The independent watchdog, The Electoral Commission, which is the watchdog overseeing elections in the UK and ensuring that UK laws on spending by political parties are followed – has released its findings after the investigation into the ‘Vote Leave’ Brexit campaign group. It has concluded that the group broke electoral law and it has been fined £61,000 and been referred to police.
The Electoral Commission found that the group had exceeded its £7m spending limit by funnelling £657,315 through the pro ’Brexit youth group BeLeave.
Darren Grimes, who founded the BeLeave Group has also been fined £20,000 and been referred to police along with David Halsall, another Vote Leave official.
In response, the Vote Leave spokesperson has said the report was politically motivated and “wholly inaccurate.”
With Boris Johnson and Michael Gove fronting the campaign, Vote Leave won the vote by a slim majority, 51.9% to leave, against 48.1% to remain. In December 2016, A Supreme Court Judgment declared that the referendum was not legally binding, merely “advisory.” It would be up to the government and Parliament to pass a referendum act with any decision for a fresh referendum.
Darren Grimes and David Halsall have been referred to the Met Police in relation to false declarations of campaign spending and the Electoral Commission handed over files “in relation to whether any persons have committed related offences” that may fall outside their remit.
Both the leave and remain campaigns were allowed to spend £7m each on campaigning in the run up to the referendum.
Vote Leave spent nearly £2.7m of its £7m budget on the services of a Canadian digital marketing firm, Aggregate IQ and a further £675,315 was sent to Aggregate IQ by BeLeave, a group set up by Mr Grimes, then a fashion student at Brighton university.
Aggregate IQ have recently been in the news in connection with the Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, data breach.
Whistle-blower and former employee of Cambridge Analytica, Christopher Wylie addressed the Commons Media Committee recently where he described Aggregate IQ as a “franchise” of Cambridge Analytica. He also claimed a number of groups had worked together in order to get around campaign spending controls.
Vote Leave has said in the past it was told by the Electoral Commission it was allowed to do this because BeLeave was a separate campaign group.
But the Electoral Commission has ruled that the two groups were working together and Mr Grimes had “wrongly” reported the spending as his own. This meant that, including this amount, the Electoral Commission says Vote Leave spent £7,449,079, breaching its £7m spending limit.
Darren Grimes is also said to have exceeded the £10,000 he was allowed to spend as a non-registered campaigner, the watchdog said.
Bob Posner, from the Electoral Commission, said: “We found substantial evidence that the two groups worked to a common plan, did not declare their joint working and did not adhere to the legal spending limits. These are serious breaches of the laws put in place by Parliament to ensure fairness and transparency at elections and referendums.”
He added: “Vote Leave has resisted our investigation from the start, including contesting our right as the statutory regulator to open the investigation. It has refused to cooperate, refused our requests to put forward a representative for interview, and forced us to use our legal powers to compel it to provide evidence.
“Nevertheless, the evidence we have found is clear and substantial, and can now be seen in our report.”
No-one can say how overspending by the Vote Leave campaign affected the referendum result. It all went to one marketing firm, Aggregate IQ, which developed highly-targeted Facebook advertising. One quote on the Aggregate IQ website, which has since been removed, by Vote Leave director Dominic Cummings said: “We couldn’t have done it without them.”
However, Anti-Brexit Labour Peer, Lord Adonis said Vote Leave’s overspending “could have been decisive” in the 2016 referendum because it was a close result and whilst he did not want to re-run that campaign he felt, “all of those responsible for this breach of the law” should be “barred” from playing any part in any future referendum, such as the one he is calling for on the final Brexit deal.
Mr. Grimes issued a statement on twitter saying it was “incredible” that he had been fined £20,000 “on the basis of the wrong box being ticked on an application form”.
“Politicians say they want young people to engage with politics. I was 22 when I got involved in a referendum I felt passionately about. I did nothing wrong,” he added.
“I have been persecuted for over two years by powerful people for nothing more than engaging in the democratic process and having the temerity to be on the winning side. It has been appalling for my family.”
Another pro-Brexit group, Veterans for Britain, was also found to have inaccurately reported a donation it received from Vote Leave and has been fined £250.
Vote Leave also returned an “incomplete and inaccurate spending report”, with almost £234,501 reported incorrectly, and invoices missing for £12,849.99 of spending, the watchdog said.
A separate Brexit campaign, Leave.EU, was fined £70,000 in March for failing to declare “at least” £77,380 it spent on referendum campaigning. Its chief executive Liz Bilney was referred to the police following the commission’s investigation. Leave.EU co-founder Arron Banks called it a “politically motivated attack” and said he would take the watchdog to court.
Leave.EU, was fronted by then-UKIP leader Nigel Farage, and was only allowed to spend £700,000 in the run up to the referendum, after losing out to Vote Leave in the battle to be designated the official Leave campaign.
The official Remain campaign Britain Stronger in Europe, was fined £1,250 in December last year for not providing invoices and for declaring some spending in aggregate rather than individual payments.