Parliamentary Parties Panel minutes: 4 July 2017

Who was at the meeting

Conservative Party:

  • Andrew Stedman (AS)
  • Megan Tucker (MT) 

Democratic Unionist Party:

  • Christopher Montgomery (CM) 


  • John Stolliday (JS)
  • Andrew Whyte (AW) 

Liberal Democrats:

  • David Allworthy (DA)
  • Darren Briddock (DB) 

Scottish National Party:

  • Scott Martin (SM) 

Electoral Commission:

  • Claire Bassett, Chief Executive (CB)
  • Craig Westwood, Director of Communications & Research (CW)
  • Melanie Davidson, Head of Support & Improvement, (MD)
  • Louise Edwards, Head of Regulation (LE)
  • Tom Hawthorn, Head of Policy (TH)
  • Ben Wilkinson, Head of External Communications (BW)
  • Carol Sweetenham, Head of Guidance and Strategy, (CS)
  • Cary Mitchell, Communications Officer (CM1) 


Post-election regulatory assurance plans

LE introduced the item and explained we will be conducting assurance work to reassure voters that they can be sure campaign spending and political donations are transparent and that our regulations are clear. She explained we will be looking at spending by non-party campaigners, spending on digital campaigning and spending on and services received from non-UK companies and that these areas have been chosen not because we expect anything against the rules has occurred, but because they are areas that are in the media and public interest, and where we might be able to reassure the public that the rules were being followed. LE asked the Panel to feed back whether they think these are the right areas to be looking at and to help feed into the work itself. 

DB said he would like to share how difficult it is for parties to complete their spending return given the large numbers of volunteers and temporary staff involved in collecting the required information. LE said she would be happy to meet with DB to go through the process used in his party, and hear his perspective. 

AS agreed that the number of staff and volunteers increases during election periods and JS explained that often these people leave as soon as the election is over, often leaving invoices and important information locked in their temporary email accounts. 

AS asked for more information about the mention of overseas companies and LE explained that we were not responding to particular concerns. Instead, we wanted to ascertain what if any such spending took place, how it was recorded and what was reported. CB suggested that there was a perception about what has been called ‘dark money’ in the media and that we were looking to reassure voters on this. 

DA mentioned ‘dark ads’ which he said are so-called because they are targeted and not everyone is supposed to see them. LE replied that this is another thing we hope to address in this work, to explain to voters that just because something is targeted it does not make it illegal. 

AS raised that often non-party campaigners are not fully aware of all the rules and DA mentioned that he had found it useful to remind parties that had withdrawn candidates that they still had spending limits. 

SM questioned why splitting spending between national and local campaigns had not been included on the list of issues given the media and public interest in this. DA said he found the Commission’s guidance really useful, and that it was particularly helpful to meet with the Commission at an early stage in the campaign to discuss the issue. This helped the party make decisions during the campaign. LE said she was glad to hear it was useful and that we would repeat the early meeting at future elections. 

SM raised regulated periods and the fact that the unexpected UKPGE meant that spending incurred a year before the election now needs to be included in spending returns. There is also the added factor that local elections had recently taken place and spending for those campaigns falls within the UKPGE regulated period.  

DB noted that the issue for them is they need to be able to clearly tell their volunteers in the field exactly what they need to tell the central party about and JS concurred that the task of coordinating information gathering from local parties is complex. LE explained that the law set out what was and was not party campaign spending. However, we would look at whether we could provide assistance on the factors parties might want to consider when taking decisions and what had to be reported in spending returns this year. 

DB asked whether LE would be available to meet with each party to provide advice on spending returns and LE confirmed that we were already intending to meet with each of the Panel on our assurance work. CB said our preference is to meet early in the process to make sure everyone has the understanding to get it right. 

SM raised concerns about the fact that local election campaigns incurred spending before the UKPGE announcement without authorisation for national spending from central parties but the back-dated regulated period for the general election means that some of that spending that was not authorised in advance must be included in national spending returns. AW agreed and suggested an element of pragmatism from the Commission would be welcomed as it would not be ideal to have to issue a blanket authorisation to all local parties to incur national spending. LE agreed to look at our position on this. 

SM said that there were questions over whether the 365 day regulated period of UK Parliamentary general elections remained appropriate and fit for the purpose. DB pointed out that regulated period for EU elections is just four months. 

SM raised the issue of spending limits for Scotland. All current party spending limits are based on the estimated party spending at the 1997 General Election, so are now 20 years out of date. The figure for Scotland was originally calculated based on 72 MPs. There are now 59, and this is set to be reduced again. The spending figures for Wales will be considerably reduced if the boundary review is implemented. The fixed costs for high cost items such as PEBs and PPBs can be absorbed in the much higher England figure, but now less easily in the figures for other nations, which have separate parties and a practice of UK parties producing nation-specific broadcasts in Scotland and Wales. The Scotland figure has become a pinch point in spending and there is no longer any reflection of these fixed costs (as there was in 2000 when there were 72 MPs in Scottish constituencies, which was more MPs than population share).