Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-210)|
16 MARCH 2004
Q200 Mr Sanders: What about modifying
the declaration of identity?
Representative A: I notice in
the pilots that have been held over the last year/year and a half
there have been different approaches to this. In some cases it
was continued with a witness identity system and in at least one
there was a declaration of identity without a witness. I understand
that the feelings were favouring the latter. I also know the Electoral
Commission have asked us for help in trying to analyse ways of
making these declarations as foolproof as possible. A lot of work
still needs to be done on that in terms of signatures and forgeries.
At the end of the day you have to come up with a system, trial
it, and then agree a common system for everybody, because we certainly
would not like to have to approach every inquiry and find there
were different ways of declaring identities and identifying witnesses
and identities. That would not be helpful at all. You do need
to work towards trying to find the best system possible, yes.
Q201 Chairman: On this question of signature,
my signature changes. When I am signing a cheque, I take a bit
more trouble to sign my name than if I am going into the entrance
to a building and I am asked to fill in a form at the entrance
for fire regulations. Is it not a problem that for quite a lot
of these identification forms, people just scrawl a signature
because they do not see it as all that significant?
Representative A: I am very worried
about the idea of just identifying a certain signature, because
my signature probably changes every week. I am not hugely worried
because I carry so much identity on my person that I usually have
something to satisfy somebody somewherealthough my warrant
card did not help me to get into this building today, I can assure
you. Having said that, it would only necessarily help us after
the event; actually securing somebody's identity before an event
is another matter and it is a technical issue upon which we cannot
necessarily comment either.
Q202 Mr Brady: If you are investigating
an allegation of fraud, presumably having not just a signature
but a name and address of a witness must be hugely important.
Representative A: Yes, it is,
because I mentioned earlier that corroboration is important. Having
said that, of course, as I think we have made quite clear in our
report, the possibility of harvesting votes and obviously of harvesting
witnesses is there. You cannot stop people doing that. All you
can do is help us investigate it after the event.
Q203 Chris Mole: Is there any significant
evidence of people working for candidates actually farming votes?
Or is this out of proportion and most times are they just doing
their bit to get turnout up?
Representative C: I cannot say
we have come across many cases like that. We do have one case
which is currently awaiting trial at crown court, so I can only
talk in general terms, but that involved an inner London borough
where a representative of a candidate was approaching residents
on an estate, explaining the postal ballot system to them and
getting them to sign the form. The ballot was redirected to the
party HQ and on the day of voting, this particular individual
would turn up and literally stand over your shoulder while you
voted, which personally I think is unethical, if anything. Whilst
the actual sending of the ballot paper to party HQ is not illegal,
it does obviously raise concerns about harvesting and farming
of ballot papers.
Q204 Chris Mole: How concerned are you
about malicious accusations of fraud wasting police time?
Representative C: We do receive
a number of allegations, normally on the day of voting, which
when we then go back are not substantiated or there does not appear
to be any evidence to support some of those allegations. Of the
ones that we have investigated, there does not appear to have
been too much malicious intent on behalf of certain individuals.
Q205 Chris Mole: Just emotions get high.
Representative C: Yes, I think
that would be fair to say.
Representative A: You do need
a deliberate intention to waste police time. There is always something
there to give someone a reason for doubt or suspicion but when
you investigate you find that it was not quite as he or she thought.
This is the trouble.
Q206 Chris Mole: You guys are from the
met. Are the inner cities or some of the deprived communities
more at risk of exploitation over all-postal elections?
Representative A: As my colleague
has explained, I think there are dangers with certain of the communities
in inner cities. These are often people who do not fully understand
the nature of the systemand I am not just talking about
people who are visibly ethnic minority community members; they
may well be indigenous members of the community. But the process
is pretty complicated. The RPA is pretty complicated for us to
investigate. The number of offences in there are simply crazy
but there will be people who look to their elders and advisers
for assistance, and all it takes is for one of these people to
be rather corrupt and you have a problem, a major problem. We
had this in north London about four years ago where a very close-knit
community was attacked by just a couple of people really and that
actually caused quite a lot of community tension. This is one
reason why here in London we are particularly keen to investigate
this from the branch perspective, because we never really know
until we have looked into these cases what the motives are, whether
it is a matter of greed or personal gain or whether, as my colleague
has said, there might be some attempt by an extremist party actually
to sway the vote, which in many cases may only need about 12 votes
Q207 Chairman: On the matter of resources,
there is an argument that it is in the interests of democracy
to increase the turnout, and that is the argument for all-postal
votes. There is an argument that that may increase fraud and therefore
more police time ought to be devoted to trying to track that down
to make it a safe and secure system. Ought that then to come out
of general police finances or are there to be payments, if you
like, by returning officers to police forces for doing that security
part of it?
Representative A: I could not
comment on the wider issue of remuneration to police by local
authorities at all. If I could come back to your original suggestion,
it is obviously debatable whether the amount of fraud is going
to go up with a postal voting system. I just could not look that
far ahead. I think it is quite possible that the incidence of
fraud might go up but also a lot of it is going to be unreported.
There are two general comments I would make. It is going to be
quite useful if turnout increases, because if you have a higher
turnout you are obviously going to make it harder for the fraudsman
to get those few extra votes that can make a decision go his way
or her way. I think, also, that if the turnout increases you are
starting to get more ownership of the system by the electorate.
If, for argument's sake, you have a constituency where the turnout
is 25%, you could then say that 75% of the people could not give
a damn about it. That might not necessarily be the case but a
large proportion of people will not necessarily care whether there
is any fraud. As in many cases, we are not going to solve these
offences without the support of the community that we try to serve.
I think those are the issues that need to be focused on at the
moment. I do not think the extra costs are going to be that high,
that we need at this stage to worry about where they are going
to be paid from.
Representative B: We desperately
need a central database in order to identify the trends where
the crime is taking place, so that, once you have identified those
problems, you can work on them. That is what we really need at
the moment but what we lack. Whether it sits with the Electoral
Commission, with the police or the Crown Prosecution Service perhaps
can be discussed, but we desperately need that.
Q208 Chairman: Where prosecutions have
taken place in recent years, do you think the courts have meted
out punishments which are reasonable as a deterrent?
Representative B: Not really,
sir, to be honest with you. The Crown Prosecution Service and
courts always err on the side of caution. If they can give verbal
warnings or they can give perhaps cautions, then they will go
for that. All the time since I have been in the unit investigating
this crime, there has only been one incident where anybody has
actually received a term of punishment.
Q209 Chairman: So higher more effective
punishments might be a deterrent.
Representative B: Indeed.
Representative A: I think you
need to bear in mind that in some of these cases we have had some
quite large conspiracies and people have actually been charged
with conspiracy to defraud and not just specific electoral offences,
and even in those cases the courts have still not really regarded
them as sufficiently serious.
Q210 Mr Sanders: Is it the sentence or
is it the reluctance it seems to pursue some sort of prosecution?
Representative A: It is hard to
say. I certainly have had personal evidence of the judiciary not
fully understanding the legislation.
Chairman: On that note, may I thank you
very much indeed.