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“Challenges lie ahead” for elections regulator in navigating complex law

20 October 2022

Complex and confusing electoral law is impacting the Electoral Commission’s ability to oversee free and fair elections, concludes the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in a new report.

The recent Elections Act is a “missed opportunity” and has made electoral law more complicated. “Challenges lie ahead” now for the Electoral Commission in supporting voters, campaigners, and electoral administrators, to understand and navigate the changes ahead of elections in May 2023, when voters will be required to produce ID at the polls to vote.

MPs criticise the Government for inaction on the longstanding cross-party calls to simplify the body of law governing the running of elections and referendums and call for a long-term strategy to be set out.

The Committee also call for the Electoral Commission's regulatory role to adapt to changes seen in political campaigning. Campaigners should have to reveal their total spend on online advertising for greater digital transparency. The maximum penalty for rule breaches should be raised to £500,000, as the current maximum of £20,000 “may not act as an effective deterrent” for well-resourced parties and campaigners.

However, regulation of campaign spending must also be more proportionate. MPs also identify a “gap in support” from the Electoral Commission for smaller and newer parties and campaigners and warn against expanded powers placing “disproportionate burdens on the largely voluntary workforce that support political campaigns”.

The Committee notes concern with the cases of “extremely lengthy” investigations following the 2016 Brexit referendum and recommends a 12-month limit on investigations. It calls the Commission’s resistance to fixed time-limits so far “disappointing”.

Chair's comment

Chair of PACAC, William Wragg MP, said:

“The UK’s outdated and complicated body of electoral law is the fundamental challenge facing the Electoral Commission in delivering its crucial services.

“We are concerned by the amount the Government and the Electoral Commission will have to deliver by the elections in May 2023, and the impact on voters and campaigners.

“The Government has so far failed to act on repeated calls to simplify the law. But the fairness of our electoral process is too important to neglect any longer. It must now grasp the nettle of reform and futureproof the regulation of elections.

“We need greater scrutiny of online campaigning, a more proportionate approach to those accused of breaking the rules, and better protections against foreign influence in our elections.

Summary of key recommendations

To the Government

Legislate to:

  • Implement the Law Commission's recommendations to rationalise electoral law and immediately start work towards setting out a long-term strategy, with cross-party support, ahead of the next General Election.
  • Strengthen transparency around digital campaigning by making it a separate category in election spending return.
  • Explore using Online Safety Bill to enable digital regulators to formally share information to regulate digital political campaigning and make Ofcom set minimum standards for political ad libraries.
  • Raise the maximum fine for election rule breaches from £20,000 to £500,000 (or 4% of spend, whichever is larger) in an updated Enforcement Policy in the coming months.
  • Impose a 12-month time limit on investigations into election or referendum rule breaches, with possibility of an extension granted by a court.
  • Reduce reporting timelines for parties and campaigners spending over £250,000 from six to four months and for the Electoral Commission to publish returns within two months of receipt.

Provide in its response:

  • An update on the guidance on political donations it said it was considering in its response to Committee on Standards in Public Life's Regulating Election Finance Report.
  • Clarity on the timetable for the implementation of Elections Act 2022 secondary legislation.

To the Electoral Commission

  • Seek regular feedback from stakeholders when preparing guidance, engaging with parties and campaigners of all sizes.
  • Report back to the Committee on the viability of shortening its response time to queries to within 48 hours in the two months prior to and after an election or referendum.
  • Produce specific guidance on how Commissioner biases will be managed, and impartiality maintained, ahead of the next referendum.
  • Enforcement of political finance rules should be proportionate to the voluntary nature of political parties' infrastructure.
  • Demonstrate greater awareness of the specific nature of referendums, particularly the short-lived existence of many campaign groups and be sensitive to the stressful nature of the duties required to be fulfilled by Responsible Persons or other nominated individuals.

Further information

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