These government plans represent a takeover of our independent election watchdog

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 18th June 2021

The government has announced plans that gut the UK’s independent Electoral Commission, representing a power grab over election scrutiny.

On the basis that some politicians ‘have lost confidence in the work of the Commission’, the Minister of State for the Constitution has announced plans for measures in the upcoming Elections Bill that will drastically reduce its independence.

It comes after criticism from a handful of Conservative backbenchers in recent years. A Conservative Party submission to the Committee on Standards in Public Life recently threatened to ‘abolish’ the Electoral Commission, written by one of those investigated over election expenses.

The announcement pre-empts not one but two inquiries into the work of the Electoral Commission, following several years of political attacks. The majority of submissions to the inquiries have called for more powers for the EC, and for its independence to be maintained. Several raised concerns that the Speaker’s Committee now had a government majority for the first time.

The proposals announced so far include a move to allow politicians – rather than the EC’s board – to set the priorities of the Electoral Commission. They include increasing the powers of the Speaker’s Committee, which has a government majority for the first time ever (despite the governing party getting a minority of the vote in 2019).

Ministers also plan to ban the Electoral Commission from proposing criminal prosecutions for election wrongdoing – for example when parties have deliberately concealed the identity of a donor.

The Electoral Commission has warned some of the changes could threaten its independence and ‘fetter’ its work. And Transparency International UK has added the measures make the Electoral Commission’s board, which includes representatives from political parties ‘redundant’, adding that this ‘de facto gives their role to the UK government, which has a commanding majority [of parliamentary seats]’. It seems highly inappropriate given the need to ensure the EC is completely independent of government.”

As the ERS’ Dr Jess Garland told the Independent, since the government controls the majority of seats in parliament, giving MPs the power to set our independent watchdog’s priorities looks like a thinly-veiled government power grab.

The government is on the one hand creating new rules for the Electoral Commission to enforce, through the upcoming Elections Bill, while at the same time reducing its independence, extending political influence over what should be a neutral body.

The Electoral Commission is the UK’s number one expert on Britain’s complex electoral law, so it is vital it retains the ability to raise alleged wrongdoing in the courts.

And when seats in parliament don’t match how the public votes, handing more power to the Speaker’s Committee, which has a one-party majority for the first time, is a deeply concerning move.

We need a full public consultation and debate on these changes, to ensure these proposals do not slip in under the radar.

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