+++Breaking: Lib Dems given maximum £20k fine over 2015 General Election expenses

News is breaking that the Liberal Democrats have been given the maximum £20,000 fine by the Electoral Commission over anomalies in the reporting of General Election expenses in 2015. The national expenditure return submitted by the party did not include details of some national expenditure reported separately by local parties. Even with this expenditure included in the total, the party was nowhere near the limit that the party had to spend.

However, they have made the decision not only to give the party a fine under civil law, but to ask the Police to investigate whether the criminal law has been broken.

The Commission recently also fined Labour £20,000 because it omitted to include items of campaign spending, including the infamous “Ed Stone.”

In response to the Electoral Commission’s announcement, the party has issued the following statement:

We always endeavour to ensure our reports of national campaign expenses are completed in full, in good time and according to all applicable rules. These mistakes, caused by issues with a small number of local accounting units, were a result of human error and failures of process. We are taking steps to ensure these mistakes are not repeated in future. We will co-operate fully with any investigation.

The full Electoral Commission statement is as follows:

The Liberal Democrats have been fined £20,000 as a result of the Electoral Commission’s investigation into the party’s 2015 UK Parliamentary General Election campaign spending return. The Commission concluded that the return was not complete as required by the law. The penalty is the highest that the Commission is able to impose for a single offence.

Following the conclusion of this case, the Commission is repeating its call for an increase to the maximum £20,000 penalty, to an amount more proportionate to the levels of spending and donations handled by the largest political parties and campaigners.

The investigation found that 307 payments totalling £184,676 were missing from the Liberal Democrats’ spending return without a reasonable excuse. In addition, invoices supporting 122 out of the 307 payments were missing from the return.

Commenting on the outcome of the investigation, Bob Posner, Director of Political Finance and Regulation & Legal Counsel at the Electoral Commission said:

“Our investigation uncovered systemic failures in ensuring that the rules were being followed. The Party and its officers co-operated fully throughout the investigation. However, this is an experienced party that failed to meet the basic requirements of the law, and cases like this undermine voters’ confidence in our political finance system. This is why we have applied the highest financial penalty available to us.

This also highlights why we have been calling on the UK Government to make higher sanctioning powers available to us. With millions of pounds being spent by large parties looking to form national Governments, a fine of £20,000 is no longer a strong enough deterrent to ensure the rules are properly followed.”

The Commission has also notified the Metropolitan Police Service of a possible criminal offence, should the party campaigns officer have knowingly or recklessly signed a false declaration in relation to the above spending.

Background to the Liberal Democrats case

Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) it is the responsibility of a political party’s registered treasurer, or, where it has one, its registered campaigns officer,  to ensure that a full and complete campaign spending return is submitted to the Electoral Commission by the statutory deadline.

Following the publication of the Party’s spending return on 20 January 2016 and as part of its regular monitoring work; the Commission reviewed a sample of candidate returns from the 2015 UK Parliamentary general election. The review included returns from candidates representing a number of different parties, including the Liberal Democrats.

This review identified apparent discrepancies between the Liberal Democrats’ national party spending return and some candidate returns. The Commission asked the Party for further information to explain the apparent discrepancies. Following correspondence with the Party, the Commission remained concerned that the national spending return was incomplete and opened an investigation into the matter on 27 June 2016.

Conclusions of the case

The investigation has now ended and concluded that Mr Tim Gordon, the registered campaigns officer for the Party, committed an offence under section 82(4)(b) of PPERA in respect of the Party’s 2015 UK Parliamentary spending return.

The Commission has found that Mr Gordon failed to deliver to the Commission a campaign spending return, which was a statement of all payments made by the Party in respect of its campaign for the 2015 UK Parliamentary general election.

The Liberal Democrats have been fined £20,000 under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums (Civil Sanctions) Order 2010. The Party has until 12 December 2016 to pay the fine.

The Commission has also referred one matter relating to section 83(3) of PPERA to the Metropolitan Police Service, following consideration of evidence indicating the Party was aware of some of the missing payments. Section 83(3) of PPERA required the Party’s campaigns officer to declare that he has examined the return and that to the best of his knowledge and belief, the return was complete and correct as required by law. A declaration to that effect was delivered alongside its spending return. The investigation established that in fact the return was neither complete nor correct, and that some persons within the Party were aware of this before its spending return was submitted. This raises the potential that the declaration was false.

Knowingly or recklessly making a false declaration under this section of the Act is a criminal offence and falls outside the remit of the Commission’s civil sanctioning powers. It will be a matter for the police as to what steps they take following the Commission’s referral.

 They have also published a fuller eleven page report into their investigation and findings.

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