Three areas for change before for the next referendum

Adrian Fryer, Senior Policy Advisor

The aftermath of the EU Referendum has inspired debate about a number of aspects of the poll, and recently that has included a focus on the financial controls that operated during and after the poll. As the regulator in this area, the Commission can provide direction on how the regulatory framework for future referendums can stay effective, relevant and proportionate.

After the referendum, campaigners that spent more than £10,000 were required to submit a spending and donation return to us, itemising how much they spent on campaigning activities and where their funding came from. This not only provided transparency for voters so that we can all see how money was raised and spent to secure votes, but it also allowed the Commission to consider how well the regulatory framework performed.

Here are three areas of the regulatory framework that should be changed for future UK referendums:

1) Transparency on sources of donations and loans is the new normal. Pre-poll reporting of donations and loans by campaigners has now been successfully applied twice, in the periods before both the EU and Scottish independence referendums. On both occasions, voters were able to see the sources of campaigning funding before they cast their vote. At the moment these rules only sit in the specific legislation for those polls, which is why we are recommending that they are incorporated into the Political Parties, Elections, and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA), the legislation that underpins the rules for UK-wide referendums.

2) Campaigners can hire staff to undertake campaigning activities without the cost being included in the spending limits. Although we knew this already, our campaign monitoring for the EU referendum noted media commentary that by the end of 2015 the two lead campaigners had already hired some 50 staff between them. There was also media comment that Vote Leave Ltd employed 46 professional staff working on their ‘ground campaign’ and that The In Campaign Ltd had recruited at least five members of the Conservative Party election team to take up posts in the company. That is why this gap in a large strand of referendum campaign spending should be closed.

3) Joint spending controls could usefully be clarified. Although there have been rules around joint spending for each referendum since 2011, the Government and Parliament could improve the Commission’s ability to provide specific advice and guidance to campaigners on these rules by clarifying what constitutes joint spending. This would also help to allay campaigners concerns at any future referendum.

These are just three of the regulatory controls on which which we have made recommendations in our report on the regulation of the EU Referendum; if you want to read the full report and see all of our other recommendations, it is available on our website.

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