In Depth

How Vote Leave broke the law

Probe concludes that pro-Brexit campaign breached spending rules

Brexit campaign group Vote Leave has been fined and referred to the police by the Electoral Commission for breaking electoral law.

The independent watchdog found “significant evidence of joint working” between the group and another supposedly independent pro-Brexit organisation, BeLeave, that resulted in Vote Leave exceeding the £7m electoral spending limit by almost £500,000.

The long-awaited report said that Vote Leave passed on to BeLeave more than £675,000 that “should have been declared” by the former, reports The Guardian

“Crucially, the cash was used to pay data firm Aggregate IQ and – a whistle-blower claimed - potentially enabled it [Vote Leave] to precisely target enough voters on social media to have swayed the Brexit result,” says The Independent.

Darren Grimes, the founder of BeLeave, and Vote Leave official David Halsall have been reported to the police. Vote Leave has been fined £61,000 and Grimes £20,000.

The commission said it had shared its investigation files with the Metropolitan Police in order “to investigate whether any other offences had been committed outside the watchdog’s remit”, reports the BBC

Vote Leave also returned an incomplete and inaccurate spending report, with nearly £234,501 reported incorrectly, and invoices missing for a total of £12,849.99 of spending.

Labour MP David Lammy, a supporter of the anti-Brexit Best for Britain group, said: “This news makes the narrow referendum result looks dodgier than ever. It's validity is now in question.”

What is Vote Leave accused of?

According to Vote Leave, the draft report outlines four allegations against the campaign: that it made an inaccurate return of campaign expenditure, is missing a number of invoices and receipts, failed to comply with a statutory notice, and exceeded the spending limit for a political campaign.

The allegations centre on a £680,000 donation passed on by the campaign to a separate youth Brexit group called BeLeave, led by student Darren Grimes.

Whistle-blowers claim that the two groups worked together closely – which is not permitted by electoral law – and that the donated money was actually used by Vote Leave.

BeLeave was “simply a proxy of Vote Leave itself”, with the cash diverted in order to keep the main campaign under the Electoral Commission’s £7m spending limit, according to activist and former Vote Leave volunteer Shahmir Sanni. 

Sanni alleges that the cash was used to pay data firm Aggregate IQ for targeted social media messaging for both groups, Sky News reports.

Electoral rules also stipulate that different campaign groups can work loosely together but they must not have a “common plan”.

The nature of the relationship between the two groups has been an issue of contention since the 2016 referendum. The Daily Mirror says Vote Leave has “faced two years of questions” over its financial dealings with Grimes.

What has Vote Leave said?

A Vote Leave spokesperson said the report contains “a number of false accusations and incorrect assertions that are wholly inaccurate and do not stand up to scrutiny”.

It was “astonishing” that none of the campaign members were interviewed by the watchdog while it carried out its investigations, the spokesperson claimed, adding: “All this suggests that the supposedly impartial commission is motivated by a political agenda rather than uncovering the facts. The commission has failed to follow due process, and in doing so has based its conclusions on unfounded claims and conspiracy theories.”

The group were said to be “considering their options” but “were confident the ruling would be overturned”.

Elliott has denied all of the allegations against Vote Leave and accused the watchdog of not following “due process” in its investigation.

He told Sky News: “They’ve listened to these, quite frankly, marginal characters... but haven’t had evidence from Vote Leave side of things.

“I think it is a huge breach of natural justice that they haven’t wanted to listen to our opinions and our story and we were the people running the campaign.”

In an interview with the BBC, Elliott added: “I believe we acted both within the letter of the law and also the spirit of the law and the spirit of how you should conduct a campaign.

“We got the designation, Vote Leave, as the officially designated campaign for Leave, on the basis that we would be working with other groups – we wouldn’t just solely be working on our own, we would work alongside other groups and encourage them, and encourage their activities.”

What has the Electoral Commission said?

Bob Posner, the commission's director of political finance and regulation, said: “The Electoral Commission has followed the evidence and conducted a thorough investigation into spending and campaigning carried out by Vote Leave and BeLeave.

“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.”

Posner continued: “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.”

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