12 May 2016

High Court challenge over Conservative election expenses

The Electoral Commission is taking the Conservative Party to the High Court in an effort to force it to disclose information related to claims it has breached election spending rules.

Prime Minister David Cameron during the 2015 election campaign

The Commission is investigating after a series of Channel 4 News probes into how the Conservatives recorded campaign spending in last year’s General Election and three by-elections.

This programme understands the Electoral Commission is seeking documents in relation to the Conservatives’ campaign against Nigel Farage in South Thanet, and three by-elections it fought against Ukip candidates in 2014 in Newark, Clacton and Rochester & Strood.

The legal action represents an unprecedented step, as the first time the Electoral Commission has had to resort to the High Court to seek information from a political party.

However, the Conservatives quickly denied not cooperating with the Electoral Commission, and said they had always intended to respond by a deadline of 1pm today.
A spokeswoman said: “There was no need for them to make this application to the High Court.”

They have since provided information, which the watchdog said it is reviewing.

Conservative MP for South Thanet Craig Mackinlay

A Channel 4 News investigation has so far uncovered £182,000 of allegedly undeclared or misdeclared spending by the Conservatives, across 33 constituencies, potentially involving up to 29 sitting Tory MPs.

It includes more than £100,000 of seemingly undeclared hotel receipts from the three by-election campaigns, and more than £18,000 allegedly improperly declared as national spending in the South Thanet constituency battle against Ukip leader Nigel Farage.

The party has previously responded to the allegations concerning the by-elections and South Thanet saying: “All election spending has been correctly recorded in accordance with the law”.

This programme has also found £38,000 of undeclared hotel receipts used to house busloads of activists who took part in the party’s Battlebus2015 tour, which transported the volunteers to 29 key marginal seats in the last ten days of the election.

The Conservative Party said the omission was due to an “administrative error” but insist other costs, such as the buses, were properly declared as national rather than local spending.

So far, eight police forces are investigating.

Nigel Farage at the polls on election day

Today Devon and Cornwall Police announced West Mercia Police will take over its investigation because the force’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Alison Hernandez, is implicated. She continues to deny any wrongdoing.

The Electoral Commission said it had applied to the High Court for a “document and information disclosure order” after party chiefs failed to provide requested details of spending.

The Commission said the party failed properly to act on two statutory notices requiring it to produce information.

It said the Conservative party provided “limited disclosure of material in response to the first notice issued on 18 February 2016 — almost three months ago.

The party has provided no material in response to the second notice issued on 23 March 2016, despite being granted extensions to the original deadlines to comply, the Commission said.

Bob Posner, director of party and election finance and legal counsel, said: “If parties under investigation do not comply with our requirements for the disclosure of relevant material in reasonable time and after sufficient opportunity to do so, the Commission can seek recourse through the courts.

“We are today asking the court to require the party to fully disclose the documents and information we regard as necessary to effectively progress our investigation into the party’s campaign spending returns.”

For all the detail on every seat affected – the revelations, figures and receipts in full – visit our dedicated #electionexpenses page.