Has Conservative candidate Margot James been breaking the law?

The BBC reports:

The Electoral Commission will be asked whether a Conservative Vice Chair has broken the law in the marginal constituency she is contesting at the next election.

Margot James is the Conservative candidate in Stourbridge – one of the most marginal seats in the country.

The seat’s current Labour MP, Lynda Waltho, is to ask the Electoral Commission for clarification of the law on “treating”.

At issue is whether Ms James might have committed an offence by hosting a lunch for a group of pensioners at her constituency home and some receptions for the local Muslim community.

I don’t know more about the case than is in the BBC report, but it does seem odd that it is the Electoral Commission rather than the police that is being asked to intervene on a question of alleged electoral abuse that falls outside the EC’s regulatory areas of finance and returns.

However, regardless of who does look at the case this could be good news for the rest of us as the law around treating is important but arcane, unclear and often reliant on very dated case law. As a result people often take an ultra-cautious approach what has the merits of simplicity and clarity but does cause practical problems at times.

Given that by Margot James’s own admission she spent around £10 per head on giving people food, many of whom were her constituents, this looks likely to be a test case that gets to the heart of how much food and drink can be provided to people without counting as treating.

A modern test case could be tough on those involved, especially if someone is investigated and cleared, but also provide useful clarity for the rest of us.

UPDATE: Lynda Waltho MP in a comment below has said that some of the information in the BBC report is wrong.

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  • “but it does seem odd that it is the Electoral Commission rather than the police that is being asked to intervene on a question of alleged electoral abuse that falls outside the EC’s regulatory areas of finance and returns.”

    Is this the modern version of the “I’ve reported this to the Returning Officer” meaningless complaint?

    Clarifying the law on treating would be a good thing. However doing it by case law, a few months before a general election is the worst possible way of doing it. IIRC one outcome of the Adrian Slade Richmond judgement was that election expense practices accepted by all parties as being legitimate were ruled to be illegal.

  • Lynda Waltho 30th Nov '09 - 6:52am

    May I correct a few points that you have sadly misreported?
    Firstly I have made no complaint. Nobody has been accused of anything, the Vice Chair of my party has simply written to the EC for clarification of a few points relating to the action known as ‘treating’. Given that Ms James has no connection to Stourbridge whatsoever except having been one of David Cameron’s A List of millionaires, her only reason for being here is for the purposes of campaigning for a seat. Since being selected she has conducted a series of free wine tastings for community groups, Eid parties and visits to her country home in Worcestershire (not the house she has recently bought in the constituency as you also wrongly reported.)As we are only seeking clarification of the law in this case it is rightly referred to the EC rather than the Police. You will know that the rules regarding election spending have recently had their fourth change in almost as many years and the new rules refer to the ‘long campaign’ and the ‘short campaign.’ Accordingly clarification is needed as to whether Ms James’ actions of providing free drink, food and entertainment to voters in the run up to an inevitable general election constitutes ‘treating’. I hope this helps to clarify the matter.
    Lynda Waltho MP, Stourbridge

  • Herbert Brown 30th Nov '09 - 8:54am

    Is someone intent on making comments as difficult to read as possible?

    I think it would be a mistake to sacrifice your readers’ eyesight on the altar of style.

  • David Blake 30th Nov '09 - 9:07am

    I agree with Herbert. Please make the words bigger.

  • Chris Keating 30th Nov '09 - 10:58am

    oooh, there’s an Election Law Channel. How exciting! 🙂

  • cheltenham Robin 30th Nov '09 - 12:30pm

    It would be good to have some clarification on this.

    The old archaic rules on treating apply during an election campaign, however, with the new ‘long campaign’ rules coming into force in the new year it would be useful to know if ‘treating’regulations come in to force.

  • @ Cheltenham Robin

    In general terms the treating rules apply at any time. There isn’t a point at which they come into force. It’s probably fair to say that the proximity to polling day is a factor for the courts to consider but you could do it years before polling day.

    @ Niklas
    Paying canvassers is specifically illegal

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