The Government clearly has its eye on Tower Hamlets. Three weeks after Eric Pickles sent PwC inspectors to Mulberry Place, former Local Government Minister Bob Neill asked this in the Commons on Monday:
Robert Neill: To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government pursuant to the answer of 3 March 2014, Official Report, column 694W, on polling stations, what assessment he has made of the effect of foreign language translation by local authorities on integration of non-English speakers into their communities. 
And this is how Brandon Lewis, Bob’s successor at the Department for Communities and Local Government replied:
Brandon Lewis: In March 2013, my Department published new guidance for local authorities outlining how councils should stop translating into foreign languages. As outlined in the written ministerial statement of 12 March 2013, Official Report, column 5WS, such translation weakens integration; discourages communities from learning English; undermines rather than strengthens equality goals; harms community relations; and is an expensive waste of taxpayers’ money at a time when councils need to be making sensible savings. It is disappointing that councils like Tower Hamlets have disregarded that guidance, and reflects broader issues with the dysfunctional governance and divisive practices of the council.
I would add that in light of previous instances of electoral fraud, including impersonation in polling stations, postal voting irregularities and allegations of improper influence, Ministers in this Department have concerns about the practice of allowing foreign language translators/interpreters inside polling stations. The privacy of the ballot must be protected and voters inside a polling station should not be subject to any pressure or influence to vote in a particular way. In that context, the integrity of the ballot box and of the local democratic process requires independent and transparent scrutiny in polling stations by polling agents, council staff, the police and, indeed, passing members of the public who are also voting. This is undermined by polling room administration being conducted in foreign languages.
Takki Sulaiman, the council’s head of communications, authorised this statement as a response:
The council wants to ensure as many people as possible exercise their democratic right in the elections in Tower Hamlets on May 22 and in such a diverse borough this includes consideration for those who may struggle with the English language.
Data from the 2011 census states that the single largest ethnic group in Tower Hamlets is Bangladeshi at 32% of the population, followed by White British at 31%. The council provides written instructions in polling stations in both English and Bengali and at least one Bengali speaker will be available in each polling station to help anyone who does not understand the voting process. These staff have undergone enhanced training to ensure the integrity of the polls are upheld. They are strictly there to explain the process of voting and if necessary the content of the ballot paper. For example, they cannot point out a particular candidate even if they are asked to; instead they have to read out the entire ballot paper.
The enhanced training for polling station staff is one of several measures voluntarily introduced by Tower Hamlets to ensure free and fair elections. The council has gone further than any other council in London by producing a tough new protocol for all those involved in the elections and only last week the Electoral Commission praised our Returning Officer and the police for the anti-fraud measures they have taken in the run-up to polling day.
Earlier this month, Tory opposition leader Cllr Peter Golds wrote to the Electoral Commission to say this:
I am writing to express my concerns about the possible use of “interpreters” in polling stations within the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in the May 22nd 2014, local elections. There are a number of reasons regarding this that are likely to result in serious electoral concerns at these elections.
The Electoral Commission’s existing advice in this area is that “returning officers may employ staff for the purpose of translating or interpreting in polling stations”. This is dangerously untransparent and presents a risk of undue influence by those employed as interpreters.
There is a justifiable public concern about what interpreters tell electors. The use of minority languages in polling stations prevents presiding officers and anyone else including election officials and other voters who does not speak a particular language from knowing whether the advice given is appropriate or is an attempt to influence the voter. It will be extremely difficult to know whether the interpreters are informing or advising the electors they are assisting.
In Tower Hamlets, this has been an ongoing problem. In 2008 Ken Livingstone was defeated in the London Mayoral election after eight years in office. However, this was not so in Tower Hamlets, where there were remarkable swings to him, not least in the Weavers ward where the following incident took place at the Virginia Polling station.
- A council employed election official was pointing out the position of Ken Livingstone on the ballot paper to Bengali women and then checking the paper after they had voted to ensure that it “was correct”. He was not removed until mid afternoon after repeated complaints had been made to the local Returning Officer and the possibility of Bengali speaking electors threatening a showdown inside the polling station.
I have read evidence from other parts of the country that this situation has been observed ranging from Twickenham to Halifax.
Significantly the Weavers by election held on this day, also resulted in a very unusual result. The gain by the Labour candidate Fazlul Haque, of the seat from the Liberal Democrats. This was quite extraordinary in view of the massive loss of council seats sustained across the nation by the Labour Party that same day.
Ballot papers are already designed to make it as easy as possible for people to identify the candidate of their choice, with the candidate’s name, party, and an identifying party logo all printed in large print. There is information in voting in different languages within polling stations. One has to question if an elector cannot identify a candidate based on all this information, how they are in a position to cast a vote.
One may also ask how many interpreters in a borough such as Tower Hamlets would be required. Bengali, Somali and the full range of European languages are spoken locally. Who would decide what languages and where?
The voting process itself is more or less universal. I have witnessed elections in a number of different countries. The elector gives their name, receives a ballot paper, marks the ballot secretly in a private booth and then places the ballot paper in a sealed ballot box. What assistance is required in a process as simple as this?
Tower Hamlets has a long and unfortunate history of electoral malpractice, which has rarely, if ever, been properly investigated. There is already an atmosphere of mistrust regarding the electoral process in this borough, born of too many years of inaction by the authorities. Local politics is increasingly fractured on ethnic and religious lines and a proposal such as this can only further damage community cohesion.
Unnecessary interpreters compromise the validity and transparency of the poll, and I urge the commission to reconsider this decision which will only add to the electoral concerns of residents of this borough.
The mayoral election in Tower Hamlets uses the second preference voting system and not many people, including fluent English speakers, understand it. I even had to explain it to the Tower Hamlets Ukip bosses when they announced they were standing a couple of months ago. For example, do you have to cast a second preference? Answer: No.
So I can understand that questions will be asked in the polling station and it is surely better to have the answers explained clearly and fully in a language they understand.
However, where do you draw the line? Does the council believe there are so many Bengalis living in Tower Hamlets who would struggle to ask a question about voting in English and who would struggle to understand an English answer?
Well, surely it must to justify its decision.
In which case, that is symptomatic of a much wider failure of policy and returns us to this section of Brandon Lewis’s answer:
such translation weakens integration; discourages communities from learning English; undermines rather than strengthens equality goals; harms community relations; and is an expensive waste of taxpayers’ money at a time when councils need to be making sensible savings.
Yet in Tower Hamlets, Mayor Lutfur Rahman still happily rubber stamps tens of thousands of pounds of council grants to fund free private Bengali Mother Tongue classes to youngsters who already struggle in English.
Far from being a Great Champion for the Bengali community, he’s like a bad parent handing out sugar coated sweets, with no brave and bold long term thinking at all.