Image: Fernando Butcher via Flickr / Creative Commons Licence

During the 12 years the UK’s had an operational Freedom of Information law, there have been many victories for those seeking transparency around the democratic process. Some have been more influential than others.

With the continued fallout from the Brexit vote, FOI once again has an important place in attempts to shine a light into potentially murky corners of public life. On November 20, the Electoral Commission, responsible for regulating political party spending and elections, announced it was reopening its investigation into 2016’s referendum.

At the center of this renewed investigation is Vote Leave Limited (which campaigned for an out vote), Darren Grimes (a student who ran a campaign called BeLeave), and Veterans for Britain (which campaigned around defence and security issues).

Days before the referendum, Vote Leave gave Grimes around £675,000 to spend on his campaign. Money was also given to the Veterans group. It’s said this money wasn’t paid directly to the groups and was instead paid to a social media company called AggregateIQ. How this happened and if the spending was co-ordinated could result in election laws being broken.

However, the Commission’s investigation wouldn’t totally have come about (in part) without the UK’s FOI law. The Commission previously said it the spending had been an “acceptable method of donating,” according to a BBC report, and it didn’t find any reasonable grounds to believe referendum rules had been overstated.

The new investigation comes after FOI was used by journalist Jenna Corderoy and WhatDoTheyKnow to reveal correspondence between the Commission and Grimes. The emails were published by The Ferret and openDemocracy. The documents show email discussions between Grimes and the Commission about the money, with officials saying some of the spending was “unusual”.

“But, as the FOI responses show, Darren Grimes didn’t actually spend any of the £675,000 himself,” The Ferret wrote. “All the donations were paid directly by pro-Leave campaigners to AggregateIQ, to cover BeLeave’s bills for its social media campaign.”

After the FOI requests revealed extra details about the Commission’s initial investigation, Jolyon Maugham QC who runs the Good Law Project launched a judicial review against the Electoral Commission. “It [the documents] was passed to me, and reading it I was shocked by the quality of the commission’s investigation,” Maugham wrote in The Guardian. “It appeared to me to have failed to ask even the most basic facts.”

“The day before it had to file its formal case in the high court, the Electoral Commission caved,” Maugham says. The investigation was reopened and the regulator asked whether the high court case would be dropped (Maugham refused).

As a result, the Commission says it will “look at” whether Grimes, Veterans for Britain, or Vote Leave delivered incorrect spending returns. And, in the case of the latter, whether it “exceeded its spending limit in the referendum”. Bob Posner, legal counsel for the regulator, said in a statement that there’s a “significant public interest in being satisfied that the facts are known”. Time will tell.

I am a journalist and author. I am a journalist at the UK edition of WIRED magazine. In 2015, my first book Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists, was published. My second book Reed Hastings: Building Netflix, was published in March 2020. I created FOI Directory in 2012 and have maintained it in my spare time ever since.