'Cough up and pay £1.2m legal bills for getting rid of Lutfur Rahman' Lord Pickles urges government
PUBLISHED: 17:01 29 July 2019 | UPDATED: 12:41 30 July 2019
The government should pick up the tabs on the £1.2million legal bills for the High Court corruption judgement that banned Lutfur Rahman as mayor of Tower Hamlets, former Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has urged a parliamentary committee.
The four petitioners, led by anti-corruption campaigner Andy Erlam, have been left with nearly all the costs of the longest election court case in legal history in 2015 despite winning.
"The government should have coughed up," Lord Pickles told the ad hoc parliamentary select committee.
"It owes an enormous debt to these four petitioners who took action in the public interest.
"But I lost that argument when I was in government. This sort of justice should be taken care of."
The select committee is examining proposed legislation to tackle voting fraud and security to stop intimidation at polling stations which was widespread during the 2014 election that returned Rahman for his second term as mayor.
That election was overturned in the High Court the following year and re-run again, which brought John Biggs and the Labour Party back in power after losing to Rahman in 2010.
Lord Pickles, who later produced a parliamentary report into the way elections should be run, told the select committee: "I took on the role of anti-corruption champion because of what I saw at Tower Hamlets as Secretary of State.
"We need to nip it in the bud - the election system needs to be made safe."
Select committee member Lord Campbell-Savours read out a letter from Mr Erlam, whose petition brought down the corrupt town hall regime, which revealed how the ousted mayor made himself bankrupt shortly after and paid only £90,000 costs to petitioners while also owing the court £500,000.
The petitioners "were left with a £1.2m legal bill despite winning the case in the public interest and awarded costs," the letter revealed.
The government argued at the time that it was a private prosecution and it didn't want to create a precedent.
"Yet this man was acting in the public interest," Lord Campbell-Savours pointed out. "Isn't there an argument that in such circumstances compensation should be paid where petitioners lay themselves on the line?"
The petitioners only managed to recover £92,000 after property Rahman owned in Bow was seized by the court and sold off. The proceeds were used to pay off the mortgage and yet more legal fees, while what little was left went towards the petitioners' bills.
Lord Pickles insisted: "I'm not going to beat about the bush. The government should have paid the legal costs. The antiquated and useless legal system makes costs enormous to the individual."
His own report, commissioned after the 2014 election was overturned, calls for pilot action to be taken specifically in areas with high risk of electoral fraud.
"I was thinking specifically about Tower Hamlets," he added. "Things should run properly on election days to minimise the level of intimidation.
"Going through a long corridor at polling stations with young men shouting at you and people leaning across shouting at the returning officer at the election count makes junior officials subjected to intimidation. The person in charge should have the power to enforce the law."
He came under cross-examination over his report talking about "areas of high ethnic minority population" and targeting those areas where there was a real problem.
He responded: "You shouldn't be reliant on your mother or your father or some community leader to vote.
"We also had ghost voters on the register who should not have been there. They were either dead, didn't exist or simply moved away."
Tower Hamlets was fraught with hundreds of bogus or 'deceased' names on the voting register in 2014 being used fraudulently and postal votes being tampered with, while often empty addresses were being used by outsiders to register to vote.
Mr Erlam said after the select committee hearing: "It is disgusting that the government turned its back after patting us on the back. We had to take the petition because the police, the Electoral Commission and the Crown Prosecution Service each with huge budgets failed to do their jobs. Lord Pickles' support is much appreciated. He did what he could."
The select committee reports its findings next year, following Lord Pickles' evidence.