Peterborough Council Responds to our Investigation over By-Election Meddling

You may remember that a few weeks ago, we began our own investigation into the Peterborough by-election. We believed it to be in the public interest that the electoral process is seen as valid, and had a number of concerns. We contacted Peterborough City Council with a Freedom of Information request (link) and have now received their response.

The questions we asked and their responses are below.

The information requested is not held by Peterborough City Council under section 1(1)(a) of the Freedom Of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) as under section 3(2)(a) the information is only held on behalf of another person, that being the appointed Acting Returning Officer, which is a separate appointment to the role of a local government officer. As such the information is held by the council solely on behalf of the Acting Returning Officer who is not named as a public authority in Schedule 1 of the Act. Therefore any information supplied is done so at the discretion of the Acting Returning Officer and not under FOIA.
We do understand the public interest in this particular issue and therefore, where we can, we are providing you with the information you have requested. We would also direct you to the statement made by the Acting Returning Officer which is available here on the Council’s website.

To your knowledge, were any ballot papers, postal or otherwise ‘burnt’, as reported?

We are aware that an individual has claimed that he burned 1000 Brexit Party votes but we have no evidence that this occurred. However given our commitment to integrity, this matter has been referred to the Police. Please contact Cambridgeshire Police for information on this matter. You can contact the DS Fiona Bail, the Cambridgeshire Police point of contact for electoral matter on 01480 422707.

Was the convicted electoral fraudster Tariq Mahmood present at any polling station or count? If so, was he registered as an official observer with Peterborough City Council? If so, who (person or department) authorised his presence?

Mr Mahmood was not on the list of those people permitted to enter the count room. If Mr Mahmood gained entry to the count room he did so without the permission or knowledge of the Acting Returning Officer or her staff. Mr Mahmood would have had no access to the ballot papers which remained secure at all times during the count. In any event, the Count process is strictly regulated, so for example, only the Acting Returning Officer and her staff are allowed to touch ballot papers during the whole of the count. Candidates are allowed to appoint count agents to observe this process and the names of those count agents are notified to the elections team in advance of the count. Candidates, their guests and election agents are allowed into the count and the Acting Returning Officer can allow others to attend at her discretion. An experienced security firm is employed to enforce this and is positioned on every door into the count.

The Electoral Commission has given advice to the Acting Returning Officer about people convicted of electoral offences. Their view is that it is not the Acting Returning Officer’s responsibility to provide definitive advice about an individual’s conviction or their ability to participate in the electoral process. For ease of reference Sections 160 and 165 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 contain the relevant provisions and time limits barring those convicted of corrupt or illegal practices participating in the electoral process and the circumstances set out in those provisions. Individuals and political parties have responsibility for ensuring that they abide by the provisions of the Act.
He was not appointed as a polling agent and therefore was not allowed to enter any polling station to scrutinise the process inside the polling station. He would only be entitled to enter his own polling station to cast his own vote or if he was asked by a person with a disability for assistance.

Can you provide a list of all authorised observers at the count, including (if available) which party they are observing on behalf of? If not, why not?

See above. You can contact each individual party to obtain this information.

What steps Peterborough City Council have taken to verify the identity and/or suitability of those present at the count?

As stated in above the Electoral Commission has given advice to the Acting Returning Officer about people convicted of electoral offences. Their view is that it is not the Acting Returning Officer’s responsibility to provide definitive advice about an individual’s conviction or their ability to participate in the electoral process. For ease of reference Sections 160 and 165 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 contain the relevant provisions and time limits barring those convicted of corrupt or illegal practices participating in the electoral process and the circumstances set out in those provisions. Individuals and political parties have responsibility for ensuring that they abide by the provisions of the Act.

Was there any electoral risk assessment completed? If so, please provide this. If there are no processes in place or they were not in place for the 2019 by-election, please state this.

We have undertaken a detailed risk assessment which we have to submit to the Electoral Commission and informs our approach to combating electoral fraud. This is based on intelligence received for a current election or based on historical risks. We have identified a number of risks in relation to this as detailed below. We have plans and processes in place to mitigate these risks as part of our response plan. These are developed in conjunction with the Police; these may include scanning of all postal vote statements, data matching, past data, visits, reviews, the use of CCTV and making voters aware of what they should report. The response will be dictated by the situation and any intelligence or evidence received. Given that the disclosure of these responses may inform the attempts of anyone attempting to commit electoral fraud we do not believe that it would be appropriate to make such information publicly available.
• Registration risks such as individuals not informing that they have moved or attempts to register to vote in an election they are not entitled to
• Postal voting risks such as attempts to gather postal voters from empty properties, undue influence or pressure exerted or financial inducements
• Proxy voting risks such as pressure exerted to appoint a proxy or a proxy appointed without a voter’s knowledge
• Polling station risks such as personation or intimidation outside of the polling station

According to your figures, exactly 750 postal ballots were distributed to each ward. Do you have a breakdown of the actual total postal ballots per ward?

The number of valid postal votes going forward to the count was 9498. These were divided up between what we call ‘ward mini counts’ and each ward mini count gets a proportion of the whole number of postal votes which have been validated. So 11 mini ward counts got 750 votes which equals 8,250 whilst ward 12 got 793 plus 455 late postal votes (the latter came in from across the whole constituency with the ballot boxes after 10pm and were validated by a postal vote team at the count) and all of that equals 9,498.
Postal votes and polling stations votes are combined at the start of the count process. This is in accordance with the Representation of the Peoples Act 1983, schedule 1, rule 45(1A). This means that you cannot determine which were cast by post and which were cast at a polling station. It also means that it would be unlawful to produce figures of how many polling station votes are cast for each candidate
Postal vote packs are not returned by ward as this a Parliamentary election and they are returned as a whole constituency.

Ward/Counting Area: Postal votes received
Bretton: 681
Central: 1,036
Dogsthorpe: 663
East: 736
Eye, Thorney & Newborough: 803
Gunthorpe: 882
North: 847
Park: 918
Paston & Walton: 722
Ravensthorpe: 908
Werrington: 905
West Inc FLW1, GLC & PEA: 776

There were a further 21 which could not be scanned but went through the same verification process as all other postal votes.
You can find information on the number of votes cast and verified here. This will show you the number of votes cast at polling stations.

Why was this method chosen, and what process was used to verify the postal ballots prior to the by-election?

This is answered above.

What safety and security measures were in place to ensure that there was no tampering of these, or any other ballot?

All postal votes received prior to the polling day were kept securely in a locked room with only authorised staff having access. When the postal votes were transferred securely to the count venue, they were placed in a room which was then guarded by security throughout the day and into the count. For your information, the Count process is strictly regulated, so for example, only the Acting Returning Officer and her staff are allowed to touch ballot papers during the whole of the count. Candidates are allowed to appoint count agents to observe this process and the names of those count agents are notified to the elections team in advance of the count. Candidates, their guests and election agents are allowed into the count and the Acting Returning Officer can allow others to attend at her discretion. An experienced security firm is employed to enforce this and is positioned on every door into the count.

Were there any changes to any processes normally following during this by-election from any local, national or European election held previously? If so, what changes were made, and for what reason? If so, please provide logs/emails/other correspondence internally (redacted is fine) and minutes or transcripts from committees and/or other meetings that were held to review these changes, who was present, what was decided, etc.

The method used was the same method we have employed for Parliamentary elections for over the last 10 years. This process was presented to the agents of all candidates and was closely observed by independent observers and the Electoral Commission.

We think it’s safe to assume, then, that Mr Mahmood’s presence at the count (as observed) was not authorised – at least by the Council. This raises yet more questions on the actions and suitability of the ‘experienced security firm’ at the count and/or the Acting Returning Officer if this convicted electoral fraudster was nodded through.

We still firmly believe that the Council should have a list of those in attendance, and ID cards/badges at the count. If this is not part of the usual process, then it raises questions on the veracity of any election; certainly if people can just waltz in – whether they are touching ballots or not.

Of course, there are still unanswered questions on the methods used prior to the election, but this response from Peterborough City Council is about as good as we’re going to get.

We’ll leave it to the Brexit Party to continue their electoral petition and hope that any electoral misdemeanours are dealt with in the appropriate fashion.

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