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Friday, 11 May, 2001, 16:30 GMT
What the electoral commission does

By Electoral Commission chairman Sam Younger

The Electoral Commission was established on 30 November 2000 by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act.

It is an independent body responsible directly to parliament rather than to any government ministry.

Its plan, budget and its annual report are submitted to a newly established Speaker's committee and laid before parliament.

Scrutiny

The commission is subject to regular scrutiny by the National Audit Office and has a number of functions.

The one with most immediate effect in relation to a general election is its regulatory role:

  • Registration - all parties wishing to contest elections at European, national or local level are required to register with the commission, in order to ensure clear financial accountabilities and to protect a registered party's name and emblems.

    In order to register, all parties must nominate a treasurer as well as officers with responsibility for any "accounting units" - for example constituency associations or party-affiliated organisations.

    Only the name of a registered party can appear on a ballot paper, otherwise only the description "independent" is allowable.

    Third parties

    There is also a register of third parties. These are organisations - for instance trade unions - or individuals who wish to support a party, a group of candidates or a particular policy position at an election.

    Only if registered can a third party spend more than 10,000 in an election campaign.

  • Donations - any donation of more than 200 to a political party must be recorded and the party must satisfy itself that such donations have come from a "permissible donor".

    Permissible donors are individuals who are on the UK electoral register, or organisations registered in the UK or EU-registered and carrying out business in the UK.

    Donations cannot be accepted from impermissible or anonymous donors.

    All donations of over 5,000 in a year to a party, or of 1,000 to an accounting unit, must be reported in a quarterly return to the Electoral Commission, which will be made available for public inspection.

    The return must state the amount of each donation and the name of the donor.

    Weekly reports

    In addition, during an election campaign donation reports must be submitted to the commission on a weekly basis.

    Controls also apply to "regulated donees" - that is: members of parties, members' associations and holders of elected office.

    Donations of over 1,000 to individuals must be reported, as well as donations of over 5,000 to members' associations.

    For a period of four years parliament has voted to exempt individuals and organisations in Northern Ireland from the controls.

  • Campaign spending - spending by individual candidates has been subject to strict limits for many years.

    Now national campaign spending by parties is also subject to limits.

    The controls apply for 365 days before an election and the limit is just under 20million for parties contesting every seat at a general election.

    Lower spending limit

    The controls became effective on 16 February 2001, and a lower limit has been set in the event that a general election is held in less than 365 days.

    For a general election held before 16 May the limit for a party contesting all seats is just under 15m.

    Audited expenditure returns have to be submitted to the Electoral Commission no later than six months after the election date. These will be made publicly available.

    The commission also has a significant modernising role in relation to electoral law and practice.

    Conduct report

    It will report on the conduct of each election and will use these reports to set an agenda for improvement in electoral arrangements.

    The commission will also, in partnership with the local authorities and their electoral administrators, pursue the programme of piloting new arrangements - such as all-postal voting or electronic voting - that began at the local government elections in 2000.

    The commission will have responsibilities also in the area of voter education, a top priority in the light of the decline in recent years in voter turnout.

    A programme of voter education will be developed during 2001, and among the first priorities will be taking over from the Home Office the responsibility for encouraging voter registration.

    Referendum role

    Other key responsibilities of the commission will include referendums and boundaries.

    The commission will be responsible for the conduct of any future referendums and must be consulted on any referendum question.

    In 2002 the commission will take responsibility for the review of local government boundaries in England, through merger with the Local Government Commission for England, and will in the longer term take over responsibility for the review of parliamentary boundaries across the UK.

    The Electoral Commission is based in London. By the end of 2001 we plan also to open offices in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

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