The commission’s view is that the digital imprints requirement in the Elections Act will increase transparency by helping voters understand who is paying to target them online. It could provide further transparency if the requirement were extended to cover all digital material from unregistered campaigners, regardless of whether they paid to promote it. The commission has said that other changes in the Act relating to non-party campaigners will bring limited additional transparency, while increasing the complexity of the law.
The Online Safety Bill would include new freedom of speech protections for some campaigning content, but does not include any provisions that would directly affect the transparency of political campaign activities.
Recently, openDemocracy highlighted research that suggests it is difficult to establish exactly what more than £3.6 million was spent on by the Conservative party before the 2019 general election because of unclear or even unavailable invoices. Without that clarity, it is obviously difficult to establish exactly what political campaigning communications resulted from contracts that included £700,000 and £1.6 million to political consultancy firms, or even from the 200 out of 300 local Conservative branches that apparently submitted returns with no invoices. Yet the commission said it was “not proportionate” to take enforcement action. Under what circumstances would the commission be prepared to take action?
The commission reviewed the spending return delivered by the Conservative party following the 2019 parliamentary general election, and is aware that not all the required invoices were provided. Having reviewed the compliance of the return as a whole, it was decided that it was not proportionate to take enforcement action in relation to those missing invoices.
The hon. Member mentioned local associations, and local association campaign spending and accompanying invoices or receipts at a UK parliamentary general election are submitted as part of the spending return from their central party. The commission is required to publish the returns as soon as reasonably possible, whether or not they are complete. When a return is incomplete, the commission will consider what action to take in line with the principles of proportionality, as set out in its enforcement policy.