Now ministers have announced that a new Elections Bill will remove its ability to prosecute criminal offences under electoral law – arguing it “wastes public money”.
The watchdog launched an immediate protest, warning the move would “place a fetter on the commission which would limit its activity”.
The shake-up was condemned as a “thinly-veiled government power grab” by the Electoral Reform Society.
Cat Smith, Labour’s shadow minister for democracy, said: “It is not for any government to dictate the priorities of an independent watchdog. This is yet another attempt by the Conservatives to rig democracy in their favour.”
Parliament’s standards chief has stepped back from her own probe into flat makeover – which saw a Tory donor originally fund the lavish redecoration – while the commission does its work.
Amid that furore, it was widely anticipated that the government would back away from changes that would be seen as enfeebling the commission.
But Chloe Smith, the constitution minister, insisted “the proper place for criminal investigations and prosecutions relating to electoral law is with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service”.
“In recent years, the Electoral Commission has sought to develop the capability to bring criminal offences before the courts,” she said. “This has never been agreed by the government or Parliament.
“Having the Electoral Commission step into this space would risk wasting public money as well as present potential conflicts of interest for a body responsible for providing advice and guidance on electoral law to initiate proceedings which might depend on the very advice that was given.”
Jess Garland, the Electoral Reform Society’s policy director, said: “The government is on the one hand creating new rules for the Electoral Commission to enforce – while at the same time reducing its independence, extending political influence over what should be a neutral body,” said.
“The Electoral Commission is the UK’s number one experts on Britain’s complex electoral law, so it is vital it retains the ability to raise alleged wrongdoing in the courts.”
The shake-up will also see a Commons committee – with a Conservative majority – set strategic priorities, in a further perceived undermining of the watchdog’s impartiality.
A commission spokesperson said: “Parliamentary oversight and scrutiny of the commission’s activities are essential in ensuring the commission commands trust and confidence.
“It is important, however, that the commission’s independence is preserved and that it is able to continue to deliver all duties within its remit, including effective enforcement.
“Some changes announced today place a fetter on the commission which would limit its activity. We will work with the government to explore these areas.”