Sir Eric Pickles looks every bit the diamond Tory geezer. As we sit down in a room overlooking Big Ben for his first interview since leaving the Cabinet, the 63-year-old MP for Brentwood and Ongar has dressed for the occasion: purple braces, monogramed shirt cuffs, pocket square and a golden Rolex. Yet his demeanour does not match the bling. Pickles’ laid back Yorkshire conversational style and dry wit are not what you would expect from a politician responsible for slashing millions from the budgets of local councils.
But there is nothing relaxed about Sir Eric’s attitude towards his new assignment: tackling corruption, both in finance and politics. As the government’s new ‘anti-corruption Tsar/champion’ — ‘I can’t say I am very fond of either title’ — Pickles is now the man responsible for cleaning up the darker corners of public life. Sir Eric’s main focus is electoral corruption, in light of what happened in Tower Hamlets. He compares the lack of action taken over the behaviour of former mayor Lutfur Rahman to the child exploitation scandal in Rotherham.
‘What appears to have happened in Tower Hamlets is similar to what happened in Rotherham, in the sense that as with sexual exploitation, people just turned a blind eye because they were worried about community cohesion and the same seems to have happened in Tower Hamlets’. To clarify, I ask does he believe that politicians and officials were too concerned about multiculturalism and ignored the years of warning signs from Tower Hamlets? ‘Yes, of course’.
London’s rotten borough first came onto Pickles’ radar when he was put in charge of local government five years ago, but officials in his department were ‘very unhappy’ about the idea of an investigation. ‘It was regarded as a beacon authority,’ he says. ‘When I first arrived I was told I should go and have a look at it because it was a very well run borough. They were tickled to death it was the first Asian mayor and I actually come from Bradford so I was quite pleased about that.’
‘But I knew people down in Tower Hamlets, I knew there was something wrong. There were people like Peter Golds [the Tory mayoral candidate in Tower Hamlets], people I absolutely trusted telling me things were wrong.’ So instead of rushing into an investigation, Pickles watched from afar ‘very, very carefully’ and the case against Rahman was slowly built. After Pickles sent in independent auditors to comb through the council’s books, the evidence came thick and fast, which came to a head when the 2012 mayoral election result in Tower Hamlets was voided in an Election Court judgement and the election was re-run in June this year. Labour’s John Biggs was elected mayor while Rahman is currently challenging the verdict of Electoral Commissioner.
‘Tower Hamlets is a warning,’ Pickles says. ‘If you are willing to bend the rules and to break the law with regard to elections, you are willing to bend the rules and break the law with regard to the proper running of an authority’.
Farewell to the Electoral Commission?
While Tower Hamlets is trying to move on from the Rahman era, it is Pickles’ job to find the culprits who failed to spot the problems and ensure changes are made so it cannot happen again. His main target is the Electoral Commission, the body responsible for overseeing elections. Pickles says he is ‘immensely disappointed’ with the commission, so does he think it should be scrapped?
‘I think we should look at its function. I have a very careful idea as to whether it’s necessary [to disband it] and I am personally announcing there is going to be a review,’ he says. ‘I am going to call for evidence, we are going to look at its long term future but we are also looking at a number of specific issues with regard to electoral registration, with regard to the conduct of polls. We are going to look to ensure that when you get a postal vote there is a reasonable certainty that you are the person who that postal vote is going to’.
At the outset, why did the Electoral Commission not investigate Tower Hamlets and electoral fraud generally? ‘I think has been too obsessed with voter registration and increasing the number of people at the polls regardless of the quality’.
The other body that needs to be held accountable in Pickles’ eyes is the Metropolitan Police, who failed to find evidence of criminal behaviour. ‘I think I’d like to see a programme of action, I’d like to see a plan,’ he says of the Met. ‘What we’ve had up to now has been silence, people have gone away and looked very carefully and they have this marvellous plan’. Soon they will have Pickles knocking on their door looking for just that.
Life outside the Cabinet
Sir Eric’s knighthood has wound up his many enemies on the left, who have been crowing that he achieved little except cutting services to the bone. ‘The anguish of my critics only added slightly to the pleasure of getting the knighthood,’ he says with a smirk.
Although he failed to bring back the promised weekly bin collections — ‘a number of fairly long term contracts were difficult to break, but I think we would have got there in the end’ — he notes his greatest achievements were the Localism Act, which paved the way for city devolution, his efforts to assist troubled families and a big reorganisation of local government, which he reckons is around two thirds complete.
But local government is no longer Pickles’ concern — he was replaced by Greg Clark after the general election. How is he finding life without the red box? ‘I miss the people and I miss the buzz,’ he says. ‘But the thing that surprised me more than anything is I don’t really miss it all that much if I’m honest. I’ve never been a person who wallows in nostalgia, I just move on to the next thing. The Prime Minister gave me a couple of things to do and I’m happy to do them’.
His review into electoral fraud is no small ‘thing’, with all controversial aspects of elections from postal vote fraud to undue spiritual influence to be examined. The Pickles Review will kick off this autumn and go on well into 2016. Will this mark the end of Sir Eric’s political career, which has lasted almost 50 years? ‘No’, he curtly responds. Does he have an elevation to the House of Lords in his sights? ‘Oh no, I am very happy in the Commons, get a grip of yourself,’ he warns me. ‘I am just learning to call myself Sir Eric Pickles’.