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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 April, 2005, 20:21 GMT 21:21 UK
Court refuses post vote challenge
John Hemming at the Royal Courts of Justice
Mr Hemming wanted to make sure election fraud was minimised
A Liberal Democrat councillor has been refused the go-ahead to bring a High Court challenge over postal voting arrangements for the general election.

Birmingham City Council deputy leader John Hemming - acting in a private capacity - had said there should be more safeguards to prevent fraud.

After talks with police on the threat of fraud, the government said it would bolster efforts to ensure safe voting.

This month a judge said the postal voting system was "wide open to fraud".

Ex-Labour councillor Muhammed Hussain was jailed on 8 April for fraud in local elections in Blackburn in 2002
He had arranged for campaigners to ask voters to hand over blank voting papers
During local elections in Birmingham in 2004, police found councillors in a warehouse handling unsealed postal ballots
Six councillors were forbidden to stand at the next election. All deny wrongdoing, and no criminal inquiry is under way

During a preliminary hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Mr Hemming asked for permission to seek a declaration that current voting regulations were "incompatible" with human rights laws.

This was because the regulations were "virtually certain" to result "in very serious fraud" because of insufficient safeguards for postal voting, he said.

Human rights legislation provides that elections have to ensure "the free expression of the will of the people".

Former Tory MP Jerry Hayes, representing Mr Hemming, said that politicians "could not be trusted" to introduce safeguards and called for the courts to intervene.

He said requests for postal voting were up 500% in marginal seats, and if action was not taken, election fraud would continue unabated.

'Insufficient safeguards'

"Every voter is at risk because every voter could have their votes stolen," he said.

But Mr Justice Collins, in refusing Mr Hemming permission to seek the declaration, said it was not enough to make general allegations about fear of fraud.

Mr Hemming, who is a prospective Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for a Birmingham seat, was not yet a victim of fraud and could not be as the general election was still to take place.

"If he was to lose, and he had grounds for believing there was fraud, there are remedies," the judge said.

This system is clearly open to fraud in so many ways
Chris Dunckley, Cambridge

He said it was accepted that there were currently insufficient safeguards for postal voting, and it was to be hoped that the high-level talks taking place on Thursday could provide them.

After the hearing, Mr Hemming said the government needed to reach agreement with the other parties to prevent fraud.

Following high level talks between police, officials and representatives of returning officers, the Department for Constitutional Affairs said: "It was agreed that we would step up our public information campaign to ensure that the 6.5 million people due to vote by post know how to vote safely and securely."

It also promised full funding for "all reasonable measures" to tackle voting fraud.

Further guidance for police and officials on the ground on how to deal with complaints of fraud was also being considered.

Party involvement

The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives had called for a public information campaign.

Returning officers were concerned about the involvement of political parties in arranging postal votes for electors.

In local elections in Blackburn in 2002 Labour councillor Muhammed Hussain had arranged for campaigners to ask voters to hand over blank voting papers. He was jailed for the fraud.

An elections court hearing into local elections in Birmingham in 2004 removed six Labour councillors from office over widespread and systematic abuse of the postal voting system.



Why there are fears about postal voting

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