Eric Pickles has launched a blistering attack on the Metropolitan Police for its handling of electoral fraud in Tower Hamlets.
In a report released today, the government’s ‘anti-corruption champion’ blamed “political correctness” and “over-sensitivity to religion and ethnicity” in state institutions for allowing corruption to take place in the borough.
The report is the result of a wide-ranging investigation into electoral fraud, which began following the vote-rigging scandal in Tower Hamlets that saw mayor Lutfur Rahman removed from office.
Introducing his findings, Mr Pickles said: “Last year’s court ruling in Tower Hamlets was a wake-up call that state bodies need to do far more to stamp out corruption and restore public confidence.
“It was local residents who lost out from the unscrupulous politicians who bullied them and wasted their money.”
Mr Pickles reserved special criticism for the Met Police, saying its failure to prosecute anyone in the wake of the Tower Hamlets scandal “sends a worrying signal that the police are soft on tackling and prosecuting electoral fraud”.
He added: “Following the Tower Hamlets election court case, it is astonishing that no criminal prosecution has been brought by the Metropolitan Police.”
Campaigner Andy Erlam, who led the fight to take Lutfur Rahman to court, went even further. He said: “The negligence and worse of the Met Police to decide not to prosecute election fraud offenders in Tower Hamlets is an utter disgrace.
“The election fraudsters were convicted to the criminal standard ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ and the police say there’s no evidence? It’s unbelievable!”
“There’s been a cover-up, once again.”
Mr Pickles’ hard-hitting report recommends 50 measures to cut down on election fraud, including the abolition of permanent postal votes, forcing officials to speak English only at polling stations, and strict ID checks on voters.
Commenting on the report, Tower Hamlets’ mayor John Biggs said: “Ultimately electoral fraud is a crime which affects everyone and I welcome any action which helps to crack down on those who set out to cheat our democracy.
“What concerns me most is that, under the current perverse rules, not only was nobody prosecuted, but many of the candidates who benefitted from Lutfur Rahman’s corrupt practices have faced no action and remain councillors.”
Councillor Peter Golds, leader of Tower Hamlets Conservatives, has long been a critic of the Met’s failure to prosecute anyone over vote-rigging in the borough.
Mr Golds says the police are “out of their depth” when it comes to voter fraud.
He said: “For years the Met maintained that there was a lack of evidence, whilst at the same time ignoring the vast amount of evidence that was given to them.
“The electoral system must be fair for all voters and the acceptance of practices which damage democracy under the guise of ‘cultural’ activities – an excuse popular with the Metropolitan Police – must cease.”
Tower Hamlets Council says it has already introduced some of the proposals mentioned in the report.
A spokesperson for the council said: “We welcome the fact that many of the improvements we proposed for Mr Pickles’ review are reflected in his report, some of which we have already introduced to combat fraud.
“For example, during the 2015 elections people were required to speak in English at our polling stations. We enforced the rule of only one person being in a polling booth at any one time.
“And exclusion zones were marked outside the polling place to prevent groups of people from congregating and obstructing voters.
“We will continue to do everything we can to deliver elections which are free of fraud.”
The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) has released a statement in response to the sharp criticisms laid out in the report.
A spokesperson said: “The MPS is disappointed that Sir Eric Pickles has expressed such views in relation to no prosecutions being brought for alleged election offences in Tower Hamlets.
“Working very closely with the Crown Prosecution Service, extensive efforts were made by the MPS to obtain evidence that would be considered admissible in any criminal prosecution and witnesses who could support a criminal prosecution.
“The suggestion that the MPS has somehow failed to take action is completely unfounded. We must work within the legislative framework set by Government.
“We welcome consideration of any measures that support Returning Officers and the Police in ensuring that elections can take place without undue interference in the democratic process.
“We learnt a number of lessons from the Mayoral Election in 2014, following a full review with the Returning Officer and Local Authority.
“This resulted in a new plan for the elections in 2015, which led to significant reductions both in public concern and complaints to police, with not one allegation received regarding the mayoral election.
“The MPS is happy to share our learning from these investigations with any relevant body considering changes to the process.
“We will be writing directly to Sir Eric with our concerns about the report, and to offer a briefing on the extent of our investigations.”