Investigations by the elections watchdog should be time-limited to one year, Whitehall’s standards chief has said, as he recognised the “personal anguish and pain” experienced by innocent campaigners subjected to lengthy inquiries.
This week, a report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life will recommend a 12-month limit cut-off for starting investigations into alleged campaign offences.
The Electoral Commission would then be given a year to carry out each inquiry.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Lord Evans of Weardale, the chairman of the committee and an ex-head of MI5, said he was concerned by evidence that investigations by the Commission “could drag on for a very long time” and have “hung over people” for years after an election or referendum.
He also said his committee “did not believe that it was appropriate” for the Electoral Commission to become “a prosecutor in its own right”.
The Commission had been preparing to hand itself powers to prosecute political parties and campaign groups itself but shelved the plans in the face of opposition by the Conservatives after the plans were revealed by this newspaper.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life report is also expected to recommend that activists should be entitled to rely in court on advice given by the Commission during campaigns, after the watchdog effectively disowned some advice it gave to pro-Brexit campaigners.
Currently, “even if you accept the guidance and follow the guidance, that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t later be pursued for having done something which it is decided is not acceptable”, Lord Evans said.
Another proposal is that more minor breaches of the rules, such as missing deadlines for submitting spending information to the Commission, should no longer be classed as criminal offences.
Darren Grimes was unsuccessfully pursued by the Electoral Commission for his activity during the 2016 Brexit referendum
Credit: Jeff Gilbert
Lord Evans’s intervention comes after John Pullinger, the Electoral Commission’s new chairman, used an interview in The Telegraph on 26 June to issue an unprecedented apology to Darren Grimes, the pro-Brexit campaigner who he admitted had a “horrible time” being unsuccessfully pursued by the watchdog.
Mr Pullinger admitted that the commission needed to “act quickly” and be “more human”.
In a letter to The Telegraph, Alan Halsall, the “responsible person” for Vote Leave, the official pro-Brexit campaign, questions why he has received no apology for the “considerable personal anguish” he faced while subject to some four years of investigations.
After two years, the Commission referred his case to the Metropolitan Police, leaving Mr Grimes and Mr Halsall under the shadow of a policy investigation for a further two years. The investigations “cost me thousands of pounds in legal fees”, Mr Halsall states.
Separately, Mr Grimes said Mr Pullinger’s apology did not go far enough, and called for an investigation into senior figures at the Commission, including its chief executive Bob Posner, who remain in their posts.
Mr Grimes said Mr Pullinger’s comments begged the question: “What safeguards are you going to put into place to ensure it doesn’t happen to anyone else?”
Civil offences for admin errors
Lord Evans said: “One of the… things that we heard a lot was that the Electoral Commission investigations could drag on for a very long time and they hung over people.
“We had some really quite heartfelt evidence from people who were the responsible person within the system for a campaign. And when the prominent people had moved on, they were left subject to long-term investigation by the Electoral Commission.
“Our view is that there should be a time limit within which investigation should be commenced, which is to say 12 months from the point at which the alleged breach took place, and that investigations should be completed within 12 months of their start. So this puts pressure on the Electoral Commission to get on with it.”
Lord Evans added: “Police have got enough to do without pursuing administrative errors. So we think we should have civil offences for straightforward regulatory breaches, administrative ones, rather than criminal offences.”