Not satisfied with breaking EU free trade laws over live animal exports from Ramsgate, facing prosecution for breaking Health and Safety laws by allegedly causing 20 of its staff to contract vibration white finger, and then being investigated for fraudulently misusing an EU grant of £165,000, Thanet’s “Criminal” Council now appears bent on embroiling itself yet deeper in the twilight world of civic illegality and unlawfulness by acting in way, which many might say, is in breach of election law and Government guidance.
The alleged criminality relates to “Notices of Allowances of a Postal Vote” for the forthcoming referendum which have been sent by the Council to hundreds, if not thousands, of postal voters across Thanet in recent weeks and days. The notice which is signed by the Council’s Chief Executive and Electoral Registration Officer, Madeline Homer, has a prominent logo in the top right hand corner which reads “Your Vote Matters, Make Sure You’re In” with a large voters cross symbol next to the logo. Not that I am suggesting anything untoward, but surely conflating the word IN with a voters cross symbol on a communication related to an IN/OUT referendum might be seen as an attempt to improperly and unfairly influence voters? And it’s not just me who thinks this might be a possibility.
The Electoral Commission, who’s logo this is, also agrees. In one of their regular Electoral Administration Bulletins dated 21 October 2015. The Commission says “we are changing the wording in our current YOUR VOTE MATTERS; MAKE SURE YOU ARE IN logo. The new wording will be YOUR VOTE MATTERS; DON’T LOSE IT. We are making this change because of the upcoming EU referendum, which is often referred to as an in/out referendum on the UKs membership of the EU …. There is a risk that some people may claim that the inclusion of the word IN in the logo unconsciously encourages support for a particular outcome … we recommend you make the change (to the new logo) as quickly as you can once the new version of logo is available (new logo was provided to all councils in November 2015).
A senior manager at the Electoral Commission has confirmed to me today that this advice was e-mailed directly to Thanet Council’s Chief Executive and Electoral Registration Officer, Madeline Homer, and other election managers at TDC in October 2015. Yet somehow this dodgy logo was still able to find its way on to the top of postal vote communications sent across the District by TDC more than 8 months after the Council had been ordered to discontinue its use!
It’s astonishing that Thanet Council should have taken such a lackadaisical attitude towards the quality and correctness of critically important electoral communications. Section 125 of The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 prohibits councils from publishing any material which “puts any arguments for or against any particular answer” in a referendum during the 28 days before the referendum takes place. Paragraph 35 of the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity published by the Dept for Communities and Local Government in March 2011 says that “In general local authorities should not issue any publicity which seeks to influence voters”. I would argue that the prominent logo on the letter sent out to hundreds, if not, thousands of postal voters by the Electoral Registration Officer, Madeline Homer, which reads “Your Vote Matters Make Sure You’re In” with a large voters cross next to this statement, could be seen by many people as breach, albeit not deliberate, of the both the law and the Government’s Code Conduct.
I have raised this matter with the Council’s Monitoring Officer Tim Howes. Mr Howes has told me that a “rogue” batch of 360 letters included the dodgy logo. He did not tell me how he had arrived at this figure. Based on my previous experiences of Thanet Council’s factual accuracy I’d be interested to see the evidence upon which Mr Howes relied to make his claim. I asked Mr Howes whether the council would be making a public apology to voters for sending out letters with dodgy discontinued and politically sensitive logos. I also asked Mr Howes whether the council would be investigating how it was possible that a logo, which had been officially withdrawn almost 8 months ago , found itself in a prominent position on official TDC election communications. Surely there must have been some quality control and double checking of these documents taking place, especially because this is a once in a generation democratic exercise?In keeping with TDCs corporate culture of arrogance and secrecy, and its lack of transparency and accountability, Mr Howes has informed that there will be no investigation and no apology.
Whilst still a councillor a couple years back, I was told that the Council’s Electoral Registration Officer, who is also usually the Council’s Chief Executive, received a personal payment of several thousand pounds for managing a local, county, general election or referendum on top of their £100,000 plus basic salary and this payment also attracts additional employer pension contributions. If this situation has changed since I was told about it then I apologies in advance for what I am now going to say, but surely if the current Electoral Registration Officer is in line for nice little earner for managing the forthcoming referendum then perhaps the earner should be donated to TDC’s general fund by way of an apology for the massive incompetence and mismanagement which led to a dodgy document being sent out to hundreds, if not thousands of voters even though the Electoral Registration officer was told that the dodgy logo had been withdrawn 8 months previously. Every other Council in the country seems to have avoided this problem but, as we are all too sadly becoming accustomed to, not Thanet!