Electoral Commission boss faces fight for job after claims of fraud

Flaws in the postal voting system allow fraud on 'an industrial scale', say members of the judiciary
  • @oliver_wright

The head of Britain's election's watchdog faces a fight to keep her job following allegations of voting fraud set to mar today's local and mayoral elections.

The Independent understands that members of the committee who appointed Jenny Watson as head of the Electoral Commission are so concerned about her performance they want her to be challenged for the role.

The development comes as:

* A senior member of the judiciary claims that flaws in the postal voting system allows fraud to take place "on an industrial scale".

* More allegations of corruption were uncovered in Tower Hamlets as the police prepare to man polling stations in the east London borough today.

* The Electoral Commission became embroiled in a war of words with senior Government ministers over their handling of the fraud allegations. The Housing Minister Grant Shapps accused the Commission of being "complacent".

Ms Watson's job came under scrutiny at a meeting of House of Commons Speaker's Committee in March.

Her four-year term as head of the Commission expires at the end of the year and she would normally be considered for automatic re-appointment.

But in a "stormy" meeting some committee members, with tacit Government support, are believed to have challenged the proposal – suggesting she must face external competition.

The approved minutes reveal that the committee decided to "require an appraisal of Jenny Watson's performance" before considering whether she should be re-appointed.

The challenge reflects a concern among ministers about Ms Watson's performance. One source said: "At every count the Electoral Commission tries to wash its hands of responsibility and that is not satisfactory. Many questions need to be answered not least about Ms Watson's leadership."

Last week Mr Shapps became the first Government minister to publicly criticise the Commission when he accused it of being "complacent" about the electoral fraud in Tower Hamlets.

"They have not done enough," he said yesterday. "There's a sense of complacency that has run through this. There were complaints in February from Labour MPs in Tower Hamlets, and yet they did nothing. It is only when exposed by the newspapers, they've chosen to call in the police."

But in a letter to Mr Shapps, Ms Watson hit back saying the Government had not implemented its suggestion to make voters show ID at polling stations.

In Tower Hamlets yesterday, The Independent visited addresses where several postal votes had been requested for today's election. One man, who said he lived alone, found four names had been added to his address on the electoral register.

Peter Golds, a Tory councillor in Tower Hamlets, has forwarded his own dossier of evidence to the Electoral Commission in which he identifies a number of flats in the area where he believes fraud has taken place.

"The problem is, the police don't take allegations of electoral fraud seriously enough," he said. "There are few officers who are well versed in electoral law and they don't know where to begin."

Andrew Scallan, director of electoral administration at the Commission, said: "The Electoral Commission works closely with local authorities and the police to make sure they have robust systems in place to prevent and detect electoral fraud. But more needs to be done to strengthen the system."

Voting fraud: A brief history

Northampton 1768

Three earls famously spent more than £100,000 each to ensure their candidate won Northampton. The behaviour of the Earls of Northampton, Halifax and Spencer led to widespread disgust and eventual reform on the amount of money rich patrons could spend on a seat.

Old Sarum

Few constituencies summed up the "rotten borough" better than Old Sarum, an uninhabited hill with one tree on the outskirts of Salisbury that elected two members of Parliament. It was eventually abolished with 57 other rotten boroughs in the Reform Act of 1832.

Northern Ireland

Electoral fraud was so rampant in the early 20th century that the famous phrase "vote early, vote often" became folklore.

Postal fraud

Since postal votes were introduced widely in 2001, allegations of fraud have been rife. In 2005 a judge in Birmingham said there was "massive, systematic and organised fraud" in Asian communities. In 2010 five men from Bradford, including two ex-councillors, were jailed for fraudulently trying to get a Conservative candidate elected.