Our aim is to make sure that the rules on party and election finance are followed, and that voters are confident in the integrity and transparency of UK party and election finance. We provide advice and guidance to those that we regulate, but where it’s necessary, and in the public interest, we will take enforcement action if the rules aren’t followed.
With this in mind, we’re currently running a public consultation on changes to our enforcement policy.
The Commission’s enforcement policy sets out how we deal with allegations that parties or others may have broken the rules set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000 through our investigation procedures. The enforcement policy is a public document, making our approach to regulation as transparent as possible.
The enforcement policy was last reviewed in 2010. Over the last five years we have continually developed our practices and we are now looking again at the whole policy to ensure it enables us to approach our regulatory work as efficiently and effectively as possible.
You can read in more detail about the proposed changes in our consultation document, but here we want to talk about our regulatory work and how we aim to use this process to become an even more effective and efficient regulator.
What we currently do and how we plan to evolve
Since 2011, we’ve have powers to investigate and impose penalties on anyone who breaks the party and election finance rules. These powers have played a part in improving compliance with the rules significantly. For example, in 2010, the last year before we were given the powers, 84% of parties delivered their annual accounts to us on time. By 2014 that figure was 92%. But the changes to our Enforcement Policy will allow us to do more.
We have generally asked for voluntary cooperation during our investigations, and only used our investigatory powers to require information if we didn’t get it this way. In future we want to use those powers more often, and not just as a last resort, so we can deal with issues more quickly and with more certainty.
We already publish brief summaries of our cases, but for more complicated or significant cases, we want to publish more detailed information about how we consider the facts and apply the law. We also want to publish more information about how we decide what penalties to impose, so people know what to expect.
Previously we have focused mainly on getting reports and accounts in on time; crucial for transparency but also meaning a lot of time spent reminding parties about when their returns are due in and chasing them extensively before the deadline. In future we’ll be doing less of this. It’s been over ten years since most of the rules came into force, and five years since the penalties were introduced. There’s now no excuse for parties not knowing the rules. Instead, we want to use our resources to do more proactive checks that parties are following all of the rules.
We also want to then take a tougher line with those who don’t follow the rules. We recognise that there are many parties that do not routinely stand candidates or rely on volunteers to operate or exist with limited resources, with little political profile, membership or electoral impact.
These parties form an important part of the democratic fabric of this country, and the vast majority understand and fulfil their responsibilities. Unfortunately, however, a small minority of these parties do not take their responsibilities seriously, and cause significant work for us chasing them for returns or other information. That is time we could better spend looking in more detail at issues that we think are of more concern to voters.
In the past, we have often decided to issue warnings to these parties rather than penalise them for failures. But it is not the best use of our limited resources, and unfair to those parties who do follow the rules, to spend significant time and effort trying to help those who do not respond. We will continue to take a proportionate approach, and carefully consider whether taking action is in the public interest. But just because a party relies on volunteers or is not very politically active, doesn’t mean it won’t be fined in future.
Similarly, many parties do not keep their registered details up to date, as they are required to do by law. Some parties do not engage with us at all, and in all of these situations we have to use our limited resources chasing them for information. In future we’ll spend less time chasing, and more frequently fine parties when they don’t keep their information up to date.
We believe that transparency, and effective regulation of how politics is financed is crucial to a democratic system voters can have confidence in. We’ve made good progress in the last five years, and with the help of these changes, we can make more.
The consultation on the Commission’s enforcement policy is open for comment until 26 February 2016, and we welcome your views.
Majella La Praik and Dan Adamson