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Vote Leave Loses Bid to Challenge Electoral Commission

Vote Leave Loses Bid to Challenge Electoral Commission

The official pro-Brexit campaign group Vote Leave has lost a battle to challenge the Electoral Commission in court over its decision to publish a report alleging that the group had breached electoral law. The commission made the claims in a report released in July last year, before handing the campaign group a £61,000 fine and referring the matter to the Metropolitan Police.

Vote Leave denies wrongdoing and says that the Electoral Commission “embarked on publicity” about the issue without permission. The political campaign group sought the opportunity to argue its case in the High Court, but has now been refused permission to bring the case by Judge Jonathan Swift.

A spokesperson for Vote Leave said that the group “regret[ted]” the court’s verdict but added that “the majority of the things we’re complaining about here” will be able to be factored into a second, separate appeal the group has made regarding the commission’s report.

A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission meanwhile criticised the group’s actions, noting:

“Having previously questioned our right to carry out an investigation, Vote Leave is now arguing that we had no right to issue a public report into our findings.”

The spokesperson added: “It is vital, not only that we have the freedom to investigate breaches, but that we operate in a transparent fashion and share the findings of our investigations publicly.”

Vote Leave faults commission for ‘unfair’ fine after watchdog misinterpreted law

In its report, the Electoral Commission described what it saw as a “common plan” between official pro-Brexit campaign group Vote Leave and separate pro-Brexit campaign group BeLeave to coordinate and circumvent spending limits.

According to the watchdog, BeLeave spent more than £675,000 on work from data firm Aggregate IQ – a company also paid by Vote Leave – after its founder Darren Grimes received a donation from Vote Leave. Factoring this cost into Vote Leave’s spending would push the official campaign group over the £7m spending imposed under electoral regulations.

However, the Electoral Commission was last year criticised for initially assuring Vote Leave on the validity of their spending ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum, which judges deemed a misinterpretation of political campaign financing laws. The commission had originally concluded that there were “no reasonable grounds to suspect” that Vote Leave had incorrectly reported any of its campaign spending, but was challenged legally by the Good Law Project.

The High Court ruled in September 2018 that the watchdog’s interpretation of spending regulations was inconsistent with both the language and purpose of the law and provided “a recipe for abuse of the spending restrictions”.

Vote Leave chief executive Matthew Elliott stated that the ruling underlined the “unfair[ness]” of fines imposed on the campaign by the Electoral Commission, asserting:

“Vote Leave would not have made the donations that it did had it not been for the commission’s clear advice.”

Referendum campaign spending regulated by statute

The Electoral Commission is the regulator which oversees spending regulations for individual politicians and political campaigns, as well as other laws relating to elections. This month, the commission imposed a record fine of £12,000 on the Labour Party for filing an inaccurate quarterly report of money donated to the party.

A spokesperson for the Labour Party confirmed that the fine had been paid and said that the inaccuracy was due to an accidental duplication of reported donations.

For referendums, under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, campaigners who do not register with the Electoral Commission can only spend up to a fixed amount of usually £10,000. In order to exceed this limit, a campaigner must register with the watchdog, record all campaign spending and donations received, and send this information in a spending return to the Electoral Commission after the referendum.

Lead campaign groups such as Vote Leave, who are officially appointed as the designated organisation to advocate for one side of the referendum, are given a higher spending limit than other campaigners.

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