Call for a recount in Welsh poll

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Anti-devolution campaigners in Wales called for a recount last night after claims that September's knife-edge referendum vote may have been mishandled. Fran Abrams, Political Correspondent, asks whether the conspiracy theorists have a case.

At Labour's annual conference in Brighton last October Ron Davies, the Secretary of State for Wales, was heard boasting that the "yes" vote in his Caerphilly constituency had swung the vote for the Government.

The majority there in favour of a Welsh Assembly had been 6,000 - just below the narrow overall majority in Wales of 6,700. But even as he made the boast he knew some of his own members were deeply unhappy about the way the count had been conducted.

Leaked Labour Party documents reveal that members of the Caerphilly branch drew up a list of 11 complaints after the referendum. Among them were claims that counting officers would not identify which were "yes" and which "no" votes, that the franks by which officials usually check papers are genuine were almost impossible to see, and that polling agents were not allowed to check the final bundles.

In a letter to Tony Wilkins, their own chairman, they acknowledged: "Ultimately 'the buck' stops at the Welsh Office and we realise that politically we have to extremely careful because of Ron's position there."

The returning officer has since said he does not believe there were serious irregularities, and party members have retracted their claims.

However, the Conservatives in Westminster and "no" campaigners in Wales are determined not to let the matter drop. Some have even suggested that there was unhappiness with the way the count went in other areas, as well.

The rules for the referendum were certainly different from those for elections - the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Act contains 23 pages of modifications to the Representation of the People Act - and some sceptics have asked why this was necessary.

However, there may also have been some mistakes. Mr Wilkins, who was liaison officer on the night as well as being branch chairman, dismissed the allegations but added: "It was evident for all to see that chaos ruled the night and no one was in control."

Yesterday Matthew Gunther-Bushell, strategist for the "Just Say No" campaign, said the votes cast in the referendum on 18 September should be recounted to ensure that the outcome was correct.

"This whole situation certainly seems to cast a shadow of doubt on the way the referendum was conducted," he said.

Michael Ancram, the Conservatives' constitutional spokesman, intends to raise the matter in Parliament when it returns next week.

"Throughout this story there is a distinct smell of cover-up, even eluded to directly in the leaked correspondence. It is vital that this whole matter is publicly cleared up as soon as possible," he said.

Mr Davies defended himself robustly, though. The letter was written three months ago and concerned mainly technical matters which had now been fully investigated, he said in a BBC interview.

"There is no question of either impropriety or any question about the vote itself. I want to make it absolutely clear that nobody at any time as suggested there has been impropriety, nor has there been any suggestion that the vote was flawed," he said.