Hague calls for inquiry into Welsh referendum vote

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William Hague last night demanded an urgent, independent inquiry into the Welsh assembly referendum count. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, reports on the growing concern over irregularities.

After a week of revelations casting doubt on the way in which Welsh referendum votes were counted, the Conservative leadership last night threw its weight behind demands for an investigation into inconsistencies.

Numerous reports about confusion over the counting of the votes, including reports in The Independent and the Cardiff-based Western Mail, prompted the statement from Mr Hague.

The former Secretary of State for Wales said there was a "startling and worrying picture of inconsistencies in the procedures for the counting of votes" in the referendum.

The report said that three methods of counting had been used, giving conflicting results from the 22 different counts in the principality on the night of 18 September, when the assembly was approved by a slender majority.

The central confusion was over a double negative - whether the word "No", written against the ballot paper statement, "I do not agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly" should have invalidated the vote and created a spoilt ballot paper.

In some parts of Wales, such papers were counted as No votes, in others they were deemed spoilt - while the count in Neath-Port Talbot accepted only papers marked with an X.

Mr Hague said last night: "I believe it is now essential that we have an independent inquiry to look into all the allegations of irregularities in the count.

"In particular, such an inquiry must consider the guidance issued to each council on how to determine valid votes cast and whether this guidance was at any stage altered; if the guidance was indeed altered, we need to know whether this was done, who authorised the changes to the guidance and why, and whether any returning officer was informed of the new guidance and applied it consistently; and the scale of any inconsistencies in determining valid votes cast."

He said the people of Wales had a right to expect that the UK's high election standards would apply. "This week's revelations have cast doubt over whether this holds true for the Welsh referendum. It should ... be a matter of urgency that the questions raised are addressed by an independent inquiry."