Conservatives fined over campaign spending
The Conservative Party has been fined a total of £70,000 following the conclusion of an investigation by the Electoral Commission into the party’s campaign spending.
The investigation concluded that there were significant failures by the Conservative Party to report accurately on how much it spent on campaigning at three by-elections in 2014 and at the 2015 UK parliamentary general election.
The Conservative Party’s 2015 UK parliamentary general election spending return was missing payments worth at least £104,765.
Separately, payments worth up to £118,124 were either not reported to the Commission or were incorrectly reported by the party.
One portion of this amount should have been included in the Conservative Party’s return but was not.
Another portion was put into the Conservative Party’s return when it was candidate spending in a number of constituencies where the Conservative Party spent money promoting individual candidates.
In addition, the Conservative Party did not include the required invoices or receipts for 81 payments to the value of £52,924.
Finally, the Conservative Party failed to maintain records explaining the amounts it invoiced to candidates in three 2014 by-elections, for work on their campaigns. Therefore the accuracy of the amounts could not be verified.
Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) it is the responsibility of a political party’s registered treasurer to ensure that an accurate and complete campaign spending return is submitted to the Electoral Commission by the statutory deadline following national elections.
Following the publication of the Conservative Party’s 2015 UK Parliamentary general election spending return on 20 January 2016, Channel 4 News raised concerns – which fed into the Commission’s own investigations – that the Conservative Party’s spending return may have been incomplete.
The allegations also indicated that the Conservative Party’s spending return for the 2014 European Parliamentary elections also may not have been complete.
Following initial enquiries with the Conservative Party, the Commission opened an investigation on 15 February 2016.
In summary, the Commission’s investigation considered the following:
First, whether the Conservative Party’s 2014 European Parliamentary election campaign spending return was a complete statement and whether any spending incurred campaigning at three Parliamentary by-elections in 2014 should have been included in the Party’s spending return.
And then whether the Conservative Party’s 2015 Parliamentary general election campaign spending return was a complete statement, considering;
Whether campaign costs incurred at three Parliamentary by-elections in 2014 should have been included in the Conservative Party return;
Whether campaign costs incurred by the Conservative Party in the South Thanet constituency during the 2015 general election campaign were correctly reported by the Conservative Party;
Whether campaign costs incurred by the transport of activists by the Conservative Party to a number of constituencies across the UK during the 2015 general election campaign were correctly reported by the Conservative Party;
Whether any further payments were omitted from the Conservative Party return;
Whether there were any required invoices or receipts missing from theConservative Party return.
And then whether there was any evidence to suggest that the Conservative Party’s registered treasurer may have knowingly or recklessly made a false declaration of accuracy with respect to both spending returns.
The investigation has now ended, and concluded that Simon Day, the registered treasurer of the party until April 2016, committed three contraventions under section 41 and two offences under section 82(4)(b) of PPERA.
The Conservative Party has been fined £70,000 under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums (Civil Sanctions) Order 2010 and has until 13 April 2017 to pay the fine.
Summary of findings:
The Commission found that:
there was no evidence that the Conservative Party’s spending return for the 2014 European Parliamentary election was incomplete;
it is likely that expense returns delivered by Conservative Party candidates at three Parliamentary by-elections during 2014 understated the value of the Conservative Party’s spending on their campaigns;
on three instances in 2014, relating to the said three Parliamentary by-elections, Mr Day as registered treasurer failed to ensure that the Conservative Party’s accounting records were sufficient to adequately show and explain the Party’s transactions with the candidates and/or their agents, as required by section 41 of PPERA;
the Party’s 2015 UK Parliamentary General Election spending return was not a complete statement of its campaign spending payments, as required by section 80(3) of PPERA. Mr Day had included payments that were not Conservative Party campaign spending and omitted other Conservative Party campaign payments; and
the Conservative Party’s 2015 UK Parliamentary General Election spending return also failed to include all the required invoices and receipts associated with the Conservative Party’s campaign spending that were required by section 80(3) of PPERA.
The Commission has also referred one matter relating to section 83(3) of PPERA to the Metropolitan Police Service. Section 83(3) required the Party’s treasurer to declare that he has examined the return and that to the best of his knowledge and belief, the return was complete and correct as required by law.
A declaration to that effect was delivered alongside its spending return.
The investigation established that the Conservative Party’s general election return was neither complete nor correct, and the evidence gathered during the course of the investigation has given the Commission reason to suspect that an offence may have been committed.
Knowingly or recklessly making a false declaration under this section of the Act is a criminal offence and falls outside the remit of the Commission’s civil sanctioning powers.
It will be a matter for the police as to what steps they take following the Commission’s referral.
For further details of the investigation and its findings, the Commission has published a full report which can be viewed on its website here.
Commenting on the outcome of the investigation, Sir John Holmes, chair of the Electoral Commission, said: “Our investigation uncovered numerous failures by a large, well-resourced and experienced Party to ensure that accurate records of spending were maintained and that all of the Party’s spending was reported correctly.
“The rules established by Parliament for political parties and their finances are there to ensure transparency and accountability.
“Where the rules are not followed, it undermines voters’ confidence in our democratic processes, which is why political parties need to take their responsibilities under the legislation seriously.”
“This is the third investigation we have recently concluded where the largest political parties have failed to report up to six figure sums following major elections, and have been fined as a result,” he continued.
“There is a risk that some political parties might come to view the payment of these fines as a cost of doing business; the Commission therefore needs to be able to impose sanctions that are proportionate to the levels of spending now routinely handled by parties and campaigners.”
And as The Canary pointed out, the real repercussions will come to light when the police forces conclude their separate investigations into local spending.
The Electoral Commission is only authorised to examine national spending, but the police are responsible for examining whether spending on local campaigns is within legal limits of between about £11,000 and £16,000 depending on the size of the constituency, the Guardian explained.
If the allegations are true, the MPs and their agents could face a year in jail and/or an unlimited fine. In addition, there could be a three-year ban on their holding elected office.
There are two strict spending limits in UK parliamentary elections: national and local. The allegations centre on the Conservatives recording local expenditure under the national limit, or not recording spending at all.
The Commission has already referred the Conservative Party’s former Treasurer to the Metropolitan Police. The Treasurer signed off the party’s general election national spending return, which was “neither complete nor correct”.
And prosecutors have already received files from 12 police forces – in Avon and Somerset, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Devon and Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Greater Manchester, Lincolnshire, London, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and West Yorkshire.
Currently, there are 29 seats under police investigation. And the results could trigger a number of by-elections, threatening the Conservatives’ majority in parliament.