Response to feedback on the UK codes of practice on spending by candidates and political parties consultation

Summary

On 21 April 2020 we submitted two codes of practice to the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution to approve and lay before Parliament. They are about election spending: one on spending by candidates and one on spending by parties.  

Between September and December 2018 we carried out a consultation on the codes.

We wanted views from a wide range of stakeholders, and we recognised how important it was that people who will use the codes support them.  

This paper sets out the feedback we received and how we responded to it. We’ve used the feedback to make sure the codes are right and clear.  

In some cases we were not able to make the amendments suggested because the law would need to be changed to allow us to do this. Or because proposed changes were inconsistent with what is in the law.

Overview

A code of practice is a legal guidance document.  The Representation of the People Act 1983 and the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000 allow us to draft codes giving guidance on candidate and party spending. The Government now needs to ask Parliament to approve the codes.

The legislation uses general categories such as ‘advertising’ and ‘unsolicited material to electors’ to identify costs that should be included in each category. The codes set out detailed guidance on what is and is not included in these different categories of spending.

The codes relate to elections that the UK Parliament is responsible for, i.e. UK Parliamentary, Northern Ireland Assembly and English local government elections. In some circumstances they will apply to other elections as well.

They will improve transparency, fairness and consistency in reporting for candidates, agents and parties. They will make it clearer to voters and observers what was spent on different activities during campaigns.

We’re grateful to the many stakeholders who provided feedback on the codes. Overall, people were supportive of our aim for the codes to make it clearer what should be reported as party and candidate spending.  

Key themes in the feedback focused on:

  • Language and structure of the codes

  • Transparency for spending on digital campaigning

  • Splitting spending between party and candidate

  • Treatment of overheads

  • Treatment of costs of items used at several elections

  • Treatment of material featuring a prominent party member

  • Treatment of legal costs

  • Interaction of the codes with other guidance we issue

Why we wrote the codes

The codes are written to help parties, candidates and agents meet their legal obligations and improve transparency for voters. 

Election legislation allows us to prepare legal guidance on what is and is not included in categories of spending listed in the legislation. When in force parties and candidates will need to take the codes into account when they campaign and report spending after an election.

If enacted the codes will give clarity to candidates, agents and parties about what items count towards spending and whether spending should be reported in a candidate return or a party return. They also set out how to report spending on digital campaigning.

Electoral law is in need of reform to make it clear and easy to understand. In the absence of reform, the codes allow us to provide clarity and consistency in reporting election spending. We therefore urge Parliament to approve the codes.

What elections the codes apply to

The codes will apply to elections to: the UK Parliament, Northern Ireland Assembly and local Councils in England.  In some circumstances the codes will apply to other elections.

We’re working on separate codes for elections that the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales are responsible for – i.e. Scottish Parliamentary, Scottish local government, National Assembly for Wales and Welsh local government elections. 

The consultation for the Welsh Codes has closed, and the consultation for the Scottish Codes began on 15 April 2020. We are working with the Scottish and Welsh Governments on ensuring these codes are ready for the next set of scheduled elections in 2021.

How we developed the codes

We used our experience regulating elections and reviewing financial returns to draw up the codes. We wanted to work collaboratively with people who would either use the codes or had expertise in particular areas. We consulted key stakeholders early in the project. 

For example, we spoke to parties at meetings of the Parliamentary Parties Panel and the panels for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. 

We also got feedback from experts in digital campaigning and the Information Commissioner’s Office.

As well as inviting written and verbal feedback, during the formal consultation period we:

  • held meetings with parties, and
  • held drop-in sessions in Parliament for MPs

This ensured we received views from a wide range of people. We received 42 responses to the consultation. All the feedback was logged and sorted into key themes.

We then started to redraft elements of the codes. While doing this, we met with parties to gather more detail and discuss the key themes.

We shared updated drafts of the codes and held a round table with parties of the Westminster Parliamentary Parties Panel. This was very helpful as we were able to talk through the changes in the updated drafts and decide how we could improve the final codes.

Following further feedback from Cabinet Office and political parties we have increased the number of examples and confirmed that these examples will form part of the statutory codes. The additional examples cover:

  • when spending counts towards the candidate or party spending limit

  • campaign material that is distributed across a number of electoral areas

  • situations when party staff are paid to promote particular candidates

  • when costs associated with mobile phones will count towards a limit

We have also added clarity to the examples of ‘notional spending’ where a candidate or agent makes use of items provided by someone else.

Key themes identified from the consultation responses

Conclusion

We are grateful for all the feedback we received and support for our aim of the codes to improve consistency and transparency in reporting of party and candidate spending.

In response to the feedback we’ve updated the codes. Where we’ve not been able to make changes, we’ve explained why. We’ve addressed some of the feedback by including additional examples in the codes. These examples show how the principles in the code apply to different scenarios.

We’re also updating other guidance we produce to cover some areas of feedback that we can’t deal with in the codes. This guidance supports the codes. The codes have been submitted to the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution to approve and lay before Parliament.

Further information

Last updated: 22 April 2020
Next review: 14 August 2020