I am Rob Connelly. Thank you for inviting me. I am the returning officer for Birmingham City Council, and through my background as a lawyer I have dealt with Birmingham’s election challenges and petitions since 2004—hence the reason I ended up as the returning officer.
Q I am happy to go first. Good afternoon and welcome to both our witnesses. It is great to have you with us; thank you for giving up your time in all the ways that you do, including a sliver of that this afternoon.
Rob, if I may start with you, this question goes on from the conversation we have just been having, which I think you were listening to, about the ins and outs of voter identification. As you mentioned in your introduction, regrettably in Birmingham there is that history of having had a major fraud event. I am interested, first, in your reflections on leading a council out of and onwards from that, because it cannot have been easy to do that, and how you might go about trying to give confidence to the city’s citizens that they can trust in their elections.
If you need a moment to draw your breath, I will give you my second question as well, which is to invite you to provide some insights into the work you have been doing with other leaders of councils to look at what might be needed to implement voter identification—for example, training of polling staff, particular support that might be needed at polling stations and the many detailed questions that I know you have begun to give thought to.
I will take the first question to start off. As you say, Birmingham hit a low in 2004 with the various fraud cases that were going on, which resulted in a number of election results being set aside. I joined the elections office in 2009 in the capacity of a deputy returning officer, but even after five years we were still struggling to move away from those issues. I think it was not until 2018, when we had our last all-out elections, that I felt we were able to put the ghost of 2004 to bed for the final time.
When I joined in 2009, the biggest issue for me was not so much fraud itself, but the perception of fraud that remained. When allegations of fraud came up, they would be investigated; we were very lucky that West Midlands police took it seriously and had their own specialist unit that helped us with that. We would obtain evidence in polling stations and, if allegations came up about personation, for example, we would challenge it by asking, “What is your evidence?”
I remember something that put it into context for me. I asked a senior politician at the time what evidence he had of personation, and his response was, “I haven’t actually got any, but I just know it goes on.” That was not very helpful for me or West Midlands police in challenging it, so we decided to be quite “aggressive” in challenging people back: “Why do you think that? The data from our polling stations, which we get from our staff at the frontline, would actually paint a very different picture. There are very few allegations in that particular area of personation.”
We would start to understand why people could not vote—maybe because they were marked as a postal voter. What happened there? Again, we have started to establish slowly over time, certainly for our elected members, that we could be trusted, and it is about restoring that integrity. I think this is part of that road trip.
Q As a follow-up, if my memory serves me correctly the judgment in the Birmingham case—we had Richard Mawrey with us this morning—included quite a few scorching comments that you do have to look for such things. It is not enough to look away and claim that it is not plausible that it could be taking place, and therefore never be prepared to look for such evidence. In fact, he said you would have to be ostrich-like to not want to look for the evidence and make it better, as clearly you were seeking to do.
Absolutely. We cannot rest on our laurels simply because we do not know about it—that does not mean it cannot happen. Again, it comes back to that working partnership with West Midlands police, but also with all the political parties at a local level, because we often have post-election reviews with them. I go to my oversight committee, any issues are raised with me there and then, and we will take those away. If they have concerns and if we can improve things, we will work with them to implement those changes.
I suppose the way we get that is from the number of complaints about the process and, bearing in mind our electorate, we get very few. A lot of complaints come via members or MPs. We assure them about the processes, and we can have confidence that we have done everything we are supposed to do. I think that process does take time.
We have also been subject to a couple of reviews by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, where they have looked at it completely afresh and picked up a couple of issues, which we then dealt with. One of the biggest issues they came up with was, as an example, people in some communities go in and huddle together in the polling booth. We picked up on that very quickly and we sorted out giving instructions to all our staff on how to deal with it. We put up extra notices in polling stations saying only one person is allowed in at a time.
I also appointed some independent observers, such as former police officers and council employees, to go around independently—I would not know where they were going—to give me a warts-and-all impression of what it was like in our polling stations. I have nearly 500, so it is very difficult for me to know the ins and outs of every single one. That is why we put in extra resources—totally independent of me. The report is done and I then share that with my political groups, so they have it uncensored and we can work together to make those improvements.
When we learned about IDs potentially coming in, we set up a working group based on a number of authorities, mainly core cities. One of our concerns with the pilots was that they did not reflect a large urban area, such as Birmingham, Manchester or Liverpool. We had some very basic concerns about how it would work. I caught the tail end of the evidence of the previous session. We have the same issues: how can we do this? It has been calculated that about 2% of people have not got ID. That is the equivalent of 15,000 people in my electorate.
If they all come in during the election period, how can I make sure that no one will be disenfranchised? That is quite a big task, and that is the same across the board. We are working closely with Cabinet Office officials. We have the opportunity to put those questions to them and help them understand some of the issues we have at the coalface. That is sort of progressing. We are not just looking at voter ID. We are looking at all elements of the Bill. We have to be careful because it is not just about voter ID, but the impact of the whole Bill together and the impact that will have on administrators and our ability to deliver the election. There is an awful lot there, and it will impact us at a very particular time in the election process.
I have additional concerns from a Birmingham perspective, because potentially the first time this is introduced could be at a parliamentary election in 2024, as we will not have elections in 2023. That in itself would be a major concern for many. I do not think I am alone in that; there may well be other areas that will have that concern.
We meet monthly with the Cabinet Office. We take an element of the Bill, dissect it and feed back, and we are starting to get that information out. We have now started expanding. We have more authorities coming on board, who are very different from Birmingham and are more rural. How will they cope? We have asked the AEA and the Electoral Commission to start looking at it, so we have a joined-up look at how we can do this and give feedback to all administrators, to make sure they understand the implications and they can start planning now.
Q Louise, thank you so much for joining us and welcome to the Committee.
Acknowledging the breadth of what your members will be involved in, and I imagine you will be able to tell us a bit about how in many cases that spans from the registration process all the way through to delivery of polling day and much more, there is often discussion that says, “Well, let’s just get this done in our elections, let’s get that done. Let’s add a scheme here, add a scheme there.” I acknowledge that that can add up to a lot of asks on you and your teams, and those of your members.
With respect to overseas electors in this Bill, could you give us an insight into what has to be done at present to support the participation of overseas electors? What more do you think members will be doing to support a larger group of overseas electors being involved? Might you also make a comment about the number of days that you end up doing that during the election itself?
I would probably be right in saying that overseas electors is one of the areas that takes the most resource and the most ongoing year-round resource for most election teams. In many teams, there will be one person who is more or less dedicated to contacting overseas electors and reminding them to renew their registration. The proposal in the Bill to extend the period of time for which they can be registered without having to renew is welcome, in terms of reducing that burden.
As with all these things and a common phrase that you will hear us using, most registration events are driven by elections. We can do lots and lots of reminding, and we would, but it always tends to be the case that as soon as an election is announced, particularly a general election, suddenly people remember to renew their registration. It is a full-time, ongoing programme that takes an awful lot of time and energy.
During the run up to the election, when suddenly there is a whole load more work to do, it obviously diverts people who are also dealing with all the other many aspects of the election. The time by which people can register makes that particularly challenging, added to which you have the issue of postal votes. Naturally, the further away someone lives, the longer it takes for their postal vote to go out to them and the longer it takes to get back. There is an awful lot of trying to make sure that voters are enfranchised and have a vote, but also dealing with fall out and complaints when it gets to election day and their postal vote has not been received.
Yes, it is a huge amount of work and the proposal to extend the number of people who can be registered as overseas voters will obviously create even more work, but the idea that you can be registered for a bit longer now is welcome. I could not say how many days and I probably could not put a price on it either, but it is a lot and it will depend on how many overseas electors any particular registration officer has.
Q Picking up on a recent debate in Parliament, Louise, would I be right in thinking that you would not like to see the electoral timetable reduced from 25 working days?
Q Thank you very much for your insight. Is there any more that you would like to say about the particular processes that will be required to support overseas electors in demonstrating their connection to the constituency they are registering in?
As with all these things, some of the detail will come out in secondary legislation. At the moment, it is really tricky because registers are not nationally open. If someone has to show that they have not been on a register apart from in the constituency in which the particular registration office is operating, there is no way really of registration officers checking that, so in a sense it is taken on trust. There is no way for them to check the register even of a neighbouring constituency, let alone one at the other end of the country.
The obligation to be satisfied that someone has a local connection is obviously really time consuming, and it depends how well prepared the person wishing to register is and what evidence they can adduce. At the end of the day, the registration officer has to be satisfied. There is wording in one of the clauses around whether, had they applied a long time ago, they would have at that point been able to demonstrate a local connection, which all begins to get a little existential, almost, and very theoretical. We are not trained detectives, so there is a balance, as in all registration activity, between not wanting to make the requirements so tight that no one can ever be registered and ensuring that we are not registering people who are not entitled to be registered and might be constituency hopping, as it were, to find the most convenient place to register for a particular election depending on what is going on there.
Thank you very much for joining us. This morning, Richard Mawrey talked about the widescale postal vote fraud in Birmingham. What have you done to tackle that? What in the Bill helps you to further tackle that wide-scale postal vote fraud, and is anything missing from the Bill that would help you were it to be added?Q
I am not sure that something is missing from the Bill. What always surprises me is the number of postal votes that we get handed in on the day. We are talking perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 at a parliamentary election. We also recorded, as part of what happened, how many people brought the postal votes and in what numbers, and we often asked for names and addresses. There is no legal obligation to tell us, but in case there was a follow-up we tried to address that problem.
After the problems we had in Birmingham, the law was changed to deal with some of the issues that arose. To be honest, I am not aware that we have had major wide-scale problems in Birmingham, but it is not something that we can be overly confident can never happen again; it may do. We just have to be extra vigilant. That is where the joint working comes into play.
Restricting the number of postal votes that you can bring into a polling station may help, but we need to understand in a bit more detail the reasons behind it, because one of my concerns with the Bill is that you might be restricted to bringing in two postal votes into a polling station, but what is stopping you going to another polling station in the constituency and handing in another two? I also worry that by limiting it to such a small number we are potentially disenfranchising the honest person as opposed to your determined fraudster. A bit of work could be done around that.
Would it be safe to say that your biggest headache would be around postal voting, and being able to police how postal votes are managed and handled?Q
No, because with postal voting at the moment—I always put that qualification in—we have not had any issues. This is where we work closely with political parties, because we share information on how many we are getting back by ward and by constituency, so that they can spot any potential areas. We have always had a system in place that, if we have more than six new postal applications from a particular household, that would be flagged up and we would have a closer look. We have always put in measures to raise red flags. Individual registration and having to supply, for newer registers, national insurance numbers and dates of birth is helpful. We have the IT equipment whereby we do the signature checking, which is, again, very helpful. IT has moved on a lot since 2004.
Finally, how widespread have you found personation at polling booths since you joined the council in the early 2000s?Q
It is not a major issue that has been raised with me by either electors or political parties. We did keep some stats in polling stations as part of how to restore confidence in Birmingham. We would record, when someone came in, why they could not vote—for example, it could be that they come in and their surname is already marked off on the register. We have to do a number of years of research into that, looking, checking the numbers.
The two biggest reasons are, first, it was a simple error on the part of the poll clerk—often, it was a big family and they have just put the mark against the wrong person—and, sometimes, they came in but were marked as a postal voter. Again, it was a simple case of forgetting that they had applied for a postal vote. When we got that information back, we undertook that we would look at those cases, to establish whether there was any possible personation or other types of fraud. However, as I say, we have not picked that up and it has not come through to me from any source that personation has been a major problem. We cannot say that it has never happened or does not happen, because we do not know, but I am fairly confident that if it were widespread at a local level, it would have been picked up by party activists who would report it to us and to West Midlands police.
Just to echo what Rob said: the incidents of personation in all the years that I have been doing this have been zero—at least, that we have known about. There is a question about whether the cost and extra administrative burden of voter ID is strictly speaking necessary. As Rob said, it does not mean that it does not happen; we just do not know whether it has ever happened.
Q Louise, in your earlier remarks, you were talking about overseas electors and how administering the applications and registrations for voting takes up the most time of electoral officers. With the removal of time limits—the 15-year limit on that connection—how much more resources would you expect local authorities to have to make available to service overseas electors? Also, you said that when overseas electors registered, there was an element of having to take it on trust. Do you believe that potentially opens it up to electoral fraud by overseas voters?
In relation to the additional work created by removing the time limit, it is hard to say at this stage. It will depend on take-up. We do not have—or I certainly do not have—any access to any information about how many people who have moved abroad but have not been on the register might now suddenly decide that they want to be. It is a bit of a “How long is a piece of string?” question. What local authority election teams will not be in the business of is gearing up to a just-in-case position. They will have to wait and see, prudently, what extra work comes their way.
On fraud, I do not think that is so much the issue as it is that if somebody has fallen off the register, as it were, then reapplied to be an overseas elector, they cannot have been on the register in a different place from the one they are now applying to. That is the bit where we cannot necessarily check that they have not been, but it does not mean that they are not entitled to be an elector in this country: it might just be that the place they are trying to be an elector in might not strictly speaking be the place they ought to be an elector in.
Q I have a couple of questions for Rob. In your opening remarks, you mentioned how you had managed to put the “ghost of 2004” behind you in Birmingham. Does that mean the existing legislation on the statute books has clearly been sufficient for your council to turn that around?
Q In your opening remarks, you said that you had moved on, in that this was no longer the problem that it was in 2004. Does that indicate that the current legislation is sufficient to combat the problems that you faced in Birmingham?
I would come back to the point that we can never rest on our laurels. There is always room for improvement. If we think something would improve the perception of the integrity of our system, I am all for it. As I said, the biggest problem for me was not about fraud itself; it was about the perception and how we dealt with that. For me, people have to have confidence in the system, otherwise how can they have confidence in their elected officials? That has always been the starting point.
That is why we have always gone over and above our statutory obligation. I know we had no alternative, but we found it beneficial. If we do more, we restore that integrity and confidence. I have read in recent reports that there is a fairly high confidence level in our electoral system at the moment, but, again, if we can improve it, we should look to do so at every opportunity.
Q My final question is about the practicalities of a local authority running the polling stations. The legislation would require voters to show photo ID. The Minister has said in the House that there would be provision for privacy screens so that voters who wear headscarves for cultural or religious reasons can prove their identity. I think you said that you have about 500 polling stations in Birmingham.
We have been talking about this as two considerations, really. We will have to start reviewing all our polling stations again to be able to have privacy screens in place, because some of them can be fairly small. We have a couple of huts, and we would have to revisit those. Again, on polling day, I probably employ around 2,500 all told, including the count, and maybe 1,600 at polling stations alone. Our ability to put a female poll clerk or member of staff in each one is something that will cause us some headaches, and we will have to revisit all our processes to make sure it happens. As it is, we struggle to recruit and retain staff, who come to the polling station literally for one day a year. They do not do it for the money; they do it because they want to part of the process—I am a very firm believer in that. That is a concern for me.
Q Rob, I have just consulted the oracle that is Google by putting in “Birmingham electoral fraud”. It goes all the way back to 2005, and then there are articles from 2011. Interestingly, one from 2016 says:
“20,000 voters vanish from Birmingham’s electoral roll”.
That was around the time that individual electoral registration came in. Obviously, a lot of work has been done to combat some of that fraud already, and you should be commended for that, as yours is the largest authority in Europe. How far do you think the measures in the Bill will go towards challenging the perception of fraud, which is still there?
Secondly, you have both said that there are fairly low levels, or no levels, or personation that you know of. Do you accept that, although there is no voluminous information, it is quite an easy thing to do? By using a bit of nous or looking at a marked register, you can work out who does not normally vote, rock up and claim to be them, and vote without any challenge. Do you accept that the measure will go some way to adding extra safeguards to prevent that from happening in great numbers without detection?
The short answer is that, for ID, I think it will, yes. I do not know whether Louise has anything to add to that. It will add to that protection, and it will stop your casual fraudster from thinking, “Actually, I know they’re not here, so I’ll nip down to the polling station and act as Joe Bloggs.” It will prevent that type of scenario.
I think it is self-evident that if people have to produce some form of ID, it minimises the risk of fraud in so far as there is any. Although confidence in elections is really high—the Electoral Commission’s report, which was published yesterday, made that clear—some people certainly raise the odd eyebrow when you explain to them that they do not have to prove who they are, so it probably would help with confidence, yes.
Q Rob, I would like to go back to the practicalities and your thinking about how you would roll out voter ID. How many additional staff do you think you would need all year round for the applications that come in? We heard earlier that Northern Ireland has ID clinics. How many additional staff do you think you would need for the election period and on the day itself?
To add to that, which groups are you concerned might be disenfranchised by this measure, meaning that you would be working harder to include them? We have had representations from organisations representing older people, people with disabilities, people who are black, Asian or minority ethnic, and women fleeing domestic violence, for example. Are you concerned about those groups, and might other groups be disenfranchised?
First, in terms of staffing numbers, I do not know the honest answer to that. We are trying to figure that through. I am already very much leaning towards saying that this cannot sit with my core elections office, because it is too big. What I would worry about is that they become swamped and that they will not be able to deal with their core election job: delivering the election itself.
I was interested when Virginia talked about 70 additional staff at the time; I had not even thought that it would be that high. To be honest, that is going to have to be a corporate response from the whole local authority. It is not something that returning officers can do in isolation. I am absolutely certain of that now. We have tried to figure out what that could look like, but until we know a bit more detail it is quite difficult. One of the questions that I have raised is, as I have 10 parliamentary constituencies, do I just have one core centre, or do I have to have something in each constituency to ensure that I do not have any barriers to people coming in? Why should they have to come into the city centre? I do not know.
In terms of who it potentially disenfranchises, that is a really good question. Back in November, I brought a report to one of my committees in the city council, just to flag that voter ID was potentially going to be introduced. They are better placed than I am to identify the vulnerable groups within their communities, so I am going to push the burden on them a bit to tell me who those communities are—older people, students or vulnerable people. I get on my hobbyhorse about students, because my son is 19 and at university. He has already lost two forms of ID, and that was during lockdown—[Laughter.] My advice to him would be: go to your local elections office and get an ID card. I know that it will not have any date of birth, as I understand it, but you have to be 18 to vote, so over time that could itself drive demand.
The other, related scenario is that my son is registered in Nottingham and in Birmingham. If he had lost his ID—like his passport—would he have to come back to Birmingham to collect something and then return to Nottingham to vote? The way the Bill is currently worded is that you will potentially have to make a declaration that you have no other forms of photographic ID. That is just one of those little areas that I had not given much thought to until my son was asking for something to replace his driver’s licence. We automatically assume that, because they are younger, students have ID, but that is not always the case. We have to be a bit wary of that.
Some of my members have said to me, “I don’t have any current form of photo ID.” These are people in their mid-30s or mid-40s. Again, until we actually get into the nitty-gritty of it and put it into practice, I am not sure whether we will entirely know—until the day or week itself.
Q Louise, my sense is that you are pretty sceptical that much voter personation actually occurs. It was interesting to hear Mr Connelly talk about the difficulties that young voters may have in having voter ID easily to hand. My view is that simple systems boost participation and simple messages are key. What measures do you think you will have to use across the UK to inform our diverse communities that they will need voter ID, and what are your concerns?
I think that it will need to be tackled on a whole range of fronts. There will be a national campaign, and obviously the Electoral Commission will have a massive role to play in relation to that. However, if you take the vaccination programme, which was the most recent analogous experience, our experience is that small and local works. In Merton, as in many other councils, we used local community champions, in some cases from the same ethnic backgrounds as some of the harder-to-reach groups: younger people and older people who can actually talk to people who may be less inclined to, or may not even know that they need to, apply for voter ID in a language and with experience that those people can tune into. It will take a huge concerted effort by the Government, the Cabinet Office, the Electoral Commission and local returning officers.
To pick up what Rob was saying about voter ID cards not being an electoral services responsibility, teams in London range from three to five people, so there is no way they can take on issuing voter ID cards in the middle of an election—as I said, I suspect that, however long the run-up, that is when all the pressure will be piled on. This is a corporate responsibility, and returning officers, generally speaking, are senior managers or chief executives in councils, so they will need to mobilise all their colleagues and make sure that everybody puts all hands to the pump so that we do not disfranchise people.
Q I have two questions for Rob. In her evidence, the returning officer from Peterborough outlined that they had explored using CCTV in their polling stations. Could you comment on whether you have done the same and on whether that would be of benefit? Could you also outline whether all your polling station clerks are fully trained in the applicability of tendered ballots?
CCTV is something we explored in around 2010 or 2011, but we had a number of concerns, including that it might go the other way and affect people’s confidence in the system, in that they might be worried that we were spying on them or would be able to identify how they were voting. We opted not to go down that route. We invested more in additional training for our staff. We even considered looking at CCTV outside polling stations for people who were entering. Again, we did not think, if there were allegations of personation, that that would really help us. We had discussions with West Midlands police about the evidential side of that, and CCTV would not necessarily help you identify who had committed any crime of personation or when. We know it would have been very difficult to prove. As I say, we invest more in our staff who are delivering the ballot papers, and what have you.
In terms of the question about tendered ballot papers, that is something we make sure we reiterate every election. We introduced a form for our polling station staff. If they gave out a tendered ballot paper, they had to give an explanation as to why—what was the reason? We would then spend some time collating that information post-election. That would do two things. One, if there were particular problems with particular polling stations and polling station staff, we could pick that up with them to find out why they were doing those things and fix that for next time. Two, we would then report that back to our members and give out numbers over the whole city, saying that x number of tendered ballot papers had been issued and giving the reasons why. I will be honest with you: there were times when they were probably issued wrongly, but that helped identify the issue so we could eliminate that from the process.
Q Mr Connelly, you were asked a moment ago about disenfranchisement, with specific reference to the first clause in the Bill, on voter ID. Although the Bill has one clause relating to voter ID, it has five clauses relating to proxy and postal voting. We heard really powerful evidence about that from Mr Mawrey QC this morning. When he was asked his view about disenfranchisement, his evidence, which was absolutely stark, was that it was the Bangladeshi community who had had their votes stolen and harvested and who were overwhelmingly disenfranchised as a result of voter fraud. Would you agree with that expression of opinion?
I should make it absolutely clear that he was making direct reference to Tower Hamlets in that series of questioning. Rather than pinning it all on the Bangladeshi community, what I really want to focus on is that it tends to be minority communities who have had serious examples of electoral fraud—the kind of fraud that is dealt with in the proposed legislation. That is the area where most disenfranchisement has taken place historically.
As an example of that, there was a local election in which complaints were raised with us about potential fraud in the community by one of the candidates. People were potentially going to polling stations, and what have you. We did additional training for our polling station staff in that particular ward—myself and a police officer from West Midlands police—to explain what the particular allegations were and also what they could do to identify offending. In the petitions we have had, people have questioned the integrity of our polling station staff, which we vigorously defend, because 99.9% of the time they are absolutely honest. As I say, they come in for one day a year and without them we cannot deliver elections.
The sort of scenario you are talking about is often identified before an election, because the communities can sometimes be split by party lines. They will flag these issues up with us and we will work not only with the police, but with the political parties. I always think that to combat fraud, there are three parts of the jigsaw puzzle: the returning officer, the police and the political parties. If they all work together, that is how you combat fraud.
West Midlands police always have done because of what happened in 2004 and the criticism they got at the time. It was a lesson well learned for them. Ever since then, they have taken such allegations very seriously. We work very closely with them and we have a point of contact. We will meet them in early January or in February to start preparing for the next May elections.
Q You said in your evidence that a feature of elections in Birmingham in the past has been people turning up at polling stations with a collection of ballots. That is a feature I know all too well from Peterborough—it happens all the time. There is clear evidence of postal vote harvesting. I know that it goes on. We see people knocking on doors down the street collecting ballot papers and postal votes. Do you feel that the provisions in the Bill will go some way to ending what is a pretty murky practice?
They do—I would like to think so. One thing we have to be careful about is that if we introduce voter ID, one of the unknown consequences could be that people say, “I can’t be bothered to go and get my ID card.” Will they then think, “I’ll go and get a postal vote instead.”? We just have to be mindful of that.
Q What about party activists collecting ballot papers and handing them in? The Labour party once had its own mock ballot box that it was taking around and asking people to put their votes into. I think we can all agree that that is a practice we ought to end, and we could end it.
The Labour party have signed undertakings before every election following that. It gets undertakings from its candidates and activists that they will abide by all the guidance. It shares that with me and gives clear instructions that, certainly in Birmingham, its party activists will not go anywhere near postal votes.