The Electoral Commission has fined the Conservatives £70,000 – the highest fine it has ever slapped on a political party – for failing to report accurately more than £275,000 of campaign spending.
The fine accompanied a report that compliments – but is not part of – the police investigations into alleged spending fraud in the 2015 general election. Up to 20 Tory MPs and their agents are facing potential prosecution after 12 police forces submitted files to the Crown Prosecution Service, and others may follow.
Sir John Holmes, chair of the Electoral Commission, has said he was concerned that parties would come to see such fines as “a cost of doing business” and that the commission needed to be granted powers to impose heavier fines proportionate to the levels of spending.
But the Tories have claimed the Electoral Commission’s processes and rules should be “clarified”. They’re suggesting that the fault for their failure to report more than a quarter of a million pounds of spending lies with the Commission. What utter nonsense.
The Tories said this is the first time they have been fined over their reporting of election spending. Doesn’t this suggest that the problem doesn’t lie with Electoral Commission rules, but that people have become better at spotting spending irregularities?
Oh, and the Tories have said Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been just as bad at failing to report election spending. Except, of course, those parties weren’t fined as much – so the Electoral Commission clearly disagrees. And the claim is a false argument in any case: Two ‘wrongs’ don’t make a ‘right’.
The Tories have also selectively quoted the Electoral Commission report to claim that money spent on their “battlebus” campaign was a national – not a local – expense:
“The Electoral Commission report makes clear that our interpretation of the guidance was correct, stating: ‘The Commission has found no evidence to suggest that the party had funded the Battlebus2015 campaign with the intention that it would promote or procure the electoral success of candidates’ (para. 106).”
But in fact the Commission said that “Battlebus” campaign had made it possible for local campaigning to occur as part of an ostensibly “national” campaign scheme, because the report continues as follows [bolding mine]:
“Nevertheless, coaches of activists were transported to marginal constituencies to campaign alongside or in close proximity to local campaigners. In the commission’s view, there was a clear and inherent risk that activists might engage in candidate campaigning. Further, it is apparent that candidate campaigning did take place during the Battlebus 2015 campaign.
“There is no evidence to show that either during the campaign or during the compilation of the spending return consideration was given to whether this had occurred. Instead, the party stated that it was “assumed, but not expressly discussed,” that spending on the activity would be reported in the party’s campaign spending return. Consequently an inaccurate assumption was made that the full spending should be reported by the party.
“The commission cannot determine from the available evidence what proportion of spending on the Battlebus 2015 campaign activity was properly party spending and what was candidate campaign expenditure. This is in large part because no records were kept to show how spending was apportioned, despite the fact that PPERA required spending on the party campaign to be reported separately from any spending the party undertook on behalf of its candidate. Nonetheless the commission is satisfied that a proportion of the reported spending was candidate campaign spending and should not have been included in the Party’s return. That proportion was also, as a result of this, not included in any relevant candidate’s campaign expenses return, casting doubt on the accuracy of those returns.”
This is evidence against the candidates and their agents who are facing the possibility of prosecution for electoral fraud.
The Electoral Commission’s report states that the Tories may have gained a “financial advantage” over their opponents in key seats because of over-spending. This is against the law.
And the Commission has disputed Tory claims that the party “complied fully” with its investigation. Claire Bassett, the Commission’s chief executive, reminded us all that the Commission had to seek a court order for the information at one point, (during a Today programme interview).
There is no way the Tories can make themselves look good in this matter.
The Electoral Commission has fined them more than anybody else has ever been fined, for failing to declare more than anybody else has ever been found to have failed to declare.
‘National’ spending has been mixed with ‘candidate’ spending, meaning the Tories may have gained an illegal financial advantage over their opponents in important battleground seats.
And the Tories have lied to the public today about the meaning of the Electoral Commission’s findings.
With investigations into electoral spending by individual Conservative MPs still ongoing, this information casts further, serious doubt on their claims of innocence.
The Conservative party has been fined a record £70,000 and its former treasurer reported to police after an Electoral Commission investigation found “significant failures” by the party to report its campaign spending.
The commission, which has conducted its own inquiry separate from the police, concluded some election spending was wrongly apportioned to the national party rather than candidates – the crux of the police investigation into MPs and their agents.
The commission found the party failed to declare or accurately report more than £275,000 of campaign spending at three byelections in 2014 and at the 2015 general election.
The spending return for the UK general election was missing payments worth at least £104,765 and payments worth up to £118,124 were either not reported to the commission or were incorrectly reported by the party. Invoices and receipts were missing for £52,924 worth of payments.
Simon Day, the then registered treasurer of the party, had failed to ensure that spending was accurately reported, committing two offences under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the commission said. One of those offences had been reported to the Metropolitan police.
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