After a 13 month long investigation into election campaign expenses the Electoral Commission today handed down the highest fine in its history of £70,000 to the Conservative Party, for violation of electoral law.
The Electoral Commission had to go as far as taking the party to court to try and obtain key documents as part of the investigations relating to the European Parliamentary elections and by-elections in 2014, and spending in the 2015 general election, which was an unprecedented move. The Commission’s report, published today, criticised the party for an “unreasonable failure to cooperate” with the Commission which caused a “delay to the investigation.” It also highlighted the negative impact on public confidence, and the advantage bestowed on the party’s candidates over others as the result of breaking the rules.
The Commission also criticized the party for an omission of over £100,000 of spending from the party’s spending return, which was “a significant loss of transparency and a failure of significant magnitude”. The Commission estimates that the actual value of under- and overstated spending was “likely to be far greater.”
As well as imposing a fine, the Commission has taken the serious step of referring Simon Day, the party treasurer, to the Metropolitan police for contravening the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
The Labour party and the Liberal Democrats also received fines in 2016 for violating election expenses rules, each receiving £20,000.
Alexandra Runswick, the Director of Unlock Democracy, said:
“Unlock Democracy welcomes the Electoral Commission’s hard work on the investigation, but they must be empowered to act in a way that will disincentive such a flagrant disregard for the law. The fine imposed is simply inadequate to deter those with money from abusing election campaign expenses rules. This case highlights how urgently we need a root and branch overhaul of the system, including lowering the spending limits for elections”
“This is not a case of administrative errors or a few bad apples. Electoral law has not just been broken, it has been flouted and systematically abused in order to win key seats. Money shouldn’t be able to buy elections, but under current rules it seems parties can do just that. If the penalty for overspending of hundreds of thousands of pounds is a mere £70k, then parties are likely to see that as a price worth paying to buy a constituency or few. The evidence presented by the Commission is damning, and with police investigation still ongoing across the country we hope that those who have broken the law are prosecuted to its fullest extent, or else public trust in politics will be severely damaged.”