Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Justice the South Tyneside Council Way!

With an article in today’s Shields Gazette concerning Mr Ahmed Khan and the “Case of the Missing Ballot Boxes”, we are faced with a startling fact; despite being aware that the ballot boxes were missing on the 8th May 2007, South Tyneside Council represented by Brian T Scott, Returning Officer, allowed legal proceedings to continue unhindered until 22nd October 2007. Mr Khan is now being pursued legally for costs amounting to £30,000.00, nearly all of which were accrued after the ballot boxes were “lost”.

The fact that the ballot boxes went missing is an injustice, the fact that the Council wishes Mr Khan to pay for their error and neglect only exasperates the matter.

I have covered this issue many times, and on the 11th January I posted in detail on the contents of Mr Khan’s original electoral petition to the High Court, of which I had obtained a copy. However, a series of leaked documents have arrived on the news desk, shedding more light on the affair. The documents are original copies and none are embargoed. I have therefore decided to follow the same scenario as it did in earlier this month and outline them in the form of a rolling diary. This approach reveals what a travesty of justice the case is. It also shows that from 8th May 2007, the Council were involved in, endorsed and created, the biggest election conspiracy in modern politics within the Borough.

For background and additional information please refer to the post above.

1. 23rd May 2007:
Original election petition lodged in the High Court of Justice. Section 3 of the petition makes 6 allegations, 2 of which are:

a) That a serving councillor and candidate for election in the Horsley Hill Ward, Iain Malcolm, was observed to be in unauthorised possession of postal ballot papers on 26th April 2007.

b) That postal ballot papers were opened on 27th April 2007, contrary to indications provided on 17th April 2007 that postal ballot papers would be opened on 3rd May 2007 at 22.00 hours onwards

The petition was served upon Audrey McMillan, Brian T Scott (Returning Officer) and the Director of Public Prosecutions.

2. A court bundle submission supplied by Sharpe Pritchard, Solicitors and Parliamentary Agents, Chancery Lane London, reveals the following affidavit account of the Council’s version of events:

Russell Cochrane, Deputy Returning Officer

¨ at the conclusion of the postal vote opening session on 4th May 2007, there were 54 ballot boxes of papers, 18 boxes of valid postal voting statements and 18 ballot boxes of rejected postal voting statements.

¨ They were locked in the Reception Room, Town Hall, with computer equipment.

¨ Further 18 ballot boxes of valid postal vote ballot papers locked in the basement of the Town Hall with 105 ballot boxes from polling stations.

¨ 4th May 2007 at 8.30am, Michael Outerson (Porter) asked to clear the Reception Room as it was needed for function. Valerie Stephenson (DRO) agreed. John Erskine (Porter) took 36 ballot boxes to the corridor next to Basement 34, where the other boxes were stored.

¨ 8th May 2007: space was prepared in the basement rooms to create room for the ballot boxes.
¨ 8th May 2007 at 4pm: Lindsay Dixon informed Valerie Stephenson that the ballot boxes containing the rejected postal voting statements and ballot papers were not in the corridor. Stephenson established the John Erskine was not on duty till the next day and would speak to him then.

¨ 9th May 2007: Lindsay Dixon spoke to John Erskine who confirmed that he had put them in corridor BR34

¨ A search ensued. No boxes were found.

¨ 9th May 2007: Valerie Stephenson informed Russell Cochrane of events, who informed Brian T Scott. Irene Lucas (Chief Executive) and David Slater Executive Director Reg and Res were briefed.

¨ 10th May 2007: Scott and Cochrane conduct further search. CCTV footage of car park viewed by Council staff.

¨ Porters interviewed with no new evidence emerging, though a casual porter did “skip” some black bags (skip emptied on 8th May 2007).

¨ 11th May 2007: arrangements made to examine contents of skip. Not done till 23rd May as specialist equipment needed to open skip.

¨ Russell Cochrane spoke to the “casual porter” on at least 3 occasions and each time he denied he had done anything wrong. Yet in the Court bundle Cochrane makes the statement: “In the absence of certain knowledge and taking all possible factors into account, I can only conclude that in my opinion the papers in question were inadvertently removed from their ballot boxes as waste, bundled together with genuine election waste in plastic bags and disposed of in error by being placed in the waste skip in the car park. I am aware that this conflicts with the statement received from the casual porter, but to my mind this can be the only rational explanation”.

3. Email from Simon Paget-Brown, Mr Khans legal representative to Ashley Badcock and Lucie Wibberley, Sharpe and Pritchard representatives:

“I have still to receive your evidence. The Court Order of 17th July 2007 stated that the same was to be received by 20th August 2007. Nearly tow months have passed. Unless your evidence is received by 4pm on Wednesday 17th October 2007, I will be forced to make an Application to Court seeking to strike out any late evidence. Please ensure that the same is received by return as without your evidence, preparation for the court hearing is being hampered”.

4. Letter from Sharpe Pritchard to Court Manager, Newcastle Crown Court re Rule 53 Application, asking that the matter be held in a closed court.

“We should draw your attention the fact that the Claimant’s application is made under Rule 53 of the Local Elections (Principal Areas) (England and Wales) Rules 2006 and that Rule 53(6) requires that the hearing of the application should be held otherwise than open court and we should be grateful if the matter and the evidence filed in the application could be listed/treated accordingly."

5. Letter from Sharpe Pritchard to Mr Khan’s legal team, 7th November 2007 attempting to gag Mr Khan and stop him speaking to the press:

“In the event that we are able to agree a settlement of both sets of proceedings, we cannot ignore the fact that the proceedings have resulted in significant local press and public interest. The Returning Officer to date has simply responded factually to press enquiries, without making any comment on the merits of the proceedings. The proceedings cannot now be withdrawn without any public comment by the Returning Officer. While the Returning Officer would be entitled to respond robustly to future press enquiries as to the merits the proceedings and the costs incurred in defending them, it would be preferable if all the parties were to agree a joint press statement along the following lines.
Please take your clients instructions.

“Election Petition Withdrawn”

Ahmed Khan with the consent of the Returning Officer and Audrey McMillan has agreed to withdraw his petition challenging the election in the Beacon and Bents Ward at the May 2007 local elections. An application has been made to the High Court for permission to withdraw the proceedings. The decision was made after considering the Returning Officer’s formal response to the proceedings. It was not considered right in the public interest to incur any further costs, which will be substantial.

This statement is issued jointly on behalf of Mr Khan, Mrs McMillan and the Returning Officer. The parties will not be making any further comment on the matter”.

6. In reply to an email from Ahmed Khan asking him to ensure that all ballot boxes under investigation were safe and secure, Brian T Scott on 14th May 2007 addressed the issue of the Petition and also replied re his obligations. Here is the exact text:

“I am aware of my duties with regard to the retention of documentation”

So there you have it in front of you, direct quotes, full reproductions of texts and a full account of the Council’s version of events. These documents have never been in the public domain in their entirety before, so you are the first to see them as originals.

But what does it all mean? Here are my comments and perspectives:

1) Deputy Returning Officers Submission: why were 18 boxes of ballot papers stored in an insecure corridor, and 123 ballot boxes of undisputed and accepted votes locked in a room? Surely, it should have been the other way round?

2) Why were CCTV tapes viewed as late as July/August?

3) Why, when the porters have denied any wrong doing on at least 3 occasions, does the Deputy Returning Officer still maintain that their involvement is the “only rational explanation”?

4) Despite the fact that the ballot boxes were known to be missing on 9th May 2007, why were Mr Khan and his legal team not updated about the situation? On 17th July 2007, 20th August 2007 and 17th October 2207, Sharpe Pritchard had “official” opportunities to release this information. They could have been honest about the situation anytime between 23rd May 2007 and 23rd October 2007. They deliberately chose not to.

5) With the knowledge that they had withheld evidence pertinent to the case, is it any wonder they chose to insist that the November case be heard behind closed doors with the public and press excluded?

6) The November attempt to “gag” Mr Khan is a travesty, and an indication of the arrogance and unaccountability which permeates South Tyneside Council. Sharpe Pritchard state “it was not considered right in the public interest to incur any further costs, which will be substantial”. This is an outright lie. If they had been concerned about public costs they would have been honest about the missing ballot boxes on the 9th May onwards.

7) Brain T Scott said on 14th May 2007 “I am aware of my duties with regard to the retention of documentation”. Clearly he was not, as the ballot boxes had been missing for a least 6 days. It is against the law to either loose or deliberately destroy ballot boxes and their contents, yet Mr Scott has not been disciplined or reprimanded for this clear breach which occurred under his supervision.

8) Finally, let’s once again return to the issue of the casual porter, an unnamed temporary employee, who by the grace of the fact that he put some black bags into a skip, is the Council’s convenient scapegoat for a disgraceful affair. However, here’s one more official document. In a letter (8th January 2008) to a member of the public, Brian T Scott outlined a response to a supplementary question ruled out of order at December’s Council meeting. The “casual” porter referred to is now described as such:

“The person concerned is not an agency worker. The Council regularly employs him as a porter on a casual basis as and when his services are required. He receives appropriate training that is necessary to do his role”

Clearly, the porters did not throw the ballot box contents or the boxes into a skip. In the council’s own words, they are sufficiently aware through adequate training what their duties entail, and it does include destroying election material either knowingly or otherwise.

If this were the plot for a novel, it would be unbelievable. The whole scenario is riddled with holes, cover up’s and deliberate conspiracies. The Council deliberately withheld evidence, forcing a member of the public to now face a financially crippling legal bill. What better way to get rid of a thorn in your side?

The Council are quoted as saying “Mr Khan could have avoided much of these costs had he withdrawn the proceedings earlier, as he was invited to do so”. Perhaps if the Council had not been involved in a conspiracy to hide the truth, then Mr Khan would have withdrawn his petition. However, they didn’t tell the truth, conspiring for 5 months to hide the facts, and conspiring for 5 months to allow legal bills to mount up.

This is not democracy and this is not justice.


The Badger said...

I am seriously considering leaving the party as a result of this blatant cover up. There are rumours that the real culprits behind this shameful act had too much to lose if Mr Khan pursued the matter through the courts especially if ballot papers etc were closely scrutinised under supervision of the courts.
It’s now clear that Mr Khan’s persistence seems to have uncovered election fraud on a vast scale. I am told that certain councillors are extremely worried about what else may still be uncovered as Mr Khan will just not go away.
Many of us now believe that Mr Khan won Beacon and Bents and that Audrey was only elected because someone cheated. Even she must have serious doubts especially as public opinion seems to support the conspiracy, cheating and cover up theory, does she really want this cloud hanging over her for the next three years.

two down one to go said...

At last the truth has been reported, maybe now other blogs will not be so negative towards the Independent Alliance. There remains a lot of questions that need answering, When did the Leader and Deputy Leader know about the ballot boxes being missing? Serious questions need to be asked about certain officers, from the Chief Executive,Returning Officer and the Election Staff. The casual porter has denied it on more than one occasion, what will the Police think when they interview him?. Make no mistake about it, if it had of happened to the Labour group heads would have already rolled.
When the Residents of this Borough get some answers in the Council chamber, then we can say we have seen justice to have been done, but Democracy is a dirty word at the moment.