In Brief

Tories fined record £70,000 over election expenses

Investigation into misuse of 'battle bus' in 2015 could lead to spate of by-elections

battlebus.jpg

The Conservative Party has been fined a record £70,000 for making false declarations about their election expenses.

The controversial case concerns the use of the party's campaign 'battle bus' in key marginal seats during the 2015 election.

The Conservatives reported thousands of pounds spent on the battle bus as national spending when it was actually used to re-elect specific MPs, reports The Guardian.

A dozen police forces have passed files to the Crown Prosecution Service over allegations that up to 20 Conservative MPs therefore broke local spending limits, which is a criminal offence.

Police have not named the Conservative MPs under investigation, but it has emerged that Craig Mackinlay, the Tory MP for South Thanet, was recently interviewed under caution over his spending returns. 

What rules did the Conservative party break?

The commission found that the party's national general election spending return was missing payments worth at least £104,765.

Alongside this, "payments worth up to £118,124 were either not reported to the commission or were incorrectly reported by the party," says the BBC.

The Electoral Commission outlines clear guidelines and limits for a party's national campaign spending and candidate spending, which are separate.

The laws are set to prevent political parties from outspending each other during campaigning in order to ensure a level playing field.

But the Conservative Party spent money on individual candidates that was listed as national spending.

Consequently in some cases the amount spent in key constituencies would have tipped the local candidate over their spending limit.

The party insists the failure to report these sums was due to an "administrative error," but says "political parties of all colours have made reporting mistakes from time to time."

"The Labour party and Liberal Democrats both failed to declare sums of money which constituted a larger proportion of their national expenditure in the 2015 general election," they added.

What did the Electoral Commission's investigation conclude?

The Electoral Commission says there was a "realistic prospect" that overspending could have given the party an advantage, reports the BBC.

Chair of the Electoral Commission Sir John Holmes said the investigation had uncovered "numerous failures by a large, well-resourced and experienced party to ensure that accurate records of spending were maintained and that all of the party’s spending was reported correctly.

"The rules established by Parliament for political parties and their finances are there to ensure transparency and accountability," he said.

"Where the rules are not followed, it undermines voters' confidence in our democratic processes, which is why political parties need to take their responsibilities under the legislation seriously."

While the Conservatives says they complied fully with the investigation, the commission's report reveals they were forced to apply to the High Court after the party withheld a number of key documents.

What happens now?

The CPS are looking into whether the Tories were deliberately trying to channel national cash into local campaigns to get round the spending rules, which would constitute a criminal offence.

If that happens, there could be by-elections around the country, putting at risk the slim Tory majority in the Commons.

"The wave of possible prosecutions has sparked speculation that Theresa May could be forced to call a snap election to draw a line under the row," says Business Insider.

Despite concerns at the highest levels of government and "bullish talk" from police, the number of fraud convictions will be low, concludes The Times.

But in the constituency of South Thanet where the Conservatives successfully defeated UKIP's then leader Nigel Farage, "Tory insiders fear the situation may be more fraught for them," says the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg.

"The discrepancies may be more serious, the amounts of money more significant, and therefore, potentially, this could bring a lot more trouble in the coming months," she says.

Tories taken to court over campaign spending details

13 May 2016

The Conservative Party has handed over documents relating to its spending during last year's general election campaign after the Electoral Commission started court proceedings.

The watchdog had applied to the High Court to force the party to disclose documents as part of an investigation into an alleged spending rules breach.

Tory chiefs were forced to admit last month that they had failed to declare certain election expenses after Channel 4 obtained receipts that showed more than £38,000 was spent accommodating activists across the country as part of the BattleBus2015 drive, violating campaign laws.

Yesterday, they admitted that due to an "administrative error", some costs had not been properly registered, but insisted that the bus tour was part of the national campaign organised by Tory HQ and as such, did not have to fall within individual constituency spending limits.

In a statement, the Electoral Commission said the party had not fully complied with two statuary notices requiring it to produce information, "despite being granted extensions to the original deadlines".

The developments will do little to dampen claims that the Conservative Party and its chairman, Andrew Feldman, are "dragging their feet" over allegations that they deliberately broke campaign spending laws, says The Guardian.

Neither do the latest disclosures look set to bring the controversy to an end, with nine separate police forces involved in fraud investigations over the activists' expenses.

One of these cases has led to calls for the new police and crime commissioner in Devon and Cornwall, Alison Hernandez, who was a Conservative Party agent in the run-up to the election, to stand aside while she is investigated.

The news comes at a particularly embarrassing time for David Cameron as he hosts a global anti-corruption summit "intended to encourage transparency", notes the Daily Telegraph.

Police launch inquiry amid claims Tories broke election spending rule

06 May

Police have launched an investigation into an allegation of electoral fraud after claims the Conservative Party breached spending rules during the 2015 general election campaign.

Gloucestershire Police would not specify which political party it was investigating nor to which constituencies the allegations related.

The inquiry follows claims that the costs of Tory activists being bussed into key constituencies should have been declared under individual candidates' spending limits instead of the higher national limits.

Doing so in some seats "could have meant the party smashed election spending rules", says the Daily Mail.  If the limits were breached, it could lead to calls for by-elections, the Daily Mirror warns.

David Cameron has denied any wrongdoing and the party blamed the failure to register some costs as an "administrative error".

The allegations were first raised by Channel 4 News and the Daily Mirror earlier this year, while SNP frontbench spokesman Pete Wishart raised the issue in the House of Commons yesterday.

"The claims are absolutely extraordinary," he told ministers. "Surely we must now hear what the government's view on this is and there must be no whiff or suggestion that this government cheated its way to power."

The police investigation was quickly played down by one cabinet minister, The Guardian reports.

Communities and local government minister Greg Clark said he had "every reason to suppose" that the costs were reported in the required way.

"For elections, there are often investigations as to how things have been conducted," he said.

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