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Electoral Fraud: Tower Hamlets

Volume 608: debated on Monday 18 April 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Charlie Elphicke.)

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise the concern of many of my constituents not only about the breathtaking decision of the Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan Police Service not to prosecute following the judgment of the election court in the case of fraud at the 2014 mayoral election in Tower Hamlets, but about the way that decision was communicated.

If I may, I will briefly lay out some of the background. There have been regular allegations about electoral fraud in Tower Hamlets at almost every election in recent years. Following the chaos at the 2014 mayoral election, especially at the count at the Troxy centre, many complaints were again registered. This time, however, there was a major difference. In the absence of prosecutorial action and to the embarrassment of local political parties, four brave citizens—Andy Erlam, Debbie Simone, Azmal Hussein and Angela Moffat—decided, at considerable personal risk, to raise a private prosecution in the election court. As you know, Mr Speaker, that court has all the powers of the High Court or the Court of Session.

As long ago as 1947, a report produced by a committee considering electoral law reform commented:

“Irregularities in elections should not be regarded as a private wrong which an individual must come forward to remedy, but as attempts to wreck the machinery of representative government, and, as an attack upon national institutions which the nation should concern itself to repel”.

The committee also noted that

“the integrity of elections…concerns the community as a whole”.

Those words should give us some idea of the enormity and significance of what the four Tower Hamlets petitioners did not only for Tower Hamlets, but for the whole of the national electorate. Indeed, the judge stated:

“To bring an election petition as a private citizen requires enormous courage”,

as, for the petitioners, it involves

“a potentially devastating bill of costs”.

He also observed the misery that the petitioners faced, who

“would be portrayed as racists and Islamophobes, attempting to set aside the election...And so it proved. The Petitioners have been duly vilified—but they have hung in there.”

No one suffered in this respect more than petitioner Azmal Hussein, whose efforts to highlight and bring to an end corruption in the borough of Tower Hamlets brought all manner of vile abuse literally to his door. The verbal abuse and threats lasted right through to the case in the High Court. Azmal Hussein was told he should die for challenging the election result, and was despised as someone who failed to join others in the view that ethnic and religious solidarity should outweigh any respect for democracy and fair play. Mr Hussein’s van and restaurant window were vandalised, but he stayed resolute and strong.

The judge quite rightly said in his judgment:

“The court expresses surprise that this Petition was not brought by the Labour Party.”

His words resonate, embarrassingly, with many of us. It should not have been left to four tenacious and brave individuals to insist that democracy, not Kray twins-style gangsterism, should be the system that governs in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

I want to say a word in praise of Mr Hoar, who provided the legal representation for the four plaintiffs. I echo the sentiments of the judge, who said in his judgment:

“For Mr Hoar, this has been a complete tour de force. He accepted the case on the basis of direct access”,

as his four clients could not afford to instruct solicitors. Of his efforts, the judge said:

“By any standards this was a considerable feat and worthy of the admiration of the court.”

After a trial lasting 30 days, with Mr Richard Mawrey QC sitting as a judge, on 23 April 2015 Lutfur Rahman was reported personally guilty and guilty by his agents of corrupt and illegal practices, of making false statements of fact about another candidate’s personal conduct or character, of administering council grants in a way which constituted electoral bribery and of spiritual intimidation of voters. He was also reported guilty by his agents of personation, postal vote fraud, fraudulent registration of voters and illegal payment of canvassers. That is quite a list.

The judge also stated that

“the financial affairs of THF”—

Tower Hamlets First—

“were, at best, wholly irresponsible and at worst, dishonest.”

The judge’s observations indicated that he recognised that character assassination had happened not only during the election campaign, but in the court. In referring to evidence given by THF members about a woman who gave evidence against them, he said that

“the three men were quite deliberately lying.”

In the end, the election of May 2014 was declared void, with Mr Rahman disqualified from holding electoral office for five years. The court judgment says:

“These penalties are entirely separate from any criminal sanctions that might be imposed if the candidate concerned is prosecuted to conviction for an electoral offence.”

In an article in The Guardian, Dave Hill said of Judge Mawrey:

“He did not give Rahman a back alley kicking of the type that recur in the more gruesome East End mythologies, but he did dish out a legal equivalent.”

As I understand it, the level of proof required by the election court is equivalent to that in criminal law, rather than civil law. The judgment states:

“It is settled law that the court must apply the criminal standard of proof, namely proof beyond reasonable doubt.”

It later says:

“Thus the court will apply a) the criminal standard of proof to the charges that Mr Rahman and/or his agents have been guilty of corrupt or illegal practices; b) the criminal standard of proof to the question of whether there has been general corruption”.

The plaintiffs have been seeking costs. The Solicitors Regulation Authority has recently confirmed that Mr Rahman is to appear before its disciplinary tribunal. At the very least, there are suggestions that he has been hiding his assets, offloading to his family or not declaring properties owned here and in Bangladesh. As was reported recently in the East London Advertiser,

“The £500,000 legal costs of the original six-week election trial was awarded against Rahman,”

although, as the article went on to say, £3 million of property assets have been frozen. The four petitioners are still trying to recoup heavy financial losses from Mr Rahman.

There is talk of a property in Bow that is owned by Mr Rahman, although it takes some effort to get beyond the layers of complication in respect of his properties, with his wife claiming part-ownership and beneficial interest. There is also undeclared income to the taxman on two properties that they rented out. It seems that money and property are sloshing around, adding additional features to the catalogue of wrongdoing. Mr Rahman, meanwhile, has declared himself bankrupt.

On the question of property, the judge referred to a particular address, 16 Prioress House, and its place within this narrative of dodgy dealings. Two THF candidates had asserted that they lived at that address. The judgment declared:

“I am completely satisfied that neither of these two THF candidates ever resided at 16 Prioress House.”

It states that they were therefore

“guilty of an offence under s 61”.

The judge drew a number of conclusions on the issue of grants, including, for the record, that

“enormous sums of public money had been paid to organisations in excess of that which Council officers had recommended and, in many instances, to organisations that had not even applied for grants”.

The judgment states that

“a total of 15 applications receiving aggregate funding of £243,500 did not meet minimum eligibility criteria and so were not scored by officers”,

and continues:

“Further, 21 applications totalling £455,700, which did meet the minimum eligibility criteria, but did not meet the minimum quality threshold score of 40, were successful in the final awards.”

The judgment went on to say:

“By way of another example, grants totalling just under £100,000 were handed out to ten organisations, all Bangladeshi or other Muslim organisations, for lunch clubs when none of them had even applied for a grant.”

It states that

“organisations deemed totally ineligible…found themselves the grateful recipients of tens of thousands pounds of public money”,

and that

“£352,000 was awarded without an open application process”

from a fund called the “954 Fund”. It continues:

“Shadwell’s grant increased from £204,386 to £460,750”,

meaning that it more than doubled. Subsequently,

“Shadwell returned two THF candidates…Bow East, on the other hand, saw its grant reduced from the officers’ recommendation of £99,397—cut by roughly a third to £67,000.”

The opposite effect to what we saw in Shadwell is all too clear:

“Bow East returned three Labour Councillors.”

We can do nothing but conclude that Tower Hamlets First candidates benefited from money that their party invested locally.

The judge’s conclusion? I quote:

“Was the making of those grants corrupt? Again, this seems inescapable.”

He observed that it was bribery

“by any ethical or moral standards”,

but posed the question,

“is it bribery contrary to s 113 of the 1983 Act?”

In its formal conclusions the judgment says:

“The court is satisfied and certifies that in the election for the Mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets held on 22 May 2014...the First Respondent Mr Rahman was personally guilty and guilty by his agents of an illegal practice contrary to s 106 of the 1983 Act…the First Respondent Mr Rahman was personally guilty and guilty by his agents of a corrupt practice contrary to s 113 of the 1983 Act…the First Respondent Mr Rahman was personally guilty and guilty by his agents of a corrupt practice contrary to s 115 of the 1983 Act.”

Scotland Yard dropped its investigation into electoral fraud after finding

“insufficient evidence that criminal offences had been committed”.

How does that tally with the election court’s findings? Detectives launched their investigation after Mr Rahman was found guilty of corrupt and illegal practices. How can practices with such a description not be worthy of prosecution? I have written to the Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner about these matters, and have secured a meeting soon with Commissioner Hogan-Howe, when I hope to raise these and other questions.

The police findings have led Mr Rahman’s supporters to claim that he has been proven innocent of all charges. Who can blame them? As pointed out by local Conservative Councillor Peter Golds,

“if the police fail to prosecute, there are no convictions and therefore no fraud…Even a successful election petition can be swept under the carpet when the police do nothing.”

It should be noted that the judge paid tribute to Councillor Golds, by whom the petitioners “have been greatly aided”.

The Bangladeshi media in Tower Hamlets have reported events as anticipated. Mr Ted Jeory, a reporter of high reputation who has long taken an interest in these matters, says:

“The Bengali media failed miserably in their journalistic duty to hold the borough’s leaders to account. Instead of ‘without fear or favour’, there was far too much fear and they were full of favour. Lutfur…demanded almost nationalistic loyalty to his cause, and it was given. They did their readers and viewers a huge disservice.”

Mr Speaker, I hope you can imagine the consternation all this has caused in Tower Hamlets to all of our residents interested in democracy, regardless of their colour, religion or background.

On the various views of the court and its findings, I feel it is worth pointing out that, contrary to what Mr Rahman’s supporters have espoused, the judge was not interested in indulging in a wholehearted, blinkered condemnation of the former mayor. However, the judge highlighted the extent to which the former mayor’s supporters nursed and perpetrated the belief that they and their candidate were victims:

“In their minds, they were being targeted because they were Bangladeshi and Muslim: so their critics were necessarily racists and Islamophobes.”

Such swiftly dispatched gibes not only slander, besmirch and cause distress—as they are designed to do—to those innocent of such charges, but they devalue the terms and diminish the plight of those who experience and suffer real prejudice.

The election court says Lutfur Rahman is guilty, but the CPS and the MPS say there is not enough evidence. However, there are suggestions that other inquiries into aspects of fraud and corruption are ongoing. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined exactly what is going on. Which inquiries are still ongoing? Where do the plaintiffs stand in respect of recovering their costs? Where do voters stand in terms of having confidence in electoral arrangements in the future? The Government have appointed commissioners to rebuild the public’s confidence that the system can protect against bribery and corruption, and is robust enough to prevent those who have contempt for our democracy from continuing to undermine it in the future. Can the Minister reassure us that the new Mayor, John Biggs, and the commissioners are on track to deliver?

With the greatest respect to the Minister, I had expected the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice to respond to this debate, or perhaps a Justice Minister. I received a nice letter from the Policing Minister who said that a Minister from the Department for Communities and Local Government would respond, but it is actually a Cabinet Office Minister. As he knows, I hold him in high regard, and I mean no disrespect. It does not matter to me—I want a Government response, and I am sure that he will be able to provide one. These are serious matters, so I hope that he will reassure the good people of Tower Hamlets that the authorities will defend their rights, ensure that their elections are not stolen again in future, and say that the petitioners will receive the costs to which they are entitled.

I hold the hon. Gentleman in equally high regard, and he was kind about me in his remarks. From the title of the debate, he will appreciate that this topic falls neatly between three different Departments; one could argue that parts of it should be responded to by the Department for Communities and Local Government, other parts by the Policing Minister, and those parts to do with electoral fraud by a Cabinet Office Minister. I am therefore wearing three hats and have three different sets of briefings, and I will endeavour to cover the entire waterfront. I am sure that we can address any follow-up questions that the hon. Gentleman has, and I will endeavour to cover all the issues he raised.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this subject. Not only is it important to his constituency and borough—it is undoubtedly crucial there—but it has resonance in many parts of the country. Thankfully, electoral fraud is not terribly common in Britain and we do not encounter it often. There is a steady trickle of allegations, and occasional successful prosecutions or problems with our elections, but it is only a trickle. As the old saying goes, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and it would be entirely wrong for us to become complacent. The only way we can maintain an otherwise enviable, widespread trust in this country’s elections is by taking problems such as those that occurred in Tower Hamlets extremely seriously when they crop up. We must ensure that there is no repetition, and that anybody thinking of misbehaving in the same way finds it incredibly difficult and is dissuaded from going down that route.

May I put on the record my personal admiration for the heroism of those people who took this matter to the electoral court? Does the Minister agree that it would be a betrayal of their courage if the police, for reasons of political correctness, were not to follow through on what appears, in the case laid out by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), to be an open-and-shut matter of criminality?

My right hon. Friend anticipates my next remarks, because we all owe a debt of gratitude to the four petitioners. We have heard that they were pretty heroic in the way they pursued this matter. They were not dissuaded. There were plenty of points at which lesser people might have backed away, but they did not take those opportunities and they pursued the matter through thick and thin. On occasion what they had to put up with was pretty thick and pretty thin, yet they continued throughout. We owe them a debt of thanks, particularly those local to Tower Hamlets.

It was not just those four petitioners whom we must thank, however, because other people picked up the challenge. We must thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), who put the commissioners in Tower Hamlets in the first place, as well as the commissioners; the presiding judge, Richard Mawrey, QC; a number of other officials, including Barry Quirk; and local councillors such as Peter Golds for their assiduous and determined campaign. Many people rallied round the cause of democracy in Tower Hamlets, which is all to the good.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot comment on specific details of ongoing investigations. As an experienced parliamentarian and former Minister, he will understand the constraints of what I can and cannot say. He is, however, doing entirely the right thing. He mentioned that he was about to have discussions and meetings with Commissioner Hogan-Howe and perhaps others. I hope that they can provide him with further reassurances about what is going on with the investigations. I understand that there are still investigations into grant fraud, for example, in parallel with the ongoing investigations into electoral fraud. They perhaps cannot be made public, but he might be able to get further reassurances.[Official Report, 12 May 2016, Vol. 609, c. 3MC.]

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will also pursue, assiduously and determinedly, the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) about the extremely trenchant criticisms in Richard Mawrey’s judgment. While many people might have expected a prosecution to be straightforward, clearly there are different standards of proof, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and different levels of admissibility for evidence. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service need to make a judgment, but he will want to investigate the individual cases and allegations to find out what can be pursued. Local people in Tower Hamlets and the electoral community more widely will want to know how we can be sure that these sorts of cases are pursued in the strongest possible terms, whenever the evidence allows, so I would encourage him in those meetings and in pursuing those inquiries.

The hon. Gentleman asked where the plaintiffs stood in respect of recovering costs, and then gave at least a partial answer to his question by talking about the ongoing discussions and investigations in respect of the ownership of assets associated with former Mayor Rahman and members of his family. There have been press stories and reports of court judgments about what has, and has not, been found to be the property of either the former mayor or his family. I understand that that process is ongoing, and again I cannot comment much beyond that, but this is not a finished story, or a set of conclusions finally reached. The mills of both God and, in this case, the justice system are grinding slowly but, one hopes, exceeding small as well.

The hon. Gentleman asked how we might take forward the broader question of how electoral fraud can be made less easy to perpetrate, though it is not easy in the first place, and how we can ensure that the consequences of electoral fraud are clear, swift and unappealing to those considering undertaking it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, the former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is working on a report on electoral fraud for the Government that I suspect will land on my desk with a satisfactorily large and weighty thud in the next few weeks or months, with a series of recommendations as to how we can tighten the rules still further.

I obviously do not want to prejudge my right hon. Friend’s recommendations, but the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that my right hon. Friend, having been Secretary of State and, before he entered the House, the leader of a local council, will have observed the local democratic process up close and in huge detail, and will have seen its strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of the parliamentary democratic process. I cannot think of anybody better placed to come up with trenchant and closely reasoned recommendations, and I look forward to receiving them. We will all want to read them and consider them in depth.

We will have to wait and see what my right hon. Friend recommends, but I can confirm that he and I have spent time with Richard Mawrey, discussing what he saw both in Tower Hamlets and in his previous judgments—he has a track record of specialising in this area, having examined a series of these problems. Thankfully, such problems are not terribly frequent, but when they have arisen, he has been the person with the single best judicial experience in the country. We have spoken to him and, in depth, to people such as Peter Golds, whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned, so plenty of care has been taken to gather whatever information is available out there. I am sure that we all await my right hon. Friend’s report.

The hon. Gentleman’s final question was where the local righting of the ship had got to in Tower Hamlets. I have made inquiries of the Department for Communities and Local Government on where we have got to. The answer is, broadly, that huge progress has been made, but there is still further to go. I understand that the council has made some progress on key areas in its best value action plan—on procurement, property disposals, and elections management—and has made particular progress since the arrival of Mayor Biggs last June and the new chief executive officer, Will Tuckley, in October. There are still concerns, however, about delays in other intervention areas, particularly in respect of grants, communications and organisational and cultural changes, some of which take longer to bed in than others. Progress in those areas will need to be continued, as will close monitoring by the commissioners to make sure that the progress made is not eroded and does not start to flag.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will continue to monitor the position very closely and will not consider any variation to the current directions until there is sufficient evidence that the change has been deeply embedded and the key outcomes delivered. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want those to be the main criteria. Given the seriousness and acuteness of the problems encountered in Tower Hamlets—he ably and lucidly summarised the worst of them, but there were many others that he did not have time to go into—I am sure that he will applaud every move to make sure that there is no prospect of a recurrence, and that those standards are fully met before we get back to the widely wished-for normality in the electoral and registration arrangements there.

I hope that I have answered the hon. Gentleman’s questions. Where I have not be able to because they are the subject of ongoing investigations, he will, quite rightly—I applaud him for it—speak to the police, including the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and others. I hope that he will get the answers there that he cannot get here. If he pieces the different parts of the jigsaw together, I hope that he sees an optimistic picture, albeit one in which it cannot yet be said that the problem has been solved. At least progress has been made on a problem that is being solved, even if we have not quite reached the final destination.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.