Derby City Council

Cllr John Evans: Why did Derby City Council try to unseat a democratically elected Councillor?

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Shortly after being elected as the UKIP Councillor for Alvaston on May 5th 2016, John Evans found himself in court, and being met with the shame of the Derby Telegraph headline “Newly elected Derby city councillor probed by police over potential poll irregularities”. The strong implication was that this was a case of electoral fraud, and that he was now subject to a criminal investigation by the Police.

The Judge in the case was advised that “There was no suggestion that Mr Evans had acted dishonestly”, and the conclusion was, and this was agreed by Ms Janie Berry, Derby City Council Electoral Registration Officer (ERO) who brought the case against Mr Evans, that it would be  “… most unlikely that any prosecution would be brought against Mr Evans”  The Barristers notes continue to say, “There is no evidence of fraud and an abundance of evidence of mistake regarding the application of the 8 February ( date his de-registration of Coronation Ave was processed incorrectly). There is also compelling evidence of Mr Evans having conducted himself with probity”

So why was the case brought? Why was Radio Derby cited? Why did Derby City Council’s Chief Executive, Paul Robinson suggest that he may get a prison sentence, or may need to resign? Why was so much time and money wasted on this?

Background

John Evans’ marital home was Derby Road, Chellaston where he lived for 17 years.  In the last 6 months there had been erratic difficulties in his marriage which created a lot of uncertainty in all of their lives and, sporadically, John spent time living at his Mother’s house on Coronation Avenue, Alvaston. This was on top of a busy work life, and intensive campaigning in the lead up to the elections.

Due to his change of residency, John decided to register himself at the Coronation Avenue address in December 2015. In February 2016 it became evident that his registration at his Mother’s house might result in problems for her with her council tax rebates. John didn’t want to cause her problems as she is elderly and frail. So he took steps to remove his name on 8th February 2016. Despite his best efforts, and contacting DCC, a system anomaly resulted in his registration not being removed.  He subsequently received a polling card which confirmed his registered address as Coronation Avenue. Unbeknown to him, a polling card was also sent to his Derby Road address – he’d expected that he had only been registered once.

On 28 March 2016 he completed his Candidate nomination document to become a Councillor. Apart from having to be over 18, and a UK Citizen there are 4 different ways in which one can qualify as a candidate:

  1. Registered elector in Derby City
  2. Owned property in Derby for the last 12 months
  3. Worked in Derby for the last 12 months
  4. Lived in Derby for the last 12 months

It is only necessary to have  1 of the above – John qualified on all 4 grounds. John chose to confirm the 1st one, only, and used his Coronation Avenue address – based on his receipt of a polling card.

Had John chosen to refer to any of the others – this case would not have arisen!

On 31 March 2016 he was sent confirmation from the Returning Officer ( also Ms Janie Berry) that they had received a “valid nomination”.  This was sent to his Coronation Avenue address. One might have expected that some basic checks had been done to confirm the validity.

Nominations were published publicly on 7th April 2016

How did the case start?

On 11th April 2016 Paul Bayliss ( Labour Councillor Alvaston Ward) wrote to Janie Berry querying why John Evans was registered at 2 addresses and stating:

“I am sure that this is not a cheap attempt to give the UKIP candidate an Alvaston postal address for electoral gain, or that his marriage has tragically broken down. If the former, then it does put a question mark against Mr Evans being an honest and fit and proper person to stand for election”

In an email dated 19th April 2016 between the DCC Press Office and Janie Berry and titled “Election complaint” it refers to dialogue taking place with Radio Derby’s Chris Doidge who was also questioning John Evans’ 2 addresses.

These 2 complaints were used to start proceedings against Evans.

A couple of points to note:

  1. It is not actually illegal to be registered at 2 addresses
  2. Whilst electoral rolls are in the public domain, versions which are easily searchable are available only to candidates ( for their ward) or the Party agents ( whole city).
  3. Why is Radio Derby feeding information of this nature to the Council’s legal officer? Where did they get the information? Was there a breach of Data Protection?

Internal reviews

The first that John Evans knew that there was an issue with 2 addresses was when he received a letter from Janie Berry calling him to a review on the 27th April 2016. The purpose of the review was to see if John Evans was entitled to remain registered at Derby Road, Chellaston – that was the explicit objective.

On the 27th April, Evans was told that the review was a “Type C review” which no one, including Janie Berry seemed to know much about. The objective of the review now seemed to be focussed on trying to establish whether Evans was “permanently resident” at the Coronation Avenue address.

This was a critical change in purpose!

If it could be proved that he wasn’t “permanent” there under the terms of the Electoral Commission guidance/Representation of Peoples Act 1983, and therefore became de-registered at that address then his Candidate nomination would become void – even though he was fully eligible on 3 other grounds.  It could also have been considered to have been electoral fraud and therefore a criminal offence…in retrospect, if intent was proven.

The “Type C” review

The ERO concluded that Evans wasn’t “permanent” at the Coronation Avenue address and so this should be removed from his nomination form, but she was comfortable with advising him to vote twice.

To quote from the ERO’s (Janie Berry’s) minutes of the review:

“The ERO clarified Mr Evans’ voting rights in relation to voting at the local and PCC elections on 5 May 2016 explaining that Mr Evans could vote in both wards at a local level……Mr Evans stated that he ‘wouldn’t feel right about voting twice at the locals’…”

Evans made the right decision and the advice from the ERO was incorrect – it is an offence to vote twice in the same election – as it states on the polling card. Evans felt very uncomfortable with this whole situation and chose not to vote at all in the elections just in case this further prejudiced matters.

Appeal

Evans had until the 13th May 2016 to appeal which he did. By this time he had won his Alvaston seat  from Mark Tittley ( Labour Councillor, Deputy Mayor and expectant new Mayor) by a resounding majority.  On 10th May, Evans had a meeting with Paul Robinson and Janie Berry to see if there was a way of resolving this situation for the benefit of both parties. Evans asked Robinson what were the possible scenarios, Robinson advised “..relating to a prosecution/action taken by the police; ie potential prison sentence or Mr Evans could resign”

Petition for a By-Election

Within 21 days of the election on May 5th, a petition can be submitted for a by-election. Ms Berry contacted the County Court judge on May 17th pointing out that the appeal needed to be heard soon as the deadline for the petition was very close. Berry writes on behalf of herself and Paul Robinson, the Chief Exec, to the Judge , “Both of us would very much welcome your views as to how this matter can be progressed urgently”.

Court case 24th May 2016

Evans employed a barrister to support him. On arrival at the Court the barrister approached Janie Berry to see if there was an agreement that could be reached. They agreed a settlement very quickly:

  1. Mr Evans would withdraw his appeal
  2. The ERO will remove the Coronation Avenue registration
  3. The ERO will facilitate Mr Evans’ application to register his Coronation Avenue address
  4. The ERO indicated that she does not consider that a prosecution for electoral fraud would follow
  5. Each side would bear its own costs

The referral to the Police was a matter of process and had to be done under the Representation of the Peoples Act 1983 – but it was not expected that this would involve anything substantial. Evans voluntarily joined a meeting some weeks later with the Police, and still awaits any outcome.

Conclusion

You might wonder why the common sense conclusion reached quickly in the court couldn’t have been achieved a month earlier, internally. It would have avoided unnecessary anxiety for John Evans and his family, as well as avoiding a groundless concern about the efficacy of the electoral process.  It is clear that Paul Robinson and Janie Berry were not averse to forcing a by-election despite the costs that it would entail for the Council but for what purpose? Were they hoping that they might “encourage” Evans to resign and so save the election costs.

Despite Cllr Bayliss’ cynical suggestion that there might have been an electoral advantage to be gained from an Alvaston address it was ignored by the ERO.

There was no suggestion at any point that John Evans was not eligible to stand as a Councillor, or that he had behaved dishonestly.

What the case does highlight is that being in possession of a polling card enables the holder to vote in an election but it does not mean that they are legally entitled to do so, or that the address is accepted as their registered one.  The mistake that Evans made was that he believed that being issued with a polling card meant that his registration was valid under the legislation. A mistake I think that we would all make! For this simple misunderstanding, the senior officers were prepared  to push the case as far as  a prison sentence.  Why ?

The Alvaston ward was a serious target for UKIP with  an existing UKIP Councillor being in situ. The seat was being defended by Labour Councillor, Mark Tittley, Deputy Mayor….who was fully expected to be the Mayor of Derby from May 2016.

Common sense has clearly not prevailed. The ERO and Chief Exec will no doubt suggest that they had no choice; there is always latitude to have an eye on the spirit of the law. Objectively, it seems very political….and some aspects of it feel very murky indeed, so much so, that transparent democracy was jeopardised!

 

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1 reply »

  1. My goodness, what a waste of time and money trying to obtain political advantage. This harks back to the Blair era and everyone is fed up with it. Derby Council should be about looking after the people who put them in power not this pointless backstabbing for political gain.
    If, as it seems, that this is how Labour still acts then count me out.

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