THERESA MAY has responded to the news that no Tory candidates will be charged with a criminal offence as a result of the “battle bus” incident by declaring “We did nothing wrong.” She is wrong to do so: the Election Law breach was something “wrong”, even if there have been no criminal charges.
The controversy arose after the last General Election. All election candidates have a limit on how much they can spend locally on persuading people to vote for them – and national parties have a limit they can spend on promoting themselves as a national party involved in the national election. The Tories spent money touring a bus around marginal constituency, which was used to transport party volunteers to the constituencies. Some of these volunteers were then accommodated in local hotels so that they could stay in the area and work for the Party during the campaign.
The problem arose when the national Tory Party told its constituency organisations that they did not have to include the travel and accommodation expenses in its declarations of local election expenses, as this expenditure would be included in the national party’s returns which would list national expenditure.
After the last General Election, this spending was investigated. The Election Court ruled that these items of expenditure should have be recorded in the local returns, not the national ones. They also found that some of the payments had not been declared at all, others had not been declared in full, and some receipts were missing – and it expressed the view that some of these activities may have affected the election results in those areas. As a result, the Party was fined £70,000.
The Election Court also asked several police forces to look at the evidence it had itself considered and to investigate whether any candidates had committed a criminal offence. The police forces have been doing so, and they referred the results of their investigation to the Criminal Prosecution Service (CPS), which takes decisions on whether criminal prosecutions should be brought.
Today it was announced that the CPS will not be bring criminal charges against any of the Tory candidates or their agents or against any national party officers for any of their breaches of electoral law. (The CPS is still considering the case of the candidate and agent in Thanet South, which was sent to them later than the others.)
This decision is not really a surprise. The Electoral Court looks into whether there was a breach of Election Law. The CPS was looking into whether those breaches amounted to a criminal offence. For a criminal offence to have taken place, there must have been dishonesty: the local candidate or agent must have known that the expenses declaration was not accurate when s/he signed it. As the national party had told the candidates and agents that it, the national party, would declare the travel and accommodation costs, clearly none of the local candidates or agents could have known that these expenses should have been declared locally.
The case of the national officials who submitted the national returns is somewhat different. If some items were not declared, others were wrong and further elements were not backed by receipts, then the officials who signed to certify that the returns were accurate either knew the returns were wrong or did not check them properly. However, the CPS has decided there is not enough evidence to charge them with knowingly signing a false return, so the only conclusion we can draw is that these officials have been careless – for which they have already been fined.
Of course Tower Hamlets has had its own brushes with the Election Court. The first brush came in the early 1990s, when Labour candidate Belle Harris brought a case against the local Liberal Democrats after they had put out a leaflet which pretended to be a Labour leaflet but which wasn’t. It wasn’t the Lib Dems’ finest hour.
More recently, Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman and his agent Cllr Alibor Chowdhury were found guilty by the Election Court of various breaches of Election Law – with the Judge pointing out that a breach of Election Law is a breach even when it is unlikely to have affected the election result. No criminal charges have been laid against either of them as a result of the Election Law breaches.
The irony is that the local Conservative Party has expressed surprise and irritation about the lack of criminal prosecution on several occasions – appearing to overlook the difference between the Election Court finding a breach in Election Law and the proof of dishonesty required to prove a criminal charge. On the other hand, their national party is now claiming that the lack of criminal charges is proof that they have – in Theresa May’s words – “done nothing wrong”. That does appear to be a double standard – but, of course, there’s no law against having double standards.