PENDLE MP Andrew Stephenson has accused members of the Asian community in the borough of participating in electoral fraud involving postal votes.
He made the allegations during a debate in the House of Commons yesterday, where his colleague, Burnley MP Gordon Birtwistle, said he had heard ‘reports of wholesale fraud on an industrial scale’ in the town.
Pendle Council yesterday said that three complaints relating to postal voting in the borough elections on May 3 had been passed on to police.
The Lancashire Telegraph can also reveal that police are investigating postal and proxy votes in two wards in Blackburn with Darwen, whilst a police investigation is continuing into votes in Hyndburn.
Mr Stephenson said that South Asian women in Pendle had spoken to him and said they had no idea who they voted for because their husbands had done it for them, a process known as ‘family voting’.
Pendle’s Labour leader, Coun Mohammed Iqbal, said he took ‘great offence’ to the suggestion that South Asian women did not vote for themselves.
Last year’s Pendle mayor, Coun Nadeem Ahmed, said his experience was ‘totally different’ to that of Mr Stephenson’s.
Mr Stephenson made the comments during a debate on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill in the House of Commons.
He said: “This is a particular issue in the South Asian community and indeed I have met Asian women in my constituency, who have told me they have no idea who they voted for as their husband did it.
“However, needless to say because of the close family ties and bonds of loyalty, this is not going to be reported to the police or investigated by anyone.
“Apart from electoral fraud taking place, and women and young people losing their right to vote in some households, such goings-on play into a narrative that gives an impetus to groups like the BNP and the EDL.
”I say we cannot allow this to happen.
“We cannot allow electoral fraud and the suspicion of electoral fraud to continue and become another reason for undermining community cohesion.
“It is clear that there is a cultural element to this.
“The current on the demand postal voting regime actively disenfranchises women and young people by allowing “family voting” to occur.
“By family voting I mean where the head of a household will pledge everyone of his families votes to a particular political party.
“He can then ensure that this happens by watching other family members complete their postal ballots, or by completing the ballots himself, or indeed by completing them with an activist from the said political party.”
Mr Stephenson also accused the Labour Party of foul play in its success in the Reedley ward during the borough council elections earlier this month.
He said that in Reedley in 2010, there were 800 postal votes where 3,049 people voted, with the Conservative candidate securing 49 per cent of the vote and being ‘easily elected’.
In 2011 Reedley saw a 25 per cent increase in postal votes and this year, a further increase of almost 25 per cent, an increase of 479 postal votes in two years.
Mr Stephenson said: “Virtually all were from the British Pakistani Community and virtually all were signed up on to postal votes by the Labour Party.
“Not coincidentally, Labour candidates were elected on both occasions. The Conservative vote did not collapse. The Labour victory was not on trend across the constituency. Nonetheless, their support in Reedley rocketed.
“I accept that it is theoretically possible that local support for the Labour candidate did increase significantly, however the 45 per cent increase in the Labour vote in 2011, against the backdrop of an 18 per cent drop in turnout, and given the huge increase in postal votes and reports of party activists walking in to polling stations with piles of 50 votes at a time maybe indicates that was not what really happened.
“It is not so much that the numbers do not add up, but rather that they do.”
Coun Iqbal said: “In Reedley the Conservatives have taken that ward for granted and that is why they lost, but they have had over 800 postal voters signed up in the past there.
“It is quite clear this is a case of sour grapes. They have lost wards they have historically won by a big margin.”
Councillors in Pendle have agreed to set up a task force to look at the allegations of election fraud in the borough.
Five councillors will sit on a working group that will look at concerns about postal and proxy voting.
Two Labour councillors, two Conservative councillors and one Lib Dem councillor will make up the group.
Coun Joe Cooney, leader of the council, said: “People have to come forward and be honest, and if anybody has any evidence then they have to go the police to report it.”
Philip Mousdale, Pendle Council’s director of services and deputy chief executive, said: “We had three complaints related to postal voting activity this year which have been referred to the police.
“None involved fraud, they concerned undesirable activity by party workers. None of the complaints were about the Reedley ward.”
The bill aims to tackle electoral fraud by speeding up the introduction of Individual Electoral Registration (IER) so it is in place by 2015. At present, one person in every household is responsible for registering everyone else who lives at that address. This proposal is for each person being required to register to vote individually, rather than by household.
A civil penalty, such as a fine, could also be introduced for those who do not apply to be registered when required to do so by the Electoral Registration Officer.
Blackburn MP and former Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw said: “What Mr Stephenson has described sounds awful. It is unlawful and should not happen.
“I think there is an even bigger problem where the list of postal voters is published before the election. It is just too tempting for some political workers to abuse.
“It is wrong when someone in the household is dictating how other voters cast their vote but it is not a problem that is exclusively confined to the South Asian community.”
Pendle Liberal Democrat Councillor Tony Greaves, who put forward a motion at the authority’s annual meeting last week launching an investigation into postal vote fraud, said: “It is clear that the family voting tradition in the South Asian community has come into postal voting in some areas of Pendle like Nelson and Brierfield. Mr Stephenson is quite right about this and we need to see an end to postal voting on demand.”
Burnley Liberal Democrat MP Gordon Birtwistle told the same debate in the Commons: “It is not just postal voting but impersonation where some people present themselves at the polling station as someone else to vote. We suspected this but could not produce any hard evidence for the returning officers but we do need an investigation.
“This was happening in wards like Daneshouse, Queensgate and Stoneyholme, where the turnout went up to 60 per cent, and the majority of the community is Asian.
“They appear to have been voting for the winning Labour candidates. We need an end to postal voting on demand and possible even asking people to produce photo-identification at polling stations to stop electoral fraud.”
Rossendale and Darwen Tory MP Jake Berry said: “I do think there are questions about postal voting and electoral fraud being a problem in particular ethnic groups.
“I have heard anecdotal reports about this with the Asian community in Blackburn from party workers but have no direct evidence myself.
“I do support Andrew in cracking down on postal voting on demand except where people can prove they need it.”
Ribble Valley Tory MP and House of Commons Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans said: “This is a problem in some communities and we are not just talking the South Asian community. It happens in some Eastern European families and indeed in some fine ‘Olde English’ communities.
“There needs to be a government investigation. We cannot have our MPs going round the world telling other people how to run elections if this type of family voting is going on at home. ”