Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 184-199)

16 MARCH 2004


  Q184 Chairman: I understand that you do not want to be individually named. That is perfectly all right. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?

  Representative A: I am quite happy to use my name in here; it is just that we have asked obviously that it does not go beyond these four walls if that is possible.

  Q185 Chairman: Right. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?

  Representative A: No, thank you. Please go on.

  Q186 Mr Betts: I must apologise that I am going to have to leave shortly after I have asked my questions. It is nothing that you will have said that causes me to leave the room. Is the reality of the situation not that in most police forces up and down the country there is not a great deal of knowledge about electoral fraud and probably even less interest in it?

  Representative A: If I may take the last part of your question first. On interest, I would disagree. I think there is interest. There is often, you are quite right, a lack of knowledge, so there is often a slight fear: When one of these jobs comes across your desk and you have never dealt with one before, your first reaction is probably to say, "Good heavens! What's this all about?" Just a quick word of explanation: The actual investigation of these offences is not necessarily constant throughout the country. The fact that Special Branch does it here in London is a London affair solely; that is a decision by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. In other forces, it is often a fraud squad or often a general CID unit. It may, for example, only be a local unit, so the experience of those cases is often very, very limited indeed, especially, of course, because the incidence of actual fraud, as far as we know, is not particularly heavy compared with other offences.

  Q187 Mr Betts: Do you think with the introduction of all-postal ballots there is potential for greater fraud? Do you think the police service nationally ought to be looking collectively at how it starts to address these issues, by maybe having a national database and maybe having a unit nationally where individual forces could go and get the expertise you are talking about which they often do not have themselves?

  Representative A: Yes, I totally agree with that suggestion. It is something we have discussed in the past with the Electoral Commission, for example, and it was mentioned in their report last year. We would totally support those suggestions. The police, as you know, will often come together in a variety of fora to discuss items of general interest. I think this is something that ought to be addressed nationally. I am not saying it is a huge, serious issue but it is something that is a specialised issue that deserves a bit of wider coverage. There are often techniques about which we can learn from each other, for example, and, yes, a database of previous offences would often be quite useful, bearing in mind that the offences themselves are not necessarily recordable and therefore do not necessarily appear on the police national computer.

  Q188 Mr Betts: Do you think electoral returning officers, the Crown Prosecution Service and others ought to be now giving serious consideration to the potential for fraud? Are you talking to them about joint workings on these sorts of issues?

  Representative A: Obviously I cannot talk for the CPS. The CPS nationally really are the only body which has any oversight at all of the national picture concerning electoral fraud, because all allegations have to be reported to them in the first instance. We do talk to the CPS obviously quite a lot and they have been party to some of those discussions with the Commission as well. I think, yes, everybody has a role in this. It has certainly been our experience that the CPS, assuming that there is some evidence on which to proceed, would generally direct that these cases be investigated because in the main they are in the public interest. If they are investigated and insufficient evidence is found, then clearly it is a CPS decision to terminate that investigation. It is an unusual matter in this particular case because the police do not necessarily have at all complete oversight and complete decision-making over these investigations.

  Q189 Christine Russell: What do you see as the problems in trying to pursue allegations under the existing rules and regulations?

  Representative B: It is almost unique in the criminal justice system, where the CPS have the power to direct police investigations for election fraud. Procedure therefore is that if an election offence comes to light by the returning officer, it is reported to us initially and then we have to refer it to the Crown Prosecution Service to ask them whether we should carry out the investigation or not. Therefore there is a delay of time in doing that. The normal time limit for investigation of election offences is 12 months and I think there is probably a case for extending that time up to maybe two years. Of course, that would mean that witnesses may be interfered with at a later stage of the investigation, so I would argue for the time limit to be extended after the 12 months should there be a requirement for it.

  Q190 Christine Russell: In the evidence you have put in you seem to imply that powers of search and arrest would help. Do you want to elaborate on that?

  Representative B: It would help indeed. The only power of arrest we have for election offences at the moment is for personation, but even then that is within a polling station, where the election candidate or their agent have to say to the presiding officer, "Mr Presiding Officer, I believe that person is impersonating," and the presiding officer then has to say to the constable, "Please, Constable, arrest that person." Even then the person voting is allowed to vote of course.

  Q191 Chairman: In the past it was normal to go into a polling station and see a policeman there on duty, was it not?

  Representative B: Yes.

  Q192 Chairman: My impression is that a policeman now goes round perhaps seven or eight polling stations and puts in brief appearances during the day.

  Representative B: Absolutely, sir. I think that is perhaps a different issue we need to discuss. There ought to be more security at polling stations.

  Representative A: The deployment of officers at polling stations is clearly a matter for local borough commanders or their equivalents in county forces. It is not something that we as investigators can necessarily influence, unless, for example, we have some intelligence in advance—which has been the case on a number of occasions—that something is likely to go a bit astray. But I have been making a few inquiries recently and the sort of incidence of public disorder or any election related offence actually at the polling station itself is perceived as very, very small. The biggest problems do tend to come from attempts at committing fraud in connection with proxy votes or with postal votes as well.

  Representative B: We would like to have a power of arrest and search. For example, if somebody, especially some of the ultra right parties[1] are in a street trying to get proxy votes, people to sign them, we would like to have the power of arrest, and therefore search as well—to search their vehicle perhaps—which at the moment is not available and therefore we have to rely on other powers to overcome that.

  Representative A: Corroboration is often very, very difficult in these investigations because often proxy voters are totally unaware of what is going on, that they have been duped, and they cannot help that much. We do try to apply as much science to these investigations as we can, and that includes fingerprints and maybe in the future even DNA profiling. At the moment we do not necessarily have powers to ask for DNA or fingerprints, unless we can claim that we are investigating a forgery or a conspiracy to defraud, for example, so a few extra powers to look at what people are carrying at the time can be quite useful and can get that little bit of evidence that is so vital to the investigation.

  Q193 Christine Russell: Do you think it would help if the public had access to marked registers and could go along and see if someone has stolen their identity?

  Representative A: I certainly think it would be very useful to have some method of alerting a bona fide voter that his or her identity has been taken or that their address has been misrepresented on another form somewhere else, in the same way that I would be looking if possible for a database enabling us actually to analyse the addresses that are being used in common, maybe across whole electoral borders, across counties, which are being used for the manipulation of votes in this way. In this modern age I think it should be possible at least to create something. There are others issues as well of privacy and so on.

  Q194 Christine Russell: A national electoral roll.

  Representative A: I cannot speak about that in detail but anything that helps us in concluding an investigation would be very helpful.

  Q195 Mr Clelland: Would it be useful to have that information—who has returned their postal vote—as the election is progressing? Would it be more useful to have it at that stage than waiting until after the election was all over?

  Representative B: Yes, that would be useful, sir, but the problem is that the recent postal vote offences that we have investigated tend to be mostly in the Asian communities, where the head of the household has persuaded the rest of the family to apply for postal votes and therefore vote for a particular candidate. The family structure is very patriarchal anyway and therefore it is very difficult, and even if we had a register it probably would not make any difference to that.

  Q196 Mr Sanders: Could electoral returning officers do more, particularly in ensuring that names submitted for registration are genuine and not submitted fraudulently?

  Representative B: I think we would welcome that. I think we have made that submission before, that returning officers should scrutinise postal voting type offences, and perhaps look at if there has been more postal voting than before or they think something funny is going on. I think they need to be given perhaps more powers to do that. Given they are dealing with a very complex arrangements of election offences, whether they will have the time to do that I do not know, sir, but I would welcome them to have that power.

  Q197 Mr Sanders: If a returning officer came to you to say, "I think something questionable has gone on here," are you more likely to take that seriously than an aggrieved political party activist saying, "I think that party is cheating here"?

  Representative B: We would take all allegations seriously. It is within the system in fact of the election. Because the Crown Prosecution have the power to direct the investigation, we have to take everything seriously before we can put any form of evidence before the Crown Prosecution Service. I would say all offences are taken seriously. In fact, I personally would welcome in the Special Branch for the police to have discretion in very minor technical offences, as long as no further serious illegal or corrupt practices are revealed, for us to make a decision at an early stage—if it is purely a technical offence—to say we are not going to take this any further because it does not serve the public interest.

  Representative A: It does not really make any difference whether the allegation came from an ERO or a candidate at the time. It is always helpful to have those sorts of allegations early on because there is quite a lot we can do while this process is taking place. Once the election has actually been held it starts to fade in people's minds. Of course, if a suspected fraud is actually ongoing there are many, many things we can do to increase the flow of evidence or even to stop it happening before polling day itself. But that presupposes that EROs are able to gather sufficient information to help us as well and that they have enough resources to give us the time to spare—because these investigations can take quite a lot of time and a lot of effort on everybody's behalf.

  Q198 Mr Sanders: The Electoral Commission has recommended implementation of individual voter registration as a safeguard in all-postal elections. This will not be in place for June.

  Representative A: The European elections?

  Q199 Mr Sanders: There are local elections as well and there will be all-postal ballots in some parts of the country. Are you concerned about that?

  Representative A: It would certainly have helped to have it, but then again we have not been used to it to date, so it is something we are going to have to live with, I am afraid.

1   This should not be taken as an indication that MPSB only seeks to take action against members of extremist political parties Back

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