Brexit: Police examining evidence Leave.EU chief committed crimes during referendum campaign

Brexit-backing organisation fined £70,000 by Electoral Commission for multiple breaches of spending rules

Joe Watts,Chris Baynes
Friday 11 May 2018 08:49 BST
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Police are examining evidence that the chief executive of a key organisation that pushed for Brexit committed criminal offences during 2016 referendum campaign.

It comes after the Electoral Commission fined Leave.EU – the group backed by Nigel Farage and funded by Arron Banks – the maximum £70,000 for multiple breaches of electoral rules.

The group failed to include at least £77,380 in its spending return following the national vote, meaning it exceeding the legal spending limits ahead of the referendum, in which the country backed leaving the European Union.

The watchdog referred Leave.EU’s chief executive, Liz Bilney, to the Metropolitan Police due to “reasonable grounds to suspect” that criminal offences have occurred. Mr Banks denied all of the findings on Friday morning.

The Electoral Commission’s director of political finance, Bob Posner, said: “The rules we enforce were put in place by parliament to ensure transparency and public confidence in our democratic processes.

“It is therefore disappointing that Leave.EU, a key player in the EU referendum, was unable to abide by these rules.

“Leave.EU exceeded its spending limit and failed to declare its funding and its spending correctly. These are serious offences. The level of fine we have imposed has been constrained by the cap on the commission’s fines.”

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The watchdog found the group had exceeded the spending limit for non-party registered campaigners by at least 10 per cent and said that the unlawful overspend “may well have been considerably higher”.

A Scotland Yard spokeswoman said: “We can confirm that the Electoral Commission has referred a potential criminal offence under section 123(4) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

“This matter will be subject to assessment by officers from the special enquiry team.”

The commission’s investigation focussed on services Leave.EU received from the US campaign strategy firm Goddard Gunster, which were not included in its spending return, despite a proportion of them having been used during the group’s referendum campaign.

Leave.EU exceeded its spending limit and failed to declare its funding and its spending correctly.  These are serious offences.

Bob Posner, the Electoral Commission

The investigation also found that Leave.EU did not correctly report the receipt of three loans from Mr Banks, totalling £6m, with dates around the transaction and the related interest rate incorrectly reported.

Finally, Leave.EU also failed to provide the required invoice or receipt for 97 payments of more than £200, totalling £80,224.

The commission also looked at whether Leave.EU had received services from Cambridge Analytica – the firm at the centre of a recent data harvesting scandal – but found no evidence.

Through its investigation, the watchdog said it had also uncovered “reasonable grounds to suspect” that Ms Bilney committed criminal offences and that she had been referred to the Met as a result.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Banks called the commission’s findings a “joke”, and vowed to fight them in the courts. He claimed the commission was trying strip the referendum result of credibility.

He said: “The entire commission is composed of former MPs, Liberal MPs, the SNP, former Labour leaders of councils – all sorts of people that believe in Remain.

“But I can tell you one thing. We are not going to let matters rest here. We will be going to court to challenge this. It’s certainly not the last word on the subject.”

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A statement from Leave.EU built on the theme, branding the commission “a ‘Blairite Swamp Creation’ packed full of establishment ‘Remoaners’ that couldn’t quite make it to the House of Lords, but managed to get their noses in the trough via appointment to public bodies like the Electoral Commission”.

The commission’s chief executive, Claire Bassett, denied that the findings of the watchdog’s work had been politically motivated.

She told the BBC: “We have a board which has an oversight role of the commission, but the investigations and decisions made in relation to offences and fines related to those investigations are clearly made by the executive.

“They are made along the lines of a specified enforcement policy, which has safeguards built into that to make sure no one person, for example, is responsible for decision-making and that we have a robust challenge all the way through.”

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