Last month it was reported that the Glenrothes by-election register of electors had gone missing, despite a statutory obligation to keep it for a year after the election. The inquiry into its disappearance has published its report (PDF). If you’re interested I’d recommend you read the PDF, because it contains much more information than any of the news reports, which don’t seem to go beyond the executive summary.
The report’s author, Bill McQueen CBE, is very clear to stress that there is no evidence or suggestion of foul play.
“Human error and management failure” are to blame. In particular, it seems to have been slightly bad luck that the basement they decided to store the files in was also being cleared out of old furniture and confidential waste by contract workers during November – January.
“A failure to store the registers in a more secure location” is cited, which is a clear breach of the Data Protection Act. I hope that the Information Commissioner will now issue an Enforcement Notice against the Scottish Courts Service.
The Returning Officer‘s staff delivered all the papers from the election on the 18th and 26th November. Most of that was in labelled black bags, but the register of electors was hand-delivered in a box to the Office Manager at the Kirkcaldy Sheriff Court. This was “because the documents in this box were likely to have to be accessed to respond to requests from candidates”. Despite this, “Sheriff Court staff were clear that any box of registers received in the general office would have been quickly moved and stored in the basement along with the election black bags”.
The SNP had put in a preliminary request on the 19th November, asking for the cost to get a copy of the register. Surely knowing that, a week later when you get the documents they’re looking for, you might think to yourself “this could be handy, I’ll keep it here in the office” instead of dumping it in the basement.
The failure to respond to SNP Councillor John Beare‘s request for over two months is particularly telling:
“A court officer … accepted responsibility for the task but ascribed it a lower priority than her core court duties. She worked part-time … and because of pressure of work and annual leave periods, did not seek to complete the task until late January.”
“there was no system in place … for her managers to monitor ad hoc duties such as this…”
“Councillor Beare received no acknowledgement to his letter of 19 November and … he made follow up phone calls to enquire about progress on 10 December, 14, 20, 23 and 29 January. He received responses that the officer dealing with his request was out of the office and that messages would be passed on and calls returned, but they were not.”
Anyone who’s worked in the public sector will recognise all the above as being quite common. Lack of management oversight, part-time workers hard to get in contact with, requests for information or minor tasks being overlooked for months, messages not passed on, etc.
Apparently one reason she’d put the task off was she thought she’d have to open 95 envelopes and count up the names to calculate the cost for Councillor Beare. However the costing system had changed, meaning it would have taken her seconds instead of hours to carry out the initial request. The Sheriff Clerk was aware of this, but hadn’t passed on the information to the staff member who would be doing this.
The use of bin bags to store all this information is maybe less than ideal. It’s no wonder that, when dumped in the corner of a basement, these might be mistaken for genuine rubbish to be dumped.
The register of postal electors has been re-constructed from available data by the Returning Officer. The postal votes were probably the most contentious issue for the SNP, given postal turn-out was much higher than anticipated. I expect they will by now have received a copy of this register, and are hopefully satisfied it was all legit.
The report as a whole is worth reading, and top marks to the author and his team for putting it together reasonably quickly (I expected something might come out after six months, by which time everyone would have forgotten it).
- By-election report fails to answer questions, The Courier
- Registers ‘may have been binned’, BBC
- Fife by-election blunder verdict, Press and Journal
- Glenrothes documents lost due to ‘failures in handling’, The Herald
- ‘Human error’ to blame for Glenrothes register loss, STV