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13.08.15

Pickles to probe election fraud after Tower Hamlets scandal

Sir Eric Pickles has announced today (13 August) plans to review election fraud to determine what needs to be changed after a “wake-up call” from the recent election court ruling in Tower Hamlets.

The Cabinet Office has appointed Pickles, the communities secretary from 2010-15, as the country’s ‘anti-corruption champion’ to head the eight-week investigation alongside relevant bodies.

He is due to report back to Whitehall by the end of the year with a series of proposals to stamp out electoral dishonesty.

Pickles said: “The recent election court ruling in Tower Hamlets is a wake-up call that state bodies need to do far more to stamp out corruption and restore public confidence. Financial and electoral sleaze go hand in hand – if a dodgy politician is willing to break election law, they will not hesitate to syphon off taxpayers’ money for their own ends.”

Despite the initiative, the government has guaranteed there is no reason to believe fraud is widespread but they “cannot know how much goes undetected”.

The press release did not confirm any further suspicion of corruption, saying only that it is important to “close down any opportunities to commit fraud, whether that is on the basis that actual evidence shows that vulnerabilities are being targeted by fraudsters, or because there is a potential risk or weakness in the system”.

It said it is important to keep the system “under review to ensure it remains robust”.

Pickles will seek evidence from bodies such as the Electoral Commission, the Law Commission, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, and those involved in running elections or interested in the field.

John Penrose MP, minister for consultation reform, said that in a “changing world we can’t rest on our laurels” and added: “We must spot new or growing weaknesses in our election system, and fix them before they turn into a problem like Tower Hamlets.

“Sir Eric’s work will provide the facts we need to do this properly and, with his years of experience with local government, he’s the perfect man for the job.”

After the mayor of Tower Hamlets was found guilty in April of corrupt and illegal practices over his election, the High Court judge concluded that the mayoral election for the east London borough should be re-run. Lutfur Rahman was found to be involved in several offences including vote rigging and using local grants to buy votes.

Early in May the Electoral Commission removed Tower Hamlets First (THF), Rahman’s party, from the register of political parties.

Pickles wrote in an article for the Telegraph yesterday (12 August): “As a minister, I found within Whitehall a complete reluctance by officials to tackle action on the warnings from local councillors and journalists of systematic corruption in the Tower Hamlets mayoral administration. Yet when I subsequently sent forensic investigators into Tower Hamlets, they quickly found shocking financial irregularities. These were only the tip of the iceberg – further cases of alleged planning irregularities and financial misconduct couldn’t be followed up due to documents disappearing or written records not being kept.

“I believe electoral malpractice is far more common than just one isolated London borough. But there is a collective state of denial: if you don’t bother to lift the rock, you won’t see what’s crawling underneath. The respected anti-corruption expert, Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, last year estimated that there were 6.5 million “ghost voters” on our electoral registers – those who have moved, died, or were mistakenly or fraudulently entered on to the register.

“Insufficient checks are made to ensure voters are genuine. If a town hall can demand identification to borrow a library book, it’s not beyond the wit of officialdom for the same body to check when someone casts a vote at a polling station.

“Over the next few months, I will be gathering evidence before reporting to the Prime Minister on what further steps are necessary to stamp out voter registration fraud and error; postal voting fraud; impersonation; bribery’ and undue influence and intimidation.”

The plans to investigate electoral corruption coincide with an announcement from the Cabinet Office yesterday (12 August) that individual electoral registration has hit a “major milestone”.

It was introduced a year ago to “reduce the likelihood of fraud and improve the accuracy of the register” and has now reached 10 million voter registrations, with 77% of them made online.

Penrose said the new system introduces “proper checks on every elector’s identity”, helps remove phantom voters and can reduce the risk of electoral fraud “dramatically”.

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