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Great Britain has a number of laws designed to ensure that money donated to political parties and candidates are regulated through reporting requirements on the parties and candidates and through spending limits.  Donations above specified amounts may only be received from “permissible donors.” Foreign individuals and foreign registered companies are precluded from this definition and thus are not permitted to make large donations to political parties or candidates.  However, there does not appear to be any restriction on the employment of foreign staff by political parties or candidates.  Digital campaigns have caused the Electoral Commission concern that foreign individuals and companies may be circumventing the law by spending money on digital advertisements from their home countries when they would be prohibited from doing so from within Great Britain.  The Commission has made a number of recommendations that the law be clarified to ensure this action is explicitly prohibited.

I. Prohibitions on Receipt of Foreign Contributions

The current law regarding campaign financing in Great Britain[1] is contained in the Representation of the People Act 1983;[2] the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000;[3] and the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009.[4]  The system in Great Britain of regulating campaign financing focuses on limiting the expenditure of political parties and individual candidates one year prior to a general election and making reporting requirements transparent rather than simply limiting the amount of donations that can be received by these parties and individuals. 

While there are no limits on the amount of donations that political parties may receive, there are laws that govern who may be a donor and limits on spending by political parties, candidates, and third parties wishing to promote parties or candidates.  The aim of the law is to regulate donations through transparency, as political parties, candidates, and third-party campaigners must make their finances public.[5] 

A. Donations to Political Parties

Political parties may accept donations above £500 (approximately US$630) only from “permissible donors.”[6]  Donations are defined in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to include gifts of money and property; subscriptions and affiliation fees; sponsorship; money spent on behalf of a party; the provision of property, services, or facilities; or the lending of money other than at commercial rates.[7]  A “permissible donor” is defined to include an individual registered on a UK electoral register, a UK-registered political party, a UK-registered company, a UK-registered trade union, a UK-registered building society, a UK-registered limited liability partnership, or a UK-based unincorporated association.[8] 

Thus, foreign donors other than those that meet the criteria above are not considered to be permissible donors and thus may not donate more than £500 (approximately US$630) to political parties.  If a donation is received from a donor that does not fall into these categories, the political party must return the donation or, if the donor cannot be identified, return the money to the Electoral Commission.[9]  If the Electoral Commission believes that a political party has received a donation from a “non-permissible source,” they may seek a forfeiture order in court for the value of the donation.[10]  It is an offense to not provide information about donors, or facilitate donations to a political party from non-permissible sources, punishable with up to one year of imprisonment.[11]

B. Candidates

Donations to candidates are considered to include money or other property; sponsorship; expenses incurred by other parties on behalf of the candidate; loans; or the provision of property, services, or facilities not on commercial terms.[12]  There are no limits on the donations that electoral candidates may receive other than that, as with political parties, donations over a specified amount must come from permissible donors, and in the case of candidates the limit is set at £50 (approximately US$70).[13]

C. Third-Party Expenditure

Individuals or organizations and companies registered in the European Union (EU) who are not candidates or political parties and who spend money during the regulated period[14] in a manner that “can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the electoral success of a party or candidates” are known as nonparty, or third-party,[15] campaigners.   Any of these individuals or  entities that spend more than £20,000 (approximately US$25,000) in England, or £10,000 (approximately US$12,500) in Scotland or Northern Ireland, must be registered under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and must meet its rule on expenditure, with limits and reporting requirements.[16]  The following individuals and entities are able to register as third-party campaigners: Individuals resident in the UK or registered on the UK electoral register;[17] companies registered in the UK or incorporated in the UK or an EU Member State that carry on business in the UK; registered parties; UK-registered trade unions; and certain UK-registered charities, partnerships, associations, and societies.[18]

While this section of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 appears to preclude overseas individuals or overseas-based organizations from engaging in campaigning, the Electoral Commission is of the opinion that the Act is not sufficiently explicit in prohibiting these individuals or entities from engaging in campaign activity from overseas.[19]  It notes that the Act was written to address concerns that foreign nationals would donate money to political parties and, at the time the law was drafted, the government “had not seen the potential for foreign sources to directly purchase campaign advertising in the UK.”[20]

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II. Employing Foreign Campaign Staff

Other than meeting immigration laws by ensuring that, if employed in Great Britain, any foreign national is lawfully able to work in the UK, there does not appear to be any restriction on the nationality of individuals hired by campaigners in the UK.  For political parties and referendum campaigners, any money spent on staff they directly employ to work on their election and referendum campaigns does not count towards spending limits.  In certain circumstances where a volunteer uses property, services or equipment, this may be considered notional expenditure (incurred when another person pays the cost that the political party would have otherwise had to pay) and be counted as a campaign expenditure incurred by the party.[21] 

The money spend on staff by registered third-party campaigners and candidates counts towards spending limits and these expenses must be reported.[22]   The Electoral Commission has recommended for a number of years that the costs of employing staff by political parties should count towards the spending limits and that to do so “would close an obvious gap and inconsistency in the rules that allows political parties and referendum campaigners to spend potentially large sums of money on campaigning without having to declare them.”[23]

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III. Campaign Donations by Foreign Companies

Companies registered in either the UK or an EU Member State carrying on a business in the UK are considered to be permissible donors and can donate or lend money to political parties or candidates, and/or register as third-party campaigners.[24]  The Electoral Commission has noted that the law currently allows foreign companies to use subsidiaries registered in the UK that do business there, but that do not necessarily generate money, to give or lend money sourced from outside the UK to campaigners in the UK.  The Electoral Commission recommends that Parliament clarify the law that any money donated or loaned to campaigners must have been generated in the UK, and noted this would have to be done carefully to ensure that the law can be enforced and that it is carefully balanced with the need to ensure freedom of expression.[25]

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IV. Dissemination of Election Information through Mass Media

The focus on digital advertisements in Great Britain in relation to the current electoral financing laws is to ensure that any costs and expenditure connected with producing and/or disseminating digital materials are appropriately recorded and reported.[26]  Currently, expenditure on this type of advertising must be reported in accordance with the various provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 depending upon whether it is spent by the party, a candidate, or a registered third-party campaigner.  The Electoral Commission has expressed concern that the compilation of datasets and databases that are utilized for targeted digital advertisements may occur before the regulated period and thus fall outside the expenditure and reporting period for political parties, candidates, and registered third-party campaigners.  It has recommended that that parties should declare an estimate of any expenditure the party or candidate has invested purchasing or developing any data they hold when they register as a party or candidate.[27]

The Electoral Commission has provided further guidance over the application of this law to digital materials and advertisements, stating as follows:

The rules do cover the costs of placing adverts on digital platforms or websites. They include the costs of distributing and targeting digital campaign materials or developing and using databases for digital campaigning. This applies even if the original purchase of hardware or software materials falls outside the regulated period for reporting spending. Spending limits and rules to report spending apply to campaign spending on advertising. The same rules apply whether campaigners use long-standing techniques, such as printed mailshots or billboards, or newer ones, such as emails and online adverts.[28]

As noted above, the Electoral Commission has stated that while there is a general principle in Great Britain that funding from overseas is not permitted, “the rules do not explicitly ban overseas spending.”[29]  This has meant that foreign nationals who would be unable to register as third-party campaigners in Great Britain, which may include foreign nation states, private organizations, and individuals, are able to purchase digital advertisements in their home country and target voters in Great Britain.[30]

The Electoral Commission has recommended that the government introduce legislation to specifically prohibit campaign spending from overseas.  The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has also called for the government to

review[] the current rules on overseas involvement in our UK elections to ensure that foreign interference in UK elections, in the form of donations, cannot happen. We also need to be clear that Facebook, and all platforms, have a responsibility to comply with the law and not to facilitate illegal activity.[31]

The Electoral Commission has further recommended that the law be updated to require any digital material to have an imprint that states who created and funded the campaign and to increase transparency by requiring  more detailed invoices for digital advertisements.[32]

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Clare Feikert-Ahalt
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
August 2019


[1] This report will focus on the law of Great Britain, which comprises England, Wales and Scotland.  The law applicable in Northern Ireland is similar but with minor differences.

[2] Representation of the People Act 1983, c. 2, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1983/2, archived at https://perma.cc/4ZLU-PJ4F.

[3] Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, c. 41, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2000/41, archived at https://perma.cc/CL4C-FEY8.

[4] Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, c. 12, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2009/12, archived at https://perma.cc/E4HK-BRP8

[5] Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, c. 41, pts IV-VI. 

[6] Id. § 54.

[7] Id. § 50.

[8] Id. § 54.

[9] Id. §§ 56–57.

[10] Id. § 58.

[11] Id. § 61 & sched. 20.

[12] Representation of the People Act 1983, sched. 2A.

[13] Id. § 71A & sched. 2A.

[14] The regulated period for general elections currently begins 365 days before the date of the election.  The Electoral Commission, Regulated Periods for Political Parties: Elections in May 2016 at 4, http://www. electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0015/193002/Regulated-periods-for-political-parties-elections-in-May-2016.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/Q24F-5MF8.

[15] Non-Party Campaigners, The Electoral Commission, https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/i-am-a/party-or-campaigner/non-party-campaigners (last visited July 2, 2019), archived at https://perma.cc/U2XE-78VV.

[16] Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, § 85(2).

[17] Id. § 88.

[18] Id. §§ 54 & 88.

[21] Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, § 73.

[22] Electoral Commission, UK Parliamentary General Election 2017 Great Britain: Guidance for Candidates and Agents 8, https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/ 0019/214516/UKPGE-Part-3-Spending-and-donations.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/A8SX-D4ZS.

[23] Electoral Commission, Digital Campaigning: Increasing Transparency for Voters, supra note 19, ¶ 86.

[24] Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 § 54. See also Electoral Commission, Digital Campaigning: Increasing Transparency for Voters supra note 19,¶ 93.

[25] Electoral Commission, Digital Campaigning: Increasing Transparency for Voters supra note 19, ¶¶ 93-95.

[26] See, e.g., Code of Practice: Political Parties (Current Draft), Electoral Commission, https://www.electoral commission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0015/246120/Political-parties-code-of-practice.pdf (last visited June 25, 2019), archived at https://perma.cc/79KL-GK4L.

[27] Electoral Commission, Digital Campaigning: Increasing Transparency for Voters, supra note 19, ¶¶ 102-103.

[29] Electoral Commission, Digital Campaigning: Increasing Transparency for Voters, supra note 19, ¶ 86.

[30] Id. ¶ 86.  See also Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Disinformation and ‘Fake News’: Final Report (2018-19) H.C. 1791, ¶ 267, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmcumeds/ 1791/1791.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/54BK-ZNPE.

[31] Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, supra note 30,¶ 267.

[32] Electoral Commission, Digital Campaigning: Increasing Transparency for Voters, supra note 19, ¶ 103. 

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Last Updated: 12/30/2020