Police investigate door-to-door collection of postal votes
Wednesday April 30, 2003
Police are investigating the collection of postal votes by Labour party activists in Leicester, including the cabinet minister Patricia Hewitt, the Guardian has learned.
In signed statements of complaint, voters say the trade and industry secretary joined two councillors from a Leicester ward, who were asking voters to hand over the council election ballots last Wednesday. Politicians should not handle postal votes according to the electoral commission - although there is no law preventing them from doing so.
One man said that Mrs Hewitt, the MP for Leicester West, stood on his doorstep in the neighbouring Leicester East seat as a councillor asked for his elderly mother's postal vote, which had yet to be filled in.
Another man said Mrs Hewitt sat in his front room as he filled out his ballot and handed over three others, at the request of councillors whom the minister was accompanying.
One of the councillors, Manjula Sood, said she had collected postal votes.
The government has backed the increased use of postal votes as a way of countering falling local election turnout.
Over the weekend Leicestershire police interviewed a witness and voters who handed over their ballot papers.
Four members of the Aly family say they handed over their ballots, which were filled in and sealed.
Sayed Aly invited the minister and the councillors into his front room, where four postal votes were lying on a shelf.
Mr Aly says his was blank: "I filled it out in front of them, just to get them out of the house. "Mrs Hewitt would have heard the request for the ballot papers."
Mr Aly said he did not realise the papers were supposed to be posted, and said he felt disappointed by Mrs Hewitt. "They should have told us to post it."
Bharat Amin, a Labour party member, said he was at home when a Labour candidate accompanied by Patricia Hewitt called and asked to take postal votes. "By her presence she gave more legitimacy and support," he said.
Labour is trying to hold on to a two-seat majority on Leicester city council, and the two councillors face a tough challenge from independent candidates.
In March the electoral commission in a report on postal voting said: "Candidates, agents and local party workers should not handle ballot papers."
Alex Folkes of the Electoral Reform Society said the episode was unwise and gave "the impression of impropriety".
Mr Folkes said a law banning politicians from collecting postal votes was needed. Ms Sood denied any wrong-doing, and said the ballots were handed in the next day to the town hall. "There's no law which says we can't take them. We did collect some votes of people who asked us to take them."
A spokesman for Mrs Hewitt said: "Nothing inappropriate has been done at all. She has complied with the electoral commission guidelines and Labour party guidelines."
Leicestershire police said they were investigating complaints received about the incident: "We are aware of the concerns and are looking into them."