Why is the Electoral Commission trying to make life difficult for journalists?

The Electoral Commission has been advising councils to refuse reporters permission to take notes from general election expenses, Freedom of Information documents appear to reveal.

Under the Representation of the People Act, members of the public have the right to inspect expenses incurred at elections by candidates. Local councils hold this information and are required to make them available for inspection when requested.

Given the fact that political expenses have been rarely out of the news in the last 18 months, and the massive gulf in spending by the Conservatives and every other party, general election expenses were always going to attract more interest this year than in previous years.

Yet the Electoral Commission seems to have done all it can to make the process of reporting what was spent and by whom as difficult as possible.

A Freedom of Information request posted on the What Do They Know website has resulted in the Commission revealing that it told councils there was ‘no provision in law’ for people to take notes from the expenses.

Several authorities had sought information on what to do if reporters asked to look at the documents, and the response from the Commission’s North West team was:

In the absence of any definitive legislation on this point, the prudent option is to inform the paper that ‘inspect’ does not extend to the taking of notes. To that end, if the paper wishes to look at the returns in more detail at a later date, (for what ever purpose) they should purchase a copies.

In other words, you can look at it, but unless you have a photographic memory, you need to buy copies. Another response set to another council said:

Legislation says that you may ‘inspect’ candidate expenses returns. We feel that this does not automatically extend to the taking of notes. Accordingly, if the local authority wishes to allow people to take notes, then that is there decision, but there is no automatic right to do so. People are entitled to request copies of the returns on payment of the relevant fee.

In terms of fee payable, it can be as high as 20p a sheet for photocopies. A quick look at Paul Bradshaw’s online project to crowdsource analysis of the Edgbaston election expenses shows that it’s quite possible to have dozens of pages which need photocopying.

Of course, it’s arguable that if a newspaper journalist or member of the public wants the information that much, they won’t mind paying the full amount – after all, it’s only 20p a sheet, right? But what I can’t understand is why the Electoral Commission is seeking to make a distinction between viewing expenses and taking notes from them.

Looking at the Representation of the People Act, here’s what it has to say about inspecting expenses:

(a) as soon as reasonably practicable after receiving the return or declaration make a copy of it, and any accompanying documents, available for public inspection at his office, or some other convenient place chosen by him, for a period of two years beginning with the date when the return is received by him;

(b)if requested to do so by any person, and on payment of the prescribed fee, supply that person with a copy of the return or declaration and any accompanying documents.

So while there is nothing in law which says people can take notes, there’s nothing in the law which says people can’t – so why make the distinction? There’s nothing written in the law to say I can’t eat Crunchie chocolate bars, but there are laws which say I shouldn’t commit acts of theft. If I followed the interpretation of law as apparently used by the Electoral Commission, I would make sure I’d paid for my Crunchie bar but wouldn’t know for sure I could eat it.

Flippant comparisons aside, surely common sense should dictate that it’s much quicker for council officers to just make the documents for people to take notes from rather than hand them over for inspection, pick which pages need photocopying, get them photocopied and then arrange to collect the fee (and probably issue a receipt etc etc etc).

Of course, many councils will be sensible to disregard the advice in favour of commonsense. An investigation on the crowdsourcing website Help Me Investigate has revealed a broad range of responses. The Manchester Evening News was able to report on what happened across its area. It appears that at least some of the authorities in Greater Manchester chose to ignore the advice from the Electoral Commission. John Keenan reporter Brighton Council allowed him to take notes. Hannah Waldram of Guardian Cardiff also reported that Cardiff Council was helpful. Dave Harte, from the Bournville Village hyperlocal site, has commented below that Birmingham were also very helpful.

But the Electoral Commission carries clout in authorities – and rightly so. It is, in many ways, the body which is responsible for being the democratic watchdog in the UK. What possible good can come from encouraging councils to make people pay for the right to analyse data away from the town hall?

3 comments

  1. I went to the Birmingham City Council office with Paul Bradshaw. They didn’t seem to have a problem in letting me use my computer to create a spreadsheet of the data there and then. The only stipulation was at a member of staff stayed with me.

    1. Hi Dave. Thanks for the comment. I’ve added in a link to the post you wrote about it – meant to at the time. I think (hope) most councils would be sensible about taking notes, but I can’t think why the Electoral Commission is trying to shove a big obstacle in the way.

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