Sunday, 29 April 2012

Is Tower Hamlets vote fraud really unprecedented?

It is clear from the comments following this post on Trial by Jeory and recent national newspaper coverage that concern is growing about election fraud in Tower Hamlets. Councillors say the evidence is unprecedented.

In his piece Ted Jeory writes: "The council consistently tells us there isn’t a problem. They point to the lack of prosecutions and boast of their stringent controls."

Here's an example of how council officers dealt with unprecedented election fraud evidence back in  2006 - just in case anyone expects them to do anything helpful.

While everyone focuses on the big elections (General or London Mayor) any fraud is unlikely to have a significant effect. However local elections, particularly ones that involve the distribution of cash in poor areas, are a different matter.

In 2006 the residents of the Ocean Estate in Stepney had to decide whether to pass responsibility for their homes away from the council to Sanctuary Housing Association. A "yes" vote would have unlocked a huge stash of regeneration cash (as much as £330 million).

In its wisdom the council - which had initiated the ballot and wanted to ditch its responsibility for the estate - decided that this was a good time to test out a new telephone voting system.

But concerns were raised  and they didn't come from any old member of the public. They came from a Special Branch officer investigating what appeared to be a rash of election fraud in the borough during the 2005 General Election.

In a meeting the officer told Isabella Freeman -  who is still the council's chief legal officer - that telephone voting on the Ocean Estate might not be a good idea.

There were a number of reasons for concern. One was that, during the 2005 elections, dozens of postal votes appeared to have been redirected to the addresses of senior figures then running the Shahjalal Mosque and Community Centre on the estate. It appeared that some of those votes may have been redirected without the knowledge of the voters they belonged to. The mosque and its community centre would have benefitted directly from a 'yes' vote.

Another concern was that election fraud on the estate was notoriously high anyway, particularly those that selected the board of the Ocean Estate's New Deal for Communities (Ocean NDC) which ran a £50 million budget. The frauds and attempted frauds during those board elections had been reported over a number of years by Returning Officers (pic below) and had led to all voters having to provide photo ID.

The plan to introduce a telephone voting system was hatched when the  stakes were higher than ever - and the likelihood of fraud even higher.

It was also clear that the mosque and its community centre were key players and had a financial incentive to support the "yes" vote. At the same time there were unanswered questions about the activities of some of its members in the previous election.

Following the meeting in which Isabella Freeman was warned of the potential threat of fraud a council spokesperson emailed an acknowledgment that at meeting concerns had been raised "in relation to the integrity of the voting process, with particular reference to telephone voting" but said that the council would go ahead and use the telephone voting system anyway, saying: "Having reviewed the process we consider that it fully meets the requirements for an independent secure ballot."

The council statement also acknowledged that the mosque and community centre would be a major beneficiary of a "Yes" vote in favour of the Housing Association taking over the estate.

The email said: "This is not unusual, Sanctuary (Housing Association) has shown a commitment of assisting with the community aims of those on the estate. Sanctuary have confirmed that they have supported the Shahjalal Community Centre by contributing to set up costs and furnishings. Sanctuary have also used that centre for bookings, again this is not unusual as its part of Sanctuary’s commitment to help the community."

"None of these things are unlawful in terms of the ballot process. A Housing Association is free, prior to the ballot to indicate what it will do for the community if the ballot is in favour of transfer."

The council was  also unconcerned that the mosque and it's yet-to-be investigated leaders were promoting the "yes" vote and had a financial interest in the outcome. It said: "You have concerns about the Mosque promoting the ‘yes’ vote for Sanctuary in the light of the benefit direct/indirect it may receive from Sanctuary. I can confirm that It is not unlawful for the Mosque to tell its congregation to vote for Sanctuary, in the same way as the anti stock transfer groups make their views widely known by lobbying tenants."

The result. The telephone voting went ahead but the heavily mobilised anti council transfer 'no' vote had already taken a hold on the estate, winning the ballot.

Most bizarre was that the Special Branch officer who raised the concern was removed from his post about two weeks later.I don't know why or by whom.

An alarming quote from Election Commissioner Richard Mawrey's judgement following Birmingham's notorious 2004 electoral fraud epidemic might explain why nothing is done until the whole country sees a council in crisis.

 "This (the failure of the police to investigate electoral fraud - and council officers too) is not helped by the invidious position in which a police force (and council officers) is put when investigating electoral fraud in a local authority context.

"The alleged fraudsters may, after all, be members of the political authority to which the force is answerable. The noble cop who fights corruption at City Hall at risk of his career may well be a staple of Hollywood movies but he is much rarer in real life."

I had a look at some of this stuff here.

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