The elections watchdog launches a probe into campaign spending by the Conservatives in the key South Thanet constituency following a Channel 4 News report.
Channel 4 News’s Michael Crick reported last month that hotel bills and advertising costs were not included in local spending returns made by the Conservatives, raising the question of whether election law had been breached.
The investigation will centre on a £14,000 bill for stays at the Royal Harbour Hotel in Margate that the Conservative Party included as national expenditure, rather than local spending.
Channel 4 News also uncovered receipts showing the party spent a further £4,000 for nights at the Premier Inn in Margate.
If the spending had been declared as local campaign expenditure, it would have taken the party well over the £15,016 limit for the short campaign, which ran from 7 April and polling day on 7 May 2015.
This programme also uncovered tens of thousands of spending in three by-elections – Newark, Clacton and Rochester & Strood – that does not appear to have been declared.
In all three cases, undeclared hotel bills would have pushed the party over the £100,000 legal limit.
The Electoral Commission said it had opened an investigation into whether the Conservatives met reporting obligations under the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000, in respect of hotel bills in Ramsgate and Margate.
The commission said it did not have powers to investigate potential breaches of the Representation of People Act.
The rules around candidate spending and any potential criminal offence are matters for the police to investigate. Electoral Commission
It said in a statement: “The rules around candidate spending and any potential criminal offence are matters for the police to investigate under the Representation of the People Act 1983.
“The Commission met with Kent Police on 17 February who have informed us that at this time, they are not actively pursuing an investigation into allegations regarding candidate spending in the South Thanet constituency.
“The Commission reminded Kent Police that the ability to investigate these allegations will end one year on from the May 2015 UK Parliamentary General Election and that unless the police apply to the courts for an extension which they are entitled to do under the RPA they will have missed the opportunity to investigate any allegations.
“Anyone found guilty of an offence under the RPA 1983 relating to candidate spending or the making of a false declaration in relation to candidate spending, could face imprisonment of up to one year, and or an unlimited fine.”
All spending has been correctly recorded in accordance with the law. Conservative spokesman
Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who stood unsuccessfully in South Thanet last year, said: “I have no doubt that what happened in that Thanet constituency was in complete breach of electoral law.”
A Conservative spokesperson said: “All spending has been correctly recorded in accordance with the law.”