Reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General - The Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission Contents


Part 3

Transparency

INTRODUCTION

47.  One of the Commission's objectives is to ensure transparency in party and election finance, and to achieve this it publishes details of the financing of registered political parties and campaigners, and how they spend their money. The Commission has implemented a new online system to maintain its statutory registers and to collect and report the relevant information, PEF Online. This part of the report examines how well the Commission is meeting its statutory transparency obligations, and whether the introduction of PEF online has helped it to become a more effective and accessible regulator.

TRANSPARENCY

48.  As described in Parts 1 and 2, the Commission is fully transparent with stakeholders regarding its approach to the regulation of party and election finance, and publishes all of its key policy documents on its website. The Commission's website also places a large amount of information in the public domain on the register of political parties and candidates and on party funding, election and referendum expenditure, including the parties' Statements of Accounts. The Commission publishes its own analysis of the statutory information provided by the political parties and contained in the registers, in order to help the public and other interested stakeholders understand the headlines and key trends. Since December 2010 the Commission has published information about each enforcement case where it imposed a sanction, and since September 2012 has begun publishing information about all completed enforcement cases in line with its amended disclosure policy.

49.   The Commission continues to seek to improve the quality of the information available about party and election finance. It revised its statement of account guidance and templates for smaller parties in 2011 and is currently working to standardise the statement of accounts for larger parties to improve their comparability and transparency. The Commission has decided to make regulations requiring larger parties and accounting units to use the standardised format or face sanctions beginning with the 2014 accounts.

PEF ONLINE

50.  The EC has invested in the development of both its website and its online capability to meet the demand for digitally delivered transparency. Previously, the parties submitted paper returns to meet statutory obligations and the Commission then entered this data onto their registers. This placed an additional administrative burden on party treasurers and the Commission, increased the risk of unreliable data, and did not allow for cross register searchability.

51.  In March 2011 the Commission launched PEF online, an internet based database system which parties who have registered can use to update their details, and to submit their statutory donations and loans reports and campaign spending returns electronically. These are validated by the Commission before being fully uploaded to the system. Parties can still report manually if they choose to. All parties that are required to submit quarterly returns are using the online system to maintain their registered details and as at April 2012 half were using it to submit their quarterly donations online. Online submission has allowed party treasurers to reduce the time dedicated to meeting statutory requirements, and has reduced the uncertainty involved with paper records.

52.  The PEF online electronic system has been largely well received by key stakeholders, who have provided feedback. The Commission plans to develop PEF further to improve the efficiency of submission and publication and the amount and quality of the information available. For example, the Commission plans to make past records available online, to provide a more complete history for each party.

53.  The introduction of PEF online has helped the Commission to meet its statutory transparency requirements more efficiently and to become a more accessible and transparent regulator. The full database is available online to anyone who wishes to access it and the Commission aims to put all information into the public domain as soon as practicable. This includes full access to detailed source documents such as original scanned invoices, although the Commission redacts any personal information in line with data protection requirements. The database is fully searchable and interested parties can use it to find information about registered political parties, regulated donees, registered campaigners in referendums and non-party campaigners as well as information on donations, loans and campaign expenditure.

54.  The Commission has had external reviews conducted of the new database system, following the Gateway process, and undertook a review of the introduction of PEF online, which found that the project had achieved its core objective, the provision of a stable registers database with both a powerful public search function and an electronic submission function for those required to report information to the Commission. In its first few months the system had proved to be reliable and the Commission considered that it had greatly enhanced the accessibility and improved the analysis, quality and transparency of information provided to key stakeholders. The final capital cost of PEF online was around £1.1 million. The Commission considers that the system should help it achieve savings in resources and staff time taken to process returns data for publication and should improve the quality of published data through a reduction in manual inputting errors. The Commission has already been able to remove one full time staff post and absorb the work of another post in its returns team.


 
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Prepared 25 March 2013