Boris Johnson pushing through bill to let wealthy tax exiles fund Tories, Labour warns

Exclusive: Overseas donations will ‘flood our system’ if Election Bill passed, says shadow minister

Adam Forrest
Tuesday 06 July 2021 18:27 BST
Today's daily politics briefing

Boris Johnson’s government is attempting to push through electoral reforms to give wealthy Tory donors living abroad a “free ticket” to bankroll the Conservative Party, Labour has claimed.

Keir Starmer’s party fears the Elections Bill will scrap safeguards on donations from overseas and allow rich British expats – including those living in tax havens – to donate large sums to the Tories.

Cat Smith, shadow minister for democracy, told The Independent that the plans threaten the integrity of the UK’s elections by allowing “foreign political donations to flood our system”.

The Labour MP added: “This is all about changing the rules to benefit the Conservative Party with overseas donors able to legally donate to bankroll their campaigns from their offshore tax havens or luxury second homes.”

Under current rules, political parties cannot accept donations from Britons who have been living overseas for more than 15 years, since they are not allowed on the electoral roll.

But the Elections Bill – introduced in parliament on Monday – will scrap the 15-year-limit and allow any British expat to join the electoral roll and become a permitted political donor.

“This is yet another example of the Conservatives bending the rules to benefit themselves, making it legal for rich Conservative donors living overseas to bankroll the Conservative Party,” said Ms Smith.

On Monday the Cabinet Office claimed measures in the bill would safeguard the UK’s elections from foreign interference.

The department said the law would be changed so that only UK citizens “or otherwise eligible sources with a genuine and legitimate interest in our elections” can spend money campaigning in our elections.

Responding to Labour criticisms, constitution minister Chloe Smith said: “Our commitment to scrapping the arbitrary 15-year limit to overseas voting rights is a promise to citizens across the political spectrum.

“This is best exemplified by 99-year-old veteran campaigner, Harry Shindler, who also happens to be the oldest serving member of the Labour Party.”

The minister added: “British citizens living overseas have an ongoing interest in politics in the UK and in our increasingly digital world, people living overseas are able to be more connected to their home country. It is only right that they are able to have their say in our democracy.”

The idea of scrapping the 2002 rule preventing citizens from donating if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years was originally part of a private members’ bill, before it was backed by the government.

The Electoral Reform Society previously warned of the dangers in allowing “unfettered donations from abroad”. And Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard said it would make it harder to “trace where the money is actually coming from”.

Election Bill could disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters, minister warned

Another part of the Elections Bill, the legal requirement for people to have photo ID in order to vote, has proved highly controversial.

Labour said the government’s plan amounted to US-style “voter suppression” that would make it harder for people from ethnic minorities and those on low incomes to vote.

Experts also warned that Mr Johnson could “accidentally disenfranchise” many of the Tory voters he needs in the north of England if he chooses to push ahead with plans.

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