Gavin Barwell is the subject of a formal complaint to the police which asks them to investigate whether the Croydon Central Tory MP broke the law by under-declaring his campaign spending at last year’s General Election.
Barwell has form in this regard.
Barwell’s Conservative Party agent, Ian Parker, was subject of a legal warning five years ago for failing to declare properly rent payments for an office used during the 2010 General Election campaign.
That warning from a High Court judge appears to have been forgotten in Barwell’s desperate attempt to hang on to his parliamentary seat, which he did last May by just 165 votes.
Under the terms of the Representation of the People Act 1983, inaccurate declarations of election expenses are illegal and can attract a range of punishments.
Following this week’s complaint to Croydon police – and there is a possibility that there has been more than one – Barwell could become the 30th Conservative MP under police investigation for irregularities over their 2015 election expenses. Even Tory Central Office has conceded that there may have been a breach of the strict limits on election spending in other constituencies. In those cases, the Tories blame “an administrative error”.
The gathering storm over the Tories “buying the election” has prompted the Electoral Commission yesterday to call on the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to extend the deadline for its investigations by 12 months.
The investigations led by Channel 4 News and the Daily Mirror into spending on the Tory Battle Bus and hotel bills have prompted Lord Ashcroft, the former Tory Party treasurer and sometime Barwell mentor, to suggest that if the spending rules are found to have been broken, there may need to be a series of by-elections. “Dodgy Dave” Cameron formed a Conservative Government last year with a majority of 18, including his senior Tory whip, Barwell.
Inside Croydon understands that the complaint about Barwell’s expenditure on his 2015 election campaign once again includes an issue over the amount he has declared as having paid for his campaign office rent.
Also under scrutiny this time is the amount Barwell claims to have spent on his carpet-bombing of Croydon Central with leaflets.
The law permits election candidates to spend only limited amounts during what are called the “long campaign” and the “short campaign”, with those periods defined (for the 2015 General Election) as running from December 14 2014 to the day before a person is formally nominated as a candidate (the long campaign), and from the date of nomination to election day (the short campaign).
The Electoral Commission defines candidate spending as “any expenses incurred, whether on goods, services, property or facilities, for the purposes of the candidate’s election during the regulated period”. The spending limits for Croydon Central, determined by the number of constituents, were £35,288.62 for the long campaign and £13,287.48 for the short campaign.
In Barwell’s recently published election memoir, he boasts of campaigning from June 2014 – that is, well before the “long campaign” required him to account for his expenses – and of staging “the glitziest launch of an individual constituency campaign British politics has ever seen” in September 2014.
In July 2014, he had the support of a visit of around a hundred activists through the now notorious Tory “Road Trip” organisation. None of the spending on these events will have had to be declared under election law.
In his book, Barwell writes that he managed to raise £90,000 for his campaign fund: nearly twice the amount which the law allowed him to spend in the long and the short campaigns combined.
“We were determined to deliver more literature than Labour,” Barwell boasts.
The complaint, which was filed with Croydon police yesterday, is based on Barwell’s election expenses for the short campaign, as lodged at Croydon Town Hall.
Barwell’s election accounts claim he spent a total of £13,035.74 – just £251 inside the limit.
But in a closely fought marginal seat, fine margins may have become a little blurred for gaffe-prone Gav. In his expenses return, Barwell claims that he did not manage to deliver all the leaflets his campaign had printed. He has therefore declared a reduced amount of spending, helping to bring his accounts under the limit.
It is arguable that if a candidate orders a batch of leaflets from a printer, and then fails to get them delivered, that they should still be accountable for the full payment to the printers. As Barwell may have calculated, it is impossible to prove after the fact how many leaflets may have remained undelivered.
In his official expense returns, Barwell claims that a batch of 50,000 leaflets (invoiced on April 15, 2015) were only “85 per cent delivered”.
Yet this legal declaration is contradicted by Barwell’s own account of events in his book.
In How to Win a Marginal Seat, Barwell writes that with the help of 200 activists, “…we delivered a leaflet through every one of the just under 50,000 letterboxes in Croydon Central in just over three hours”.
Barwell repeats his claim of delivering all the leaflets, “to every home in the constituency on the morning of Saturday 18 April” in the book’s appendix, accompanied by pictures of the front and back of the leaflet.
Elsewhere in his official returns, there are another half-dozen leaflets that Barwell claims were not all delivered.
It is claimed that Croydon Tories managed to deliver only 60 per cent of the “Back Barwell” leaflets. On the declaration form, it appears that Barwell or his agent have made an alteration to the 60 per cent figure.
Barwell also claims to have delivered only 65 per cent of the “Groves letters” which his campaign had printed – an emotionally appealling endorsement of the MP from the parents of a New Addington teenager who was killed in a car accident.
Taken together, the full costs of all the leaflets will have taken Barwell over his legal spending limit.
Complaints about election spending have to be investigated within 12 months of the election – in this case, by May 7.
But yesterday, the Electoral Commission stepped in to give Croydon police even longer to look into Barwell’s election spending.
“The Electoral Commission… has requested that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the police consider applying for an extension to the time limit available to pursue criminal prosecutions,” a statement announced, adding that representatives of the CPS, the police and the Electoral Commission are meeting next Wednesday to discuss this request.
“The police and the CPS both have the power to apply to the courts to extend the time limit on bringing criminal prosecutions for electoral offences to allow for full investigations to take place. We have requested that they consider doing this,” said Bob Posner, the director of party and election finance and legal counsel at the Electoral Commission.
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