Exclusive: Electoral Commission Urged To Investigate Facebook Ads For Towns Fund

Rachel Wearmouth
·2-min read
Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks away after driving a Union flag-themed JCB, with the words
Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks away after driving a Union flag-themed JCB, with the words

The election watchdog faces calls to investigate Facebook ads about the government’s controversial Towns Fund targeted at key marginal seats in 2019.

HuffPost UK revealed last year that the government paid for more than 20 ads in swing seats trumpeting £25m investment in “your town”.

The messages, which could still be found on the site when MPs backed an early general election in October, all appeared to be specifically targeted at areas where the sitting MP had a majority below 5,000, such as Milton Keynes, Morley and Workington.

Facebook pulled the ads after they were highlighted, saying they were not correctly labelled.

“Ads about social issues, elections or politics that appear on our platforms should include a disclaimer provided by advertisers,” a spokesman for the site said.

Now, Labour has written to the Electoral Commission asking the body to “investigate the circumstances of this alleged misuse of public funds”.

It follows fresh questions for communities secretary Robert Jenrick, whose Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government runs the scheme, who has repeatedly been called to parliament to answer questions about whether the fund was used to “funnel” cash to target seats.

The government has insisted the process “comprehensive, robust and fair” but a highly critical report by the Public Accounts Committee said the fund was “not impartial” and ministers ignored officials’ advice.

Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, said the system gave “every appearance of having been politically motivated”.

MPs also said some towns were picked by ministers, including Jenrick’s own Newark constituency, “despite being identified by officials as the very lowest priority”.

Cat Smith, shadow minister, has written to Bob Posner, chief executive of the Electoral Commission.

Facebook ads which were targeted at election battlegrounds in 2019
Facebook ads which were targeted at election battlegrounds in 2019

In the letter, seen by HuffPost UK, she says: “On the cusp of a general election, this sort of targeted advertising is clearly inappropriate when paid for...

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