UK election regulator to probe Leave campaign over Brexit payments

Oliver Haill WebFG News | 20 Nov, 2017 17:27 - Updated: 17:57 | | |

The UK electoral regulator has opened a new investigation to establish whether one of the main pro-Brexit campaign groups broke election spending rules.

The Electoral Commission said on Monday it was reopening its investigation of Vote Leave and payments made to student campaigner Darren Grimes and separate group Veterans for Britain, after new information came to light that cast doubt on the Commission's decision earlier in the year not to take action over the payments.

Vote Leave paid £675,000 to fashion student Grimes to cover his bill from AggregateIQ, a data analysis agency that produce a targeted Facebook marketing campaign ahead of last June's vote. Veterans for Britain, a separate group, received £100,000 from Vote Leave.

In March the Commission said rules had been broken but decided not to take action as there was “no reasonable grounds” to believe that Vote Leave and Grimes had been working together, which would not have been allowed under spending limits set out in the European Union Referendum Act 2015.

On Monday, after pressure to reopen its probe, the Commission said it has: "opened an investigation to establish whether Vote Leave Limited, Mr Darren Grimes and/or Veterans for Britain breached campaign finance rules in relation to spending at the 2016 EU referendum".

The Commission, which has enforcement powers to investigate alleged breaches and powers to impose a range of sanctions or can pass cases to the police or prosecuting authorities, said the opening of the new investigation follows a review of its previous assessment concluded in March 2017.

"Since that time, new information has come to light which, when considered alongside the information obtained previously, has given the Commission reasonable grounds to suspect an offence may have been committed."

The investigation will look at whether or not Grimes and Veterans for Britain "may have delivered a return that was incorrect in relation to a donation he received from Vote Leave and related campaign spending" and whether or not Vote Leave incorrectly declared its campaign spending and whether or not Vote Leave exceeded its spending limit in the referendum.

"It is possible that during the course of the investigation, the Commission will identify potential contraventions and/or offences under PPERA other than those set out above."

In its March decision the Commission said donations to Grimes -- now deputy editor at BrexitCentral -- "were made by way of a direct payment from Vote Leave to AggregateIQ for services provided to Mr Grimes, which is an acceptable method of donating under the rules".

But the Good Law Project alleged that had the spending been that of Vote Leave, or been incurred as part of a common plan of Grimes and Vote Leave, it would have breached the rules.

Bob Posner, the Commission’s director of political finance and regulation and legal counsel, said: "There is significant public interest in being satisfied that the facts are known about Vote Leave’s spending on the campaign, particularly as it was a lead campaigner with a greater spending limit than any other campaigners on the ‘leave’ side.

"Legitimate questions over the funding provided to campaigners risks causing harm to voters’ confidence in the referendum and it is therefore right that we investigate."

The Good Law Project's Jo Maugham QC said: “We have spending limits to stop our democracy being captured by those with limitless sums to spend. The Electoral Commission’s role is to police those spending limits – to protect our democracy. If it doesn’t do its job our democracy can’t function.

“These facts raise obvious and serious questions about the conduct of the Electoral Commission and the Referendum. Was our watchdog asleep on the job?”

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