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Elections Watchdog Warns New Legislation Threatens Its Independence And Allows Ministers To Shape Rules

Elections Watchdog Warns New Legislation Threatens Its Independence And Allows Ministers To Shape Rules

The Electoral Commission is warning new proposals will damage its independence as a watchdog (Alamy)

3 min read

The UK’s elections watchdog has warned that the government’s new electoral reform proposals threaten its independence and could knock public confidence in the whole system.

Writing to Michael Gove – who oversaw the creation of the Elections Bill when he worked in the Cabinet Office, and continues to be responsible for it at Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – the Electoral Commission said measures included would allow ministers to influence their "operational functions and decision-making”.

The body took the highly unusual move today of publishing the letter from its full board of commissioners, with the exception of Conservative peer Stephen Gilbert, the party’s representative on the board, urging the proposals to be axed.

They say the current plans in a new "strategy and policy statement” for the watchdog, would compel it “to have regard to the government’s strategic and policy priorities and to help the government to meet those priorities”.

“It would thereby provide a mechanism, driven by the then governing party, enabling that party’s ministers to shape how electoral law is applied to them and their political competitors,” the commissioners write.

"While the stated position of the current government is that it would not intend to use these powers to impact on the commission's independent oversight and regulation of the electoral system, no such assurances can be given about how the broad scope of these powers would be used over time.”

The Electoral Commission is calling for the government to instead work with the existing Speaker’s Committee, a cross-party group, on proposals to improve voting systems.

Having passed through the Commons, the Elections Bill will have its second reading in the House of Lords this week.

“It is our firm and shared view that the introduction of a strategy and policy statement – enabling the government to guide the work of the commission – is inconsistent with the role that an independent electoral commission plays in a healthy democracy,” the letter said.

“This independence is fundamental to maintaining confidence and legitimacy in our electoral system.”

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said the missive from the commissioners showed Boris Johnson is "rigging our democracy for himself”.

"The Elections Bill is anti-democratic in so many ways,” she said.

"Attacking institutions, allowing unchecked foreign money into British democracy, and disenfranchising so many people.

The legislation also includes controversial plans to introduce voter ID, which critics say will disenfranchise large numbers of people from excising their democratic rights.

The proposed changes to the Electoral Commission came after an investigation by them resulted in the Conservative Party being fined £17,800 for failing to properly declare Tory peer Lord Brownlow's £67,000 donation to cover the cost of refurbishing the Prime Minister's Downing Street flat.

A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said: “We completely disagree with the Electoral Commission’s claims about the Elections Bill - our reforms will not affect their operational independence.

“The Pickles review on electoral fraud was clear that reforms were needed to improve accountability. Making the Electoral Commission more accountable will strengthen the integrity of the electoral process and help prevent fraud.”

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