Thursday, June 5, 2014

An open letter to the Electoral Commission


This is an open letter to Peter Wardle, the Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission, which is the body responsible for regulation of political parties, and political donations in the UK.


Dear Peter Wardle,

I am writing to you in regards to a social media funding campaign which has been conducted by the political party Britain First, an extremist party I'm sure you are very well aware of after widespread condemnation of the Electoral Commission's decision to allow the party to use "Remember Lee Rigby" as their description on European election ballot papers, despite the fact that Lee Rigby's family strongly object to Britain First and their followers desecrating his memory by making him the "poster boy" of their extremist campaign.

The specific issue I would like to draw to your attention to is the way Britain First uses social media in order to collect donations. In my view it is important that this issue is investigated in order to establish whether or not Britain First is guilty of obtaining funding for their party under false pretenses.

The specific funding campaign I am referring to is a widely shared animal cruelty image, which includes an appeal to donate to a Britain First Paypal account so that they can "stop this cruelty!" (see embedded image).

As you can see from the screengrab of this campaign, it has been shared over 790,000 times in just a few days, meaning that it will have been seen in tens of millions of Facebook news feeds.

The fact that this image has been so widely shared means that their appeal for donations in the image description will also have been seen by tens of millions of people, and it is conceivable that a great number of people may have donated to this Britain First Paypal account without even realising that they are funding a political party, let alone an extreme-right political party.

I have a number of questions relating to the way Britain First have been using animal cruelty images to raise funds like this.

1. Does a fundraising campaign which makes no mention of the fact that the organisation receiving the donations is a political party comply with Electoral Commission rules?
2. Does the Electoral Commission have any guidance for political parties in relation to using social media to raise party donations? If so, is the Britain First "help us stop this cruelty!" fundraising campaign in compliance with this guidance?
3. If there is no specific guidance on how political parties can take advantage of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Google Plus to collect party donations, does the Electoral Commission have plans to introduce any guidance? 
4. Does the Electoral Commission consider the use of animal cruelty shock tactics an acceptable form of eliciting party political donations?

5. Have Britain First registered the existence of this Paypal fundraising account with the Electoral Commission?

6. Given that
individuals can only donate to UK political parties if they are on a UK electoral register, what steps have Britain First taken (if any) to ensure that donations to their Paypal fundraising account from non-UK registered citizens are returned? 
7. Given that UK political parties are not allowed to accept donations from foreign registered businesses and corporations, what steps have Britain First taken (if any) to ensure that donations to their Paypal fundraising account from non-UK based businesses are returned?
8. Given that all of the donations given to Britain First as a result of this appeal were done under the "help us stop this cruelty!" slogan, are Britain First under any legal obligation to demonstrate how these funds have actually been used to prevent animal cruelty? Or can they just keep these donations and do whatever they like with them?

9. Given that all of the donations given to Britain First as a result of this appeal were done under the "help us stop this cruelty!" slogan, what steps (if any) have Britain First taken to segregate these donations from their general funds?

10. If Britain First are under no legal obligation to segregate the funds raised through this "help us stop this cruelty!" campaign from their general accounts, and they are under no obligation to demonstrate how they have used these funds to prevent animal cruelty, what steps would the Electoral Commission take in order to prevent political parties from collecting political donations under false pretenses like this in future?
In my view these are very important questions about party political funding and I would appreciate a timely response. If any of these ten questions fall outside the remit of the Electoral Commission, I would appreciate it if you could seek responses from the appropriate authorities, or at the very least, advise me of the appropriate authorities so that I can contact them myself.

As a matter of courtesy I am informing you that I have published a copy of this letter on my widely read personal blog, meaning that many of my readers will be as keen to hear your answers as I am.

If you send me a statement of responses to these questions for publication on my blog, I will post it on the blog post beneath this letter.

Yours faithfully

Thomas. G Clark
Author of the Another Angry Voice blog.


Reply from the Electoral Commission

Dear Mr Clark,
Re: Britain First - Animal cruelty campaign

Thank you for your emails to the Commission. The Chief Executive has asked me to reply to you.
The Commission is grateful for you bringing these serious concerns to our attention.  We are in contact with the police in relation to the allegations you raise of potential criminal offences by Britain First.  We are also presently looking into other matters relating to compliance by Britain First with the rules on political party finance that we regulate; and will include the aspects you raise in this regard.  It is not appropriate for the Commission to presently make any comment on the detail of such matters.
I reply below on each of your questions to the Commission on the apparent use by Britain First of animal cruelty images to raise funds:
1. Does a fundraising campaign which makes no mention of the fact that the organisation receiving the donations is a political party comply with Electoral Commission rules? This is not a question of Electoral Commission rules. Rather it is a matter for the police as to whether fraud related criminal offence is being committed. There could possibly also be a charity law concern. We are notifying both the police and the Charity Commission. I would add that the Commission has recommended to government that the law we regulate should be amended to require political parties to clearly identify on their online campaigning material that it is of their political party.
2. Does the Electoral Commission have any guidance for political parties in relation to using social media to raise party donations? If so, is the Britain First "help us stop this cruelty!" fundraising campaign in compliance with this guidance? Yes, we do have full guidance, because the legal framework for a political party raising donations through social media is no different to using any other means (our guidance is published on the Commission’s web-site).That is, the rules equally apply. This means that donations over £500 can only be lawfully accepted by political parties from permissible sources, and there are requirements for reporting donations from individuals above aggregated financial thresholds to us (£1,500 to a party local ‘accounting unit’ or £7,500 to the central party). In addition political parties have further ‘statements of accounts’ reporting requirements to us, which accounts we publish.  All of our guidance, reported donation and statements of accounts are on our web-site. In view of the changing use of social media we keep our guidance under review in this regard.
3. If there is no specific guidance on how political parties can take advantage of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Google Plus to collect party donations, does the Electoral Commission have plans to introduce any guidance? Please see answer to 2 above.
4. Does the Electoral Commission consider the use of animal cruelty shock tactics an acceptable form of eliciting party political donations?It is not for the Electoral Commission to express a view on this political party campaigning technique. Our remit here is to regulate and ensure compliance with the rules on accepting and reporting political party donations. We also draw possible wider criminal offences or other apparent breaches of the law to the attention of other appropriate bodies, including the police.
5. Have Britain First registered the existence of this Paypal fundraising account with the Electoral Commission? We take your email to be an allegation that Britain First is not complying with the rules. We will be looking into the matter, including contacting the party. If we conclude the rules have not been properly followed, we will consider sanctioning Britain First and, or its responsible officers.
6. Given that individuals can only donate to UK political parties if they are on a UK electoral register, what steps have Britain First taken (if any) to ensure that donations to their Paypal fundraising account from non-UK registered individuals are returned? Please see answer to 5 above.
7. Given that UK political parties are not allowed to accept donations from foreign registered businesses and corporations, what steps have Britain First taken (if any) to ensure that donations to their Paypal fundraising account from non-UK based businesses are returned? Please see answer to 5 above.
8. Given that all of the donations given to Britain First as a result of this appeal were done under the "help us stop this cruelty!" slogan, are Britain First under any legal obligation to demonstrate how these funds have actually been used to prevent animal cruelty? Or can they just keep these donations and do whatever they like with them? Please see answer to 1 above. That the matter you raise is for the police, does not effect that, as indicated, all donations to a political party are subject to the party financing laws we regulate as to permissibility of donations and reporting to us for publication.
9. Given that all of the donations given to Britain First as a result of this appeal were done under the "help us stop this cruelty!" slogan, what steps (if any) have Britain First taken to segregate these donations from their general funds? Please see answer to 1 above. I would add that segregation of funds (or not) would not avoid the requirement for donations accepted by a political party to be permissible and reported as appropriate to the Commission for publication.
10. If Britain First are under no legal obligation to segregate the funds raised through this "help us stop this cruelty!" campaign from their general accounts, and they are under no obligation to demonstrate how they have used these funds to prevent animal cruelty, what steps would the Electoral Commission take in order to prevent political parties from collecting political donations under false pretenses like this in future? Please see answers to 1 and 5 above.
I trust this reply assures you that the Commission is taking pro-active steps to deal with allegations relating to Britain First.  We will be in contact with you again in due course to let you know where matters get to. The police may also contact you. If you become aware of any other related issues of concern do kindly inform us.

Yours sincerely

Bob Posner

Legal Counsel and Head of Enforcement 


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