One of the main groups fighting for Britain to leave the European Union has been accused of avoiding strict referendum spending rules designed to control the financial fire power of the ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ campaigns.
In the last few days the Electoral Commission has registered no fewer than seven separate organisations linked to Grassroots Out, the cross party leave campaign backed by the millionaire Ukip donor Aaron Banks, who is also the leading figure behind the Leave.EU campaign.
All have the same address as Leave.EU but have been registered as separate campaigning entities under the terms of the Referendum Act.
They include Left Go, Labour Go, Student Go, Business Go and Steel Go. There is also a Scotland and a Northern Ireland Go.
Opponents have pointed out that by registering all the organisations as separate entities it allows them all to spend up to £700,000 each in the run up to the June referendum.
If they were all part of a single organisation they would only be able to spend £700,000 in total compared to around £5 million if they register separately.
“Yesterday, the Electoral Commission appointed one lead campaign for each side of this crucial referendum vote – Remain and Leave,” said the Labour Shadow Cabinet minister, Chris Bryant.
“Just 24 hours later it appears some leave campaigners are getting around spending rules by registering 10 different campaign groups in a clearly coordinated manner.
The spending limits come into force on Friday and will continue up until polling day on 23 June.
Mr Banks revealed he has already raised over £9 million to fight the referendum campaign. Without a variety of groups to spend the money Leave.EU, which this week failed to be named as the designated campaign group for ‘leave’, might struggle to spend the funds already raised.
Under the Electoral Commission rules the designated lead campaign group can spend £7 million, registered political parties can spend up to £7 million depending on their share of the vote at the last election while the spending limit for a registered campaigners is £700,000.
A spokesperson for the Commission confirmed that multiple groups could be set up under an umbrella organisaition.
“Provided that the new body is separate and distinct from the organisations that created it, then the body is likely to be treated as a different organisation from the campaigners that created the new body,” they said.
“This may be the case even if members of organisations that created the new body are part of its managing structure.
The Tory Eurosceptic MP Peter Bone, co-founder of the GO Movement, said it was a “bit rich for the Remain campaign to accuse the Leave side of trying to con the system, in the same week they have been granted £9.3m of taxpayers’ money to spend on a propaganda leaflet”.
“The Electoral Commission has criticised the Government’s taxpayer funded campaign spending. It has not criticised the conduct of the Leave campaign,” he said.
“Any campaign organisation, whether for Leave or Remain, is entitled to spend £700,000 if they register in the proper way with the Electoral Commission.
“The GO Movement has sought advice from the Electoral Commission to make sure the organisations under our umbrella campaign strictly within the rules.
“Unlike the Remain campaign, we will not try to stitch up this vital vote on Britain’s future.”
Bob Posner, Director of Party and Election Finance & Legal Counsel at the Electoral Commission said: “Today marks one of the most important dates in the referendum timetable for campaigners. It’s crucial that anyone who is, or is considering, campaigning is both aware of what the rules are and that they follow them. We’ve already been working with those who are campaigning for ‘remain’ or ‘leave’ outcomes, to ensure that this is the case and will continue to do so.”
In a separate move, Mr Banks announced that he was dropping his planned legal challenge to a decision by the Electoral Commission not to make Grassroots Out the official leave campaign.
His original decision to seek a judicial review of the decision had caused dismay among Grassroots Out supporters who feared it was likely to be counter-productive and could damage the cause of the leave campaign.
Back tracking, Mr Banks said while he believed he could have won the challenge he had decided not to pursue it.
“What is clear is that if we were to pursue a judicial review, according to legal experts, we would win,” he said.
“But this is a time to take a step back from the matter, and after consulting with leading campaigners on this issue, including Ukip leader Nigel Farage – we have decided to show the public how this process was stitched up, but not to pursue the judicial review any further.
“It is time to turn our collective guns on the real opponents in this campaign: those who are repeatedly trying to scare the British public into thinking that Britain is too small and insignificant to be an independent nation engaged with the whole world, not just one corner of it.”
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