Tower Hamlets election petition case – the council’s view

Oh dear. It’s all started again <sigh>. The election petition hearing starts today at the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand and we can be assured of all sorts of fun and games for the next couple of months.

In a few words this case, which is not a criminal trial, is a legal challenge to the validity of the May 2014 Tower Hamlets mayoral election by Andy Erlam, Debbie Simone, Azmal Hussein and Angela Moffatt .

Below is the full text from the Tower Hamlets council webpage setting out some basic information. This can be found in the ‘Setting the record straight’ section of the site. George Orwell would be proud.

Oddly enough there is no mention of the findings of the PwC report into the antics over at Mulberry Place.

But you can find the PwC report, commissioned by the DCLG, here. Well worth a read.

The election petition case

The election petition case started on February 2, 2015 at the Royal Courts of Justice.

John Williams, Returning Officer for Tower Hamlets, said: “All of the allegations made by the Petitioners against me or my staff are denied.  We used some of the most robust processes in the country to ensure that we delivered a free and fair local election in 2014.

“The role of Returning Officer is politically neutral and my only objective is to ensure that the election is administered fully in accordance with the law.

“In line with the Commissioner’s request, we will continue to avoid the release of court sensitive information into the public domain.”

Questions about the election petition

What is an election petition?

An election petition refers to the procedure for challenging the result of a Parliamentary election or local government election in the United Kingdom.

When a petition is lodged against an election return, there are four possible outcomes:

  1. the election is declared void. The result is quashed and a writ is issued for a new election
  2. the election is held to have been undue: the original return is quashed, and another candidate is declared to have been elected
  3. the election is upheld, and the member returned is found to have been duly elected
  4. the petition is withdrawn. This may occur when the petitioner fails to attend a hearing, or when Parliament is dissolved before the petition process is complete.

Why is an election petition being held in Tower Hamlets? 

Four residents of Tower Hamlets (Andrew Erlam, who stood unsuccessfully to be elected as councillor for the Red-Flag Anti Corruption Party in Bow East in the local 2014 elections; Debbie Simone, who stood unsuccessfully to be elected as councillor for Labour in Canary Wharf in the 2014 local elections; Azmal Hussein and Angela Moffatt) launched an Election Petition against the person elected as Mayor, Mr. Lutfur Rahman and the Returning Officer, Mr. John S. Williams, who are the Respondents of the petition.

Tower Hamlets Council is not a respondent in the petition, and acts as a neutral party throughout the process; the election petition, a legal process, has been raised by residents of the borough and must be responded to.

Why is a Returning Officer appointed?

Every council in England is required to appoint an officer of the council to be the Returning Officer for the election of councillors to their local authority. The role is politically neutral and the Returning Officer is responsible for the administration of elections.

The role does not report to the Mayor of a council, but to the council itself, with responsibilities also to the government’s Cabinet Office and the Electoral Commission – an independent organisation that monitors elections across the UK.

What is the function of the Mayor?

The elected Mayor is responsible for proposing policies and setting priorities, and ensuring that they get delivered. He must also ensure that all council services are delivered effectively and efficiently.

The Mayor has executive powers with the authority to delegate work through the appointment of a Cabinet of between two and nine council members. The Mayor must appoint a Deputy Mayor from among the Cabinet Members. It is up to the Mayor whether he shares executive powers with those councillors or has a cabinet of advisors, with power over decisions still resting with the Mayor.

Executive functions cover most areas of council activity but some functions for example regulatory functions such as planning and development, licensing and appeals remain the responsibility of cross-party committees of councillors. The appointment and dismissal of staff is also a non-executive function.

The Mayor exercises powers within the budget agreed by council and is held to account by the Overview and Scrutiny Committee. There is also an Audit Committee and the council’s expenditure and performance is externally audited annually.

Who pays for the election petition? 

Individual parties to the election petition are responsible for making arrangements to fund their involvement in the election petition process.

The Election Court Commissioner may make directions about how costs associated with the Election Petition proceedings will be awarded.

Is this legal process a good use of council funds?

The election petition, a legal process, has been raised by residents of the borough and must be responded to.

The council’s statutory insurance and risk related policies provide support for the Returning Officer throughout the election petition process, because the Returning Officer is responsible for the delivery of the elections – a statutory duty for the council; the Returning Officer is politically neutral and the role is appointed with the support of Full Council.

Why is the Mayor not given financial support from the Council during the election petition? 

Lutfur Rahman is responding to the election petition in his capacity as a Candidate during the 2014 Mayoral elections, not as Mayor of the council.

The council has published information about the pre-election period in 2015, ahead of the Parliamentary elections.

The Electoral Commission have said that Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities tend to be associated with a ‘higher risk’ of electoral fraud. Is this how the Mayor got elected in 2014?  

Tower Hamlets was not approached or involved in the interview sample that shaped the two reports, commissioned by the Electoral Commission (EC), on electoral fraud in Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.

In July 2014, the Electoral Commission issued a report looking at lessons learned from the local elections across the UK. The EC noted that they were “pleased to see that our recommendations were implemented and there was no repeat of the earlier problems” in Tower Hamlets’ electoral process at the Blackwall and Cubitt Town ward elections.

Tower Hamlets has complied fully with the recommendations of the Electoral Commission in its preparations ahead of the Parliamentary General Elections: the Returning Officer has published overall plans for the management of the count and the Returning Officer has  considered all possible options for suitable venues for future counts, with space for sufficient numbers of count staff and others entitled to attend. Those attending the count will be subject to a behaviour code. These details were published in December 2014.

The following areas in London were included in the reports on electoral fraud in Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities: Redbridge (Cranbrook Ward); Newham (Little Ilford); areas in the rest of the UK included: Peterborough (Central); Derby (Arboretum); Sheffield (Darnall); Oldham (Coldhurst); Pendle (Reedley); Leeds (Gipton and Harehill ward).

In July, 2014, the Electoral Commission published a report noting: “For the May 2014 elections, our research showed that almost nine in ten voters (88 per cent) were confident that they were well run – 97 per cent of polling station voters and 96 per cent of postal voters said they were satisfied with their experience of voting.”

What is the council doing to combat electoral fraud?

In July 2014, the Electoral Commission published a report which recognised that the measures Tower Hamlets put in place to combat fraud were some of the most detailed and robust in the country and that our response, alongside the Police, to allegations of fraud was prompt and thorough.

As the Commission also stated, responsibility for protecting the integrity of elections in Tower Hamlets rests not only with the Returning Officer and the Police but also with political parties, candidates and other campaigners.

The Council welcomed the Commission’s recommendation that all parties sign up to the borough’s Local Protocol, which was developed with the police and the Electoral Commission to ensure a free and fair electoral process in Tower Hamlets.

Among the safeguards to prevent fraud in Tower Hamlets:

  • Police were based at every polling station on election day and a mobile police team was available to respond to reported incidents
  • Police were tasked with preventing large groups of supporters from congregating around polling stations and obstructing voters
  • a direct dedicated email address for agents and candidates was established to report concerns
  • allegations made to the Returning Officer were investigated fully and responded to within 24 hours. If the Returning Officer passed an allegation to the police, they responded within 48 hours
  • extra training for polling officers around challenging voters was provided
  • at the beginning of March letters were sent to every property in the borough confirming who the council had registered at the property
  • all late registration and absent vote applications were verified against other council records
  • election officers increased the number of visits they made to check properties
  • party campaigners were discouraged from handling postal votes and asked not to assist with the completion of ballot papers.

A new protocol, based on lessons learned and the successes of the 2014 elections in Tower Hamlets will be developed in conjunction with the police and the Electoral Commission.

Have you considered banning postal voting?

No. This would require a change in the law. In Tower Hamlets, absent voting figures are in line with many other London boroughs; about 16 per cent of electors in Tower Hamlets have opted to vote by post.

When will the election petition finish? 

The Election Petition trial will start on February 2, 2015. The Commissioner has stated that he expects the proceedings to conclude before Easter 2015 (i.e. up to nine weeks).

When do the 2015 Parliamentary Elections begin?

The UK Parliamentary General Election will take place on May 7, 2015. In Tower Hamlets, seats for the Bethnal Green and Bow, and Poplar and Limehouse constituencies will be contested.

Parliament will be dissolved on March 30, 2015, which date marks the official start of the ‘short campaign’.

A new protocol, based on lessons learned and the successes of the 2014 elections in Tower Hamlets will be developed in conjunction with the police and the Electoral Commission.

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