The Conservative party is acting very cagily over allegations of electoral fraud in the 2015 general election. Despite two statutory notices, time extensions and a legal obligation, the party withheld information from the Electoral Commission relevant to its investigation.
But now the watchdog has applied for a High Court order for the Conservatives to hand over the material.
The Electoral Commission stated:
Using its powers under PPERA, and in line with its Enforcement Policy, the Electoral Commission may issue a statutory notice requiring any person, including a registered party, to provide us with specific documents and/or information as part of an investigation. This places the recipient under a legal obligation to provide the required material. However, if the recipient does not comply with this statutory notice, the Commission may apply to the High Court for a disclosure order which if granted would be the court compelling the Respondent to release the required documents and information to the Commission.
The Commission issued the Conservative and Unionist Party with two statutory notices requiring the provision of material relevant to its investigation. However, the Party has only provided limited disclosure of material in response to the first notice (issued on 18 February 2016) and no material in response to the second notice (issued on 23 March 2016). That follows the Commission granting extensions of time to comply.
Let’s take a moment to consider what an innocent Conservative party would do. It would want the investigation over quickly and therefore would maximise transparency in order to achieve that. Yet what we are seeing is the opposite – the withholding of relevant material.
A Conservative Party spokeswoman said:
We advised the Electoral Commission on 29 April that we would comply with their notices by 13:00 today – and we will do so. There was no need for them to make this application to the High Court
After the party disregarded two statutory notices, its legal obligation and time extensions, the Electoral Commission clearly felt a High Court order was necessary. This is the first time the Electoral Commission has had to resort to the High Court to retrieve information from a political party.
The story so far
Aside from the Electoral Commission, at least 11 police forces have confirmed they are currently investigating the findings from Channel Four News and The Mirror.
As The Canary’s Bex Sumner previously summarised:
Dozens of Tory MPs face accusations that they illegally overspent in the 2015 general election campaign by failing to declare costs associated with the Conservative campaign “battle buses”. If the allegations are true, the MPs and their agents could face a year in jail and/or an unlimited fine, as well as a three-year ban on holding elected office – potentially triggering by-elections across the country and losing the Conservatives their majority in parliament.
David Cameron’s skinny majority means that his government hangs in the balance over these allegations:
Cheshire police, Derbyshire police, Devon and Cornwall police, Gloucestershire police, Greater Manchester police, Northamptonshire police, Staffordshire police, Warwickshire police, West Yorkshire police, Somerset Police and Lincolnshire Police are the forces undertaking criminal investigations so far.
And it appears the Electoral Commission is not giving the Conservatives an easy ride.
The Canary will continue to investigate and report on this story as it develops.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mentioned Chippenham as one of the constituencies visited by the battle bus. Michelle Donelan MP has since informed us that the battle bus did not visit her constituency and Wiltshire Police have closed their investigation. This article was updated at 1330 on 5 May 2017 to remove a call to action urging readers in Chippenham and other constituencies to contact their police forces.
Featured image via Twitter.