Vote Leave demands rethink of Brexit campaign fines after electoral watchdog 'got law wrong'
The official pro-Brexit campaign has called for spending fines leveled against it to be reversed after the High Court ruled electoral watchdogs misinterpreted the law.
Vote Leave was fined £61,000 and reported to the police after the Electoral Commission said it unlawfully co-ordinated funds with fellow pro-Brexit campaign group, BeLeave.
But the High Court today ruled that the watchdog should have considered the £625,000 in question as a direct expense of its own - rather than a donation to the smaller group.
However, Vote Leave said it would not have donated the cash to BeLeave in the first place if the Electoral Commission had not assured it in advance that doing so would not count as a direct expense.
The Electoral Commission said the ruling did "not change the conclusions reached in our investigation" over the campaign finances, and insisted the ruling did not cover the advice given to Vote Leave.
In a damning verdict today, Lord Justice Leggatt said the watchdog had interpreted the law in a way that would create “a recipe for abuse of the spending restrictions”.
He said the “source of its error” was to assume that a donation from one organisation to another would not also constitute a direct expense.
“As a result of this error, the Electoral Commission has interpreted the definition in a way that is inconsistent with both the language and the purpose of the legislation,” he added.
Former Vote Leave chief executive Matthew Elliott said the Electoral Commission would be “admitting” it gave the campaign “incorrect advice” if it refuses to appeal the verdict, and should rethink the fines.
“Vote Leave would not have made the donations that it did, had it not been for the Commission's clear advice,” he said.
“This whole situation is a mess of the Electoral Commission's own making, and their defeat in the High Court today must force a rethink.
“They now have a chance to rectify their errors. They should do the right thing.”
But the Electoral Commission shot back: "The High Court reached the same conclusion as the Commission did in its investigation – that Vote Leave should have accounted for the expenditure on the digital services firm, Aggregate IQ."
It added: “The High Court has not ruled on the advice we gave to Vote Leave. Our advice was generic and covered hypothetical scenarios."
And it blasted: "Put simply, today’s ruling states that donations from one campaign group to another are lawful, but that those donations must be declared as expenditure by the person or campaign group making the donation, if it is for a specific purpose.
"This is something that Vote Leave did not do.”