Thursday, December 23, 2010

Dear Electoral Commission (2) ...

A further letter asking for clarification following the Zac Goldsmith Case Review.

Dear Electoral Commission,

re. Case review concerning campaign expenditure return in respect of Zac Goldsmith MP

Further to my email yesterday there is another issue it would be useful to have guidance on.

Paragraph 3.16 of the review states:

"Mr Goldsmith‟s expenses return included an invoice for leaflets which cost £11,150.39. His return declared expenditure of £8,629.76, on the basis that not all of the leaflets had been used. The allegation suggested that in fact all material purchased should have been declared. However, the RPA2 defines election expenses as expenses incurred on materials used for the purposes of the candidate's election after the date when he becomes a candidate at the election. The guidance issued by the Commission states that candidates and agents must include the value of everything used in the regulated period, not what is purchased. We consider that Mr Goldsmith‟s reporting of the cost in relation to this item was consistent with the requirements of the RPA and the Commission‟s guidance in this area."

I was very surprised to raed this as the advice I have always been given is that you should declare the cost of everything you have bought for the purpose of the election, other than where you are sharing the cost with another campaign or going to use the material in the futre.

The problem with allowing campaigns to declare only part of a print run is that this allows them to benefit from economies of scale in printing costs and makes it very difficult to be certain what proportion of the run have actually been delivered.

For example if I want to produce a run of 10,000 leaflets it might cost me £500, whereas a run of 40,000 of the same leaflet might only cost £1000, due to the economies of scale involved in the printing process. If I get 40,000 printed and only use 10,000 (25% of the run) this ruling would allow me to declare only 25% of the bill, i.e. £250. In other words a campaign that has a lot of money to spend can artificially reduce the amount if has to declae on the election expenses.

Please can you therefore provide me with clear guidance on how this (new) rule works.

Is there any limit on how much a campaign can actually spend in order to reduce the aount it declares in the election expenses? (In either cash or percentage terms)

Is there any limit the number of different leaflets a campaign could claim to have not fully delivered?

How do you plan to be able to check what proportion of any given print run has been delivered?

Again, I would appreciate clear guidance on these points.

Yours faithfully,
Neil Fawcett.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Dear Electoral Commission ...

I am sending this to the Electoral Commission after reading their Case Review regarding Zac Goldsmith's Election Expenses:

Dear Electoral Commission,

re. Case review concerning campaign expenditure return in respect of Zac Goldsmith MP

I have just read your Case Review regarding the expenses of Zac Goldsmith and am, frankly, very surprised by your decision not to refer the case for prosecution.

As someone who has been an election agent on numerous occasions, including at the General Election in 2010, it has always been clear to me that it was my duty to make sure I understood the rules, read the guidance, fill in the forms in line with the guidance and only spend within the limits.

I always understood that I faced prosecution if I failed to comply with your guidance and/or spent above the election expense limts, and that the law was applied strictly.

Your Case Review sets out very clearly that a) Mr Goldsmith's agent did not fill in the forms in line with your guidance, and b) that Mr Goldsmith's campaign almost certainly overspent the short campaign limit.

Yet you conclude that it is not in the public interest for there to be a prosecution.

In paragraph 4.3 you state:  "In determining whether to refer the case to the police for criminal investigation, we considered not just whether an overspend may have occurred, but also the relative amount involved and whether the aggregate expenditure for both the whole campaign period exceeded the overall spending limit. We also considered whether there was any evidence of excessive spending which was so unreasonable as to indicate a deliberate avoidance of the rules."

I am likely to be a legal agent again in the future and would therefore like some clear guidance on the following points please:

1  What is the level of overspending above the election limits that you consider to be low enough to avoid prosecution.  (Please feel free to answer in either cash or percentage terms)

2  What is the level of overspending that you consider substantial enough to indicate a deliberate avoidance of the rules.(Please feel free to answer in either cash or percentage terms)

3  Is it the case that it will strengthen my defence against prosecution if I claim to have not read and/or understood your guidance and therefore fill in my election expense return forms in a confusing manner?

I would appreciate clear answers to these questions please.

Yours faithfully,

Neil Fawcett.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Why Lib Dem MPs should vote against increased tuition fees

Later today MPs will vote on whether or not to significantly increase tuition fees.

For me the lead up to this vote, and the implications for the party I have campaigned for for 23 years, are profoundly depressing.

I do accept that in a coalition we will have to make compromises. We have 57 MPs in a House Commons where the two dominant political parties both believe that individual students should make a substantial contribution to the cost of their first degree. I understand and accept that.

But what I find depressing is the way in which our party leaders, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable in particular, appear to be more willing to argue that black is white rather than stand up for our party's clear policy and the principles behind it.

Nick and Vince have tried to frame the debate as being about whether monthly repayments are lower or higher than under the current system. Clearly they are lower, at least for a few years, and clearly anyone earning between £15K and £21K will be better off.

And clearly the improvements for part-time students are welcome.

But surely the debate is about more than monthly repayments. (Apart from the fact that paying slightly lower monthly repayments, but for two or three times as many years, leaves you a lot worse off overall.)

Surely what is important to us, as Liberal Democrats, is that Higher Education is (or at least should be) an experience which transforms individuals and boosts their contribution to society.

Surely we should be arguing that yes, there are benefits to many graduates' earning potential, but the wider beneficial effects are far more important.

Surely, even if we believe that individuals will benefit, we believe that society benefits too? And that it is reasonable for society to pay at least some of the cost of each individual's higher education.

I wanted to hear our leaders arguing this case. A case which has won the day repeatedly at party conferences, in policy committees, and in manifesto negotiations. A case which our leaders argued during the election campaign. A case which is based on a Liberal view of the broader value of education.

Sadly this hasn't happened.

Sadly our leaders appear to be so bought in to making the coalition work that they see arguing the detail, and redefining concepts such as 'fairness' and 'progressive' rather than arguing the party's principles.

Sadly it appears that they would rather divert our attention onto what some email someone in NUS might have sent, than debate the real issues.

Our party leadership appear to have completely underestimated the importance of this issue to activists, members and a lot of the people who voted for us.

They appear to have ignored the express view of party conference and all the discussions that took place during the formulation of the manifesto for the last election.

And they appear to have forgotten a whole pile of things they said about trust in politics.

So it isn't the fact we have to compromise that annoys me, it is the way we got to this position.

They could have made this more of an issue in the coalition negotiations.

They could have chosen different priorities in departmental spending.

They could have 'received' the Browne Report rather than 'welcomed' it.

They could have taken a bit more time to look at all the alternatives, not rush to proposals based on the Browne report.

And our leaders could have made it clear that this is a compromise, but one that is difficult for the Lib Dems.

If they had done these things we would not be in the mess we are now.

Instead we have a set of proposals that mean that future graduates will pay the full (and possibly more than the full) cost of their degree while those of us whose education was paid for by other people's taxes pay nothing extra.

We have a scheme that means those who end up on above average but still modest incomes will pay back a much greater share of their earnings than those on high incomes, so that it is NOT progressive.

We have a scheme which will mean that most graduates will pay far more over their lifetime than under the current scheme.

And all this from a Government that claims that it is dealing with the deficit quickly so that future generations don't have to pay for the mistakes of this one.

So this is why Lib Dem MPs should vote against the Government's proposals.

They are unfair, they are not progressive, and they do not, therefore, pass the tests set down in the coalition agreement.

Our leadership has failed to argue the party's strong case for free education paid for by progressive taxation (so that those who do benefit financially would contribute more) and therefore have no right to expect our MPs to support them.

P.S.  Yes Labour have been rubbish on this too and NUS not much better, but this isn't about them.