Ministers accused of threatening independence of elections watchdog

MPs have accused ministers of threatening the independence of the official elections watchdog, treating it like an “arm of government”.

The Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee said new Government powers enabling it to guide the work of the Electoral Commission could “seriously damage” public confidence in the UK’s democratic process.

The Elections Act, passed earlier this year, allows ministers to issue a “strategy and policy statement” in relation to the commission’s work.

In doing so, the Government overrode the objections of the commission, which said it would enable ministers to influence its operational decision-making, including its oversight of the political funding regime.

In its report, the committee said it saw no evidence to justify the issuing of a strategy and policy statement in relation to the commission – which is accountable to the Speaker’s Committee of Parliament – at the current time.

It said a draft statement issued by ministers “markedly fails” to reflect the “paramount importance” of preserving the commission’s independence.

“It proceeds on the basis that government priorities must automatically also be commission priorities, and for the most part reads as though the commission was an arm of government,” it said.

“The commission is not a government body and its priorities are its own. Its independence is – as is common ground – critical to its effective functioning.

“Any perception that the commission is being influenced to favour the particular government of the day in exercising its functions could seriously damage public confidence in the democratic process.”

The committee chairman Clive Betts urged ministers to “think again” and consider whether the statement was really necessary.

“The Government, in bringing forward this statement, in this form and at this time, risks damaging the independence of the Electoral Commission and undermining public confidence in the democratic process,” he said.

A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesman said they would consider the committee’s report but insisted the Government’s approach was “necessary and proportionate”.

“The public rightly expects efficient and independent regulation of the electoral system,” the spokesman said.

“The statement is a necessary and proportionate approach to reforming the accountability of the Electoral Commission to the UK Parliament and we are clear the commission will remain operationally independent.”