DCSIMG

Mystery of the Glenrothes by-election missing papers

An inquiry into the missing Glenrothes by-election registers has been launched amidst cries of 'conspiracy' drowning comment boards on websites.

Missing papers in victorious Labour's heartland and their importance will no doubt strike the tiniest of chords with most folk and yes, possibly it could be a storm in a tea cup. As Tricia Marwick, Nationalist MSP says it's no 'Glenrothesgate'. However failing to keep the register for 12 months - in the interests of upholding democracy - is serious enough to carry a fine.

The Scottish courts are ultimately the responsibility of the Scottish Government but it says it's not responsible for retention of records of UK Parliamentary elections. I doubt Alex Salmond can be held personally accountable for every box itemised upon court premises. Nor so Gordon Brown, whose constituency Kirkcaldy Sheriff Courts sits in.

But there's nothing quite like a set of missing political papers to cause a stooshie.

For the average everyone, the election was over a long time ago. It's forgotten, alongwith the first shockwaves of panic and confusion as the credit crunch imploded, rather untimely in crucial weeks before the poll.

'Nowadays', a full three and a half months or so later, the idea of worldwide belt-tightening is sadly met with less panic than it was pre-November 6.

The by-election will not, though, be forgotten by the likes of Gordon Brown, Alex Salmond and their respective political strategists who await the next election battle knowing the repercusions and fall out of economic meltdown and the insurmountable walls which must be climbed by our Scottish and UK leaders to resurrect the voters faith in who is looking after them.

So Glenrothes was always destined to remain crucial. But surely not for this reason: surely not because they have "lost" our voting register - thus enabling a technicality to be raised over our democratic process. Hardly the way to overcome so-called voter apathy and reward our much-considered mark on the ballot paper.

If the by-election register is not found, our guardians of democracy would seem to have failed with, at best, a peacock-like display of ineptitude. But we await the outcome of the independent inquiry before passing judgement. At least the ballot papers are safe and accounted for.

The man who discovered the register was missing was Glenrothes councillor, John Beare, SNP convener for Central Fife.

Tricia Marwick MSP and Cllr John Beare provide behind-the-scenes commentary on a brief timeline of events leading up to the discovery of the missing papers:

6th November 2008: The Glenrothes By-election poll is in full swing in Fife. It's the highest profile election Scotland or the UK, as it turns out, has seen for a fair while. Overriding global economic meltdown draws worldwide attention to the 'little' election on Prime Minister Gordon Brown's doorstep.

7th November 2008 - the small hours: The results of the poll are being called. Labour's Lindsay Roy takes what the media and even Labour call a "surprise" win. SNP candidate Peter Grant loses but the party claims a substantial increase in votes.

GM: What was the mood at that point?

TM: Well, I was not happy about not winning an election, but it had been clear all that day that we were not going to win. And it was also clear from the very first box opened that we weren't going to win it. So by the time it came to the result we were well aware we had not won.

JB: Before it was announced, we'd known for about two hours what the result was likely to be and it was no major surprise.

GM: Forwarding a few days, a week or so once the dust had settled, were you surprised you did not win?

TM: I think we were hopeful, at the start of the election campaign that we could win it. We continued to be hopeful during the campaign and we were conscious of the huge majority that Labour had that we had to overcome. And it was a big, big ask. We were frustrated by the media who talked up the SNP's chances of winning because we more than anybody knew just what an election we had to fight.

19th November 2008: The Marked Electoral Register is around this time due to be transferred from Fife Council to the Sheriff Clerk's office in Kirkcaldy. John Beare writes to the Sheriff Clerk's office requesting a quotation for a copy of the Marked Electoral Register. Usually the quotation is about 250.

GM: Why did you do this?

JB: After every election we get a copy of the registers, it's part of the election process. Anybody can see them. We do it after every election. I wrote, but I did not receive a reply.

GM: Did you think this was odd? Were you aware of anything untoward?

JB: No not at all.

12th December to 29th January: JB logs several calls chasing a quotation of the copy of the Marked Electoral Register.

JB: On each occasion I was advised that the person responsible was unavailable and I would be called back 'tomorrow'. Calls were not returned.

GM: At this point were you aware something was up?

JB: It was frustrating.

29th January 2009JB resorts to sending an email to the Sheriff Clerk's office.

30th January 2009: JB receives a phone call.

JB: I was telephoned by XXXX and advised that the documentation had been transferred from Fife Council on 21 November and had been stored in the basement of the court and the black bags and the sealed box containing the marked registers had been received. However, that they had since had extensive refurbishment of the basement storage areas and while the black bags were evident, staff were unable to locate the box containing the marked registers. Further, that they had during and before the refurbishment, sent considerable amounts of documentation to a confidential waste disposal firm and it appeared the marked register had been inadvertently disposed of. He also advised they had spent some considerable time trying to locate the box concerned but had been unable to.

GM: What was your reaction to this?

JB: (shaking his head in disbelief] Horrified. I couldn't believe it. I phoned Tricia and said 'they don't have them'.

TM: When John phoned me I said 'what?'. What? What are you talking about John? (Joking] I thought he'd been tardy! He can be quite tardy sometimes!

(GM: This means the Sheriff Clerk received the box of registers on the 21st November - around the same time as they would've received John Beare's letter sent 19th November requesting a quotation for a copy of them. It's odd that the two arrivals did not collide on someone's desk within at most 12 hours of each other. In fact, it's almost certain the letter was received on the 20th - before the box - or next day 21st, the same day the box arrived to that same small office.]

Monday, 2nd February 2009: The news begins to spread and is leaked to the papers...JB: I logged a couple of courtesy calls to those who would go on to become involved in the matter. I tell them the media has become aware of the missing papers and give a heads-up on the fact so these people can at least be prepared for negative publicity surrounding the issue, through no fault of their own.

Tuesday, 3rd February 2009: The feeling in the Gazette newsroom is of disbelief. But no, the facts are confirmed. It's the high profile by-election which made its presence felt and still won't go away. The editor's nervous 'by-election twitch' returns. What? Now there are missing papers which technically allows doubt to be cast upon an entire voting process?

Reporter Fiona Purnell telephones Lindsay Roy MP, pictured, on his mobile - he's on a train and unaware of the bombshell about to hit.

LR: Run that past me again...

FP: The register which shows who turned out to vote in the by-election has gone missing. The local Sheriff Clerk is required to keep the register for a year after an election and it's available to candidates and their agents. But, the SNP haven't been able to see it. The Scottish Court Service admitted to councillor John Beare the register was missing. Although they do have the ballot papers.

LR: There needs to be an inquiry. Did the Sheriff Clerk receive the register in the first place?

FP: Yes.

LR: Quite obviously an inquiry into how this has gone missing needs to be carried out by the court service. The register should be freely accessible and currently it's not.

Tricia Marwick and John Beare discuss:

Wednesday, 4th February 2009: Conspiracy theories abound the website chat boards of the newspapers which are carrying the story.

The Scottish Court Service announces there will be an inquiry into the missing register. The investigation is to be headed by Bill McQueen, former Deputy Chief Executive, Crown OfficeGM: Things moved fast. The inquiry was launched very quickly. Immediately.

TM: I'm very pleased.

Friday, 6th February 2009

GM: So what now?

TM: We need to wait on the results of the inquiry. I have already to written to the head of the Scottish Court Service saying thank you for the independent inquiry and passed on details of John so that the independent examiner will take into account John's information regarding the chronology of the matter. Because if John brings queries and questions, then the Sheriff Clerk's office has got to answer. And I'm not prepared to accept they (the papers] have disappeared. I want to know what happened from the moment they appeared at the court and I want to know their whereabouts every moment since it arrived and at what point they think it disappeared and why they did not respond to John's letter at the earliest opportunity.

JB: I would be shocked if I wasn't called by the inquiry.

TM: His information is vital.

GM: Glenrothesgate, or just a wee splash in the ocean?

TM: I think the first thing to say is that we are not calling for a re-run of the election. We're not suggesting there's anything untoward in the election, so to that extent I don't think there's a "Gate". But what is imperative is that either the registers are found or there is a good explanation of why the Sheriff Court so cavalierly treated these important documents and we need to see assurances for the future.

JB: We need to make sure it doesn't happen again, not only in Glenrothes but anywhere. In the Sheriff Court it's a different set-up to what happens in England and Wales and even in Northern Ireland.

GM: You've brought up an interesting point there. Something like this could really hamper the SNP's movement in Scotland.

TM: No. I feel quite passionate about this. This is not about the SNP, it's not about the Labour party, it's about democracy.

JB: It's about the electoral system.

TM: It's about how we conduct elections, it's about about the confidence people have in our electoral system. Democracy is far more precious than political parties. I've never looked for advantage for the SNP.

JB: Ironing out those so everybody can have confidence in the vote that they cast either yesterday or today, that it counts, matters and has been registered. That's the upshot at the end of the day. It doesn't matter how they voted.

TM: (laughing] I wish they'd all voted SNP! But at the end of the day it doesn't matter how people vote - please exercise your right to vote. But it's incumbent on us who are part of that process to ensure that we protect fervishly that democratic process.

It's not about winning, it's not about losing, it's about ensuring the people who have taken the time to vote get the results they have cast their vote on.

The registers are the final part of the jigsaw.

GM: At least you've saved 250.

TM: We have saved it, but we'd far rather have had to pay it.

A call to Iain Grant, electoral officer, Fife Council

GM: It's the Glenrothes Gazette, phoning about this by-election situation and the missing papers?

IG: What do you want to know?

GM: Nothing specific. Just what's been happening here from your end.

IG: Well, we package documents relating to elections including the ballot papers and one of the packages was the marked electoral register which indicates who has, or has not, voted.

The Sheriff Clerk has to keep it for a year. People are entitled to see them. In this case, we've done our bit and delivered it. But somewhere along the line he's mislaid it.

They do know people come and get them (registers] so I don't know what happened. You hear various stories...refurbishment...

GM: But this is not a little cardboard shoebox, this is a big official, marked box of some size! These sorts of items are handled frequently by the sheriff court, they must've known the importance of dealing with it.

IG: Yes, it's a substantial box! I don't know what the outcome will be. It's unfortunate that this doesn't make any of us involved in this election look good.

There's a proposal that we (Fife Council] do this in future rather than transmitting it to the Sheriff Court.

GM: Probably because it's sure to be safe? But it should be safe in a court of law.

IG: Aye.

GM: How many years have you worked in these affairs - been involved with elections and this sort of stuff?

IG: More than I care to remember.

GM: How many?

IG: I would say maybe about 30.

GM: 30? Three zero 30?

IG: Yes.

GM: And have you ever experienced anything, an incident like this in all that time?

IG: No. I haven't.

Thereafter, a door knock at Kirkcaldy Sheriff Court proves fruitless. But later the same afternoon, a telephone call gets through from the Gazette...

**: You might appreciate there is an internal inquiry, there may be information we can give you but I would have to check first. You have to go through the press office.

GM: I didn't think the press office would give me the answer. So do you know, even roughly, how long the refurbishment has been taking place?

**: The refurbishment? Well, for the last couple of months - it's really been ongoing. I would have to speak to the Sheriff Clerk, but he's gone for the day...

The Scottish Court Service declined to comment and referred the Gazette's enquiries to the Scottish Government. Kenny MacAskill, Justice Secretary, told the Gazette: "The Scottish Court Service has made clear its regret at the loss of this document."

COMMENT:

"The election itself was conducted in a thorough and efficient manner. The

registers play a vital part within local democracy. It (the loss] shouldn't have

happened."

Gordon Brown's spokesman

"I find it concerning the process has not been adhered to and slack administration has meant that the marked register has been lost. The voting ballots are safe and the integrity of the result is therefore not seriously in question."

Claire Baker MSP for Fife

"Whilst only a conspiracy theorist would jump to the conclusion there is something sinister in this, it does seem remarkably careless for such an important document to have gone missing. This can only undermine public confidence in the voting system."

Annabel Goldie MSP

GAIL MILNE

 
 
 

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