Prison union guilty of vote-rigging

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The Prison Officers' Association was yesterday severely criticised by the union watchdog over ballot-rigging in last year's leadership elections. While neither candidate for the chairman's post was ruled at fault, the association is now set to re-run the election at a cost of up to pounds 60,000.

An additional four ballots which might also have been affected by defective voting procedures will also be held again.

The ruling, which comes from the certification officer for the Trade Unions and Employers' Associations, is a significant finding against the union. On average, only six ballots a year are referred to what is called the Certification Office and ballot-rigging is rare.

Ted Whybrew, the certification officer, found clear evidence that ballot papers had been tampered with at the Maze and Belfast prisons in Northern Ireland, in last year's chairmanship election. John Boddington was elected to the post by a margin of 78 against rival Terry McLaren, who latercomplained about the ballot.

Election monitors noiced "an unusual pattern of voting by members". Two batches of papers considered suspicious were all for the winning candidate.

Mr Whybrew examined the papers from the Irish prisons,but did not discover who carried out the "malpractice", and said he had found no evidence suggesting either candidate knew about the discrepancies that arose. The finding, which was disputed by the union, raises a serious question about the handling of future votes, particularly in security- sensitive prisons like the Maze.

Most POA members signed consent forms for the papers to be sent to the prisons. But the problem centred on union officers administering papers in contravention of laws governing the holding of secret ballots.

Mr Whybrew also upheld a similar complaint about the running of a ballot on the POA's political fund held in the Maze and Belfast prisons. But he expressed satisfaction with the steps the association had proposed to remedy the problems.

David Evans, the POA's general secretary, said the National Executive Committee was taking further steps to emphasise its commitment to "democratic accountability" by re- running every ballot of the past 12 months "just in case honest mistakes have been made".

Mr Evans said that there had been no criticism of national officials or the candidates in the election, and he defended the branch officials in Ireland. "The local officials acted in good faith. And they did not realise the legislation says they should not become involved. Detailed guidance is being issued to all local officials so that the mistake is not repeated, " he said.

As there is nothing in the the association's constitution to allow them to set aside a ballot result, it will have to apply to the High Court to get approval. If that is successful, it is thought likely both Mr Boddington and Mr McLaren will stand again.

The ballot-rigging allegations emerged last summer as the POA also faced a serious scandal over alleged fiddling of expenses and also financial irregularities.

Scotland Yard fraud officers were brought in to investigate the finances of the 28,000-member association, although a union spokesman said yesterday they had heard nothing of the inquiry for some time.