The Electoral Commission has today (28 April) announced that as part of the investigation launched on 18 February 2016 into Conservative Party campaign spending returns, it has requested that the Crown (CPS) Prosecution Service and the police consider applying for an extension to the time limit available to pursue criminal prosecutions.
Representatives of the CPS, the Police and the Electoral Commission are meeting on Wednesday 4 May to discuss this request. The final decision to apply for an extension will rest with the police and the CPS.
Bob Posner, Director of Party and Election Finance & Legal Counsel at the Electoral Commission said,
The police and the CPS both have the power to apply to the Courts to extend the time limit on bringing criminal prosecutions for electoral offences to allow for full investigations to take place. We have requested that they consider doing this.
Why the Commission has made its request
The rules around candidate spending and potential criminal offences are matters for the police to investigate under the Representation of the People Act (RPA) 1983. The Commission’s request does not mean that it has any view on whether criminal charges should be brought, but that the CPS and the police should consider whether it would be appropriate to leave open to themselves the option of pursuing cases if they consider this is necessary at any stage.
The Commission has highlighted to police forces that true and accurate candidate spending returns had to be delivered to constituency returning officers within 35 days of the result of the UK Parliamentary General elections on 7 May 2015; and the ability to prosecute these allegations will end one year on from an offence being committed unless an application is made by the police to the Courts for an extension, which is allowed under the RPA. It is also open to the CPS, via the Director of Public Prosecutions to make such an application to the courts, which is why the Commission has requested that such action be considered.
Transparency and accountability in relation to campaign spending by local candidates and political parties is essential in order to ensure public confidence in the electoral process. Parliament has determined that anyone found guilty of an offence under the RPA 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. The effect of a conviction is also that for 3 years a person convicted of an illegal practice is unable to be elected to the House of Commons or to hold elective office. Given the significant penalties that parliament has made available for such offences, the Commissions view is that in the absence of any current investigation by the police, it would be sensible for the criminal justice agencies to retain the ability to take action should appropriate evidence come to light as part of the Commission’s own investigation.
The Commission’s investigation
The Electoral Commission is currently investigating whether the Conservative Party met their reporting obligations under the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) 2000, at the General Election in May 2015 and in the by-elections held in Newark, Clacton and Rochester and Strood, which all took place during the regulated period for the General Election.
The priority of the Electoral Commission is to conduct a fair and thorough investigation and the time taken to complete an investigation varies on a case-by-case basis depending on factors including the complexity of the offence, the amount of material we are required to consider or whether interviews are necessary. Once the investigation is complete, the Commission will be able to decide whether any breaches have occurred and if so what further action, if any, may be appropriate. The Commission does not currently anticipate that its own investigation will have concluded before the time limit for RPA offences to be considered by the police will have expired.
The Commission monitors and takes all reasonable steps to secure compliance with the rules on campaign spending by local party candidates, but has no powers to investigate or sanction candidate spending offences under the RPA. We have recently called again for our powers in this area to be strengthened.
The Commission does have powers in relation to national campaign spending although our sanctioning powers are limited to a civil penalty of up to £20,000, which we have previously recommended should be reviewed and increased. The Government has not yet responded to this recommendation.
For more information contact Megan Phillips at the Electoral Commission Press Office:
- 0207 271 0704 (Out of office hours: 07789 920 414)
Notes to editors
- The Electoral Commission is an independent body set up by the UK Parliament. Our aim is integrity and public confidence in the UK’s democratic process. We regulate party and election finance and set standards for well-run elections and are responsible for the conduct and regulation of referendums held under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (2000).