A Conservative MP admitted in a police interview that some of his election expenses were wrong but excused the errors on the grounds that he had no previous political experience, according to a report on how police handled the inquiry.
Johnny Mercer, Tory MP for Plymouth Moor View, was investigated by police after the general election in 2015 and a file was handed to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). It was decided, however, that there was insufficient evidence to charge him with any offence.
A Devon and Cornwall police report from the time states that Mercer had acknowledged during an interview that “some of his claims had been wrong” but had argued that they were minor, did not take him over election spending limits and that this was understandable given his lack of political experience.
The admission calls into question the Conservative party’s claim that “the local agents of Conservative candidates correctly declared all local spending in the 2015 general election”.
Up to 20 of the party’s MPs are still the subject of police inquiries and 12 forces have handed files to the CPS, which is expected to come to decisions in the next few weeks on whether MPs or their agents should be charged.
The party has already been fined £70,000 by the Electoral Commission for wrongly reporting national spending on the election campaign.
However, there is a high bar of evidence needed for prosecutions of candidates or their agents under the Representation of the People Act, with officers having to prove both that a false declaration was made knowingly and that prescribed spending limits were breached.
Alison Seabeck, the former Labour MP ousted by Mercer in Plymouth Moor View, said the incident shows the Conservative party was wrong to claim that all its MPs had correctly submitted their expenses, and called for a review of the system.
“I was really concerned to hear that [Conservative party headquarters], after receiving a fine from the Electoral Commission, suggests that it was only national returns over which there were questions,” she said. “In Plymouth we have a candidate who I understand, in a police report, said some of his claims were wrong.
“Now if this is the case, then the Tory statement is not factually correct and should be questioned. Importantly, the evidence suggests what is needed is a root-and-branch look at electoral law and the way local government officers and police forces monitor and act when there are breaches during elections and after campaigns end. Voters have a right to know that the electoral process in this country is fair and cannot be subverted. It has to be above board and transparent. I would question whether the current way of doing things is fit for purpose.”
The original complaint against Mercer had alleged that he had incorrectly filed his expenses with the returning officer and that campaign material placed at various locations in the constituency overnight on 6-7 May 2015 did not contain the required imprint information. The CPS found there was insufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction for any offence.
A subsequent internal report by Devon and Cornwall police into how the allegations against Mercer were investigated concluded that police had acted correctly.
It said: “The investigation culminated in Johnny Mercer being interviewed at Totnes police station on 16 October 2015. During the interview he admitted that in hindsight some of his claims had been wrong but understandable, given that he had no previous political experience and no central Conservative party support during his campaign.
“He further stated that the mistakes made had been minor and even if they had been recorded correctly, they would not have taken him over the maximum allowed expenses threshold. He denied that he made any claims with dishonest intent.
“An advice file was submitted to the special crime office of CPS for review on 19 October 2015. On 12 November 2015 a reply was received from the CPS stating that there was insufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction for any offence.”
The report found that the force “may not have the in-depth experience of investigating electoral offences that it once had, but this will improve over time and does not in itself mean they are incapable of carrying out a thorough investigation of such an offence”.
A Conservative party spokesman said: “The Conservative party complied fully with the Electoral Commission’s investigation, which related to national spending by CCHQ [Conservative campaign headquarters] and the Conservative party’s national spending return for the 2015 general election.”
Mercer had no comment.