The Electoral Commission should be abolished or radically overhauled because it has become "accountable to no-one", the Conservative Party has said.
Amid mounting concerns over the regulator’s performance and accountability, Tory chairman Amanda Milling claimed it is “not fit for purpose” and should not be allowed to hand itself the ability to prosecute parties and campaign groups.
The Telegraph can reveal the Conservatives have now lodged a submission with the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which is currently reviewing the Commission’s role in regulating election finance, along with the work of the police and Crown Prosecution Service in this area.
The Commission, which has faced accusations of bias against bodies that campaigned for Brexit - a charge it strongly denies - confirmed plans earlier this year to hand itself a “prosecutions capability”.
However, in its response to the review, the Conservatives argue that the watchdog is “unaccountable”, has conflicts of interest, and should not “be allowed to mark its own homework”.
Writing for The Telegraph, Ms Milling also cites a number of referrals of Brexit campaigners to the police by the Commission in recent years, which she argues has “led to lengthy and often unnecessary investigations.”
On prosecutions, she adds: “This must remain a matter for the police and the independent Crown Prosecution Service, overseen by the courts.
“As has already been highlighted, the Commission should be focusing on improving its core functions, not trying to expand its empire. If the Electoral Commission fails to make these changes and do the job it was set up to do then the only option would be to abolish it.”
In its submission, seen by this newspaper the Conservative Party claims there is “little outside challenge or scrutiny” of the watchdog, adding that there are a “number of flaws” with how it operates.
This includes an alleged lack of cooperation between staff members on investigations it is conducting - some of which have dragged on for years - unclear, contradictory or outdated advice provided to parties, and overly bureaucratic processes.
The Party argues that the Commission should therefore be disbanded or have its powers reined in by Parliament.
In the first scenario, the Conservatives say that legislation should be amended to enable the Government to clearly define the Commission’s “remit and goals” in a regulatory policy statement.
This would then be ratified by Parliament, and would mirror the approach for other watchdogs, such as the electricity and gas regulator Ofgem.
Alternatively, it suggests the watchdog should be abolished altogether, with its reporting and registration functions for donations and campaign spending transferred to Companies House, which would retain the ability to use civil sanction powers and issue fines for breaches.
“The Electoral Commission’s core functions could be easily absorbed,” the document adds, with investigations into national or party electoral fraud conducted by a specialist department within a police force, or the National Crime Agency, which would receive additional funding.
The watchdog’s remaining functions, including guidance to parties, would be transferred to the Cabinet Office.
Senior Tories sound alarm over powers
It comes several weeks after senior Conservatives sounded alarm at the regulator’s plans to hand itself the power to bring low-order offences before the courts, citing a string of recent controversies.
They include its decision to refer Brexit campaigners Darren Grimes, pictured below, and Alan Halsall to the Metropolitan Police two years ago over alleged breaches of spending rules, which were dropped by the force in May.
Mr Grimes also won an appeal in July against a £20,000 fine by the commission, describing it as a ``kangaroo court" that was not "fit for purpose".
Separately, the National Crime Agency found no evidence that any criminal offences were committed by Arron Banks, another prominent Brexiteer, after another referral by the watchdog.
The commission has insisted its investigation team acts with "complete impartiality."
In 2018, The Telegraph disclosed that almost half of the commission's board at that time had made public statements criticising the pro-Brexit campaign or backing calls for the result to be overturned, despite the commission’s code of conduct requiring impartiality.
They were cleared by the commission following an investigation carried out by a chartered accountant.
Citing the recent cases, the Conservatives go on to state: “We observe that the proposal for the Electoral Commission to become a prosecutor has come from the Electoral Commission itself.
“This has not been a proposal endorsed by the Speaker’s Committee or by Parliament, nor something that the Government has been consulted over.
“This highlights serious flaws within the accountability of the Electoral Commission – namely, it is accountable to no-one.
“If the Electoral Commission seeks to give itself prosecution powers, we would encourage the Government to legislate to stop this.”
Approached for comment, a spokesman for the Commission said: “We look forward to seeing the outcome of the Committee’s review, and to discussing how the framework can be updated to strengthen financial regulation and deliver greater voter confidence.
“The Electoral Commission plays a vital role in ensuring the integrity and transparency of the UK’s electoral and political finance systems, and has a strong record of delivery. We work proactively and collaboratively with a regulated community of parties and campaigners. The vast majority comply with electoral regulation, supporting voter confidence in our system.”