Detectives from Northamptonshire Police have been given more time to decide whether to investigate an allegation of electoral fraud following a court hearing on Friday morning.
Officers are among a number of other forces across the country investigating allegations relating to expenses claims for the “battle bus” used by the Conservative Party in marginal seats during the 2015 General Election.
The bus visited the Northampton North constituency, which was won by Conservative Michael Ellis MP. Mr Ellis has told the Chronicle & Echo that the expenses were properly claimed and the constituency was told they would be claimed by the national party.
In a statement released this afternoon, a spokesman for Northamptonshire Police said: “Officers attended Northampton Magistrates Court earlier today (Friday, May 20) where they successfully obtained a 12-month extension to give them more time to investigate the allegation which relates to the 2015 General Election campaign in the Northampton North constituency.
“Investigators will, in the meantime, continue to work closely with the Electoral Commission.
“However, due to the live nature of the investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment any further at this stage,” he added.
The allegations centre on whether the bus expenses should have been declared by the candidates on their returns, or under the Conservatives’ national accounts which is what the party did.
The police needed an extension to continue the investigation because under election law ‘true and accurate’ candidate spending returns must be lodged 35 days after the result of the election is declared. From then there is a window of one year to prosecute any allegation relating to them, unless a court grants an extension.
Earlier this week, Mr Ellis has told the Chron that he and the Northampton North office had been given “unambiguous advice” that the expenses would be declared nationally and not locally.
“This visit was later properly declared as part of the Conservative’s national election return. The campaign bus visit was certainly not a secret – it was tweeted and retweeted, featured on Facebook and flagged to local media.” he said.
“My election agent and I had received unambiguous advice in writing from Conservative Party Headquarters that the “Battlebus” was to be declared on the national accounts, not our local constituency returns.
“We accepted this advice and very much agreed with it – we know it is how all political parties declared such
campaign activities, and how they have always been declared.
“The SNP recently claimed in the Commons, in an attempt to score political points, that the bus being accounted for nationally is “absolutely extraordinary.”
“This is surprising given they spent more than £35,000 hiring a helicopter to fly SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon to target seats in the run-up to the Election,” he said.
“She appeared in publicity photographs promoting local candidates, and none of the helicopter costs appeared in their local returns.
“There was of course nothing wrong with this – it was a national campaign activity, like the Battlebus,” Mr Ellis said.
“Many might also recall Labour’s pink “woman to woman” bus and their ‘LabourExpress’ battlebus visiting Northampton North on their tours of the country. Both of these were declared as national spend, not local.
“Again the Labour Party used the same process as the Conservative Party - and they were right to do so.
“This all shows the Conservative Party is not alone in how it declared its “Battlebus” costs – and it is only right that any enquiries subject the candidates of every party’s expense returns to the same level of scrutiny.
In response to the national allegations, a Conservative Central Office spokesman said: “CCHQ campaigned across the country for the return of a Conservative Government.
“Such campaigning would be part of the national return, not local return, as the
Electoral Commission has said.
“As is apparent from our National Return, the Party declared expenditure related to our CCHQ-organised Battlebus.
“However, due to administrative error it omitted to declare the accommodation costs of those using the vehicles.
“This is something we have already brought to the attention of the Electoral Commission in order to amend the return.
“The Party always took the view that our national Battlebus, a highly-publicised campaign activity, was part of the National Return – and we would have no reason not to declare it as such, given that the Party was some millions below the national spending threshold.
“Other political parties ran similar vehicles which visited different Parliamentary constituencies as part of their national campaigning,” the spokesman added.