Even if Gavin Barwell is found guilty of failing to account properly for his expenses at last year’s General Election, the MP for Croydon Central faces no greater sanction than a £20,000 fine for each offence, and there’s little possibility that any of the parliamentary seats under police investigation will be forced into a re-run.
That’s the view of David Allen Green, the law and policy commentator at the Financial Times, who has trawled through the relevant parts of election law ahead of publishing a detailed review for the newspaper next week.
There are around 30 police investigations underway across the country, including in Croydon, as well as in nearby Sutton and Cheam where Conservative Paul Scully is now the MP.
Many of the investigations began following reports by the Daily Mirror and Channel 4 News into Tory spending on the 2015 election, in which the Conservatives are alleged to have spent beyond local limits on their election “BattleBus” and hotel accommodation for activists in some key marginal seats.
In Croydon Central, Barwell is being investigated over allegations that he under-declared his spending on election leaflets and for the use of a constituency office. It is the second time in two General Elections that Barwell’s election spending has been investigated.
But according to Allen Green, a senior counsel and head of the litigation and media practices at Preiskel & Co, “It looks to me that the Tory party could well be whacked with a huge fine, but convictions of MPs and forced by-elections [seem] highly unlikely.”
Allen Green was expressing his interpretation of the law on social media this afternoon, apparently in response to some more fevered speculation that any MPs found guilty of election fraud could face prison sentences and by-elections forced in their parliamentary seats – which could potentially eliminate “Dodgy Dave” Cameron’s Government’s majority.
“There is a remote theoretical chance that there could be 13-plus disqualifications and by-elections. I suspect there will be very few, if any,” Allen Green wrote.
“One may say the true issue is not that these allegations will lead to by-elections, but that the way the law is structured, they can’t.”
In several seats around the country, spending on what appears to have been the specific constituency election has been accounted for as a national party expense by the Conservatives, seeing their candidates spend far more than is allowed by election law.
“The national Tory party do face a serious legal problem [regarding] expenses, but the knock-on effect in constituencies [and] by-elections [is a] different issue,” Allen Green said.
“In essence, it is a see-saw. The worse the allegations against national Tory party (they are bad), [the] less likely local MP disqualifications.”
According to the electoral commission, the figure of £20,000 is the maximum fine (as detailed in paragraph 8.9 here). The highest fine levied to date is £8,000, after findings against the Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol Party this year.
“There can, of course, be multiple fines for multiple breaches, up to the limit,” Allen Green notes.
Which could be bad news for Barwell, although it would still mean he is unlikely to be fined more than half of the £90,000 election war chest that he boasted of raising when writing his recently published memoir.
In short, Allen Green suggests that the election law on expenses offences is a fairly feeble piece of legislation. “One would suspect that elections law was written by politicians so not to have much real effect at all,” Allen Green wrote.
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