Barnet’s inquiry into polling day blunder will be a “whitewash”, claims Dismore
PUBLISHED: 14:44 23 May 2016 | UPDATED: 15:07 23 May 2016
Barnet and Camden Assembly Member Andrew Dismore has claimed the inquiry into the mayoral polling day debacle in Barnet is looking “increasingly like a whitewash”.
Mark Heath, Chief Operating Officer at Southampton City Council, is leading the investigation into why hundreds of voters were turned away from polling stations across the borough for the first few hours of election day.
Andrew Dismore, the re-elected member for Labour, said he fears the inquiry will not be impartial because Mr Heath is a “local government insider”.
He has written to John Hooton, the acting chief executive and returning officer, to pose a series of questions about the appointment of Mr Heath.
He has asked whether Mr Heath was previously known to any senior officers in Barnet, and whether or not any other candidates were considered for the job.
But the Conservative-run council said that Mr Heath, a solicitor, was selected due to his experience working as a returning officer since 1994.
Barnet added that the appointment of Mr Heath and details of the investigation were agreed by leaders of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat groups, and with the Electoral Commission.
The inquiry will examine how incorrect electoral registers were given to all 155 polling stations at the start of the mayoral and GLA elections on May 5. It will also assess the number of voters affected and the overall impact
Barnet said the inquiry will look at how the blunder was addressed once it became known, and what measures can be taken to prevent a reoccurrence.
The review is set to conclude by the end of May with a report due to the General Functions Committee on June 9 - ahead of the crucial EU referendum on June 23.
Those who had problems voting only had until last Thursday to report their experiences online - a window of opportunity which Mr Dismore said was too short and not sufficiently well publicised by the council.
The London Assembly voted in favour of a motion calling on Camden Council to take over running the referendum in Barnet after Mr Dismore claimed Barnet could not be trusted “to run a whelk stall”.
An Electoral Commission spokesperson said: “What happened to voters in Barnet who were unable to vote at their polling station was unacceptable.
“We welcome Barnet’s decision to conduct a full, independent investigation into what happened. The Commission will contribute to the investigation and once published will work with Barnet closely to make sure that the EU Referendum and subsequent polls are run to a high standard.”
But Mr Dismore is not satisfied with the ongoing inquiry. He said: “I can’t see how anyone can expect this investigation to get to the bottom of bungling Barnet’s electoral dung heap and put things right in time for the EU referendum.
“Apart from the missing registers issues, it is clearly designed to divert attention away from the many other failures in Barnet’s election administration that keep occurring, and to scapegoat the ex- chief executive, rather than getting to the bottom of political accountability for what happened.”
He has called on the council to clarify whether Andrew Travers jumped or was pushed when he left his £187,000 a year post, with Barnet claiming this was by “mutual agreement” and refusing to say whether or not he received a financial settlement.
Mr Dismore had called for an independent QC to lead the inquiry, and said he was disappointed with the choice of Mr Heath.
He said: ‘The investigation is even being conducted by a local government insider, who is also Chief Executive of another ‘ Capita’ council.
“It is not being held in public, but behind closed doors, which is outrageous. What price transparency? This is about as transparent as tar on the road. It is looking increasingly like a whitewash.”
Mr Dismore said he would like to see a more wide-ranging investigation which looks at postal voting and problems with the electoral roll.
He added: “The investigation is not looking at the resourcing of election administration either , especially in the run up to elections. It should look at budgets, staff numbers, and their training and experience, too.”
Barnet Council said it will not comment further until after the inquiry has reported in June,