Looking at data about the election expense returns for the 2015 general election, I’ve reported before about how key election expenses paperwork is set to be deleted early in 1 in 5 constituencies thanks to (Acting) Returning Officers not meeting their legal duties and the really quite bizarre (Acting) Returning Officer error.
But there’s no doubt that what candidates and their agents get up to with election expense returns is much more important than those (Acting) Returning Officer errors.
The data I’ve got via a Freedom of Information request to the Electoral Commission is not good. The Commission samples a set of election expense returns to see how well the law is being complied with. Or at least, how well the law is being complied with if you take all the information on the forms at face value.
Even on this generous approach, the picture is pretty poor. Over a third (36%) of candidate expense returns from the 2015 general election were not “fully completed”. What’s more, the missing information was not all minor details but very often major information.
More than one in five (22%) candidate expense returns failed to clearly report spending for both long and short campaign returns.
Despite these being two separate legal requirements – with different spending limits, covering different time periods – more than one in five candidates and their agents either did not report on one of them, muddled the two together or provided information that was so unclear the Electoral Commission could not work out which period it applied to.
There are many reasons why such failures to report election expenses by candidates is pretty dire. Especially given election expense reporting is a legal requirement.
I’ll add just one more to the obvious ones that have probably come to your mind even before you finish this sentence. It’s that most people who do comply with the law and fill in a return are over-worked volunteers who work late into the night and sacrifice time with family, sleep or their day job in order to get the job right and stick to the law. It’s all the more galling for people who voluntarily put in the effort needed to keep with the law and fulfill a vital role in a democracy that so many others fail to do their own forms and – up until now at least – pretty much have complete impunity.
One final note of credit to the Electoral Commission. In this case (and by contrast with my earlier complaint), the Electoral Commission is keen to improve matters and looking to change things to do so.
This includes looking at changing the forms and accompanying guidance to make them clearer. That includes the possibility of greater clarity over issues such as how to apportion costs when a leaflet, say, both promotes a Parliamentary candidate and a local election candidate, each of whom has their own spending limit.
This may also have some interesting impact on the election expenses issue opened up by Michael Crick over what the Conservatives did at the general election, although the two areas the Electoral Commission has named – apportionment and unused materials – are areas where their ruling in the Zac Goldsmith case already provides a pretty generous set of rules of thumb for agents and candidates to follow.
That ruling doesn’t strictly speaking have legal force. But there is a legal defence of ‘I filled in this form genuinely to the best of my belief’. So being able to say ‘and I followed precisely the Commission’s previous rulings’ is about as solid a defence as you can get short of being Vladimir Putin up on trial in a court where he has just made himself the sole judge.
Here is the document which my Freedom of Information request secured a copy of:2016-04-13-EC-41-16-Candidate-expenditure-in-the-2015-UKPGE.docx
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