Labour has called for an investigation into an “alleged misuse of public funds” over the targeting of Facebook ads about the government’s Towns Fund at key marginal seats in the run up to the 2019 general election.
In a letter to the Electoral Commission seen by HuffPost UK, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs Cat Smith MP has urged that the body to look into the 20 ads that boasted £25m investment in “your town”.
The messages still visible on Facebook after MPs backed an early general election last year appeared to be targeted specifically at seats with a majority of less than 5,000 votes, including Milton Keynes, Workington and Morley.
Labour’s Cat Smith wrote to Electoral Commission chief executive Bob Posner: “On the cusp of a general election, this sort of targeted advertising is clearly inappropriate when paid for out of the public purse.
“This is a clear case of public money being used to advance the political interest of the Conservative Party. In light of the recent Towns Fund scandal, we know that taxpayers’ money has been used to benefit the Conservative Party.”
She added: “In a time of increasing disregard for democratic processes and norms worldwide, it is vital that the UK government is held to the highest democratic standards and acts both legally and transparently.
“I would urge the Electoral Commission to investigate the circumstances of this alleged misuse of public funds, and to report on its findings publicly as soon as possible.
“Ministers must answer these questions and reassure the public that taxpayers’ cash is not being spent by the Conservatives for their own gain.”
The letter from Smith follows comments made by Labour frontbencher Steve Reed, who voiced concerns in parliament last week that the £3.6bn Towns Fund was used to “boost the Conservative Party’s general election campaign”.
The Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary asked his opposite number to publish in full the advice and criteria used when ministers “funnelled millions of pounds to each other’s constituencies ahead of the general election”.
Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick refused to do as “accounting officer assessments are not routinely published” and insisted that a “robust process was established” for allocating the funds.
The public accounts committee stated in a a report published earlier this month that it was “not convinced by the rationales for selecting some towns and not others” and concluded that the process “was not impartial”.
Jenrick has been called to the Commons several times to answer questions on the issue, and Labour last month demanded that the Cabinet Office look into his role in the controversial application of the fund established in the summer of 2019.
Labour highlighted the allocation of funding to his constituency Newark, which is ranked as the 270th most deprived area, alongside 99 other towns. 32 on the list fell outside the 300 worst-off in England, according to the Office for National Statistics.