Watchdog 'believes Brexit campaign broke spending rules'

A sign urging people to vote for Brexit in the EU referendum is seen on the roadside near Charing, south east of London, on June 16, 2016.
A sign urging people to vote for Brexit in the EU referendum is seen on the roadside near Charing, south east of London, on June 16, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (AFP) - Britain's election watchdog believes the official Brexit campaign broke spending rules in the 2016 EU referendum, the campaign itself revealed on Wednesday (July 4).

Vote Leave, which had support from leading euro-sceptic Boris Johnson, said the Electoral Commission has concluded that it coordinated with a smaller pro-Brexit group whose expenditure should have counted towards its own spending limits.

It revealed the initial findings before they were published - a move the Commission described as "unusual" - in a preemptive move to rebut the claims, saying the watchdog had acted unfairly.

If found guilty, Vote Leave could face a major fine, but the issue has wider significance about whether the still deeply divisive decision to leave the European Union was fair.

The group is accused of diverting a donation of more than £600,000 (S$1.08 million) to a smaller pro-Brexit group, BeLeave, run by a young fashion student, in a bid to avoid breaching its own £7 million legal spending limit.

While this is not illegal, whistleblowers have accused the two groups of coordinating their activities, which is.

In a detailed rebuttal note, Vote Leave said the Electoral Commission had interviewed no senior member of its staff in the last two years of investigations into its spending, and said the allegations would "not stand up to scrutiny".

"I think it is a huge breach of natural justice that they haven't wanted to listen to our opinions and our story, and we were the people running the campaign," the group's former chief executive, Mr Matthew Elliot, told Sky News television.

A spokesman for the Electoral Commission said that, having reached initial findings, it had given Vote Leave 28 days to make further representations, a period that ended on Tuesday.

"The unusual step taken by Vote Leave in sharing its views on the Electoral Commission's initial findings does not affect the process set out in law," he said.

"The commission will give due consideration to the representations made... We will then, at the earliest opportunity, publish a thorough and detailed closing report."