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The laws protecting Britain's democracy from big money are broken

You can be fined more for touting football tickets than you can for subverting Britain's democratic process.

In Mike Myers’ 90s classic ‘Austin Powers’, Dr Evil, the baddie transported from the 1960s, threatens to blow up the world unless he’s paid a ransom. Confused by inflation, however, he only demands “one million dollars”, much to everyone’s mirth.

In related news, the Electoral Commission has fined Vote Leave, Darren Grimes and Veterans for Britain for breaching a string of laws during the European referendum. The amounts they will have to stump up, respectively, are £61,000, £20,000, and £250.

We’ll come back to Grimes, let’s focus on the big player. Vote Leave had a spending limit of £7 million during the final ten weeks of the referendum. The organisation is being fined for breaching that limit by nearly half a million pounds – it spent, according to the Electoral Commission, £7,449,079. This means that the fine is only 0.8% of their expenditure during the final sprint of the referendum. It’s the sort of amount that a future campaign could write off at the outset as ‘the cost of doing business’. It’s not even a very big cost of doing business: it’s less than they spent on one batch of materials on the 13th of June 2016.

And the £61,000 fine is not, in fact, just for one breach of the rules, but for four separate breaches. For three of these, Vote Leave incurred the maximum fine of £20,000, while the fourth – not filing all the correct invoices – is only seen as worthy of a £1,000 fine.

That’s right. The maximum fine for breaking the laws of our democracy is £20,000. Partly, of course, this is an anachronism. £20,000 was written into election law in the year 2000. If it had kept up with inflation, it would be around £32,000 today. Partly, it’s about politicians looking out for their own: the maximum fine for a ticket tout at a football match is unlimited. The maximum fine for anyone caught making a false statement while trying to navigate the labyrinthine benefits system is unlimited. Politicians trust our judicial system to impose a fair penalty on other people. But when it comes to the kinds of crime that they might commit themselves, there are careful safeguards to stop things getting out of hand.

As the Electoral Commision pointed out to me today, their maximum fine isn’t even equivalent to other similar regulators. A spokesperson said: “Our powers to fine should be commensurate with those of comparable regulators. The Information Commissioner’s Office is a relevant example. They have been able to fine up to £500,000 for breaches of data protection rules, and shortly that level is to significantly further increase. For serious breaches of Parliament’s rules on the funding of and spending that influencing elections and referendums, the Commission should be enabled to impose a significant level of fine.”

Then there’s the question of who is held to account by our laws. Vote Leave was run by one of Britain’s best known political operators, Matthew Elliott. It was fronted by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Yet the two people left holding the baby are, as openDemocracy has previously revealed, a former pram-maker called Alan Halsell and Darren Grimes, who was a 21 year old fashion student at the time.

Grimes appears at every moment to have done roughly what he was told by his older colleagues - apart, perhaps, from messing up some forms. And yet he’s being fined, personally, £20,000 (unless those older colleagues have the good grace to help him out). Halsell is a businessman, lawyer and former chairman of Silver Cross, the company that makes those posh prams. He was the ‘responsible person’ for Vote Leave, and, as the Commission report outlines, knew or should have known what was going on, and knew or should have known better. But it’s hard not to feel like he’s being left holding the baby. It’s hard not to feel that the people who really ran the campaign are getting away with it.

The reason that Grimes and Halsall are in the firing line is that the Commission is only allowed to pursue those listed as the ‘responsible person’. Any attempt to investigate any of the other characters who may or may not have been involved would be the responsibility of the police.

And so what will the police do? We don’t yet know how the Met will respond to the information they have been given today about Vote Leave. However, they have had more than two months now to respond to a similar case: on 11 May, the Electoral Commission found that Leave.EU breached election law, and referred their responsible person, Liz Bilney, to the Metropolitan police. We haven’t heard anything since. So I rang the Met press office to ask what has happened since. The press officer went away to check their system. He said nothing came up, and he’s passed me to the special investigations team, who got back this evening with one line: “still under referral so no update”.

Perhaps most confusingly for many people, it’s easy to feel like all of this will amount to nothing. If an MP is believed to have broken election laws to win their seat, then an election court will sit. If they are found guilty, there will be a rerun - remember Phil Woolas, whose election as an MP was declared void after an election court ruled that he had lied about his opponent in his leaflets. This law also applies if a local authority runs a referendum, as lawyer Adam Wagner points out. However, because the European referendum was non-binding, and the result didn’t produce a legal outcome (we are leaving the EU not because Britain voted Leave, but because MPs voted to trigger article 50), the result of the referendum cannot be challenged in court.

This is post-modern Britain at its best. Vote Leave broke the law, but its victory in the referendum can’t be challenged in an election court because the vote wasn’t legally binding. There is a regulator, but it can only issue piddling fines to fringe figures. The police seem to have little interest in policing the powerful, and the rules, ultimately, are for losers.

If one thing has become clear from spending a year investigating the money behind the Brexit campaign, it's this: the rules of British democracy are utterly broken. And until we mend them, the rich and powerful will run amok.

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