The UK’s director of public prosecutions (DPP)
is considering a criminal complaint into claims that leading pro-Brexit campaigns lied to voters before the referendum.
The complaint accuses the Vote Leave and Leave.EU campaigns of exerting “undue influence” on the referendum by knowingly making inaccurate claims about the EU, in contravention of electoral law.
It was made by an independent group led by Professor Bob Watt, an expert in electoral law at the University of Buckingham.
Watt told Business Insider on Tuesday that he and other electoral specialists sent a letter to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) detailing various allegations in October, and the DPP Alison Saunders confirmed on Monday she is “considering its contents.”
“During the campaign we were concerned about the way that truth seemed to go out the window, and more and more extravagant claims were made by both sides,” Watt told us over the phone.
“We came to the view that both sides were pretty dreadful. In our view, however, the Remain campaign made statements of belief and political intention — they would say, for example, “if we leave, there will have to be a really dreadful budget.” That was deplorable, but didn’t seem to us to amount to allegations of fact,” he said.
Watt said that the Leave campaign, on the other hand, made “substantial allegations of fact.”
their suggestion that the UK sends £350 million a week to the European Union, their claim that there are no border controls within the EU, and warning that Turkey was imminently joining the bloc. All of those claims, Watt said, were factual assertions that have since been proven to be wholly or substantially false. Watt said that leading figures within both Leave campaigns could theoretically be held criminally accountable if their actions are found to contravene
Section 115(2) of the 1983 Representation of the People Act, which states that a person is guilty of “undue influence” if “by contrivance … he or she impedes or prevents or intends to impede or prevent the free exercise of the franchise of an elector.”
The crime carries a theoretical sentence of up to a year in prison, even though Watt said anything beyond community service would be “highly unlikely,” even in the event of a successful prosecution.
He said: “If something is produced by an electoral campaign, it’s the job of the DPP to look at who was responsible for making those statements. One might reasonably imagine that being somebody like Dominic Cummings [campaign director of Vote Leave].”
Cummings was forced to give evidence to the Treasury’s Select Committee over his campaign’s promotion of allegedly inaccurate claims, and
told committee head Andrew Tyrie MP at the hearing that “accuracy is for snake-oil p*****s.”
Watt said that many people believe the case doesn’t have a “snowball’s chance in hell,” but cited two cases in recent years when politicians were successfully prosecuted —
the case of Labour MP Fiona Jones in 1999, and a 2011 case in which Tory peer Lord Hanningfield was jailed for fiddling expenses.
“It is about making sure that our policy operates in a proper way — it should be a good, clean fight.”
“Frankly I wouldn’t have wasted my time — and it was a considerable amount of time — if we didn’t think it could go ahead,” he said.
He said that since the news broke on Monday, both he and his secretary have received a stream of abuse from pro-Brexit campaigners who believe he is trying to undermine the referendum, but that he could handle the abuse and negative headlines so long as they are not directed at his family or colleagues.
what The Sun says,” Watt added, “I am not a die hard Remainer — nor am I bonkers.”
“This is not about a mission or a campaign,” he said. “It is about making sure that our policy operates in a proper way — it should be a good, clean fight.”
Business Insider recently reported on a similar legal case launched by campaigner Marcus Ball,
who raised over £145,000 to hire lawyers who he hopes will prosecute politicians who lied in the run-up to the referendum.
Watt had been working with Ball until shortly before the complaint was formally submitted, but says that they disagreed on the line of argument it should follow and parted ways.
Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who campaigned for Brexit, told The Sun newspaper that the move was a “mutton-headed decision which brings the impartiality of the CPS and Ms Saunders into question.”
If the case goes to court, it must be heard by 24 June next year, as legal complaints have a 12-month expiry date. Watt expects to hear if the case will progress within the next month, however.
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