CROYDON IN CRISIS: The council’s chief executive has spent thousands of pounds on a not-very-independent report in an effort to vindicate her bungled handling of the May 2022 local elections which made Croydon a national laughing stock. By WALTER CRONXITE, political editor
Katherine Kerswell, the chief executive of Croydon Council and sometime Returning Officer for elections in the borough, is not a completely incompetent, bungling buffoon.
That’s according to the findings of a special report, commissioned at considerable expense to the cash-strapped council by… Katherine Kerswell.
The report’s terms of reference were drafted by Katherine Kerswell, and the members of the panel which compiled the report were carefully hand-picked by Katherine Kerswell.
And once that was all done, and to ensure there was not the slightest suggestion of any conflict of interest, the process was overseen by Croydon’s deputy chief executive, Elaine Jackson. That’s the same Elaine Jackson who was appointed as deputy chief executive by… Katherine Kerswell.
What in fact amounts to a costly arse-covering exercise was carried out following the shambles of an election count overseen by Kerswell in May 2022, when checking the votes for a Croydon Mayor and 70 councillors took more than 48 hours longer than any other borough election count staged in London that week, and made Croydon a national laughing stock. Again.
Concerned observers of the mismanaged election count have alleged that “something dodgy happened” in a 20-minute period at the start of the count verification on the night of May 5, 2022, when candidates, agents and scrutineers were not allowed to observe the opening of ballot boxes.
And one veteran of many Croydon election counts has described today’s report as “a badly written whitewash”, and called for Kerswell’s immediate resignation.
Even the report, published by the council today, has been long delayed, having been sitting on Kerswell’s desk in Fisher’s Folly for four months, awaiting her final seal of approval.
And while the council’s propaganda department, doubtless at the behest of the CEO, today went out of its way to put a positive spin on the report’s findings – “we delivered an accurate, safe and transparent verification and count”, and they got the results correct, whooppee! – it does not take much reading between the lines to find that even the report’s authors discovered much at fault with the Croydon election count’s operation, for which Kerswell will have been paid thousands of pounds extra, on top of her generous £192,474 CEO’s salary.
Croydon already had a well-deserved reputation for being slower than most local authorities when it comes to holding election counts. In 2014 and 2018, and at the General Elections of 2017 and 2019, the Croydon count set all kinds of records for being slower than other similar election authorities.
But Kerswell, overseeing her first borough-wide election in Croydon in May 2022, managed to break all those records and establish a few more unwanted ones, after making the decision to hold the count at a posh private school which meant that the count couldn’t even begin until 5.30pm on Friday, May 6, more than 19 hours after the polls closed
Things went from bad to worse from there.
Which is probably why the report’s authors have made no fewer than 11 very detailed recommendations for future election counts to be held in Croydon – almost as if Kerswell had not actually known what she was doing when performing the important task of Returning Officer 16 months ago…
The report’s authors found that the Croydon count came up with the right result. “Nothing we have found should detract from this as this reflects the overriding obligations placed upon the Returning Officer and her team in terms of running the election,” they say. But the accuracy of the Croydon election count had never been an issue.
It was the disorganisation and slow progress towards the result declarations which was the focus of the widespread public criticism of Kerswell. “I’ve worked out that since the polls shut on Thursday at 10pm, you could have flown to Sydney, had lunch outside the Opera House and flown back and still not have had the New Addington result in Croydon declared,” one bemused observer from another borough observed at the time.
“Criticism has been aimed at the Returning Officer for the way the verification and counts were held,” the report states. “The allegations cited poor leadership, inadequate delegation, slow decision-making, resources not utilised correctly and inadequate communication in the venue.” Which pretty much sums it up.
And they say, “The criticism is in our view, to a limited extent, justified with those attending the venues subject to delays getting into the venue, long periods of inactivity in the halls and the mayoral count result extending beyond the predicted 10pm.
“This was inconvenient and frustrating not only for those waiting for the mayoral result but those attending the borough ward counts.”
And they add, “The delays were undoubtedly frustrating and there were matters that could have been handled better in respect of that…”, before taking a massive sigh of relief and in capitals writing “BUT”: “… the duty of the Returning Officer to run the election in accordance with the law and implement the will of the people was fulfilled.”
It almost reads as if Kerswell herself had inserted that last phrase, or maybe simply dictated it to the report’s authors.
Just to underline the point: “The election was conducted lawfully, and democracy properly implemented. It was also transparent, accurate, safe and secure.”
And very, very, very slow.
Apparently, Kerswell has quite a demanding day job. “We were also very aware that the Returning Officer as CEO of the council was coping with a multiplicity of significant and highly challenging issues at the council, and under considerable pressure both in terms of workload, the significance of that, and consequential pressures on her time.” Poor, £192,000 per year lamb.
The report relies heavily on comparisons with Tower Hamlets, where similar mayoral and ward councillor votes were held on the same day. One of the report panel members is the head of electoral services in the east London borough.
“Croydon had the most ballot papers to count, 27,387 more than Tower Hamlets who were the second highest in London with comparative polls held and 81,975 more than Hackney,” the report says.
The closeness of Croydon’s mayoral election result also created an additional pressure on the Returning Officer, the report suggests, although as sources who were present throughout the count have said, “All the decisions on recounts were taken by Katherine Kerswell, and only Katherine Kerswell. She refused to listen to sound advice and suggestions from candidates and agents.”
The report states: “The insistence on accuracy, albeit resulting in lengthy assurance delays, was in our opinion the correct methodology to adopt and the lack of legal challenge endorses the action taken.
“However, final results and quality assurances aside, there were aspects of the organisation that should and could have been done better, and the number of recommendations reflect our observations in that respect.”
The report finds that Croydon has fewer officials working in the electoral services department, and less than half of them hold specialist qualifications. In Tower Hamlets, all their electoral services team hold the Association of Electoral Administrators Certificate. This comparison, the report notes, “puts the resources, structure and qualifications of the [Croydon] team into perspective”.
Kerswell herself added to the already over-burdened, under-qualified department’s difficulties when in 2021 she gave them the work of overseeing the coroner’s office. When the head of the department flagged up concerns, he was ignored.
Planning meetings ahead of the elections went unminuted from January 2022. “No minutes, no formal recording of decisions and no formal referrals to action points that needed to be completed within certain timescales is not conducive with the principles of project planning,” the report notes acidly.
“This lack of formal project planning, detailed sign-off and close examination of the
planning in place also extended to the arrangements for the verification and count.”
Senior management didn’t understand the problems they caused
There were complaints during the run-up to the elections that Kerswell, despite being Returning Officer, was not making herself available for meetings for long enough. Kerswell told the review panel that she “does not recall this being an issue or raised with her”. But the panel has obtained an internal email from six weeks before polling day to Kerswell which makes exactly that point.
They also criticise the late decision (March 2022) on Trinity School as the venue for the count, and a venue selection process which Kerswell only began in January 2022. The date of the local elections had been known since 2018.
“The elections team told us that late confirmation of the venue presented difficulties to them as they could not undertake tasks that would ordinarily be completed many months before polling day… “A member of the team said, ‘I don’t think the administrative problems it caused was really understood by senior management’.”
They also discovered that Kerswell was completely unaware that no contract between the council and the school was ever signed.
This led to further complications as the count slowly over-ran the originally intended booking period, while the count area was accessible to people rocking up at Trinity to use their swimming pool – creating a blatant breach of count security.
“Having a detailed contract subject to scrutiny and drafted to ensure that the content is agreed and suits the requirements of the Returning Officer is a mainstay of project planning,” the report says.
They found that a politician – they don’t say from which party – was able to access the ballot boxes as they arrived at the venue (“manhandling boxes”), another serious breach of count protocol.
“The reception of staff, candidates and agents, guests, and the media to observe the
verification was not organised as was to be expected. Candidates/agents arriving to observe the verification were subjected to unacceptable delays as they arrived at the venue.
“There were also long queues forming with some official observers missing the commencement of the verification at 10pm some waiting over an hour to get into the venue.” Staff who were interviewed for the report said that they were “simply overwhelmed”.
One election candidate who has spoken to Inside Croydon said, “Something dodgy was happening in the first 20 minutes, when I and all the other observers were kept out. You should not open the ballot boxes until you are being watched.”
The candidate wrote to the Electoral Commission alleging electoral malpractice at the count. But Kerswell’s panel never bothered to interview this complainant, and there is no mention of this serious allegation in the report. Instead, after detailing the manifold planning failures by the Returning Officer, the report states: “This was an appropriate lawful and transparent process albeit that some were unable to access the venue on time.”
The report finds that Kerswell’s decision to allow for zero tolerance of counting errors, when applied to counts conducted across 28 wards being carried out in three separate school halls, slowed down the whole count process considerably.
As the second late-night count dragged on and on, the accuracy of the count got worse: “Without exception all the staff interviewed confirmed that the extended count… was physically demanding and that two days working into the early hours affected concentration levels with accuracy affected because of sheer exhaustion.”
It was not until 4.45am on Saturday, May 7 – nearly 37 hours after the polls had closed – that Kerswell finally got to declare the result of the Mayoral election. Under Kerswell’s plan, she expected to declare the reult by 10pm on May 6.
It was only after the Mayoral election voting had been completed that the election of the borough’s 70 councillors could begin. But Kerswell had failed to book the school halls for the election count on May 7 and, as we know now, into Sunday May 8. And count staff had to be booked hurriedly to continue the long, drawn-out process.
“This is a poorly written whitewash,” one veteran election observer told Inside Croydon after seeing today’s report.
Calling the 2022 count “shambolic”, they said, “Croydon was the laughing stock of the whole country, being the last local authority to declare its election results.”
Kerswell’s failure to have a contract for the count venue is, of itself, “a serious error which alone should result in her resignation”.
If Kerswell does not resign, it is highly likely that she could be responsible for organising next May’s London election voting in the borough, and a General Election, too.
Croydon Council has been asked for the cost of the not-so-independent report, but has failed to respond by the time of publication.
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