21 Jan 2016

Electoral Commission asks Tories to explain £14,000 Ramsgate hotel bills

Comedian Al Murray, known as The Pub Landlord, FUKP parliamentary candidate (C) congratulates Conservative candidate Craig Mackinlay (R) as Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) looks on as the results of the Thanet South vote are read at Winter Gardens in Margate, southeast England, May 8, 2015. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett - RTX1C3BQ

Following my report on Channel 4 News last night, the Electoral Commission has asked the Conservative Party to explain why the party decided four bills for a hotel in Ramsgate during the general election should be attributed to national spending.

The bills were for more than £14,000 for several rooms at the smart Royal Harbour Hotel in the resort during the “short campaign”, from 30 March last year to polling day on 7 May.

Ramsgate is in Thanet South, the constituency where Ukip leader Nigel Farage was hoping to become an MP.

It’s widely known that the Conservatives had several senior figures working full-time on the Thanet South campaign. These included Henry McCrory, the party’s former head of press, whom I met in the constituency during the contest.

The obvious suspicion is that the hotel rooms were for these experienced Tories sent to defeat Farage in Thanet South, which was probably the most hotly contested seat in the country.

If the Royal Harbour bills had been included in the Conservatives’ local spending total then the party would have spent almost twice the legal limit for spending in Thanet South during the short campaign, which was just over £15,000.

A spokesman for the Electoral Commission told Channel 4 News today: “We have contacted the Conservative Party to discuss the nature of the spend you highlight and to confirm that their return is accurate and complies with their legal requirements under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA), which is the legislation we regulate.”

PPERA governs national spending by the political parties, whereas spending in support of a particular candidate in one seat is governed by the Representation of the People Act and is a criminal matter.

The Electoral Commission could, if it so decided, admonish the Conservatives if they are found to have wrongly attributing the Ramsgate hotel bills to their national spending returns. However, the Commission has no say over whether or not the bills should have been including in the local spending accounts for their candidate Craig Mackinlay, who was duly elected MP for Thanet South.

That would be a matter for the police, who would only be likely to act on a complaint from another party or a member of the public.

The Electoral Commission clearly feels frustrated that it lacks powers to enforce the laws over local candidate spending.

Their spokesman told me today: “In 2013, prior to the last General Election, we… highlighted this discrepancy in our powers and recommended that the Commission should be provided with investigative powers and sanctions for offences relating to candidate spending and donations at specified elections.

“Given the lead-in time that would be required to prepare for these changes, we recommend that changes should apply to the 2020 UK general election at the earliest.”

The spokesman added: “We have not had responses from either the previous or the current Government to this recommendation.”

Yesterday, a Conservative spokesman told Channel 4 News: “All election expenses are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with Electoral Commission rules.”


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