The Conservative Party withheld key documents from an investigation into possible electoral fraud by the party, the elections watchdog has revealed.
The Electoral Commission on Thursday applied for a High Court order to force the Tories to hand over the missing papers – which it says would help shed light on whether the party broke spending rules in key marginal seats at the general election.
Police across the country have announced criminal investigations into the Conservative Party’s conduct at the general election after a Channel 4 News investigation alleged it might have broken spending rules.
According to the broadcaster, the party allegedly failed to locally declare the costs of bussing activists around to marginal seats – activity which could potentially have swung hotly contested marginals in their favour.
Between 20 and 30 marginal seats were reportedly visited by the bussed-in activists; the Tories ultimately only won a majority of 12, allowing them to form a majority government.
If electoral law is found to have been broken then punishments could include fines and prison sentences.
David Cameron was at PMQs yesterday asked to account for his party’s actions at the election. He replied: “The whole point in this country is the Electoral Commission is independent and when it comes to operational decisions by a police force, they are independent too. That’s the hallmark of an uncorrupt country!”
The Electoral Commission said it had already issued a statutory notice demanding the Tories hand over the documents using powers granted to it under the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) 2000.
However, after the party failed to comply with part of the notice, the Commission said it had launched a court bid “for a disclosure order which if granted would be the court compelling the Respondent to release the required documents and information to the Commission”.
Bob Posner, director of party and election finance and legal counsel at the Electoral Commission, said the withheld documents were necessary to proceed with the investigation.
“If parties under investigation do not comply with our requirements for the disclosure of relevant material in reasonable time and after sufficient opportunity to do so, the Commission can seek recourse through the courts,” he said.
“We are today asking the court to require the party to fully disclose the documents and information we regard as necessary to effectively progress our investigation into the party’s campaign spending returns.”
A Conservative Party spokesperson said in a statement issued to the Independent at 2.30pm: “We advised the Electoral Commission on 29 April that we would comply with their notices by 1pm today – and we will do so. There was no need for them to make this application to the High Court.”
The Conservative spokesperson later said it had now complied with the Electoral Commission’s order. The Electoral Commission said it had received “some additional documentation” from the party but that it was still checking whether this documentation complied with that requested in the order.
However, a spokesperson for the watchdog disputed the Conservative spoksperson's claims about deadlines.
“The Commission granted the Conservative Party an additional period of time with a deadline of 9 May by when it was required to comply with the Commission’s notices for provision of documents and information,” the spokesperson told Channel 4 News.
“The Party did not comply and did not state that it intended to submit any documents at 1pm today (12 May).”
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