United Kingdom general election, 2015 party spending investigation

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UK Parliamentary General Election party and candidate expenditure 2005–15. These figures are based on all candidate spending returns provided to the Commission by Returning Officers by 31 January 2016, being approximately 86.5% of all candidates who stood in the election.

The United Kingdom General Election 2015 – Party Spending Investigation is a probe involving the UK Electoral Commission, numerous police forces, and the Crown Prosecution Service into over spending by political parties and candidates, primarily during the 2015 UK Parliamentary General Election campaign. This co-ordinated investigation has been described as 'an unprecedented and extraordinary situation'.[1]

Elections held in the UK are governed by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000[2] and spending on elections is governed under the Representation of the People Act 1983.[3] Shortly before the election, the Government increased the amount of money that parties and candidates were allowed to spend on the election by 23%, against the advice of the Electoral Commission.[4]

Summary of Fines levied[edit]

A national party level, the Electoral Commission fined the three largest parties for breaches of spending regulations, levying the highest fines since its foundation:[5] £20,000 for Labour in October 2016,[6] £20,000 for the Liberal Democrats in December 2016,[7] and £70,000 for the Conservative Party in March 2017.[8][5] The higher fine for the Conservatives reflected both the extent of the wrongdoing and 'the unreasonable uncooperative conduct by the Party'.[9][5]

At constituency level, related alleged breaches of spending regulations led police to begin investigations into possible criminal conduct of between 20 and 30 Conservative Party MPs. This investigation has been described as 'unprecedented'.[8] Charges were not brought against most of those investigated, but on 2 June 2017, charges were brought against Craig Mackinlay, who was elected Conservative MP for South Thanet in 2015, his agent Nathan Gray, and a party activist, Marion Little.[10][11]

2014 and 2015 elections, Conservative Party[edit]

Electoral Commission investigation[edit]

From 18 February 2016 to 16 March 2017, the Electoral Commission investigated the Conservative party at national level for breaches of spending regulations in the 2014 parliamentary by-elections in Clacton, Newark and Rochester and Strood; the 2014 European Parliamentary Election; and the 2015 UK general election. (No irregularities were found regarding the European election.)[12]

The Commission was informed by an investigation by Channel 4 News, which revealed that the Conservative Party had spent many thousands of pounds centrally on 'battlebuses' to transport activists, and hotel accommodation for the activists, who went to campaign in marginal constituencies, finding that this expenditure might breach limits on election spending per constituency.[13][14]

On 12 May 2016, the Commission took the unprecedented step of launching court action to force the Conservative Party to release documents.[15][16]

The Commission concluded that:[17]

  • The Party likely understated the value of the Party's spending on the by-election campaigns.
  • The Party Treasurer, Simon Day, 'failed to ensure that the Party's accounting records were sufficient to adequately show and explain the Party's transactions with the candidates and/or their agents' in the by-election campaigns.
  • The Party's 2015 General Election spending return was not a complete statement of its campaign spending payments and also failed to include all the required invoices and receipts.

The Commission fined the Party £70,000, noting its lack of co-operation during the investigation.[18]

The Commission found that Simon Day may not have fulfilled his obligations under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and referred him for investigation to the Metropolitan Police Service.[19]

Police investigation[edit]

UK General Election 2015 average spending by party candidates as a percentage of spending limit. These figures are based on all candidate spending returns provided to the Commission by Returning Officers by 31 January 2016, being approximately 86.5% of all candidates who stood in the election.

Claims of overspending in the 2014 elections came to light too late for police investigations due to a statute of limitations on such cases.[20] However, the Commission found cause for concern that campaigns in some constituencies breached the Representation of the People Act 1983, and could constitute criminal activity; its report referred the Conservative Party treasurer Simon Day for investigation to the Metropolitan Police Service, and the Commission passed evidence to relevant police forces for investigation and possible referral to the Crown Prosecution Service.[21]

Widely publicised criminal investigations of individual MPs, agents, and other officials followed from the allegations (by mid-June 2016, 17 police forces were investigating 20–30 sitting Conservative MPs).[8][22][23][24][25][26][27][28] As well as the "battlebus" campaign, letters sent out in the name of David Cameron have been implicated.[29]

14 police forces referred cases to the Crown Prosecution Service for possible prosecution, concerning over 30 people (not all of whom were MPs).[30] These forces were: Avon & Somerset, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Devon & Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Greater Manchester, Kent, Lincolnshire, Metropolitan, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire, West Mercia, West Midlands, and West Yorkshire.[31][32]

Journalistic commentary noted that the law in this area is complex. Defendants may be found guity of merely 'illegal practice' (where there is no alleged dishonesty) or the more serious 'corrupt practice' (involving dishonesty). Anyone convicted would have a right to appeal.[1] In June 2016, the journalist David Allen Green opined that 'unless compelling evidence emerges of wrongful and dishonest intention – either on a personal level or as part of a conspiracy – then it is hard to see any charges or criminal prosecutions in respect of the allegations as they currently stand'.[1] However, according to The Independent, 'in theory election results in individual seats could be declared invalid if laws are found to have been broken', and this could lead to new by-elections.[33] No conviction would affect the legal standing of legislation previously passed with the involvement of convicted MPs.[1]

On 10 May 2017, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that it would press no charges in almost all cases, commenting that 'to bring a charge, it must be proved that a suspect knew the return was inaccurate and acted dishonestly in signing the declaration. Although there is evidence to suggest the returns may have been inaccurate, there is insufficient evidence to prove to the criminal standard that any candidate or agent was dishonest'.[34] However, on 2 June 2017, charges were brought under the Representation of the People Act 1983 against Craig Mackinlay, who was elected Conservative MP for South Thanet in 2015, his agent Nathan Gray, and a party activist, Marion Little.[35][36] Appearing at Westminster Magistrates' Court on 4 July 2017, the three pleaded not guilty and were released on unconditional bail pending an appearance at Southwark Crown Court on 1 August 2017.[37][38] The investigation of Party Treasurer Simon Day remained ongoing.[39] On 15 August 2017, a trial date of 14 May 2018 was set for Mackinlay on charges relating to his 2015 general election expenses, alongside Little and Gray,[40] but when the day came, the trial was delayed for legal reasons.[41]

2015 General Election, Labour Party[edit]

In October 2016, the Labour Party was fined £20,000 by the Electoral Commission for under-reporting of election expenses at national level, which at the time was the largest fine the commission had imposed since being founded in 2001. The Commission noted the party's co-operation in its investigation.[6] The same Channel 4 investigation that identified the Conservative Party's questionable spending failed to find substantial evidence of similar problems in the Labour campaign.[42]

At constituency level, police investigated allegations that several MPs breached local spending limits. In May 2016, Lancashire Constabulary announced that an investigation had been opened into Labour Party expenses following allegations that Cat Smith, MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood broke election spending laws.[43][44] However, in November 2016 they cleared Smith of any wrongdoing and fully exonerated her.[45] Other cases seem likewise to have been dropped.[46]

2015 General Election, Liberal Democrat Party[edit]

In December 2016, the Liberal Democrats were also fined £20,000 for undeclared spending at national level; again, the Electoral Commission noted their co-operation with the investigation.[7]

Although a few MPs saw police investigating allegations of breaching spending limits, all cases appear to have been swiftly dropped.[47]

Responses[edit]

In March 2017, the chair of the Electoral Commission, John Holmes, argued in response to the investigations that the sanctions at the Commission's disposal needed to be extended, saying that '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'.[48][49]

When the UK Government called the 2017 United Kingdom General Election in April 2017, there was widespread press speculation that one motivation was fear of impending prosecutions of Conservative MPs, most prominently by Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.[50]

Responding to the CPS's decision not to prosecute most individuals, the Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May claimed on 10 May 2017 that 'we have seen all the major parties, and the Scottish nationalists, being fined', but in fact the Scottish National Party had not trangressed electoral law and accordingly had not been fined.[51][52] May also commented that the CPS had 'confirmed what we believed all along and said all along which was the local spending was properly reported and the candidates have done nothing wrong', which journalists also noted to be untrue.[53]

Karl McCartney, who had been elected Conservative MP for Lincoln in 2015 and had been investigated, said the police investigation was 'no more than a politically-motivated witch-hunt', called for the resignation of 'the Executive Team and Senior Management Group' of the Electoral Commission, and the abolition of the Commission itself.[54][55][56] Emails leaked in March 2017 had previously revealed him saying 'we didn't create this mess, the clever dicks at CCHQ (Conservative Campaign Headquarters) did'.[57] The Electoral Commission responded that 'the commission’s investigations team carry out independent, robust and impartial investigations, acting fully in accordance with our enforcement policy and with complete impartiality'.[58]

External links[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d David Allen Green, 'The law and politics of the Conservative election expense allegations' (8 June 2016).
  2. ^ "Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000". 
  3. ^ "Representation of the People Act 1983". 
  4. ^ "Tories accused of 'trying to buy election' with 23% hike to campaign spending". The Guardian. 13 December 2014. Retrieved 18 December 2014. 
  5. ^ a b c Laura Hughes, 'Conservatives fined £70,000 and MP reported to the police following an investigation into election campaign expenses', The Daily Telegraph (16 March 2017).
  6. ^ a b Jessica Elgot, 'Labour fined £20,000 for undeclared election spending including for Ed Stone', The Guardian (25 October 2016).
  7. ^ a b Rowena Mason, 'Lib Dems fined £20,000 for undeclared election spending', The Guardian (25 October 2016).
  8. ^ a b c Ed Howker and Guy Basnett, 'The inside story of the Tory election scandal', The Guardian (23 March 2017).
  9. ^ The Electoral Commission, 'Investigation in respect of the Conservative and Unionist Party campaign spending returns for the 2014 European Parliamentary Election, and 2015 UK Parliamentary General Election, and in respect of the 2014 parliamentary by-elections in Clacton, Newark and Rochester and Strood' (16 March 2017), quoting p. 38.
  10. ^ "CPS statement on election expenses CPS statement on election expenses". Archived from the original on 5 June 2017. Retrieved 2 June 2017. 
  11. ^ 'Conservative candidate Craig Mackinlay charged over election expenses', https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-kent-40129826.
  12. ^ The Electoral Commission, 'Investigation in respect of the Conservative and Unionist Party campaign spending returns for the 2014 European Parliamentary Election, and 2015 UK Parliamentary General Election, and in respect of the 2014 parliamentary by-elections in Clacton, Newark and Rochester and Strood' (16 March 2017), quoting p. 17.
  13. ^ "Tory election fraud allegations: the full story". 
  14. ^ The Electoral Commission, 'Investigation in respect of the Conservative and Unionist Party campaign spending returns for the 2014 European Parliamentary Election, and 2015 UK Parliamentary General Election, and in respect of the 2014 parliamentary by-elections in Clacton, Newark and Rochester and Strood' (16 March 2017), §6.
  15. ^ "Electoral Commission – Electoral Commission statement on application to the High Court for the Conservative and Unionist Party to disclose documents and information". 
  16. ^ Laura Hughes, 'Conservatives receive High Court challenge to hand over election spending information', The Daily Telegraph (12 May 2016).
  17. ^ The Electoral Commission, 'Investigation in respect of the Conservative and Unionist Party campaign spending returns for the 2014 European Parliamentary Election, and 2015 UK Parliamentary General Election, and in respect of the 2014 parliamentary by-elections in Clacton, Newark and Rochester and Strood' (16 March 2017), §8.
  18. ^ The Electoral Commission, 'Investigation in respect of the Conservative and Unionist Party campaign spending returns for the 2014 European Parliamentary Election, and 2015 UK Parliamentary General Election, and in respect of the 2014 parliamentary by-elections in Clacton, Newark and Rochester and Strood' (16 March 2017), §§10–11.
  19. ^ The Electoral Commission, 'Investigation in respect of the Conservative and Unionist Party campaign spending returns for the 2014 European Parliamentary Election, and 2015 UK Parliamentary General Election, and in respect of the 2014 parliamentary by-elections in Clacton, Newark and Rochester and Strood' (16 March 2017), §§10–11.
  20. ^ Nick Hudson, ' "No police action" over Conservative by-election overspend claims' (23 Feb 2016), http://www.policeprofessional.com/news.aspx?id=25506.
  21. ^ The Electoral Commission, 'Investigation in respect of the Conservative and Unionist Party campaign spending returns for the 2014 European Parliamentary Election, and 2015 UK Parliamentary General Election, and in respect of the 2014 parliamentary by-elections in Clacton, Newark and Rochester and Strood' (16 March 2017), §§10–11, 50–55.
  22. ^ "Tory election fraud allegations: the full story". Channel 4. 2 June 2016. Retrieved 11 July 2016. 
  23. ^ Louis Doré (28 May 2016). "Where Tory election fraud claims are being investigated, in one map". The Independent. Retrieved 11 July 2016. 
  24. ^ Sommerlad, Nick. "Busted: The 29 Tories and how they 'broke General Election spending rules'". Daily Mirror. Retrieved 11 July 2016. 
  25. ^ Slack, James. "Police told by election watchdog to be ready to prosecute dozens of Tory candidates". Daily Mail. Retrieved 11 July 2016. 
  26. ^ George Parker and Kate Allen (13 May 2016). "Tory MPs fear election spending row could lead to jail". Financial Times. Retrieved 11 July 2016. 
  27. ^ "Tory funding in 2015 election campaign investigated by eight police forces". The Guardian. Press Association. Retrieved 11 July 2016. 
  28. ^ title. "Investigation Over Tory Election Funding Continues As Police To Decide Whether To Prosecute". HuffPost. Retrieved 11 July 2016. 
  29. ^ "Police asked to investigate Conservative election letters". BBC. Retrieved 11 July 2016. 
  30. ^ 'Exclusive: CPS considering charges against over 30 people including Tory MPs over expenses' (18 April 2017).
  31. ^ 'Police forces pass election spending files to CPS' (15 March 2017).
  32. ^ 'CPS statement on election expenses' (10 May 2017).
  33. ^ 'Tory MPs face being prosecuted for electoral fraud while they are fighting the upcoming general election campaign' (18 April 2017).
  34. ^ 'CPS statement on election expenses' (10 May 2017).
  35. ^ "CPS statement on election expenses CPS statement on election expenses". Archived from the original on 5 June 2017. Retrieved 2 June 2017. 
  36. ^ 'Conservative candidate Craig Mackinlay charged over election expenses', https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-kent-40129826.
  37. ^ "Tory MP Craig Mackinlay appears in court over election expenses". 
  38. ^ "Tory MP Craig Mackinlay denies election spending charges". 
  39. ^ Rowena Mason, Anushka Asthana and Rajeev Syal, 'Tory candidates did nothing wrong on election expenses, May claims', The Guardian (10 May 2017).
  40. ^ Date set for Conservative MP's trial over election expenses The Guardian, August 15, 2017. Retrieved August 15, 2017.
  41. ^ "Craig Mackinlay election expenses trial delayed". 
  42. ^ Michael Crick, 'Did Labour’s Battlebus operation break the rules?' (13 June 2016).
  43. ^ "Labour MP Cat Smith denies improper expenses claim". 
  44. ^ "Police probe into Labour frontbencher Cat Smith's election expenses". 
  45. ^ "Police Drop Lancaster MP Expenses". The Bay radio. 11 November 2016. Retrieved 11 November 2016. 
  46. ^ 'Rotherham MPs face electoral expenses fraud probe', 22 August 2016.
  47. ^ Graham Smith, 'Police drop investigation of former Lib Dem MP's election campaign accounts – no further action', (4 July 2016).
  48. ^ 'Conservative Party fined £70,000 following investigation into election campaign expenses' (16 March 2017).
  49. ^ 'Conservative Party fined £70,000 over election expenses' (16 March 2017).
  50. ^ Severin Carrell, 'Sturgeon claims May called snap election because of fears over expenses', The Guardian (24 April 2017).
  51. ^ Rev. Stuart Campbell, 'Here isn’t the News', Wings over Scotland (11 May 2017).
  52. ^ 'Voters deserve better after Theresa May brushes aside the stink over Tory election fraud', The Scottish Sun (10 May 2017).
  53. ^ Rowena Mason, Anushka Asthana and Rajeev Syal, 'Tory candidates did nothing wrong on election expenses, May claims', The Guardian (10 May 2017).
  54. ^ 'Karl calls for “heads to roll” at “politically-motivated, biased and unfit-for-purpose” Electoral Commission' (10 May 2017).
  55. ^ Paul Whitelam, '[http://www.lincolnshirelive.co.uk/karl-mccartney-says-heads-must-roll-after-being-cleared-in-witch-hunt-election-expenses-inquiry/story-30323924-detail/story.html#3Eq0l8SQhDec1QXM.99 Karl McCartney says 'heads must roll' after being cleared in 'witch-hunt' election expenses inquiry', LincolnshireLive (10 May 2017).
  56. ^ 'No charges for Tories over Battlebus 2015 election expenses investigation', Channel 4 News (10 May 2017).
  57. ^ Tamara Cohen, '[http://news.sky.com/story/expenses-scandal-tory-mps-say-party-officials-covering-own-backsides-10801909 Pressure building on senior Tories over expenses "mess" ', Sky News (15 March 2017).
  58. ^ Robert Wright, 'Tories will not face charges over 2015 election expenses, says CPS', Financial Times (10 May 2017).