Independent report into issues faced by voters in Newcastle-under-Lyme at the 8 June General Election
Two council officers have been suspended following an independent review into problems faced by voters in Newcastle-under-Lyme during the General Election.
The suspensions, which have been made pending the outcome of an internal disciplinary process, relate to the Acting Returning Officer – who is also the Borough Council’s Chief Executive – as well as the Head of Audit and Elections, who is the Monitoring Officer.
Action has been taken after the Borough Council received a report which it commissioned from the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA).
It identified a number of issues linked to how council staff prepared for and ran the last Parliamentary election in June 2017.
Cllr. Elizabeth Shenton, the Leader of the Council, has apologised on behalf of the authority for the shortcomings highlighted in the review document which says around 500 postal voters in the Newcastle-under-Lyme constituency were disenfranchised, close to 1,000 potential electors were not included in the election register and two people not entitled to vote actually did so.
Cllr. Shenton said: “We have never experienced significant difficulties like this in our borough before during the many elections we have run whether they were for Parliament, Staffordshire County Council, national referendums or our own borough council.
“However, this review indicates a number of problems. I sincerely apologise on behalf of the Council for that situation but we can’t turn the clock back and right any wrongs which occurred at that time.
“But what I think local people would expect me to do as Leader is make sure these failings never happen again and we can begin the process of trying to rebuild public confidence in the election system in Newcastle-under-Lyme.”
The Leader of the Council added: “Preparing for, and then running, elections are the sole responsibility of the Acting Returning Officer and the officers in the elections team.
“Politicians cannot get involved in these processes because that could leave the system open to allegations of election fraud or other wrong-doing.”
Andrew Scallon CBE was brought in from the AEA to carry out the review which the Borough Council commissioned shortly after the election where claims were that students at Keele University and postal voters weren’t able to vote despite following the correct procedures.
Some said they were turned away from polling stations despite having polling cards with them at the time.
Others said they had registered to vote by the deadline but were turned away for not having provided extra information required.
Mr Scallon’s review has made 16 recommendations to the Council with regards to actions for the Acting Returning Officer/Electoral Registration Officer.
It also makes recommendations to the Electoral Commission, Cabinet Office and Government over wider election issues.
In particular the report urges the Government to modernise the petition process for how the outcome of elections can be challenged.
The Leader of the Council has written to all of these groups on the matters raised and included a copy of the report for their consideration.
Labour’s Paul Farrelly held on to the Newcastle-under-Lyme seat by 30 votes – the third smallest majority on election night. He polled 21,124 votes with Conservative Owen Meredith in second place with 21,094 votes.
The Leader of the Council has asked the Mayor to call a special meeting of Full Council to consider the whole report and its recommendations. This is scheduled to take place on Tuesday, 5 December at 7pm in the Civic Offices in Newcastle.
Cllr. Shenton said: “The Council takes this matter very seriously indeed and that is why I have asked the Mayor to convene a special meeting of Full Council so that all councillors can consider the contents of the report, the recommendations included and have an opportunity to debate the issues raised.
“In the meantime, the Council has already taken some steps prior to that meeting over and above the two suspensions.
“In addition to interim management arrangements, an advert has been placed for a new post of Electoral Services Manager. The Council is also working with the Local Government Association to bring in experienced elections staff from another local authority to help us deal with two Borough Council by-elections early in December and begin preparations for our first all-out council elections in May 2018.”