Tower Hamlets’ current returning officer should not have the authority to oversee next year’s General Election, the founder of an anti-corruption independent political party has claimed.
Andy Erlam, a founding member of Red Flag Anti-Corruption, said that the allegations being made in a High Court action against Mayor Lutfur Rahman and returning officer John Williams makes it “entirely inappropriate” for Williams to retain his post. Erlam addressed his concerns, raised also in his High Court Election petition, through a letter to Communities Secretary Eric Pickles. Both Mayor Rahman and Williams are names in the petition as respondents.
Williams is accused in the petition of ‘failing to comply with and/or abusing’ rules governing counting agents, attendance of people at the count and the separating and counting of ballots and votes.
The letter read: “Frankly I am appalled that the election officers who have been accused of the most serious of election offences have been allowed to stay in post thus far…even if [they] are found innocent of all the charges made against them.”
“I am therefore writing to ask you to use your powers as secretary of state for communities and local Government to impose an entirely impartial Returning Officer with immediate effect and order the suspension of the existing officers.”
The letter comes as the Communities Secretary is preparing to send commissioners into Tower Hamlets Council to oversee certain aspects of governance, including grant giving, property deals and the administration of future elections.
Erlam has been instrumental in compiling a petition against Rahman and officers involved in the allegations. Brought forward by four members of the public, the document called for last May’s election to be declared “invalid” and the votes recounted under the Representation of the People Act.
The petition had its first hearing in the High Court in July, where petitioners were required to submit “detailed evidence” by August 18 to be granted a full hearing.
They compiled witness statements testifying to alleged personation, accompanying voters into voting compartments and canvassing for votes inside polling stations. The case will now take place on February 2 of next year in a special election court.
In August the council accused the petitioners of giving rise to “inaccurate speculation.” Rahman told the Guardian: “It is clear that these complaints are being generated by disgruntled candidates who lost… I am confident that at the end of this process such claims will be exposed for the smears that they are.”
Erlam told ELL: “While I recognise that there are legal sensitivities involved in the discussion of specific allegations, there is no reason why wider issues relating to upholding the democratic process in Tower Hamlets should not be discussed in the public domain.”
He added: “We are motivated by a desire to see probity, honesty and transparency in our council.”
A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets Council declined to comment.