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The Conservatives have sparked fresh fears over the independence of the UK’s election watchdog as they published a new strategy for the Electoral Commission.
Democracy campaigners are concerned that the Government is eroding the freedom of the Electoral Commission, which regulates UK elections and donations, from ministerial interference, following the passing of last year’s Elections Act.
In a statement to the Commons, Simon Hoare, Minister for Local Government, said the Government was committed to a “secure, fair, modern, and transparent democracy”. But Ministers are now able to guide the watchdog’s strategy and priorities after pushing through legislation in 2022 despite strong opposition.
The Government’s priorities for the watchdog largely concern voter fraud, enhancing election accessibility, and boosting participation. However, critics point out that voter fraud is a rare occurrence in the UK. Instead, issues surrounding electoral malpractice by candidates and parties, and questionable political donations barely get a mention.
And despite concerns over the EC’s independence being raised in a public consultation this summer, the Government has chosen not to amend the draft Statement from June 2023.
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There are no mentions of electoral threats like artificial intelligence (such as ‘deepfakes’ intended to trick voters) or misinformation in the new strategy document.
Lord Rennard, a Liberal Democrat peer and vocal opponent of the Elections Act, has sharply criticised the move. He highlighted that allowing a Secretary of State to set a Strategy & Policy Statement for the Electoral Commission gravely undermines its independence.
This concern was echoed by eight of the nine Commissioners in a strongly worded letter to ministers.
Rennard also points out that the changes in the composition of the Speaker’s Committee, now give the Conservative Party an effective majority in “scrutinising” the Electoral Commission.
The Electoral Commission’s independence has been further brought into question following the effective ousting of Sir John Holmes, after the Commission investigated alleged illegal activities by a Conservative Party MP, Craig Mackinlay, in the 2015 general election under his tenure. Mackinlay was cleared of all charges but local staffer Marion Little, 63, was convicted of two charges related to fiddling election expenses.
Lord Rennard accused the Conservatives of altering electoral laws in their favour and hindering investigations into campaign finance breaches, and backed tougher action on electoral wrongdoing by the National Crime Agency in the wake of the clampdown on the EC.
Tom Brake, Director of Unlock Democracy, told Byline Times: “The government is at sixes and sevens on this. It can’t on the one hand claim ‘it is vital for the health of democracy that the UK have an independent regulator’ whilst at the same time writing its Strategy and Policy Statement, destroying its independence.
“There is a simple course of action. Stop interfering with the Electoral Commission and let it set its own path.”
Dr Jess Garland, director of policy and research for the Electoral Reform Society, added that the group was concerned that the new policy “unnecessarily impinges” on the Electoral Commission’s independence.
“The statement before Parliament [last] week seeks to reassure on that point, but there is no guarantee of a similar approach in future. If the government intends to maintain the operational independence of the Electoral Commission then why do they need to set a strategy and policy statement in the first place?”
The Fifth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life was emphatic: “Those who have advocated the establishment of an Electoral Commission have been emphatic that it should be independent both of the government of the day and of the political parties. We agree. An Election Commission in a democracy like ours could not function properly, or indeed at all, unless it were scrupulously impartial and believed to be so by everyone seriously involved and by the public at large.”
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