Watchdog tells of chaotic Tower Hamlets poll count
Electoral Commission finds Tower Hamlets count of mayoral, local and European elections in May was poorly resourced.
An east London borough’s election count that took more than five days to complete and is at the centre of a high court challenge has been criticised by a watchdog which has ordered that all election officials and agents only speak English in future to prevent suspicion of wrongdoing.
An Electoral Commission report found that Tower Hamlets’ count of mayoral, local and European elections in May was inadequately resourced and poorly organised as the incumbent independent mayor, Lutfur Rahman, successfully fought off a challenge by Labour.
In Tower Hamlets, the watchdog suggests that the election agent John Williams should publish a plan for next year’s general election before December.
It comes as the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, accused Tower Hamlets council of not providing key information in an independent investigation into its management.
Pickles told the House of Commons on Monday that a PricewaterhouseCoopers study into the administration would continue beyond the agreed timeframe and he has ordered the council to pay the costs.
“The investigators PwC have informed me the council has considerably delayed the investigation by delaying the provision of key information or simply not providing it at all,” he said.
The report paints a chaotic portrait of the count over several days in May during which supporters of Rahman gathered outside the building in their hundreds, while inside there was little order among counters, agents and observers.
However, it does not address many of the most serious allegations surrounding the count because of a pending election petition challenging the victory of Rahman.
Allegations which were put aside by the commission include intimidation of voters, presence of people not entitled to attend the count, the impact of the large numbers of Rahman’s supporters at the count, and the separation of ballots and counting of votes.
The report found that slow access to the count venue and the inadequate management of resources meant there were not enough count staff.
To ensure that similar problems do not occur at next year’s general election, the report recommends that Williams publish an election plan by December as well as arranging a suitable venue.
The report also suggests that at future elections, staff and those attending should only speak in English. “Several submissions also expressed concern about some counting agents and other attendees talking to count staff in Bengali, which meant that other observers could not understand what had been said,” the report said.
Representatives of the two main parties said they remained sceptical about the commission’s ability to ensure confidence in the electoral system in Tower Hamlets.
Rushanara Ali, the Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, said she welcomed the report but stopped short of immediately supporting its conclusions.
“There remain serious and fundamental concerns about the way in which both the election and the count were conducted, and we will need to consider whether the Electoral Commission’s report and recommendations go far enough,” she said.
Peter Golds, the leader of the council’s Conservatives, said that the commission has been given many warnings about electoral irregularities in the past but failed to do anything about it.
“In 2013, the commission earnestly published a report on the 2012 elections in which they made suggestions as to the improvement of elections in Tower Hamlets.
“If anything, 2014 was worse than 2012. The commission were warned about inappropriate count venues and an untransparent process. Rather than merely hoping for improvements, action needs to be taken,” he said.
Pickles’ inquiry is examining allegations that Rahman’s administration has sought to gain votes with favourable grants to Bangladeshi and Somali-led organisations, waved through property deals without guaranteeing value for money and used council funds improperly to enable self-promotion.
The high court petition claims groups of people had been paid to stand outside polling stations and convince voters to back the mayor.
The claims have been denied by Rahman’s team, who say all of the main parties have accepted the election result.
- The Guardian,