The integrity of the UK’s next election is at serious risk from rogue actors overseas

7 December, 2023 | 3 minute read

This week Spotlight on Corruption wrote to the National Crime Agency (NCA) to urge it to take a leading role in coordinating enforcement of the UK’s electoral finance laws – to fill the gap that’s currently leaving us exposed to dirty money and foreign influence and to protect the integrity of the next election. 

This letter comes in the week that the Commons has reviewed new regulations under the Elections Act 2022 that allow a huge expansion in overseas votes with few checks. These regulations will go to the Lords next week, where the Labour front bench has laid down a motion of regret that the regulations will “allow foreign money to enter our democracy.” 

Up to 3.4 million UK citizens abroad will become eligible to vote and, as a result, donate – and spend potentially significant amounts on UK elections as third-party campaigners. These new voters will be able to use third-party attestations to confirm their identity and electoral administrators have few powers to enforce penalties abroad against fraudulent applications.

Our letter also comes at a time that trust in the UK’s electoral system is at an all-time low. The Electoral Commission reports that 52% of people think foreign influence on UK election results is a problem, and only 30% think the authorities would take appropriate action. 

As our letter highlights, there is currently no single law enforcement body with overall responsibility for criminal enforcement of the UK’s electoral finance laws, or of the new rules in the National Security Act to prevent foreign interference. The Electoral Commission lost its powers under the Elections Act 2022 to bring criminal proceedings and has highlighted the gap in criminal enforcement

As a result, there is a grave risk that there is no effective criminal deterrence against rogue actors who may seek to undermine the UK’s electoral processes. 

The only police force with a specialist unit to tackle electoral law breaches is the Metropolitan Police. However, its remit is limited to electoral fraud and malpractice within London, and – as our Freedom of Information request revealed – it has not carried out a single investigation into two key offences under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000 in the past 13 years: facilitating the making of an unlawful donation, and failing to provide information to a party about a principal donor. The force has also recently recommended that it fully withdraw from enforcing election finance offences.

The NCA – with its broad national-level powers, specialist legal tools for tackling national security risks and money laundering, its extensive overseas law enforcement network, and its close working relationship with MI5 – has the ability to coordinate and lead criminal enforcement of the UK’s electoral laws. However, time and again it appears to have taken a back seat on enforcement of electoral law breaches, or ruled out further action when cases have been referred to it. 

In our letter we raise a series of questions about how the NCA is interpreting its mandate to protect the UK from national security and money laundering risks in election finance, what assessment it has made of the weaknesses in electoral finance laws that impede its ability to act, and what action it has taken on four specific recent cases which raised serious questions about alleged foreign interference or dirty money entering the UK’s electoral system.  

Dr Susan Hawley, Executive Director of Spotlight on Corruption said:

“The government has talked tough on tackling the issue of foreign interference but, by expanding the overseas vote with so few checks, they are leaving the integrity of our next general election at serious risk. 

“The government must urgently address the many glaring loopholes in our electoral rules and step up criminal enforcement of those rules, which is currently almost non-existent. Only the NCA has the national-level powers to coordinate an effective enforcement response to these risks. Ministers must give them the remit and resources to ensure that our democratic process is protected from hostile powers and dirty money.”

Picture of NCA officers: There is currently no single law enforcement body with overall responsibility for criminal enforcement of the UK’s electoral finance laws.
There is currently no single law enforcement body with overall responsibility for criminal enforcement of the UK’s electoral finance laws.

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