Elections Bill is ‘a threat’ to Electoral Commission independence, says chairman

Commission chair John Pullinger said reforms would make it ‘harder to demonstrate independence and for the public to be confident of independence’.

A ballot box at a polling station. Electoral Commission chair John Pullinger has said proposed reforms to election law are a ‘threat’ to the commission’s independence. (Rui Vieira/PA)
A ballot box at a polling station. Electoral Commission chair John Pullinger has said proposed reforms to election law are a ‘threat’ to the commission’s independence. (Rui Vieira/PA)

Plans to reform the Electoral Commission could undermine public confidence in its independence, the body’s chair has said.

The Elections Bill being debated in Parliament would allow the Government to set out the Electoral Commission’s priorities and direction in a strategy and policy statement that would be approved by MPs.

But Electoral Commission chair John Pullinger told an Institute for Government (IfG) event on Monday that this would be “inconsistent” with the commission’s status as an independent body.

Mr Pullinger, who took over the Electoral Commission in May, said: “I have been hired to be an independent chair of the commission and that’s what I will seek to be.

“If the Bill is passed in its current form, it will be harder to demonstrate independence and for the public to be confident of independence because there will be a provision on the face of the law that the Government is producing a statement which the commission is required to have regard to when carrying out its functions.”

Asked by IfG director Bronwen Maddox whether he should “stand up” and say he believed the Bill to be “a threat” to the commission’s independence, Mr Pullinger replied: “I think I have just said that very clearly to the audience here and I will say it to others.”

The Electoral Commission is responsible for overseeing elections and political finance in the UK. In recent years, it has been criticised by some senior Conservative Party figures over investigations into Vote Leave’s spending during the 2016 EU referendum.

During Monday’s event, Mr Pullinger was also asked about the commission’s investigation of whether donations that funded the refurbishment of the Prime Minister’s Downing Street flat were properly declared.

Mr Pullinger said: “That is an ongoing investigation, so I can’t really comment on the investigation, but it is an investigation into the Conservative Party – so we are regulating parties here – and part of the process of the investigation is to give the party investigated the chance to comment on our findings and have input, so we’re in that process.

“Now, of course, once we’ve concluded it, we will publish our findings and hopefully that will be as soon as possible, but I can’t really comment beyond that now.”

The Elections Bill, which also introduces a requirement for voter ID and changes to digital campaigning regulations, has passed the committee stage of the legislative process, but does not yet have a date for its return to the House of Commons for the report stage and third reading debates.

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