Senior Conservatives appear to have flouted electoral law by failing to declare spending amounting to tens of thousands of pounds during three key by-election campaigns, it has been reported.
Channel 4 News said it had obtained hundreds of pages of receipts which suggested the party broke the rules in the 2014 contests in Newark, Clacton and Rochester & Strood. It said it had received legal advice that the evidence would provide reasonable grounds for a police investigation.
In response, a Conservative spokesman said: “All by-election spending has been correctly recorded in accordance with the law.”
In each campaign, the Tories faced a major threat from Ukip which was surging in the polls at the time. They managed to defeat Nigel Farage’s party in Newark, but went on to lose the other two by-elections to Ukip.
Campaign spending in by-elections is limited to £100,000 to ensure a level playing-field, but Channel 4 News said its documents pointed to a pattern of undisclosed spending linked directly to Conservative Central Office. In each by-election the party said it had kept costs below the £100,000 spending ceiling.
If all the receipts had been declared, the Tories would have flouted the limits in all the by-elections, the report said.
Douglas Carswell, the Ukip MP for Clacton, said: “You can’t have a situation where big corporate parties can throw vast amounts of money at by-elections. It’s not how democracy is meant to operate.”
The Ukip MEP, Patrick O’Flynn, said: “I remember at Newark wondering at scale of Tory machine in the seat and how they would keep spending under the 100k ceiling. Truly shocking.”
Channel 4 News said it had uncovered £56,866.75 of undeclared hotel bills in Rochester, which would have taken the party £53,659.83 over the £100,000 spending limit.
It found bills totalling £26,786.14 in Clacton, which would have taken the party £10,835.36 over the limit, and bills totalling £10,459.30 in Newark, which would mean a £6,650.28 overspend.
Following the Newark campaign – during which David Cameron paid four visits – Mr Farage queried whether the Tories had remained within the limit. “Let’s see what their returns are, but there will be questions,” the Ukip leader said.
In each campaign, Channel 4 News said, senior Tory staff were booked into an upmarket hotel, while more junior staff were given rooms in a Premier Inn.
Receipts for the all of the six hotels do not appear to have been declared in the material submitted to the Electoral Commission, it said.
The vast majority of these hotel stays were booked under the home address in Hertfordshire of Marion Little, a long-serving organiser at Conservative Central Office who was awarded an OBE in this year’s New Year’s Honours List for political service. Some rooms were booked under the name “Mr Conservatives”.
Channel 4 News said the number of campaign workers on the ground, peaking at 42 rooms booked on one night, also called into question staffing costs declared by the party.
Professor Bob Watt, of the Buckingham Law School, an expert in election law, told the programme: “I find it very surprising because having looked the electoral returns required by law I would expect to see bills for accommodation included in the electoral returns and I see little or no evidence of that.”
Gavin Millar QC, who specialises in electoral law with Matrix Chambers, said: “We have a very old set of statutory rules dating back to the 19th century which pin responsibility on candidates and agents to file an accurate return on their expenses after the election, one which shows them within the limit. If they don’t – if it’s an inaccurate return or a dishonest return – there are offences committed.
“We also have a policy of running short time limits for civil claims based on overspending or criminal prosecutions. The criminal time period is one year. Very often, offences are committed but they can’t be prosecuted because nobody discovers till more than a year after the event that there’s been a breach of the law. But on the face of it…these returns look like they’re clearly wrong. “
An Electoral Commission spokesman said: “We have been made aware of the allegations of spending breaches at three parliamentary by-elections. Alleged breaches of the rules around candidate spending at by-elections or parliamentary general elections are matters for the police to investigate under the Representation of the People Act 1983.”
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