Open main menu

Unlawful campaigning in the 2016 EU referendum

Cumulative spending for leave (dark blue) and remain (light blue) in EU referendum campaign (based on spending returns prior to Electoral Commission investigations).

Official investigations have revealed a range of unlawful campaigning in the 2016 EU referendum. These findings have led to extensive public debate and imposition of exceptional penalties. These developments have included the levying of the maximum fine possible on Facebook for breaches of data privacy; calls for changes in UK electoral law; and debate over the standing of the EU referendum result.

This article surveys breaches of the law according to the different institutions tasked with determining these breaches: the Information Commissioner's Office (regarding the handling of personal data); the Electoral Commission (regarding penalising breaches of electoral law); the National Crime Agency and Metropolitan Police (regarding criminal prosecution); the European Parliament; the Venice Commission; and private prosecutions.


Information Commissioner's OfficeEdit

ICO report: Investigation into the use of data analytics in political campaigns

On 4 March 2017, the Information Commissioner's Office reported that it was 'conducting a wide assessment of the data-protection risks arising from the use of data analytics, including for political purposes' in relation to the Brexit campaign.[1][2] As of July 2018, when it issued a formal update on its investigations, the Information Commissioner's Office was investigating a number of bodies for unlawful use of data during the EU Referendum—particularly the unlawful passing of data from one organisation to another.[3]

In May 2017, the ICO also launched an investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes, making reference both the EU referendum and the 2015 general election.[4][5][6] The main report was published 11 July 2018, but the investigation was at that point ongoing due to an appeal by UKIP, which was rejected in February 2019.[7][8] As of April 2019, the investigation was in this respect ongoing.[9]

These investigations included:

The sections below report penalties and enforcement notices that have been issued.

Vote LeaveEdit

On 19 March 2019, Vote Leave was fined £40,000 for sending 196,154 unsolicited electronic messages to people who had not given consent for their contact details to be used for these purposes.[10][11]


The Information Commissioner's Office has found Leave.EU guilty of breaking the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 and the Data Protection Act 1998 on a number of counts. This included using contacts gathered by Eldon Insurance for their own direct marketing purposes, and, vice versa, enabling the insurance company to use their contacts for its direct marketing.

Date Company Cause Penalty Sources
9 May 2016 Better for the Country, a.k.a. Leave.EU Sending people text messages without having first gained their permission to do so. £50,000 [12][13]
1 February 2019 Leave.EU 296,522 direct marketing emails delivered without subscribers' consent. £15,000 [14]
1 February 2019 Leave.EU 1,069,852 Eldon Insurance direct marketing emails to 54,000 subscribers without consent. £45,000 [15]
1 February 2019 Eldon Insurance Services Limited (trading as GoSkippy Insurance) 1,069,852 Eldon Insurance direct marketing emails to 54,000 subscribers without consent. £60,000 + enforcement notice [16][17]

SCL Elections LtdEdit

On 4 May 2018, the Information Commissioner's Office served a legal notice on SCL Elections Ltd, requiring that it give the American professor David Carroll all the personal information about him held by the company.[18][19]


On 24 October 2018, the Information Commissioner's Office served a legal notice requiring AggregateIQ Data Services Ltd to 'erase any personal data of individuals in the UK'.[20]


On 24 October 2018, the Office found that between 2007 and 2014, Facebook had broken the UK data law then in force (the Data Protection Act 1998) and applied the highest penalty allowed under that Act (£500,000), noting that under more recent legislation (the General Data Protection Regulation) the fine would have been much higher. Facebook allowed application developers to access people's data "without sufficiently clear and informed consent". It failed to keep this personal information secure, which allowed Aleksandr Kogan and his company Global Science Research to harvest the data of as many as 87 million people (including at least one million in the UK) worldwide and later to share a subset of this data further, including with SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica. Facebook also did not act firmly enough to ensure that, once known, these data breaches were remedied.[21][22] (In July 2019, it was also reported that Facebook would be fined around $5bn by the US Federal Trade Commission in relation to the same and related issues.[23])

Electoral CommissionEdit

Spending returnsEdit

In February 2017, the Electoral Commission announced that it was investigating the spending of Stronger In and Vote Leave, along with smaller organisations, as they had not submitted all the necessary invoices, receipts, or details to back up their accounts.[24]

In the ensuing months, the Electoral Commission levied a number of fines on political parties and other campaign entities due to breaches of campaign finance rules during the referendum campaign, with a maximum possible fine under the law being £20,000.[25] Fines of £1000 or more were:

Date Organisation Cause Penalty Sources
16 August 2017 Constitutional Research Council Failure to notify the Electoral Commission of political contributions it made (including £435,000 to the DUP), and gifts it received. £6,000 [26][27]
19 December 2017 Liberal Democrat Party Failure to deliver a complete and accurate spending return. £18,000 [28]
19 December 2017 Open Britain (formerly Britain Stronger in Europe) Failure to deliver a complete and accurate spending return. £1,250 [28]
11 May 2018 Leave.EU Failure to deliver complete and accurate pre-poll transaction report and post-poll spending information (responsible person: Elizabeth Bilney). £50,000 [29]
15 May 2018 Best for Our Future Limited Failure to deliver a complete and accurate spending return. £2,000 [30]
15 May 2018 Unison Failure to deliver a complete and accurate spending return and late payment of an invoice. £1,500 [30]
17 July 2018 Vote Leave Failure to deliver a complete and accurate spending return (responsible person: David Alan Halsall); failure to provide documents on time. £41,000 [31]

Funding sourcesEdit


In November 2017, the Electoral Commission said that it was investigating allegations that Arron Banks, an insurance businessman and the largest single financial supporter of Brexit, violated campaign spending laws.[32] From 1 November 2017 to 1 November 2018, the Electoral Commission investigated the source of £8m paid to the closely associated organisations Leave.EU and Better for the Country Ltd., a company of which Banks was a director and majority shareholder.[33][34] The company donated £2.4 million to groups supporting British withdrawal from the EU.[32] The investigation began after the Commission found "initial grounds to suspect breaches of electoral law".[35] The Commission specifically sought to determine "whether or not Mr Banks was the true source of loans reported by a referendum campaigner in his name" and "whether or not Better for the Country Limited was the true source of donations made to referendum campaigners in its name, or if it was acting as an agent".[32][36]

The Commission found reasonable grounds for suspecting that 'various criminal offences may have been committed', associated with the facts that:[34]

  • Although the source of the money was claimed to be Arron Banks, this was not in fact the case.
  • The financial transactions whereby the £8m was paid included a company incorporated in the Isle of Man, Rock Holding Limited, which was an impermissible party to political campaign funding under UK law.
  • Leave.EU, Elizabeth Bilney (the responsible person for Leave.EU), BFTC, Mr Banks, and possibly others, concealed the true details of these financial transactions, including from the Electoral Commission, and also did so by knowingly making statutory returns/reports which were incomplete and inaccurate, or false.

The case was referred to the National Crime Agency for criminal investigation.

Democratic Unionist PartyEdit

The DUP received £435,000 from the Constitutional Research Council. Although the Constitutional Research Council was fined for not declaring its donation to the DUP, the Electoral Commission found that the DUP had not itself broken electoral law.[37] However, extensive press speculation continued, both on the question of the ultimate source(s) of the Constitutional Research Council's donation, and the legitimacy of its use, which included £282,000 for pro-Brexit advertising in the Metro newspaper, which does not circulate in Northern Ireland.[38][27] In December 2018, the Good Law Project initiated judicial proceedings over the Commission's decision not to investigate further.[39]

The Electoral Commission noted that 'The Commission continues to be prohibited by legislation from disclosing any information concerning donations to Northern Ireland recipients made prior to 1 July 2017 (section 71 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000). We continue to urge the UK Government to bring forward legislation that will enable us to publish information on donations from January 2014.'[40]

Campaign spendingEdit

Arron Banks, Better for the Country, and Leave.EUEdit

Leave.EU ran a separate campaign to the official pro-Brexit group Vote Leave. In April 2017, the Commission specified that 'there were reasonable grounds to suspect that potential offences under the law may have occurred' in relation to Leave.EU.[41][2]

On 11 May 2018, the Electoral Commission gave Leave.EU the maximum available fine, £20,000, for unlawfully overspending. Leave.EU failed to include in its referendum spending return spending of £77,380 in fees paid to the company Better for the Country Limited as its campaign organiser. In addition, Leave.EU paid for services from the US campaign strategy firm Goddard Gunster that should have been reported in its spending return but were not.[42]

The Commission concluded that the overspend was, at minimum, £77,380 – exceeding the statutory spending limit by more than 10% – and noted that 'the Commission is satisfied that the actual figure was in fact greater'.[43] The Electoral Commission's director of political finance and regulation and legal counsel said that the "level of fine we have imposed has been constrained by the cap on the commission's fines".[44][43] Leave.EU's co-founder Arron Banks has stated that he rejects the outcome of the investigation and will be challenging it in court.[45]

Vote Leave and BeLeaveEdit

In March 2017, the Electoral Commission cleared Vote Leave of breaking spending limits. But it re-opened the investigation in October 2017 due to new evidence coming to light.[46] In July 2018, the UK Electoral Commission found Vote Leave to have broken electoral law, spending over its limit.[47] Not declaring £675,000 incurred under a common plan with BeLeave, Vote Lead unlawfully overspent its £7m limit by £449,079. The Electoral Commission referred the matter to the police.[46]

Date Organisation Cause Penalty Sources
17 July 2018 Vote Leave Breaching statutory spending limit (responsible person: David Alan Halsall). £20,000 [31]
17 July 2018

19 July 2019

BeLeave Breaching statutory spending limit for a non-registered campaigner (responsible person: Darren Grimes).

On 19 July 2019, this was quashed by the High Court as the fine given by the Electoral Commission was found to be erroneous of fact, erroneous of law and was perversely unreasonable by the test of Wednesbury unreasonableness.


Quashed by the High Court


On 14 September 2018, following a High Court of Justice case, the court found that Vote Leave had received incorrect advice from the UK Electoral Commission, but confirmed that the overspending had been illegal. Vote Leave subsequently said they would not have overspent without the inaccurate advice and declared that they would appeal against their fine.[48][49] But on 29 March 2019 announced that they would not in fact make an appeal.[50]

Vote Leave attempted to prosecute the Electoral Commission for publishing its July 2018 report 'Report of an investigation in respect of: Vote Leave Limited, Mr Darren Grimes, BeLeave, Veterans for Britain', alleging that it had caused 'reputational damage', but their request for judicial review was rejected in January 2019, since the Electoral Commission's publication had been lawful.[51]

National Crime Agency and Metropolitan PoliceEdit

As of 19 June 2019, it was not yet clear if criminal charges would be brought in relation to any of the EU referendum investigations.[52] On 16 October 2018, a cross-party group of 77 MPs, including members of all the large parties, wrote to the Metropolitan Police and National Crime Agency to express concern that criminal investigations had perhaps stalled, and were told that investigations were ongoing.[53][54]

On 19 June 2019, Ben Bradshaw (Labour MP), Caroline Lucas (Green MP), Tom Brake (Liberal Democrat MP), Jenny Jones (Green lord) and Fiona Mactaggart (former Labour MP) applied for judicial review of the Metropolitan Police, arguing that criminal investigations had been unjustifiably delayed. The Metropolitan Police reported that investigation was ongoing.[52]

European ParliamentEdit

In 2016–18, the European Parliament found that the Alliance for Direct Democracy in Europe, a group of European political parties led by the United Kingdom Independence Party, had misspent over €500,000 of EU funding. Some of this was on UKIP's 2015 UK election campaign and opinion polling during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign. The Parliament required the repayment of the funds and denied the organisations some other funding.[55][56]

Venice CommissionEdit

On 19 June 2019, a cross-party group of 38 of the 73 UK Members of the European Parliament wrote to the Venice Commission, a body of the Council of Europe charged with assisting Council members regarding constitutional law, to request an investigation into "the breach of spending rules and data-protection laws" and "the exclusion of non-UK EU citizens residing in the UK from the franchise".[57]

Private prosecutionsEdit

In Wilson v Prime Minister, the claimants argued that illegality through Russian interference, criminal overspending by Vote Leave and criminal investigation into the largest donor, Arron Banks, before and during the referendum undermined the integrity of the result, and rendered the decision to leave void. The case was not upheld.

In Ball v Johnson, Marcus J. Ball brought a crowdfunded case against the MP and Vote Leave chairman Boris Johnson, alleging misconduct in public office on the grounds that he knowingly lied when claiming that the UK sent £350m to the EU each week and that this could instead be spent on the National Health Service. The first hearing, on 14 May 2019 at Westminster Magistrates' Court,[58] was followed by a public hearing on 23 May, and which Johnson's legal representatives reported that Johnson denied the allegations.[59][60] On 29 May, the district judge, Margot Coleman, concluded that there was a case to answer and that Johnson was to be tried.[61] Johnson responded by seeking judicial review of Coleman's decision, arguing that there was not a case to answer, and the decision was correspondingly quashed by Lady Justice Rafferty on 7 June 2019.[62][63]


House of CommonsEdit

Drawing partly on the government agencies' investigations into lawbreaking up to that point, the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee released an interim report on Disinformation and ‘fake news’, stating that the largest donor in the Brexit campaign, Arron Banks, had "failed to satisfy" the Committee that his donations came from UK sources, and may have been financed by the Russian government.[64] In February 2019, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee's 18-month investigation into disinformation and fake news published its final report,[65] calling for and inquiry to establish, in relation to the referendum, “what actually happened with regard to foreign influence, disinformation, funding, voter manipulation, and the sharing of data, so that appropriate changes to the law can be made and lessons can be learnt for future elections and referenda”.[66]


Some commentators opined that breaches of electoral law were unlikely to have had a substantive effect on the outcome of the EU Referendum. For example, in March 2018 The Economist asked

Does any of this matter beyond Westminster? If Vote Leave is found to have breached the rules, that will support the notion that Leavers played fast and loose in 2016. Yet Remainers spent a lot more, and benefited from a government leaflet costing £9m that openly backed their cause. On the evidence so far, it is hard to conclude that the 52:48 result was changed by digital marketing, however cleverly done.[67]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Jamie Doward, Carole Cadwalladr and Alice Gibbs, 'Watchdog to launch inquiry into misuse of data in politics', The Observer (4 March 2017).
  2. ^ a b Carole Cadwalladr, 'The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked', The Observer (Sunday 7 May 2017).
  3. ^ Information Commissioner's Office, 'Investigation into the use of data analytics in political campaigns: Investigation update' (11 July 2018).
  4. ^ Elizabeth Denham, 'The Information Commissioner opens a formal investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes', Information Commissioner's Blog (17 May 2017).
  5. ^ Sunny Hundal, 'Investigation launched into the 'secret world' of how millionaires used Facebook and other data to push Brexit', OpenDemocracy (17 May 2017).
  6. ^ Robert Verkaik and Emma Graham-Harrison, 'Judge orders Ukip to reveal Brexit referendum data use ', The Observer (14 April 2019).
  7. ^ Information Commissioner's Office, 'Democracy disrupted? Personal information and political influence' (11 July 2018).
  8. ^ Judge Wikeley, 'The Upper Tribunal (Administrative Appeals Chamber) Upper Tribnal Case No. GIA/2069/2018; Parties: United Kingdom Independence Party Ltd (Appellant) and The Information Commissioner (First Respondent)' (18 February 2019).
  9. ^ Robert Verkaik and Emma Graham-Harrison, 'Judge orders Ukip to reveal Brexit referendum data use ', The Observer (14 April 2019).
  11. ^ 'Vote Leave fined over thousands of unsolicited texts', BBC News (19 March 2019).
  12. ^ 'EU campaign firm fined for sending spam texts' (11 May 2016).
  13. ^ Information Commissioner's Office, 'Information Rights Report' (quarter 1, 2016/17), p. 30.
  14. ^ Information Commissioner's Office, 'Data Protection Act 1998: Supervisory Powers of the Information Commissioner monetary Penalty Notice' (1 February 2019).
  15. ^ Information Commissioner's Office, 'Data Protection Act 1998: Supervisory Powers of the Information Commissioner Monetary Penalty Notice' (1 February 2019).
  16. ^ Information Commissioner's Office, 'Data Protection Act 1998: Supervisory Powers of the Information Commissioner Monetary Penalty Notice' (1 February 2019).
  17. ^ Information Commissioner's Office, 'Data Protection Act 1998: Supervisory Powers of the Information Commissioner Enforcement Notice' (1 February 2019).
  18. ^ Information Commissioner's Office, 'ICO serves Enforcement Notice on SCL Elections Ltd over inadequate response to subject access request' (5 May 2018).
  19. ^ Information Commissioner's Office, 'Data Protection Act 1998: Supervisory Powers of the Information Commissioner Enforcement Notice' (4 May 2018).
  20. ^ Information Commissioner's Office, 'Enforcement Notice: The Data Protection Act 2018, Part 6, Section 149' (24 October 2018).
  21. ^ Information Commissioner's Office, 'ICO issues maximum £500,000 fine to Facebook for failing to protect users’ personal information' (25 October 2018).
  22. ^ Information Commissioner's Office, 'Data Protection Act 1998: Supervisory Powers of the Information Commissioner, Monetary Penalty Notice' (24 October 2018).
  23. ^ Julia Carrie Wong, 'Facebook to be fined $5bn for Cambridge Analytica privacy violations – reports', The Guardian (12 July 2019).
  24. ^ Election watchdog probes spending by EU referendum campaign groups, The Daily Telegraph (24 February 2017).
  25. ^ Maidment, Jack (19 December 2017) "Liberal Democrats fined £18,000 for breaching campaign finance rules relating to EU referendum". The Daily Telegraph.
  26. ^ Niall McCracken, 'Questions surround £6,000 fine linked to Northern Ireland political donation', thedetail (16 August 2017).
  27. ^ a b Niall McCracken, 'CRC Brexit donation to DUP not reported to watchdog', BBC News (19 December 2018).
  28. ^ a b Electoral Commission, 'Liberal Democrats fined £18,000 for breaches of campaign finance rules' (19 December 2019).
  29. ^ Electoral Commission, 'Report on an investigation in respect of the Leave.EU Group Limited Concerning pre-poll transaction reports and the campaign spending return for the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union' (11 May 2018).
  30. ^ a b Electoral Commission, 'Campaigners and political parties fined for breaching political finance rules' (15 May 2018).
  31. ^ a b c Electoral Commission, 'Report of an investigation in respect of: Vote Leave Limited, Mr Darren Grimes, BeLeave, Veterans for Britain' (17 July 2018).
  32. ^ a b c Henry Mance, Brexit-backer Arron Banks to be investigated over campaign spending, Financial Times (1 November 2017).
  33. ^ Holly Watt, Electoral Commission to investigate Arron Banks' Brexit donations: Watchdog to consider whether leave campaigner broke campaign finance rules in run-up to EU referendum, The Guardian (1 November 2017).
  34. ^ a b Electoral Commission, 'Report on investigation into payments made to Better for the Country and Leave.EU' (1 November 2018).
  35. ^ Henry Mance, Arron Banks investigated for Brexit campaign spending, Financial Times (1 November 2017).
  36. ^ House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 'Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Final Report', Eighth Report of Session 2017–19 [HC 1791] (House of Commons, 18 February 2019).
  37. ^ 'DUP's pro-Brexit advertising money was 'permissible'', BBC News (6 November 2018).
  38. ^ O'Toole, Fintan (16 May 2017) "What connects Brexit, the DUP, dark money and a Saudi prince?". The Irish Times.
  39. ^ Niall McCracken, 'DUP Brexit donation: Electoral Commission challenged', BBC News (20 December 2018).
  40. ^ Electoral Commission, 'Conclusion of assessments into allegations regarding certain EU Referendum campaigners' (3 August 2018).
  41. ^ Electoral Commission statement on investigation into Leave.EU, Electoral Commission (21 April 2017).
  42. ^ Electoral Commission, 'Report on an investigation in respect of the Leave.EU Group Limited Concerning pre-poll transaction reports and the campaign spending return for the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union' (11 May 2018).
  43. ^ a b "Leave.EU fined for multiple breaches of electoral law following investigation". The Electoral Commission. 11 May 2018
  44. ^ Weaver, Matthew (11 May 2018). "Leave.EU fined £70k over breaches of electoral law". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  45. ^ Samson, Adam (11 May 2018). "Leave.EU campaign fined by UK Electoral Commission". Financial Times. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  46. ^ a b 'Brexit: Vote Leave broke electoral law, says Electoral Commission', BBC News (17 July 2018).
  47. ^ Electoral Commission, 'Report of an investigation' (July 2018)
  48. ^ Smout, Alistair (14 September 2018). "UK court rules against electoral watchdog in Brexit spending row". Reuters. Retrieved 1 October 2018.
  49. ^ Coates, Sam (15 September 2018). "Electoral Commission suffers High Court defeat over Brexit expenses advice". The Times. Retrieved 1 October 2018.
  50. ^ 'Brexit: Vote Leave drops appeal against referendum spending fine' (29 March 2019).
  51. ^ Sian Harrison, 'Vote Leave LOSES bid to fight Brexit referendum spending watchdog in High Court', The Mirror (15 January 2019).
  52. ^ a b Peter Walker, 'MPs take Met to court over leave campaign investigation delays', The Guardian (19 June 2019).
  53. ^ Jon Stone, 'Brexit: MPs write to Met Police asking if government pushed for Vote Leave investigation to be "soft-pedalled"', The Independent (16 October 2018).
  54. ^ 'Metropolitan Police 'still assessing' whether Leave campaigns broke law', BBC News (2 November 2018).
  55. ^ Jennifer Rankin, 'Ukip-controlled group 'misspent' €500,000 on Brexit campaign', The Guardian (21 November 2016).
  56. ^ Jennifer Rankin, 'Ukip group fails in bid to restore EU funding amid fraud inquiry', The Guardian (9 February 2018).
  57. ^ Josiah Mortimer, 'MEPs demand international investigation into Tory handling of the EU elections', Left Foot Forward (19 June 2019).
  58. ^ Jonathon Read, 'Date set for court case which could prosecute Boris Johnson over £350 million EU referendum lie', The New European (6 May 2019).
  59. ^ Jonathan Ames, 'Boris Johnson faces court hearing over ‘Brexit lie’', The Times (15 May 2019).
  60. ^ Ben Quinn, 'Boris Johnson lied during EU referendum campaign, court told ', The Guardian (23 May 2019).
  61. ^ Lizzie Dearden, 'Boris Johnson must go on trial for 'lying and misleading' in Brexit campaign, judge orders', The Independent (29 May 2019).
  62. ^ 'Boris Johnson ‘to fight court summons’ over £350m Brexit bus misconduct case', The Independent (4 June 2019).
  63. ^ Nadeem Badshah, 'Boris Johnson wins court challenge over £350m Brexit claims', The Guardian (7 Jun 2019).
  64. ^ House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Interim Report (July 2018).ch 5, Russian influence in political campaigns
  65. ^ Pegg, David (18 February 2019). "Facebook labelled 'digital gangsters' by report on fake news". Retrieved 18 February 2019.
  66. ^ "Theresa May must investigate 'foreign influence and voter manipulation' in Brexit vote, say MPs". The Independent. 18 February 2019. Retrieved 18 February 2019.
  67. ^ 'Did Vote Leave cheat to win the Brexit referendum?', The Economist (27 March 2018).

External linksEdit