“East Devon District Council’s chief executive will be asked to include an explanation of how 9,000 postal votes were sent out without an official security mark ahead of June’s General Election,
The postal vote pack sent out on May 25 to 9,000 voters by the Acting Returning Officer for the East Devon Mark Williams, who is also the council’s chief executive, contained voting slips that did not have an official security mark visible on the front of the ballot paper.
East Devon District Council were responsible for printing the ballot papers but Mr Williams issued a statement reassuring voters that no postal votes had been affected as a result of the error.
The council’s ruling cabinet committee voted on Thursday to agree with the council’s scrutiny committee that his forthcoming report to Cabinet on his two priority areas after the Parliamentary Election must include the explanation of the postal vote issue of May 25 that did not have an official security mark visible on the front of the ballot paper.
Paul Arnott, the chairman of the East Devon Alliance, had previously raised concerns about the fact that the council’s scrutiny committee were not able to investigate what he called the postal voting ‘cock-up’.
He was told that the current legal assessment is that the remit of the Scrutiny Committee does not extend to Parliamentary elections, which is the remit of the Electoral Commission. He queried this and was told that there is nothing laid down about where electoral matters can or can’t be discussed within the framework of local authority governance, and ultimately it is up to the Council and its operation of its scrutiny function as to whether any or all elections or electoral related matters are included in that scrutiny.
He has written to the council, asking them to take on board this advice and for scrutiny to investigate the matter, but in response, Henry Gordon Lennox, the Strategic Lead (Governance and Licensing) and Monitoring Officer of East Devon District Council, said that Mr Arnott had misinterpreted the advice he had been given and said that his query was ‘politically driven’.
Mr Gordon Lennox in a statement said: “In my view, Mr Arnott has misinterpreted the advice from the Electoral Commission, who said that there were no legislative provisions dealing with the role of Scrutiny and elections and therefore it is down to the rules of each authority that will dictate whether or not there is a role for Scrutiny.
“Mr Arnott has taken this to say that the Council’s Scrutiny Committee should be reviewing the conduct of elections. However, what they are saying, and it is my view too, is that effectively it is the Council’s Constitution and the Terms of Reference of the Scrutiny Committee that determine whether they can consider elections or electoral related matters.
“In general terms the role of Scrutiny is to review the actions relating to the various functions of the Council (in whatever form that takes). The role of Returning Officer is not part of the Council, save for the elections relating to towns and parishes and the district. It is for this reason that the Scrutiny Committee do not have the authority to consider the actions and conduct of the Acting Returning Officer / Deputy Returning Officer in the Parliamentary / County elections respectively.
“I think it important to also address the political side of this. I note that Mr Arnott says this is not political. However, Mr Arnott refers to the East Devon Alliance (EDA) report submitted to East Devon District Council following the May 2015 elections.
“Mr Arnott was at the time the Chair of the EDA and therefore a part of the Executive Committee who produced and submitted the report. At the County elections, Mr Arnott was an appointed election agent for the EDA.
“In the correspondence arising out of the postal vote issue during the Parliamentary election, Mr Arnott, when officially signing off his emails, referred to himself as the Chairman and Nominating Officer of the EDA.
“So my perception, notwithstanding what Mr Arnott says, is that his query is politically driven. To that end, the role of Scrutiny is supposed to be apolitical and I would be concerned that even if it were permissible for Scrutiny to be considering this matter, that the purpose for them so doing would be questionable.
“I have explained this matter in some detail in order to ensure that the correct context is understood and to give clarity on the issue. I would further confirm that, despite the above, it is my understanding that the Returning Officer will be presenting a report to Scrutiny at its next meeting on the key priorities he is working on, following what will now be the standard practice of a review process taking place after each election.”
In response, Mr Arnott said: “The independents who campaign under the protective umbrella of the East Devon Alliance have both a right and a civic duty in the public interest to ask questions about this matter without fear of partial criticism from the council’s legal chief.
“Nothing is more serious than questionable practices in a general election, and Mr Gordon Lennox’s boss, Mark Williams, has had since June 6 to the present day to simply explain why he printed the postal ballot papers sent out with no watermark or QR code himself and did not commission them from a professional printers. He has disdained to give a much-needed open answer and his team have focussed on giving reasons why he shouldn’t have to be questioned about it at Scrutiny. Why?
“Mr Gordon Lennox’s time would be better spent persuading his employer to answer councillors about their election concerns than taking swats at me. I am a volunteer while he and his boss are both handsomely paid by council tax payers.
“This matter, and the arrogant manner in which it continues to be dealt with is the essence of why the East Devon Alliance had to be constituted. When we say this issue is not political, what we mean is that Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Independents alike at EDDC should all be equally alarmed about yet another badly-run election paid for by local people. If they aren’t, they should be.”