As her Agent, I handed in Wendy's election expenses today to the Elections Office in Liverpool City Council. They are the most helpful and supportive staff, for all candidates and agents of all parties and I often stop for a bit of a chat when I have reason to call in. I asked, just out of interest really, what would happen with the expenses, would they be checked? Would someone look through to see whether my maths was right, whether I had the requisite copies of invoices, whether I had chosen the right categories for our various expenditures etc?
I was reminded that returns are not checked by the staff, it is neither their duty nor responsibility, they merely accept them, record their receipt, hold on to them for a year and then pass them to the Electoral Commission. I asked whether the Electoral Commission check them but nobody was entirely sure. It was not even clear whether anyone at the Commission is aware, chases up or reprimands any candidate who has failed to submit their expenses, although one would assume they do at least employ a few AAs and AOs to check this fairly fundamental requirement.
I know that anybody - any tax payer, any member of the public, political or otherwise, can come into the office and ask to see any expense returns from any candidate for 12 months after an election, but the staff were unable to recall when the last time was that anyone had actually requested a look at any returns from any candidate in any ward in any local elections. Although to be fair, they did recall a small amount of interest in a few returns in the occasional General Election.
We did discuss the thought that had any local candidate put up hundreds of billboards or published 30 page newspapers, it might generate some interest in their returns, but it seems that because we clearly all do keep within the official limits, we don't bother to check our opponents. We know what is spent broadly because we can see what material is published, how glossy or plain it is, how widely it is circulated, how many posters are displayed in windows, how many public meetings are held (virtually none at all these days) and we know the relative costs of different printers. It is interesting that the public don't bother to check returns either. I wonder if that is because they don't know that they can or whether it is because instinct tells them that nobody is running amok with a cheque book?
You can slate the Representation of the People Act all you like, but it certainly seems to have seen off the very last vestiges of Rotten Boroughs, financially speaking. (Remember David Mellor and his "Up your Hacienda Jimmy, your attempt to buy the British electorate has failed" cry in the 1997 general election before RPA was enacted?)
I was allowed to spend upwards of £1000 on Wendy's campaign legally but spent less than £500 and even that sum was inflated because I produced a more expensive full colour glossy "election address" compared to most candidates who made do with two colour printing on white 90gm paper. And all of that is obvious to anyone who lives in a ward, it is very hard to spend Brewster's Millions with nobody noticing - unless you are a staggeringly inept agent.
With my hand on my heart I can say that despite having been active as an agent, campaigner or candidate in hundreds of elections in the last 20 years, I personally have never once been to examine a single return of any candidate's expenses, ever, anywhere. And I find this somewhat thought provoking, so I thought I would leave this here for your contemplation and remark.