Arron Banks. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Nearly £11 million of donations to major Brexit campaign groups funded by Arron Banks has not been accounted for publicly, according to new analysis from openDemocracy.
British election laws are supposed to provide transparency on how campaign groups spend their money during elections and referendums. However, Grassroots Out and Leave.EU – the two main groups funded primarily by the self-styled ‘bad boy’ of Brexit Arron Banks – have not disclosed what happened to £10.8 million of the money they received.
In total, the two groups declared that they were given £11.7 million in the first half of 2016 – with Mr Banks the main donor to both, including making loans worth £6m to Leave.EU. Yet referendum rules only required them to disclose how they spent money during the ten weeks between 15th April 2016 until the day of the vote on 23rd June. In that ‘controlled’ period, strict spending limits apply: each group was only legally allowed to spend up to £700,000.
From 9th March until polling day, Leave.EU received donations and loans worth £9.2 million. The group claims that it only spent £693,000 of this during the ‘controlled’ campaigning period – although it has since been fined for multiple breaches of the law by the Electoral Commission, which found that Leave.EU “failed to include at least £77,380 in its spending return, thereby exceeding the spending limit”. The Commission also stated that the “unlawful overspend may have been considerably higher”, and that “it has reasonable grounds to suspect that the responsible person for Leave.EU committed criminal offences". The Commission said it was referring Leave.EU CEO Elizabeth Bilney to the Metropolitan Police.
A second campaign group funded by Banks, Grassroots Out, received donations worth £2.5 million in the early months of 2016 – most of which was a single ‘in kind’ donation of £1.9 million from an Arron Banks-owned company on 31 March. However, the group claims to have only spent £232,000 (which would include using any of the ‘in kind’ donation) between 15 April and the referendum on June 23.
The gap between the amounts the groups raised and the amount of spending they declared amounts to £10.8 million – more than the Labour Party spent on its 2010 election campaign.
openDemocracy asked Andy Wigmore, communications director of Leave.EU, how the rest of the £10.8 million was spent and also why a loan of £1m was made by Arron Banks on 21st April even though the spending limits were £700,000. He claimed to have “no idea”. Banks has previously described the Electoral Commission fine and possible criminal charges as a “politically motivated attack on Brexit and the 17.4 million people who defied the establishment to vote for an independent Britain”.
Speaking to openDemocracy, the Labour MP Ben Bradshaw said: "The idea that you can spend £10 million on swaying a democratic process, but not have to declare what you did with any of it, is deeply worrying. The Electoral Commission should open a new inquiry into whether Leave.EU and Grassroots Out broke any rules, and if not, what new rules are needed to close this loophole in the future".