There has been coverage this weekend, and theatrical ‘fury’ – first reported in the Sunday Telegraph – about the Commission’s developing plans to begin undertaking prosecutions. It is assumed that we plan to move to taking landmark cases through the courts and, in an extraordinary leap, that Leave supporting groups will then be “unfairly targeted”.
The truth is – as is so often the case – more mundane than it first seems. Over the last 18 or so months we have taken a measured approach to developing a prosecutions policy. This would enable us to deal with lower order offences in a way which is swift and proportionate, freeing up the resources of the police and prosecutors and delivering more effective regulation of political finance to support public confidence. It is primarily focused on the ‘long tail’ of smaller parties which occupy a large part of our work but rarely make the headlines.
This is a natural progression of the work we currently undertake, and a well-trodden path for public regulators, supported by the Police and the Crown Prosecution Service. It is set out in our five year corporate plan, published in June 2018 and approved by Parliament via our oversight committee of MPs. We have also been speaking to the main Westminster parties about this work for some time through formal channels, as well as the Police and CPS. While this shift in approach does not require a change in legislation, we will be consulting in due course.
This is not the first time in recent months that a manufactured controversy has been directed at the Commission. The current political climate is highly charged, of course. We have been wrongly accused of bias. It is perhaps not surprising that one of the sources of the criticism is Matthew Elliot, the former chief executive of Vote Leave. That organisation has been found to have committed significant breaches of electoral law. It is rarely the case that the regulated, and sanctioned, will be supportive of giving the authorities additional powers.
Civil servants, parliamentary officials and judges have all been recipients of similar criticisms. Like them, we take transparency and scrutiny seriously; like them, too, we continue to do our work with rigour, expertise and impartiality. We are an independent parliamentary body, and conduct our duties with scrupulous fairness. Constructive scrutiny is welcome, but those politicians and parts of the media who for a political agenda at a particular moment in time make unsubstantiated assertions, should instead consider their public duty to speak responsibly.
In our line of work, equal treatment at the start of investigations does not, of course, mean balanced outcomes. We have undertaken around fifty investigations on campaigners across the leave and remain outcomes, and followed the evidence to identify wrongdoing to a criminal standard of proof. It is a matter of simple fact that where offences have been found, these have been weighted more heavily to the leave outcome campaigners.
In our dealings with Members of Parliament we hear a strong appetite for robust, proactive regulation of political finance. We hear warm support for increased enforcement powers and resources for the Commission, including the ability to levy higher financial sanctions. Backed by this support, we will continue to adopt a measured but proactive approach to our work, in defence of a strong democratic process and the public interest. Our politics is not corrupt and for the most part our politicians honest and law abiding. What is there to fear from a regulator taking action where evidence of wrongdoing emerges, and sanctioning those found to be in breach of the law?
Bob Posner, Chief Executive, Electoral Commission