The leader of the Scottish Family Party breached electoral law by failing to submit a record of his personal campaign spending after running in the 2019 general election, The Ferret can reveal.
The Edinburgh-based Lucas, a former UKIP member, said his party submitted its overall campaign expenditure to the Electoral Commission. Lucas had not realised that providing the election returning officer with a record of his personal spending was necessary, he said.
The socially-conservative Scottish Family Party says it is “filling the void in Scottish politics” with pro-family, pro-marriage, pro-life and pro-freedom of speech policies. It opposes gender equality measures, abortion rights, same sex marriage and hate speech legislation.
The party uses Facebook advertising to target the public with its message, and many people have reported seeing the party advertised on their social media feeds.
Despite having no elected representatives and receiving fewer than 500 votes in the last general election, the party has racked up more than 300,000 Facebook video views and nearly 50,000 post shares in the last 12 months, according to analysis tool Crowdtangle.
The public bodies which oversee elections said they are not responsible for enforcing candidate spending rules and lack the powers to pursue candidates which do not reveal how much they spent during an election. The Electoral Commission and Highland Council both said that such incidences are “a matter for the police”.
The anti-corruption organisation, Transparency International UK stressed that candidates can choose not to submit their returns “without fear of any consequence”. The group called for clarity on which bodies are responsible for enforcing candidate spending rules and for them to be given more powers to tackle the issue.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats said it was “astonishing that nothing seems to be done to enforce the rules” surrounding candidate spending.
In April, the Electoral Commission requested powers which would allow it to enforce candidate spending and publish the records online. Transparency is currently being “curtailed’ by “outdated laws”, it warned.
Richard Lucas and the Scottish Family Party’s campaign activity
Posts from the Scottish Family Party’s social media accounts show Lucas campaigning in Ross, Skye and Lochaber during the run-up to the 2019 general election.
A Facebook post from the party claimed it was in the process of delivering 42,300 of the leaflets promoting Lucas’ candidacy in the constituency. It also advertised meet and greet events with Lucas in Portree, Fort William and Dingwall.
Another post states that the party submitted a request for Royal Mail to deliver leaflets across the constituency.
Videos and images show that Lucas put up and posed with multiple placards promoting the party, and criticising the Liberal Democrats and incumbent MP, Ian Blackford. One video features Lucas with a cardboard cutout of Blackford, accusing the SNP politician of not attending a debate.
A spending return on the Electoral Commission’s website shows that the Scottish Family Party reported spending of £5,002 on printed and social media advertising, Airbnb accommodation and transport mileage.
Asked by The Ferret why he did not submit a personal spending return, Lucas said: “We submitted our campaign expenditure to the Electoral Commission, not realising that a separate return to the council was necessary.
“It is a bit ambiguous when the party’s national campaign and candidate campaign are one and the same, and the candidate campaign is fully funded from central party funds.”
He added: “Some campaign advertising expenditure was targeted outside the constituency and much of the advertising within the constituency was not candidate specific. We are nowhere near any spending limits, however it is accounted.”
Candidates are required to provide a record of spending to the returning officer, a role separate from the council, within 35 days of the election result being declared. A return must be made even if the candidates don’t spend any money campaigning.
Candidates or election agents acting on their behalf are notified of their duty to submit spending by the given deadline. They are also sent reminders if they do not comply, explained David Sutherland, Highland Council’s election manager. “Failure to make a return is a breach of the Representation of the People Act”, he said.
Asked whether the council or returning officer had taken legal action, Sutherland said: “Any breach of this act is a matter for the police, not the returning officer, and any complainant should raise this direct with the police.”
The Electoral Commission also confirmed that it is not responsible for regulating spending by candidates. “If a candidate has failed to submit a spending return it’s ultimately a matter for the police”, said a spokesman.
While it is able to enforce rules around the spending of political parties, the Electoral Commission has “no powers to go back and check with candidates about the accuracy of their return”, he added.
The Ross, Skye and Lochaber seat was held by Blackford, while Lucas received 268 votes – 0.67 per cent of the total.
Steve Goodrich, Transparency International UK’s research manager said: “Whether you come first or last, there’s an obligation on all those contesting public office to account for their election campaign, yet too many still fail this task without fear of any consequence.”
Goodrich stressed that “transparency over candidates’ spending and their source of funds is a cornerstone of our electoral system.”
He added: “There should be clearer responsibilities about who enforces this requirement and more proportionate tools at their disposal to do so.”
Craig Harrow was the Lib Dem candidate for Ross, Skye and Lochaber at the 2019 general election. He said the Scottish Family Party “spent ages bashing the Lib Dems in a very strange campaign and didn’t even have the grace to follow the law and submit their expenses for scrutiny.”
Harrow added: “It is astonishing that nothing seems to be done to enforce the rules”.
Richard Lucas and the Scottish Family Party’s donations
In an online video, Lucas thanked donors to a crowdfunding campaign which was run to fund his candidacy, saying their financial backing funded leaflets and social media advertising. Another social post said that an additional £780 was raised offline.
The campaign raised £2,900, with the pledged donations ranging between £10 and £500. Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA), candidates must report all donations above £50 in the regulated period preceding an election via their spending return, while the threshold for parties is £7,500.
Whether the crowdfunding donations were deemed to be for the benefit of Lucas or his party would “depend on who received the donations and who was behind the website – the candidate or party”, said a spokesman for the Electoral Commission.
“If it was the party then the donations fall below the thresholds. If it was the candidate, then he would have to report them with his spending returns”, he added.
Asked whether he had reported all the donations he was required to under Electoral Commission rules, Lucas said: “You will see that no party’s donations under £7,500 appear on the Electoral Commission website.”
Electoral Commission: ‘transparency curtailed’ by ‘outdated laws’
The Electoral Commission receives spending returns from hundreds of returning officers from across the UK and publishes them online. It recently launched a new search tool to view and compare candidate spending.
However, the election watchdog is not permitted to publish individual expenses and donations that candidates report. “Under current legislation, you can only view these records by visiting a local authority in person”, Louise Edwards, the Electoral Commission’s director of regulation said in a blog post in April.
“At a time when most people expect information to be available at the click of a button, it is disappointing to have transparency curtailed by such outdated laws”, she said. “We want to see the law updated so that full spending returns from all candidates are published online in one place for all to see.”
Edwards called for the Electoral Commission to become “the regulator of all party, campaigner and candidate political finance in the UK”. This would allow the election watchdog to make public a database “of information for every party, campaigner and candidate”, she said.
Such power would allow the Electoral Commission to chase parties that provide incomplete spending returns, or do not submit them at all. The watchdog could then ”find out why, get the missing information and take enforcement action if necessary, imposing proportionate fines where appropriate”, said Edwards.
“At the moment, when a candidate submits an incomplete spending return, potentially committing a criminal offence, the only recourse is a police investigation and prosecution”, she explained. “This means a cliff-edge scenario for candidates between no action at all and the possibility of a criminal record.”
Edwards added: “A single regulator ensuring transparency and accuracy of candidate spending, as well as party and campaigner spending, can give you the confidence that the political finance rules are being enforced.”