Police are granted extra time to investigate Conservative election spending in South Thanet, despite the MP and his agent opposing the application.
Kent Police will have longer to look at what the Tories spent in the general election in South Thanet, where Craig Mackinlay beat Ukip leader Nigel Farage, following a Channel 4 News investigation.
The Conservatives had taken the unprecedented step of trying to oppose the court extension requested by the police.
The courts have also granted extensions to 11 other police forces to investigate claims of failure to properly declare expenses.
Timothy Straker QC, representing Kent Police said at the hearing today: “It is exceptional – we have allegations of national funds being used as it may be put by some, effectively to buy an election.”
District Judge Barron said in his decision: “In my judgment the combination of circumstances before me is wholly exceptional and goes far beyond the usual circumstances that would exist in a typical case where election offences are being investigated.”
South Thanet is the only constituency where a Conservative MP was attempting to oppose an extension to the 12-month legal time limit that local police have to investigate election returns.
For months, Channel 4 News has been investigating Conservative spending in South Thanet. We have reported how the party spent almost £20,000 supporting Mr Mackinlay – money that was either declared as national spending, not local spending, or not declared at all.
Today the battle moved here to Folkestone magistrates’ court, where a district judge heard how Mr Mackinlay and his agent may have broken the law and that police needed more time to investigate.
James Laddie QC, one of the country’s top lawyers, who represented Mr Mackinlay, told the court the police had dragged their heels and the time extension they wanted should be thrown out.
Kent Police’s lawyer, Timothy Straker QC, argued that they were working with the Electoral Commission, whose investigation the court heard had been frustrated by the failure of the Conservative party to cooperate.
In a submission to the court, the Electoral Commission said: “The investigation has been delayed and hindered by the failure of the [Conservative] Party to provide complete and timely disclosure.
“There is very significant public interest in this matter… the implications of the allegations are that individuals and/or the Conservative Party may have committed deliberate acts intended to circumvent the party and election finance rules… these allegations go to the very heart of our democracy.”
Our investigation has revealed how top Conservative party staff, like campaign specialist Marion Little, were parachuted into South Thanet to take over the campaign.
Hotel bills reveal a large number of workers were put up in hotels, including the party’s former head of press and two special advisers who had worked for Home Secretary Theresa May.
The party used branded Battlebuses to bring more activists into the constituency to campaign for Mr Mackinlay. But the costs of it all were not declared on Mr Mackinlay’s spending return and today the judge agreed that should be investigated.
The Conservative party, Mr Mackinlay and his agent insist all its spending was carried out in accordance with the law.
Channel 4 News has uncovered compelling evidence suggesting large-scale and systematic abuse of election rules by the Conservatives in the general election and three by-elections in 2014.
In these by-elections in Rochester and Strood, Clacton-on-Sea and Newark-upon-Trent, Channel 4 News found almost £100,000 spent during the campaigns that appears not to have been declared. If it had to be declared and was included on spending returns, all three Conservative candidates would have breached the legal spending limits.
Under the law, candidates and their election agents must not spend more than £100,000 on by-election campaigns. In all three seats, the Conservatives declared less than this limit. However, if the hotel costs we uncovered should have been included, the limit would have been exceeded.
An Electoral Commission investigation into the Conservative party’s national spending is under way and is expected to take several months. Any candidate found guilty of an election offence could face up to one year in prison, and being barred from office for three years.