Elec­tions watch­dog got law wrong on Brexit funds, court rules

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - David Pegg

The high court has ruled that the Elec­toral Com­mis­sion mis­un­der­stood the law sur­round­ing do­na­tions from the pro-Brexit group Vote Leave to Dar­ren Grimes, the BeLeave founder.

In a dev­as­tat­ing judg­ment for the UK’s elec­tions watch­dog, the court found its in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the law was in­con­sis­tent with its lan­guage and pur­pose and it had tried to draw a dis­tinc­tion that would be “a recipe for abuse of the spend­ing re­stric­tions”. The Good Law Project, led by the bar­ris­ter Jolyon Maugham QC, had sought a re­view of the com­mis­sion’s de­ci­sion to al­low Vote Leave to do­nate to Grimes and not con­sider those funds to con­sti­tute its own spend­ing.

Vote Leave has faced al­le­ga­tions of cheat­ing dur­ing the Brexit ref­er­en­dum since it emerged that it had do­nated hun­dreds of thou­sands of pounds to Grimes, who then spent that money on the same po­lit­i­cal data con­sul­tancy as Vote Leave.

The group would have ex­ceeded spend­ing re­stric­tions had it spent the money it­self. Maugham said: “It is ex­traor­di­nary that the body charged by par­lia­ment with en­sur­ing the ref­er­en­dum was fair, acted un­law­fully to en­sure it was un­fair.”

The judg­ment said the court had con­cluded that the com­mis­sion mis­in­ter­preted the def­i­ni­tion of “ref­er­en­dum ex­penses” in the leg­is­la­tion gov­ern­ing po­lit­i­cal cam­paign fi­nance.

“The source of its er­ror is a mis­taken as­sump­tion that an in­di­vid­ual or body which makes a do­na­tion to a per­mit­ted par­tic­i­pant can­not thereby in­cur ref­er­en­dum ex­penses.” Vote Leave has ar­gued that it acted ac­cord­ing to the com­mis­sion’s guid­ance.

“Ei­ther the Elec­toral Com­mis­sion is wrong or the high court is wrong,” said Matthew El­liott, Vote Leave’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, who de­manded that the com­mis­sion re­tract its de­ci­sion to fine the or­gan­i­sa­tion over its do­na­tions to Grimes.

An Elec­toral Com­mis­sion spokesper­son said the court had reached the same con­clu­sion as a sub­se­quent com­mis­sion in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which re­sulted in fines for Vote Leave and Grimes.

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