Pro-Brexit campaign group Vote Leave has been challenging a ruling that declared it spent more than the allocated £7 million limit on its campaign in 2016.
Issued in July, the Electoral Commission report stated that Vote Leave had overspent its legal limit to the tune of £450,000 by pushing funds through another campaign group. The group attempted to get the ruling thrown out, but the High Court declared on Wednesday (21 November) that the case had no grounds.
Vote Leave raised ‘general complaints about the fairness of the procedure leading up to the publication of the report’, particularly mentioning that it had not had a chance ‘to consider and comment on the report before it was released to the media’.
A judgment by Mrs Justice Yip stated that she did “not consider that the claimant’s grounds [were] arguable”, whilst also dismissing Vote Leave’s claim that the commission did not have the power to investigate the group’s spending. She said: “Even if it is arguable that [the Electoral Commission] acted unfairly in publishing the report, I conclude that it is highly likely that the outcome would have been the same.”
Vote Leave had been channelling funds through another pro-Brexit campaign group, called BeLeave, providing a donation of £675,315 to the second group, which took spending over the Commission’s legal limit. At the time, the donation was not recorded as referendum expenditure, and the High Court recently ruled that the Electoral Commission enabled this overspending.
BeLeave then used this money to make a donation to the digital data company, Aggregate IQ, which also received money directly from Vote Leave.
This was all found in the Electoral Commission report, which Vote Leave described as “wholly inaccurate”, although the Commission's legal counsel, Bob Posner, pushed back to that accusation, claiming that Vote Leave “resisted our investigation from the start, including contesting our right as the statutory regulator to open the investigation.”
This led Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley at the time to demand a wider criminal investigation to be brought against the Vote Leave leaders. Bartley is not the only person advocating further legal action: in October, a group of 74 MPs, peers and MEPs from all major UK political parties collaborated on a letter to the National Crime agency, demanding a criminal investigation into Vote Leave in October.
After the Electoral Commission inquiry in July, the Vote Leave campaign group was subsequently fined £61,000 and referred to the police, whilst its accounting officer, David Halsall, was referred for further investigation. The campaign group is separately appealing against this verdict.