AEA policy position: Review of the Returning Officer’s role in the handling of candidates’ expenses

1. Introduction

This paper outlines the Association of Electoral Administrator’s (AEA) views on the role of Returning Officers (RO) in the handling of candidates’ expenses.

2. Overarching position

We believe the UK Government should conduct a full review of the processes that deal with the recording of candidates’ expenses to reduce bureaucracy, the burden on ROs and their local authorities and meet the expectations of candidates and election agents.

3. Key issues and the case for change

3.1 Return of expenses to Returning Officers and subsequent reporting

Candidates and their agents are required to submit an election expenses return and declaration to the RO after an election, even where they are uncontested. Returns are comprehensive and seem unnecessary and bureaucratic to many, especially for parish and community council candidates. The returns and declarations require wet ink signatures and the whole process is generally paper based.

Given many elections at parish and community level are uncontested, provision should be made for a simple declaration to be completed for ‘nil’ returns when no spending has been incurred. This would assist inexperienced candidates in making valid returns without compromising transparency.

ROs are required to provide copies of returns to the Electoral Commission. They are also held by the RO and made available for public inspection for two years (twelve months for parish and community council elections) from the date of submission.

ROs are required to publish the availability of candidates’ election expenses returns for inspection in two local newspapers for UK Parliamentary, London Mayoral and London Assembly elections. For Senedd elections, Constituency ROs need to publish availability in two newspapers in the Senedd constituency, and Regional ROs in three newspapers in the Senedd region. In Scotland, the requirement to publish a notice in newspapers (except UK Parliamentary) has been removed and replaced with a requirement for the relevant RO to publicise the availability in a manner they see fit.

The process needs to be modernised. There are fewer local newspapers, and many have low circulations. The requirement to publish expenses information in a newspaper should be revoked and replaced with a new obligation to publicise their availability online.

3.2 Introduction of online reporting and inspection mechanisms

Candidates and their agents expect transactions to be instant and online as they are in most other areas of their everyday lives. Currently, election expenses returns are paper-based and must be submitted with original documents, including invoices and receipts.

An online facility for the submission of candidates’ election expenses returns should be developed. It should include provision for both a candidate and, where appointed, an agent to signify secure approval of the return. Such a system should also provide a means for the public to inspect returns, declarations and associated papers including provision made available to purchase copies of the expenses.

3.3 Enforcement for failure to return expenses

It is an offence for a candidate or agent not to comply with expenses returns requirements. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has continually declined to prosecute cases where candidates and agents fail to submit expenses as required. If the requirement to make such returns is maintained in its current or an adapted format, it should be properly enforced by the CPS. Enforcement should not fall to the RO or the local authority. Consideration should be given to elected candidates losing their seat if they do not meet post-poll requirements to submit their expenses, and for unsuccessful candidates to be barred for a period from standing at future elections.

4. AEA policy position

  • A full review of the processes that record candidates’ expenses is needed, including:
  • consideration of the return, and subsequent reporting of, expenses direct to the Electoral Commission instead of ROs
  • the requirement for candidates at uncontested elections to make a return be revoked
  • the requirement to publish in a newspaper being revoked and replaced with a new obligation to publicise the availability of returns online
  • the introduction of online reporting and inspection mechanisms
  • enforcement for failure to return expenses.

5. Further information

The Association of Electoral Administrators was founded in 1987 and is the professional and qualifications body representing the interests of electoral administrators in the United Kingdom. We are a non-governmental and non-partisan body with just over 2,000 members, the majority of whom are employed by local authorities to provide electoral registration and election services. Eleven regional branches of the Association cover the United Kingdom.

Further details on the legislative background connected to this policy position are available on request.

If you require any further information, please contact Angela Holden, AEA policy manager – [email protected] or 07752 630497.

Dated: 25 October 2021


APPENDIX 1

Background

Legislation

Election agents are required to deliver to the appropriate officer (depending on election type, the RO or proper officer (see Appendix 2)) a true return for each candidate they are acting for containing a statement of:

  • all expenses incurred by or on behalf of the candidate; and
  • all payments made by the election agent together with all bills and receipts or receipts relating to the payments.

The statement must be accompanied by a declaration made by the election agent. At the same time the declaration is made, or within seven calendar days of it being submitted, the candidate must also deliver a declaration.

The implication of delivering the return is that they must be original documents.

The delivery requirements for each election type including legislative references are shown at the appendix 2.

Receipt by Returning Officer

Whilst it is an illegal practice for a candidate or election agent not to comply with the legislative requirements (Secs 75, 81 and 82 RPA 1983; Articles 34, 40 and 41 PCCEO 2012), it is not the duty of the RO or proper officer who receives the returns to scrutinise them in any way.

The RO is merely the recipient and custodian. They should record the date of receipt, ensure none of the documents are withdrawn or amended but must add any additional documents subsequently lodged with them.

Copies supplied to the Electoral Commission

At UK Parliamentary, London Mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner elections, the appropriate officers are required to send a copy of the returns to the Electoral Commission (Sec 87A RPA 1983; Article 47 PCCEO 2012). The Commission may also request a copy of any of the accompanying documents.

In addition, the Electoral Commission may require the appropriate officer to deliver a copy of the returns and accompanying documents for any of the other types of election (Sec 87A(2) RPA 1983).

Publication of notice

At UK Parliamentary, London Mayoral and London Assembly elections, within ten calendar days after the deadline for receipt of the returns, the appropriate officer must publish in not less than two newspapers circulating in the electoral area notice that the returns are available for inspection.

A similar notice must be sent to election agents. Notice of late returns must also be published at the appropriate time (Sec 88 RPA 1983).

In Wales, at Senedd elections, Constituency ROs need to publish in two newspapers in the Senedd constituency and Regional ROs in three newspapers in the Senedd region (Article 61 of The National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) Order 2007).

In Scotland the (Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Order 2020) removed the need to publish a notice in not less than two newspapers for CRO or three for RRO, instead providing the relevant RO to publicise the opportunity in a manner they see fit.

Inspection and copies

Copies of the returns, declarations and any accompanying documents are open to inspection for a period of two years (twelve months for parish and community council elections) after their receipt (Sec 89 RPA 1983).

Copies of the returns, declarations and any accompanying documents must be provided at the rate of 20p for each side of a page (Reg 10(3) RPR 2001).

If any return contains a statement of donation by an individual, the copy available for public inspection must not include details of that person’s address (Sec 89(1A) RPA 1983). At the end of this period, the documents are to be destroyed unless the candidate or election agent requires them to be returned to him/her.


APPENDIX 2

Delivery requirements are as follows:

Election type Date by which election agent’s returns must be made ** Appropriate officer to whom delivery made Legislative reference
UK Parliamentary 35 calendar days ARO Sec 82 RPA 1983
Principal area 35 calendar days Proper Officer Sec 82 RPA 1983
Parish or community council 28 calendar days Proper Officer of the principal area Sec 82 RPA 1983
London Assembly Constituency Member 70 calendar days Proper Officer of the Greater London Authority Sec 82 RPA 1983
London Member (individual or party list candidates) 70 calendar days Proper Officer of the Greater London Authority Sec 82 RPA 1983
London Mayor 70 calendar days Proper Officer of the Greater London Authority Sec 82 RPA 1983
Police and Crime Commissioner 70 calendar days PARO Article 40 PCCEO 2012
Senedd elections 35 calendar days Senedd Constituency and Regional ROs Article 61 of The National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) Order 2007

** All (excluding Parish and community council) calculated as days after the day on which the result of the election is declared. Parish and community council is from the date of election.


1Although the term ‘Returning Officer’ is referred to throughout, the proper officer administers the process at certain specified elections. See Appendix 2 for further details. The issues raised in this paper apply equally whether the receiving officer is the RO or the proper officer.