Promoting public confidence in the democratic process is at the heart of the Electoral Commission’s work. For the public to have confidence in the process, fairness and transparency are vital. And to provide that, we have laws that govern political and electoral finance which were set out by Parliament and are enforced by us.
These laws regulate the money received and spent by political parties and campaign groups. A fundamental element is the spending cap; in all elections and referendums there are spending limits which parties and campaign groups cannot exceed. The cap ensures a fixed ceiling on campaign spending and is one of the ways we ensure fairness. Essentially, it means the outcome of an election or referendum cannot be bought.
In the 2016 EU referendum, groups campaigned either to remain in or leave the EU, with a number of different groups campaigning for each outcome. In the ten week period leading up to the vote, the two designated lead campaigners (one for the leave camp and one for remain) could spend up to £7 million each, while other groups had a limit of £700,000 each.
Campaign groups can work together to achieve a particular outcome, but their spending – when combined – must not exceed their individual spending limit. Where a lead campaigner is working together with other campaign groups, all the spending will count towards the lead campaigner’s total and needs to fall within the £7 million limit.
For the purposes of electoral law, working together means that there is a coordinated plan or arrangement between two or more campaigners and that the groups spend money in line with that plan in order to achieve a particular outcome.
We consider groups to be working together if they:
- Spend money on joint advertising, leaflets or events.
- Coordinate spending by, for example, agreeing to each focus on particular areas, arguments or voters.
- Approve or influence each other’s spending.
- Have discussions with other campaigners that involve decision making or coordinating plans.
- Consult other campaigners about what should be said in each campaign and how the campaign should be organised.
One of the main reasons for these working together rules is to prevent campaigners from funnelling money into other groups when they are close to their spending limit. If we see evidence that this has happened, we will investigate campaigners in line with our enforcement policy. It’s just one of the ways we ensure that elections and referendums are free, fair and trusted by the public.
Our recent investigation into Vote Leave and BeLeave showed that Parliament’s rules on joint working had been broken. We found evidence that the money spent by BeLeave and Mr Grimes on Aggregate IQ was done so under a common plan with Vote Leave. It meant Vote Leave commissioned and paid for nearly £700,000 worth of services, despite approaching its legal spending limit.
This breach of electoral law is only now coming to light, two years after the EU referendum. The delay in uncovering this offence does not provide voters with the transparency and confidence they should expect.
We are urging the Government to make changes to electoral law that would provide the necessary transparency at a much earlier stage. We’re calling on the Government to:
- Clarify the regulation of government spending during regulated referendum periods.
- Compel campaigners to provide imprints on digital and online campaigning materials.
- Ensure campaigners report more detailed spending breakdowns that differentiate between types of advertising such as online and social media promotion.
This investigation also makes it clear that the Commission needs stronger investigatory powers and higher sanctions that serve as a real deterrent to those who are prepared to break the rules that protect the legitimacy of the UK democratic process.