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Electoral Commission calls for new powers to regulate candidate spending at elections

Published: 29 Feb 2016

The Electoral Commission has called on the UK governments to respond to a recommendation to give it new powers to regulate candidate spending at major elections, including UK Parliament, Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly elections, following the publication of its analysis of campaign spending at the 2015 UK Parliamentary General Election.

Bob Posner, Directory of Party and Election Finance said:

"The Electoral Commission has called again today for greater fairness and clarity around the current regulatory framework for candidates at elections. The law currently stops short of giving the Commission the power to enforce candidates' spending rules and only the police can investigate if there's a problem. It's time to end that anomaly and give us the power to investigate and sanction."

The Commission first made a recommendation in 2013 a single regulatory regime by bringing the regulation of candidates at major elections under the powers of the Commission and not the police as is currently the case. At present, where the Commission has grounds to suspect there has been a breach of these rules, it does not have the tools to investigate or impose sanctions. In most cases the only options open to the Commission currently are to refer suspected breaches for criminal investigation, or to offer further guidance to reduce the risk of future breaches. The Commission is still waiting for the Government to respond to its recommendation from 2013.

Trends in spending

The Commission's report also highlights shifting trends in spend from previous elections:

  • One of the main trends in reported party spending is a decline in advertising as a percentage of total expenditure, from 37.4% in 2005, to 29.3% in in 2010 to 18.4% in 2015. This represents a drop in spend from £15.8m in 2005, to £9.2m in 2010 and £6.9m in 2015.  Spending on campaign broadcasts fell from £1.5m or 4.8% in 2010 to £806k in 2015. These changes in campaigning activity expenditure may be indicative of a move away from traditional campaigning techniques to online ones that are more targeted.
  • Conversely, there has been an increase in the proportion spent by political parties on market research and unsolicited material sent to voters. The former increased from 5.9% in 2010 to 20.5% in 2015 (from £1.8m to £7.6m in 2015). The latter made up 40.4% of expenditure (£15m in 2015 up from the reported £12,476,000 in 2010).
  • The 2015 general election was also marked by less reported spend by non-party campaigners, with a total of £1.78m being spent by 33 registered campaigners in comparison to the £2.8m spent at the 2010 general election. Spend in 2015 was broadly similar to the £1.7 million spent in 2005.
  • The Commission also collated the reported spending of candidates from returns forwarded by local Returning Officers. Generally, levels of spending reported for the 2015 UKPGE are similar to the 2010 election, with higher levels of spending reported in the short campaign period (between the dissolution of Parliament on 30 March and the election) compared to the long campaign (which ran from December to the end of March).

What next?

The Electoral Commission's report today identifies straightforward, common sense solutions that can be implemented now to create greater transparency within the current system. For example, the Commission recommends that Returning Officers should be required to publish spending returns online, not just making them available locally in hard copy form. Such simple changes could help bring our electoral system more up to date with how voters live their lives.

These recommendations also highlight the importance of the UK Law Commissions' review of the UK's complex and fragmented framework of electoral law. This is essential work that will modernise our system of electoral law so that it is fit for the 21st, not the 19th, century. The Law Commissions recently published their report on what the new electoral law framework should look like and are now waiting for the UK and Scottish Governments to give approval to the next stage of this project - drafting the new law. The Electoral Commission has already made clear its view that the UK and Scottish Governments should give this approval now so that the Law Commissions can get on with this important work.

The full Electoral Commission campaign spending report with a complete list of recommendations is available here.

Ends

For more information, please contact:

Mazida Khatun at the Electoral Commission press office on 020 7271 0704
Out of office hours 07789 920414
Email mkhatun@electoralcommission.org.uk

Notes to editors

  1. 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 (PPERA).
  2. PPERA introduced controls on campaign expenditure by political parties contesting UK Parliamentary General Elections. Under PPERA, the Commission regulates a range of groups including political parties and non-party campaigners at elections and referendums. Our statutory functions include:
  3. Receiving, analysing and publishing information about party donations and campaign spending at elections and referendums.
  4. Advising those we regulate on how to comply with the law and what the rules mean for their campaigning plans.
  5. Monitoring compliance with the law and dealing with possible breaches of the rules.
  6. The Commission currently has a legal duty to monitor and take all reasonable steps to secure compliance with the rules on election candidates' spending and donations under the Representation of the People Act 1983, as well as the PPERA rules on the funding and spending of political parties and other campaigners. However, its investigative and sanctioning powers do not apply to the rules on candidates.
  7. The recommendation requires the UK Government and Parliament to implement changes. Following the implementation of the Smith Commission and St David's Day Agreement, these matters will come within the remit of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly in relation to elections to the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales.
  8. The Commission published campaign expenditure returns of political parties and registered non-party campaigners that spent £250,000 or less campaigning at the 2015 UK Parliamentary General Election in September 2015. Campaign expenditure returns of the six political parties that spent more than £250,000 at the poll were published in January 2016.
  9. A report on the administration of polls in May 2015, including the UK Parliamentary General Election was published in July 2015.

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