[C]HRIS MANN: Peterborough has been named one of the worst places in the UK for electoral fraud. The city has had a checkered history, with a former Mayor amongst those jailed for vote-rigging. So the solution is all voters should be required to show proof of identity, when they turn up at a polling station, before they can cast their vote. That’s according to the Electoral Commission, who’ve just carried out a report. Tom Hawthorn is the author. I spoke to him earlier.
TOM HAWTHORN: We’ve carried out this report because every year voters tell us that they’re concerned about electoral fraud. I should just reassure your listeners that we don’t have evidence that electoral fraud is widespread across the UK. But we have identified a particular vulnerability that we do think needs to be addressed. So we’re recommending that voters in future should have to show some form of identification when they vote at a polling station.
CHRIS MANN: Now what are you basing this on?
TOM HAWTHORN: Well we have looked at the different parts of the election process, and we’ve looked for where there are potential vulnerabilities. There have been some improvements in the security of postal voting over the last five or six years. There is going to be a change to the registration process later on this year, which will make it much harder to commit electoral fraud that way. And what we’re worried about is that there are any other vulnerabilities that might be exploited by campaigners who want to corrupt elections. So that’s why we’re looking again at the need for people to show ID when they vote at a polling station.
CHRIS MANN: You picked out a number of towns and cities, Birmingham, Bradford, Burnley, Coventry, Derby and others. And of course on the list is our own Peterborough. Why Peterborough?
TOM HAWTHORN: Well Peterborough has had a significant case of electoral fraud in the relatively recent history, and people were sent to prison for electoral fraud there. We have seen allegations coming up around Peterborough again, reported by the police, and what we want to make sure is that the Returning Officer and the police forces there have got good plans in place to both detect electoral fraud, but also to prevent it. And we know that the Returning Officer and the police for Peterborough take this very seriously. We’ve set out the steps that we think that they need to take. We just need to make sure that there’s no complacency about the risk of electoral fraud.
CHRIS MANN: Yes, it’s been repeated fraud in Peterborough, hasn’t it? 2004. 2008 2010. 2012. Does that suggest to you that there has been some kind of complacency? Or does it show in fact that since people got caught, that they were alert?
TOM HAWTHORN: Well I think it’s very difficult to balance off the risk of electoral fraud with the evidence that it’s taking place. There are allegations about electoral fraud every year. The majority of allegations don’t have any substance to them, and the police investigate and don’t find any offences have taken place. But as you say, there have been proven cases of fraud in previous elections in Peterborough, so we do need to make sure that there’s no complacency there.
CHRIS MANN: So that’s Tom Hawthorn from the Electoral Commission, who carried out the report. So they say Peterborough has been singled out as one of sixteen towns and cities in the UK with a particular problem. Let’s get reaction now from the MP for Peterborough, Stewart Jackson.
STEWART JACKSON: Well Chris it’s not a surprise, given that Peterborough has been part of a pilot scheme looking at improving security around elections for some years. because as you know we’ve a very unhappy history of criminal cases, of leading figures in the Pakistani community, who have unfortunately been found guilty and gone to prison for electoral fraud. So it’s something that the City Council and anyone involved in politics or public life in Peterborough is well aware of. But I think it’s very timely for the rest of the country that the real risk of electoral fraud and distorting election results is there across the country, across very many urban areas.
CHRIS MANN: For those that don’t know, there was three people jailed in 2008. There was another man arrested in 2010. There have been various other cases as you know of quite senior people going to jail. What is it about Peterborough?
STEWART JACKSON: Well I think there is a culture amongst some, a very small minority of South Asian community, that has turned a blind eye from time to time to inappropriate, let’s say inappropriate behaviour around elections, and sometimes pretty aggressive and criminal behaviour. It is a tiny minority. We have taken action. We have for instance mobile CCTV cameras at some polling stations. We have cracked down as a city council in Peterborough on people applying for postal votes. I’m certain that the system is a lot tighter than in lots of parts of the country. But I think there’s more to do. We have quite outdated election law, for instance it’s quite hard to challenge people in a polling station if you think that they’re purporting to be someone that they’re not. And also there are other ways, the buying and selling of polling cards, the behaviour of people at polling stations, there’s all sorts of things that we need to be looking at. But principally I think the first thing we need to do is to follow the lead of very many other countries across Europe and the world, and we need proper identification to be produced at the polling station.
CHRIS MANN: Now what would you suggest? A passport, a driving licence, what would do?
STEWART JACKSON: Well I think there has to be some form of public consultation to see what is most practicable. I’m not in favour .. I voted against identity cards. I don’t want us to be a Big Brother society. But there’s nothing as fundamental as having fair clean and transparent elections. And I think on that basis, some form of proper verifiable ID with even a signature would guard against that, to make sure people who are properly on the electoral register .. and that’s another thing; we have to check the right people are on the electoral register, and entitled to vote .. that those people who turn up to vote, who say they are a certain person, can verify it. And elections therefore retain, in the UK, their reputation of being clean fair and transparent.
CHRIS MANN: I don’t want to get into a bigger debate about Big Brother in 2014, but aren’t we at the time now, with the Internet and everything else, where actually ID cards, it’s just an extension of what people do on-line, most of the time.
STEWART JACKSON: Well I’m thinking .. you touch on an interesting point .. because I’m thinking about my own vote against identity cards. I think in the era of mass migration, in the era of global terrorism, the threat to society, I think we need to look again at ensuring we make sure that the right people are in the country, they are exercising their rights as citizens. And that’s an open debate I think. But in the first instance, we’ve got to absolutely as a priority keep our elections fair, clean and transparent, to make sure that people have faith and trust in the electoral system and the people they elect at a polling station at a general election or local election every few years.