?

Richard Mawrey:

The Bill, as I read it, does not make any particular changes to the laws relating to bribery. The laws relating to bribery, in actual terms under the 1983 Act, are quite clear. The problem is that bribery was a common law offence, and it then became a statutory defence under the Victorians. Before the secret ballot, the Victorians had a system whereby you voted in public and everyone knew how you voted. Rich candidates would simply put money in the hands of the electors, who would not be very large in number, to pay them to go and vote. That was the principal thing that led to both the secret ballot and the introduction of electoral courts in the 1860s.

We have moved on from that now. Very few candidates have the sort of money that allows them to put fivers in people’s pockets, so to speak, but they do control public money. The answer is not necessarily electoral law, but better control, particularly in local authorities, of local authority finance. It is better auditing and more independent scrutiny. The law is clear; it is policing it that is the problem. You don’t need to change the law; you need to change the policing of it. Would you agree?

Lord Pickles:

Yes, I think I almost certainly would agree. When it starts to go wrong, it is a terrible thing. I do not think I am betraying confidences, because I am sure they would be happy for me to say this, but the two Labour Members of Parliament within the borough came to see me and laid out all these various things, and said that basically the Electoral Commission was ignoring them, that the police were ignoring them, but there was something deeply wrong within the administration, and they urged me to take action.

Obviously, a Secretary of State can only go in on a reasonable basis, and I went in on a reasonable basis because it seemed to me that the way in which grants were being delineated for every small thing was entirely wrong, entirely arbitrary and not based on fact. So the point is that this Bill is about just tightening up and trying to make the system reasonably proof in terms of personation and various other things. It is not going to cure corruption and it is not going to stop bad people being elected; it just reduces the chances of a community being abused.

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

Turning to postal votes, this legislation obviously makes some minor changes to the way in which postal votes are handled, in terms of limiting the number of postal votes that an elector may hand in at a polling station on the day, but there is nothing to prevent postal votes being posted in a post box. So I just wonderer whether you consider that the legislation might not be effective in reducing postal votes, which I think you said was the greatest weakness in the system.Q

Richard Mawrey:

I appreciate the risk of going on about my King Charles’s head. Postal voting is going to be open to fraud, however hard you try and however much you do. Legislation has, since the Birmingham judgment, tried to stop all the mouseholes, but as the old saying goes, the better mousehole breeds the smarter mouse, so you can try and stop all your mouseholes but the mouse will still get out eventually. Obviously you need to tighten up registration, but the problem is resources. If every time somebody wrote in asking to register Mr Jones at 1 Acacia Avenue, if you had unlimited resources you could send someone around to see whether there was a Mr Jones at 1 Acacia Avenue. Had they done that in Slough, things would have been very different.

The thing that blew Slough open was a small road—I still remember its name, Hawtrey Close—of four houses, in which, just before the election, 19 people were registered to vote. What drew the attention of the Labour party, who were on the qui vive for fraud, was that they went along to Hawtrey Close and all four houses had been boarded up and unoccupied for several years. None the less, they had 19 voters in them. Surprisingly, they all voted for the winning candidate. But you couldn’t blame the town hall. The town hall said, “Here is an address. It is a perfectly good address.” The town hall didn’t know that the houses were boarded up. “Here are these people wanting to be registered; we’ve got to register them.” They did not have the resources to send someone out who would look at this thing and say, “Of course there’s nobody registered, as there’s no one living there.” So that is the problem. It is resources, not the law. The law is quite clear: you cannot be registered unless you are a genuine person, living within the ward or constituency.

Lord Pickles:

What the Bill does is restrict the number of people you can handle. So you cannot go door to door collecting postal votes, as has been common practice between all political parties for a number of years. I did receive quite a lot of representations from people who just hated the whole idea of postal votes and wanted to go back. I am old enough to remember when you had to make a case—you had to get your employer or your doctor to sign to say it was necessary. But I took the view that it would be just about impossible to turn the clock back and go back to that kind of system. It is probably not fashionable to mention Richard Nixon, but he was told, “Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it is awfully hard to get it back in.”

Rather than trying to go back to what was, in some people’s eyes, a golden age, we need instead to restrict it. Returning officers tell me of people arriving at 6 pm on polling day, which as we all know is a busy time, with a crisp packet box full of postal votes—perhaps 200, 300 or 400, which all have to be separately verified, which slows the process down. It could be that that is all straightforward, but I do not think so. It is trying to restrict the handling of postal votes, ensuring that parties cannot pick them up—I think the Labour party went round with a mock ballot box to put papers in. I am not suggesting that it was attempting to do anything wrong—it was trying to get the vote out—but it is important to demonstrate that a vote is important and should not be handled by anyone other than the voter.

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

Q I wanted to pick up on the example given of Birmingham, which was quite a long time ago. The laws around postal votes and electoral registration have changed since, and a national insurance number is now required, or an electoral registration form with a date of birth and a signature on the postal vote return slip. I wonder whether the example given, of a street where people were registered and postal votes applied for, could happen under the existing law today and the changes that have been made.

Richard Mawrey:

It certainly could happen. Instead of having 19 entirely fictitious people living at the address, someone could—if they have sufficient organisation—get entirely genuine people who just live somewhere else. That was done in Slough, where a whole lot of people were registered who actually lived in Walthamstow. Walthamstow did not have elections, so the people were not voting twice. The people registered in Slough by the fraudsters were genuine people, with national insurance numbers and everything—they would have been A1 at Lloyd’s—but they just did not live there. They claimed to have moved just before the election and, curiously, moved back to their old houses just after the election. It was of course fraudulent, and not one of them had set foot outside Walthamstow. Their names were being used, with their permission and their connivance. If someone knows their national insurance numbers, it can be done without their connivance, because the signature on the application form for the postal vote can be replicated if someone has a copy of it.

National insurance numbers were not needed back in 2008, when I did Slough. It is difficult now to put a completely fictitious person on the register, but it is not difficult to harvest votes, with or without consent, from real people who live somewhere else. Of course, the old Irish habit was to vote the graveyard.

Lord Pickles:

In terms of warehousing, where the ballots are changed, the signature would not be touched because it is outside the envelope. It is the envelopes that are opened and the vote changed. The signature authenticates something that has been changed subsequently.

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

Q If I understand it correctly, Richard, in most cases it would require the consent of everyone involved. The people registered at an address that they were not actually living at would need to provide their national insurance numbers—they would have to be in on it. That makes it harder to do on a bigger scale, which feeds into your point that the smaller electorates of local government make it easier to manipulate the outcomes than in a parliamentary election. Given that, does it therefore follow that increasing the turnout at an election makes it harder to commit electoral fraud, so a higher turnout is a good mitigating factor against electoral fraud and a good weapon to combat it?

Richard Mawrey:

I think that is absolutely right, because fraud is obviously a relatively risky occupation, and the more bogus votes you have to put in, the more difficult it is. That is why it is very rare in parliamentary constituencies and would be completely unfeasible in any form of referendum, even a local referendum. However, when 50 or even 100 votes is likely to make a difference, then the game is worth the candle, unfortunately.

Lord Pickles:

To be clear, nobody really cares that much about Parliament. There is no money in Parliament. You would have to be certain that someone was eventually going to get to a point where they would actually be issuing contracts. However, there is plenty of money in local authorities. As you are probably well aware, there have been, I think, two attempts to unseat a Labour MP using these kinds of methods. Pleasingly, they fell well short, and I was pleased to offer help and assistance in that, because it is massively important that this place remains absolutely secure, but the real money is in local authorities, not here.

Richard Mawrey:

And, of course, a local councillor perversely has rather more influence, particularly in the sorts of boroughs where influence is perceived by the public to matter—“Oh, yes, he can swing this for me. He can swing that for me”—far more, curiously enough, than the MP himself or herself, who may be seen as a rather distant figure who you might go and moan to if your granny is not getting proper treatment from the NHS, or something like that. If I may say so with respect, you are not handling the readies: you are not dishing out jobs or contracts, and that is why people are keen to become local councillors. In some cases, it is a different sort of keenness from the keenness to become a Member of Parliament.

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

Q My final question is about the resources of local government, because under this legislation, local government will be asked to do more because of the requirement to issue free voter ID cards. Our electoral returning officers are quite stretched already, and the Association of Election Administrators has already made representations about the pressure on electoral registration officers. In terms of their ability to spot potential fraud, given the increase in workload and the cuts to local government, do you have concerns about the resources of local government to be able to do their jobs, frankly?

Richard Mawrey:

I know it is not in your Bill, but it occurred to me that a solution—although not necessarily one that the Electoral Commission would welcome—would be if the Electoral Commission had resources so that, if necessary, it could assign someone. If a local registration officer or returning officer said, “I think we have a problem, but we cannot handle it because we do not have the resources,” the Electoral Commission could, under this theory at least, put in what might be termed a hit squad to go and see what was going on and deal with it.

That would also have the benefit that this would be an independent, external body coming in, so the local councillors and the local officials would not be getting local flak. These would be people rather like the commissioners appointed by Lord Pickles to go into Tower Hamlets, who were completely independent of the borough and were therefore able to find out all about the financial misappropriations and so on. We have the ability to put in external people. Frankly, I would not necessarily rely on the police, because one, they are overstretched, and two, they do not have the available techniques, resources and skills to deal with this—and they hate doing it, and they make quite clear that they hate doing it. My suggestion is that the question of whether the Electoral Commission itself might be able to assist might at least be considered at some future time. I do not know whether you would go along with that.

Lord Pickles:

This is a really important question. If you go to a count, say for Parliament, the chief executive turns up or maybe the mayor, and I as the returning officer—the person who is doing the work is not them, and for too long, electoral registration has been in the legions of the damned. They are forgotten about and not properly resourced.

If chief executives understood that it was part of their terms of contract to deliver a fair poll, and that they would be personally held responsible, that would be an important point. The point that you make about electoral returns being poorly resourced is absolutely right. I do not think that it would take an enormous increase in resources to improve the situation, but what is in the Bill makes their life that bit easier because there are fewer things for them to worry about. I agree with the substantive point that you make.

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

I have a long list of Members who want to come in, so I ask Members to keep their questions short, and witnesses to shorten their answers. I will endeavour to get everyone in.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

I am seeking a comment on what I am about to read to you. I apologise to the Committee that what I am about to read is exceptionally offensive and, frankly, quite evil. This relates to the Batley and Spen by-election. This is something that happened in June of this year. What I am about to read to you we were not able to trace, no matter how hard we tried, but I seek your comments on it. This relates to your comment on religious pressure:Q

“Brothers & Sisters of Batley & Heckmondwike I am publicly calling out members of our communities who we have supported in the past: Shabbir Pandor, Ghulam Maniyar, Dr Rajpura and others who have shamelessly brought the Labour Candidate (who is openly Lesbian) to the ‘Masjids’ (the house of Allah) for votes. Would Allah be happy with their actions considering he destroyed the people of Lut A.S which is clearly referenced in the Holy Quran as a lesson for mankind? We are already powerless in schools against forced LGBT education and the effect it is having on our children. Must people from our community promote this agenda too? Mr Maniyar who is part of the Muslim burial committee is trying to land his daughter Fazila the job she previously had under the late Jo Cox. I ask him ‘Would you like to be buried with this on your conscience? You are promoting an MP that could potentially harm the Imaan of our children.’ This is not an endorsement of another party or candidate. I want you all as a community to understand that the blind loyalty to the Labour Party of these people for selfish gains be it ‘peerages’ or ‘better job roles’ is being asked FROM US at a cost of the corruption of our future generations. (PLS SHARE THE TRUTH SO PPL MAY KNOW)”.

I apologise for how offensive that was, but I think it is important to the Committee. That was in June of this year, in the parliamentary by-election. I seek your comments on what I have just read.

Richard Mawrey:

I quite agree with you that it is offensive, but there is an obvious line to be drawn regarding individuals expressing strong, perhaps bigoted, perhaps extreme religious or indeed ideological views, for example against LGBT people and so on. The key, I think, with religious influence is that, first of all, it has to be directed. Directed against a candidate is perfectly okay for what was, I think, section 115 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, because it is just as much an offence to try to get somebody unelected as to get a named person elected. Quite often if something false is spread about a candidate’s personal character, so as to engage, I think, section 113, it does not matter that that may not be directed to the election of any other person, but just in order to get a candidate unelected, as it were.

The point about religious influence is that it has to be a way of influencing people. The fact that somebody expresses a view such as that might just fall short. If that person were himself an imam, some other religious teacher, or somebody of standing within the community who is saying, “Don’t vote for this candidate because their views are against our religion,” then you probably might breach the threshold of undue influence, because people would be voting not on general principles but on strictly narrow sectarian principles. That would be true of any religion; it just happened in this case to be Muslim.

Lord Pickles:

I have nothing to add to that. I agree with everything that Richard said.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I have a couple of questions, directed to both of you, but I will start with Lord Pickles. You said that there have been some shocking examples of postal vote fraud, and you gave some examples. However, you said that it is not endemic in the system but that the system is vulnerable. Do you think that, with the system being vulnerable, we are missing an opportunity to tighten up on postal vote fraud in the Bill? It does not seem to be a huge part of the Bill. Given what you have said, the Bill seems to be almost looking in the wrong places to tighten up on fraud. Where could we tighten up more on the postal vote fraud that you say is not endemic but to which the system is vulnerable?Q

Lord Pickles:

Thank you. That gives me a brief opportunity to clarify the remarks. If postal vote fraud was widespread, it would be too late, and this place would be stuffed with people with a vested interest in keeping a vulnerable system. It is vulnerable. We have delineated a number of court cases, over several years, and showed how vulnerable it is. What we want to do is to close that.

Obviously, it is up to the Committee to move various amendments further to restrict postal votes. The recommendations that you have here plough a middle route between taking away from things that people have become very used to and restricting too much. For example, having to renew every three years is important; restricting the number of people who can handle postal votes is important. As Richard says, postal votes are by their very nature more vulnerable than votes at the polling station. Things like carousel fraud are no less possible, but they are hard to do.

You have to come to a judgment. Certainly, I would urge you to put down some amendments to test the Government on restrictions on postal ballots. However, in many ways the horse has bolted on that—people have become used to it. Going back so that everybody voted in person, except in cases of illness or business, would probably be a step too far, but it would certainly be worth putting down a probing amendment. Obviously, I am not saying to my Conservative colleagues that they have to vote for it, but nevertheless it would be a good debate.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The problem that you have both identified is around postal voting, and the examples of personation that you have given have been pretty few and far between. It is fair to say from what you have said that where the system is most vulnerable and weak is around postal voting.Q

Richard, you were talking about a particular culture that existed in Tower Hamlets and manipulation by religious means. You said yourself that that was an extreme case. The Tower Hamlets example has been used in previous debates to claim that voter ID cards are absolutely necessary. In your opinion, how would voter ID cards at polling stations have changed what you witnessed at Tower Hamlets?

Richard Mawrey:

Tower Hamlets would be a bad example. In Tower Hamlets, as I said, they virtually ticked every box of electoral offence. But for my being rather kind-hearted, they would have ticked the intimidation box as well—they ticked them all. Voter fraud played a very small part, funnily enough, in Tower Hamlets. There was a handful of personation cases. Because they were orchestrated by the candidate, they were enough, as it were, to get him over the line.

If you as the candidate, or as an agent of the candidate, procure one false vote, you are out. It is all or nothing: you do not have to show that it made a difference. There was simply a handful. I regret to say that, in that case, a number of people who were carrying out these frauds by registering themselves at the wrong address were people who were councillors who lived outside the borough and registered in the borough, but that was a rare occurrence.

Birmingham, in particular, Slough and Woking were all cases that were purely postal fraud. Voter ID at polling stations, frankly, is neither here nor there. Personation at polling stations is very rare indeed, because it is so dangerous—if someone turns up to a polling station and says, “I am Mr Jones of Acacia Avenue”, and somebody says, “I know Mr Jones; you are not him”, the next thing is a policeman’s hand on his shoulder and he’s up at the local Crown court—but postal vote personation, whereby you are voting in the name of a non-existent person or a person who lives somewhere else, is very difficult to detect and to trace. It is only when you have a full-scale petition that it comes to light and you are able to unseat someone.

Voter ID in polling stations is all right, but voter ID for the purposes of registering votes would require checking. If you do not have a mechanism to check—even just to spot check—then registering people at addresses where they do not live, which is the key to that sort of postal fraud, which is a form of personation, voter ID is going to be quite difficult to operate. What you need is simply to check that if Mr Jones is registered at 1 Acacia Avenue, there is a Mr Jones living there. That takes money and resources. We do not have an identity card system in this country, for good or ill, so there is no way, obviously, of cross-checking that. Voter ID only takes you so far with postal votes. Beyond that, the system is vulnerable, and necessarily vulnerable.

Lord Pickles:

Thank you for the really interesting question. I did not recommend photo ID, but I think things have moved on since then. I was very interested to see that the Government said that 98% of the population has some form of photo ID. To emphasise the importance of voting, to be able to demonstrate that you are that person by producing, in my case, my bus pass—I could not use my driving licence, because I still have a paper one; I am that old—or something from work is a very sensible process. It occurs to me that the 2% who do not have any kind of photo ID might in itself have a wider use beyond voting in a polling station. It is an important check and a way of emphasising the importance of the vote. If Barack Obama can sign for his ballot paper, which might be an alternative, it is not unreasonable to have the same level as we have for getting a pair of Nike trainers from Amazon.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

That is a purely subjective view. The fact that you did not recommend photo ID in your report and it is now being introduced would suggest that it is a solution seeking a problemQ .

Lord Pickles:

No, not really. I did bear in mind what had happened in Northern Ireland. I am sure you will recall that it started with paper ID for the first few years and then went over to photo ID. A lot of things have happened. Essentially, what the Government are suggesting, so far as I can follow what they are doing, is that we are moving to the Northern Ireland system without an intermediate stage with paper ID—

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Sorry, Lord Pickles, can I interrupt? Are you seriously suggesting that the situation in the United Kingdom in 2021 bears any similarity to the situation in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s?Q

Lord Pickles:

In what respect? I do not understand the question.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Well, you say we are moving to the Northern Ireland system. The Northern Ireland system was introduced for very specific reasons. Are you saying we should move to the Northern Ireland system because there are similarities between what is happening here in 2021 and what was happening in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s?

Lord Pickles:

I think you are putting words in my mouth. My remarks on Northern Ireland were restricted to the point that at first there was a paper check, and then photo ID. The Government are suggesting that we move on to photo ID now. What has changed since 2016 is the growth of photo ID. It is important to be able to demonstrate who you are when you go to the polling station, not just in order to deal with personation but to emphasise the importance of the vote. No doubt you will spend many happy hours together debating that point. I shall read the debates with great interest.

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

I wanted to pick up on your point about policing, Mr Mawrey. You have been very critical, in both your judgments and your previous evidence to Parliament, of the police and their determination not to get involved. My question is twofold. What does that imply about how many cases have not been brought that perhaps ought to have been? Does the Bill empower the police, and would you expect them to be more willing to be involved in future?Q

Richard Mawrey:

Those are two separate questions. One was whether the police are empowered. They have the necessary powers now. In the aftermath of my critical remarks in the Birmingham judgment, a number of forces had designated officers to deal with the issue, but for various reasons, there were never enough officers for some to be spared to deal with electoral matters only, so they tended to be somebody who added this issue to his or her other duties—say, with the fraud squad, or whatever it was. They did not have the time or resources, because obviously this was regarded—not unreasonably—by some police forces as being very low priority. They tend to think, “This is a squabble between politicians. Let them sort it out.”

In certain areas—Tower Hamlets is a good example—the police force was wary of the local politicians, who were, of course, only too anxious, particularly in the case of Lutfur Rahman, to meet any sort of criticism or investigation with cries of “Institutional racism!”, mentions of the Macpherson report, and all that. The police were wary of dealing with that. They have the powers; whether they have the resources and the will is an entirely different matter.

On whether lots of cases are going undetected, the answer is undoubtedly yes. It is very difficult to prove fraud, and when you have proved it, it is very difficult and time-consuming to prove who benefited from it. In some systems—in Australia, for example—you can prove fraud until you are blue in the face, but you no longer prove who benefited from it, so anyone elected with fraudulent votes stays elected. That is obviously not a good idea. What you see in the cases that I try is the tip of the iceberg, and those cases exist only because concerned citizens are prepared to put their money—their houses, sometimes—on the line in order to fight that fraud. You can end up, as the petitioners did in Tower Hamlets, with a large order for costs against someone who cheerfully declares themselves bankrupt, and you find yourself having spent a fortune doing what you think to be right, only to see none of that money back.

What the Bill does not deal with, although it might have done, is any reform of the process of electoral petitions, trying disputed elections, and all that—things on which Lord Pickles and I have given evidence on other occasions. I am sorry that it does not deal with that, but it is a big, long Bill; perhaps you will get round to it later. The idea that it should be made easier for elections to be challenged by citizens or candidates, and less expensive—

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

I am sorry; I have to come in there. We have one minute left, so we can have a very short question and answer.

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

I have a very short question. To clarify for the record, what was the proportion of postal vote fraud, as opposed to in-person, polling station fraud, in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham? I think you have said that all the fraud in Birmingham was postal votes, for example. Is that correct? What was the proportion in Tower Hamlets?Q

Richard Mawrey:

The proportion proved in Tower Hamlets was very small—really only a handful of votes were proved to be fraudulent. It was enough, because they had been orchestrated by the candidate himself.

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

Q Do you have the number of postal votes?

Lord Pickles:

To get a prosecution, you do not need to prove everything; you just need to prove some. I agree entirely with the point about electoral petitions. I would like to put that on the record.

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

Have the elections in Birmingham and Tower Hamlets—

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

Order. I am afraid that brings us to the end of the time allotted for this panel. On behalf of the Committee, I thank our witnesses for their evidence.