Stripping powers from Electoral Commission will help lawbreakers, watchdog warns

Police and Crown Prosecution Service may lack ‘expertise and resources’ to pursue offences, MPs told

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Tuesday 07 December 2021 14:23
Comments
<p>The shake-up was announced as the watchdog investigated Boris Johnson’s flat renovations </p>

The shake-up was announced as the watchdog investigated Boris Johnson’s flat renovations

Government plans to strip the Electoral Commission of prosecution powers risk allowing lawbreakers to escape punishment, the head of the watchdog has warned.

The police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) lack “the expertise and resources” to take on the role, John Pullinger suggested – a shift seen by many as part of an attempt to neuter the organisation.

The controversial Elections Bill will also give the Cabinet Office the power to set the remit of the Commission and decide which organisations and activities are permitted in election campaigns.

The shake-up comes after the watchdog angered No 10 by investigating the lavish refurbishment of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat, a report yet to be published.

The Commission has been threatened with curbs ever since it embarrassed senior Tory figures by fining Vote Leave for busting spending limits for the Brexit referendum.

Giving evidence to MPs, Mr Pullinger criticised the refusal to beef up the level of fines it can impose for wrongdoing from just £20,000 to a recommended £500,000.

And, on the plan to remove the power of criminal investigation and prosecution, the Commission chair asked: “The key to me is, well, who is going to have it?

He asked, of the police and CPS: “Are they ready to have it? Do they have the expertise, the resources to make sure that the laws that parliament has passed will be properly taken forward?”

Mr Pullinger added: “Is the electoral system set up to ensure that the offences that parliament has legislated really will be prosecuted where necessary?”

The chair also attacked handing ministers the power to set his agenda, warning: “It’s inconsistent with an independent regulator and that is concerning.”

It would make it “more difficult to convince the public” that the Commission is truly independent, if it is required to take into account “the views of one party”.

One Conservative member of the Commons public administration committee, Jackie Doyle-Price, suggested Mr Pullinger was being “partisan” and should give ministers the “benefit of the doubt”.

But the chair insisted there are no “serious issues affecting the integrity of elections” and that the body was keen to work closely with government.

The Cabinet Office insists the changes are a “necessary and a proportionate approach to reforming the Electoral Commission while respecting its independence”.

But critics have warned ministers will, at a stroke, be able to ban trade unions and certain charities from taking part in elections by campaigning or donating.

On Tuesday, Mr Pullinger said, of the Downing Street flat probe: “It is an investigation into the Conservative Party.

“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.”

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