The Political Parties and Elections Bill currently provides for two specific, constrained, powers of entry. The provisions were discussed with the Electoral Commission during their development.
The first is a restatement of the existing power under section 146(3) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which allows the Commission to enter premises and take copies of information relating to income and expenditure from a registered political party, a recognised third party and a permitted participant in a referendum. This power can be exercised by the Commission for the purposes of carrying out its functions but does not authorise the use of force to enter premises. However, it is a criminal offence to intentionally obstruct the Commission from entering premises.
This power is replicated in clause 1(5) of schedule 19A (to be inserted into the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 by schedule 1 to the Bill). It is, however, extended in its scope to encompass candidates (other than candidates in Scottish local government elections), election agents, regulated donees (including MPs) and regulated participants.
In addition, the Political Parties and Elections Bill seeks to provide new powers for use by the Commission when it undertakes an investigation in circumstances where it has reasonable grounds for suspecting that a breach of PPERA has taken place: specifically, the Bill provides the Commission with new powers to request information, to put questions and to apply for a warrant to enable it to enter premises when carrying out an investigation into a suspected offence or other contravention of the 2000 Act; each of these new powers is subject to a series of safeguards. These powers and the associated safeguards are set out in schedule 1 of the Bill, which proposes to insert a new schedule 19A into the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
In relation to the new power to enter premises, under paragraph 3 of schedule 19A the Commission will need to apply for a warrant: there is no automatic right of entry. For a warrant to be issued, the Commission must demonstrate on oath to a justice of the peace that it has reasonable grounds for believing that an offence has been committed (or other contravention of PPERA has occurred). The Commission must also satisfy a justice of the peace that documents are on any premises that were withheld following an earlier request made under paragraph 2(2) of the schedule or that are otherwise relevant to the investigation. When entering the premises that a warrant authorises entry into, any Commission staff must be accompanied at all times by a constable.
A warrant issued under paragraph 3 is capable of applying to any person or organisation that the tests in the paragraph above are met. On that basis it is capable of applying to trade unions and their members in the same way that it may apply to any other person or organisation.
As I indicated at Committee stage of the Political Parties and Elections Bill, we have heard the force of opinion in the House on the issue of the Commission's powers and will consider what can be done to address it.
We are considering how best to do so while delivering the objective of empowering the Commission to investigate more effectively, together with ensuring that its powers are subject to appropriate safeguards.
The Political Parties and Elections Bill proposes that the Electoral Commission may apply to a justice of the peace for a search warrant to authorise the entry of premises.
In order to issue a warrant a justice of the peace must be satisfied, having had regard to information given on oath by the Commission, that there are reasonable grounds for believing that an offence or other breach of PPERA has been committed or has taken place. In addition the justice of the peace must also be satisfied that there are on the premises for which the warrant was sought documents that that have previously been required to be produced or which are otherwise relevant to the Commission's investigation. Further detail about the proposed power of entry and search by warrant is set out in paragraph 3 of schedule 1. It would ultimately be for a court, taking all relevant factors into consideration, to decide whether the above requirements were met and whether issuing a warrant was appropriate as a result.