Published on 15 Jul 2010 Sections ,

How to check your MP’s election expenses

Channel 4 News obtained details of Zac Goldsmith’s election spending from public records. You can do the same. Antony Barnett explains how to check up on your own MP.

Election poster (Reuters)

How much did your MP spend on their election campaign? And did they comply with the law?
After last year’s expenses scandal, we all know there are rules governing what expenses MPs are entitled to claim for their housing, staff, and food – and that some MPs played fast and loose with them.

However, there are also strict rules governing what candidates for parliament can spend on securing their seat. The penalties for breaking them are severe and laid down by law in the Representation of The People Act 1983.

In 1999 the Labour MP for Newark Fiona Jones was convicted of electoral fraud, after spending more than the legal limit on her election campaign. Her conviction was overturned on appeal, but her political career never recovered.

There are reasons the sanctions are tough, as Keith Ewing, Professor of Public Law at King’s College London, told us: “The reason why we have limits is to ensure a level playing filed at an election. So that each candidate has a fair opportunity of reaching the voters. … [the rules are] designed to ensure that no rich candidate can buy an election.”

In the Fiona Jones case, Appeal Court judge Lord Bingham summed it up: “At a constituency level it is the voters’ perception of the personality and policies of the candidates and the parties they represent which is intended to be reflected in the voting, not the weight of the parties expenditure on local electioneering.”

Election paperwork
So how can you check whether your MP kept to these rules? The answer lies in the declared campaign spending returns each candidate is required to file with their local returning officer.

It’s easy to imagine that the work of an election agent or returning officer is over by the day after the general election – but by then, the paperwork has only just begun.

The reason why we have limits is to ensure a level playing filed at an election. So that each candidate has a fair opportunity of reaching the voters. Professor Keith Ewing, King’s College London

Election agents have to account for all of their costs within 35 days of the general election, to prove they’ve stayed within strict spending limits, and thus conducted the election fairly.

These returns – and all the receipts supporting them – are then filed with the electoral services department of the local council, with the summaries sent to the Electoral Commission.

This is how Channel 4 News and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism obtained candidates’ returns as part of an ongoing investigation into how MPs had spent their campaign funds – but if you want to check up on your local MP, it’s easy to do the same.

Councils are obliged to let the public view candidates’ election expenses for up to two years after the general election. To see the full returns, with receipts and all, you have to visit your council, as the Electoral Commission doesn’t get all the documents.

It’s best to phone in advance so officials can prepare the documents for you.

Handling expenses is typically done by Electoral Services. Councils don’t often get requests to view these documents, so you might have to explain carefully.

If you want to take a copy of the documents with you, there is usually a photocopying charge of around 20p per sheet. Given the length of these returns, charges can go up to about £30. Councils will sometimes agree to post returns to you (if you pay the cost), but aren’t obliged to.

Candidate returns
There are two separate returns for each candidate. The first, called the “short campaign”, covers the intense four weeks of campaigning from the 13 April to 6 May.

The spending limit, which is shown on the front of the document, will be between £10,000 and £12,000, depending on the population of the constituency, and whether the constituency is in a metropolitan area (borough constituency) or the country (county constituency).

The other return is for the “long campaign” – the 1 January to 12 April. Spending limits during this period vary between around £25,000 to £30,000. Candidates generally don’t come close to the spending limits during the long campaign, as activity is less intense.
There are several interesting things to look out for in the returns.

Firstly, it’s worth checking how close to the spending limit the candidate came. Then, it’s usually worth checking the totals on the invoices against the totals on the candidates’ summary sheets.

The totals on the summary sheets will often be lower than the invoices. This is often because candidates have reasonably – and legally – split the cost of materials with other campaigns.

If half of a leaflet is about the council elections, and half about the general elections, for example, candidates are entitled to share the cost 50/50. Keep an eye out for splits that seem less reasonable – or just aren’t explained at all.

Firstly, it’s worth checking how close to the spending limit the candidate came. Then, it’s usually worth checking the totals on the invoices against the totals on the candidates’ summary sheets.

Other things to check as you read are whether everything has been included: is the candidate’s rent accounted for, or any clothing worn on the campaign trail by activists? Were any items on the invoices simply left off the final totals?

Even if leaflets, office space, or other items are provided free – by, for example, the local political association – campaigns have to account for this cost at a full commercial rate.

This is called “notional spending”, and exists to make sure no-one can avoid the ruled by getting unfair discounts or freebies. The same principles also hold true for staff costs. Although candidates do not have to account for volunteer staff there are rules governing how to account for staff who may been seconded from other paid employment.

Ask for advice
If you find something you don’t think sounds fair or reasonable – or might even have broken election law – you have several options. You can ask your MP for the reasons behind a split, or get in touch with the Electoral Commission for advice.

You’re also entitled to raise any serious issues you have with the campaign to the police, who may investigate.

Of course, we’d also like to hear about anything you find here at Channel 4 News – let us know on news@channel4.com, or let the Bureau of Investigative Journalism know at info@tbij.com.