Barnhill by-election recount: Missing ballots were found in unsealed sack

Stock image of person voting. Picture: Rui Vieira/PA Archive/PA Images

Stock image of person voting. Picture: Rui Vieira/PA Archive/PA Images - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

A bag of election ballots due to be recounted went missing before being found unsealed, court papers reveal.

Barnhill Conservatives Stefan Voloseniuc and Kanta Mistry.

Barnhill Conservatives Stefan Voloseniuc and Kanta Mistry. - Credit: Archant

The Barnhill by-election which took place on January 23 is due to be recounted at the High Court on Thursday and Friday (July 16/17).

Labour candidates Mansoor Akram and Gaynor Lloyd were announced as winners at the time with 1,194 and 1,152 votes respectively, but Conservative candidates Kanta Mistry (1,082 votes) and Stefan Voloseniuc (1,018) subsequently began a legal action.

On March 20 the High Court ordered a recount.

A witness statement by Thomas Cattermole, head of executive and member services at Brent Council, reveals that when council officers went to retrieve the ballots from the council’s secure storage facility, Clock Cottage, they found sealed bags containing ballots from the Wembley Central and Alperton by-elections, but not Barnhill.

Carolyn Downs, Brent Council chief executive and returning officer

Carolyn Downs, Brent Council chief executive and returning officer - Credit: Archant

Those were eventually found in a dirty, unsealed bag, marked up for the 2019 European elections. Mr Cattermole notes in his statement that inferior seals were used for the by-elections, due to a shortage of seals following the European and general elections in 2019. He says he “would not be surprised if a seal were to come off”.

According to the witness statement, Jane Pollendine ,the election officer who “bagged up” the Barnhill votes when the count was done, “cannot remember specifically what happened in respect of the Barnhill sack”. Mr Cattermole says the officer “thinks she might have done the same as she did for Wembley Central” - by sealing the sack and marking it up.

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Stefan Voloseniuc told the BKTimes: “Once we came to learn of this significant breach, we requested for the recount to also include a count of all unused ballot papers in order to reconcile the total ballots printed, used and unused, particularly as the sacks were not sealed, open to interference by anyone.”

Corresponding through lawyers the council told Mr Voloseniuc that the returning officer, Brent Council chief executive Carolyn Downs, considers a count of the unused ballots justifiable only if the recount overturns the original result, giving victories to the Conservative candidates.

Asked for comment this week, a Brent Council spokesperson said: “The returning officer is confident that the conduct of the Barnhill Ward by-election was in accordance with the law of elections and that the recount, which the returning officer requested, will show that the declared result was accurate.”

Ms Mistry said the missing sacks “came as a bombshell”. She said they initially wanted to get the by-election declared null and void but that because their petition to the court did not refer to the unsealed bags the recount would have to go ahead.

“We never expected any of this in a million years,” she said. “We were our worst enemies by putting in a very simple request for a recount thinking there would be a sealed bag brought to the court but the fact the bag was open, no clips, how it was handled, there are a lot of questions.

“We need to go through the recount before taking any other action. We need some guidance now.”

The double by-election took place in Barnhill in January after Michael Pavey and Sarah Marquis stood down the previous year.

On the night, the returning officer refused a recount but in the following days questions emerged over incorrectly allocated votes and Brent North Conservative filed a petition to the High Court.

“A bundle of 100 block of the petitioners votes were unduly transferred into the winning Labour candidates piles,” the petition stated. “As soon as the petitioner’s bundle of 100 votes had been moved it seemed the panic in the Labour camp was replaced with joy.”

Labour councillor Gaynor Lloyd declined to comment this week.

Martin Francis, Green Party candidate, said: “It’s vital that the election is seen to be fair. I look forward to the verdict of the court with interest.”

Michael Brooke, Liberal Democrat candidate, said he felt “appalled”.

He said: “If sacks are found to be open and you do a recount you don’t know if that’s the correct result. It needs a proper investigation and if anyone is found responsible they need to be brought to account.”