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

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 somewhere—although 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 system—and 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 of course.

  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.

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