Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I start by welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, to his first debate in the Moses Room. It is a gruelling ordeal that he faces but I am sure he will come through with flying colours.
This is the first of two debates the House will be holding this week on opinion polls. Part two comes tomorrow on the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, providing for the regulation of opinion polling. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, will be discussing in particular the polls and general election of 2015. That is a very hot topic and I look forward to contributing to the debate, which has attracted some distinguished and knowledgeable speakers. This afternoon I want to concentrate on something much narrower: the increasing problem of polls conducted by pollsters that are designed to achieve only the results that those who commission them require.
Let me say straight away that many polls commissioned by bodies with an interest are scrupulously conducted. I am sure that that was true of everything done by the noble Lord, Lord Cooper, at Populus. As it happens, on the way in I was looking at a YouGov poll on immigration and it was scrupulous, with absolutely balanced questions. However, alas, other companies will stop at nothing to get the results the commissioner wants. I will concentrate today on one example, on which I wrote to all Peers on 27 March. The company concerned is ComRes and the poll was on mitochondrial transfer. It figured largely in the House’s debate on the subject on 24 February. Replying to that debate, the noble Earl, Lord Howe—for whom the adjective “saintly” might have been invented—was uncharacteristically fierce. This is what he said:
“My noble friend also referred to the ComRes poll and suggested that we had somehow unfairly dismissed it. The ComRes poll was commissioned by the CARE organisation—Christian Action Research and Education—which I understand opposes the introduction of mitochondrial donation. An evaluation of the survey was conducted by Pier Logistics and Gene Rowe Evaluations. The evaluators considered the survey to be a deeply flawed piece of work. They criticised the intentional use of what they described as, ‘sensationalist, inflammatory and misleading language to characterize the debate’. There was also considered to be, ‘An unreasonable degree of selectivity within respondents’ informational options’”—
that means what respondents were told—
“‘and the intimation of an exercise focused on the generation of self-ordained results’”—
in other words, what pollsters wanted.
“The evaluation summary commented that the survey was, ‘a good example of poor public consultation’”.—[Official Report, 24/2/15; col. 1621.]
Now, I have some experience of polling. I advised Jim Callaghan on polls. Unfortunately, he did not take my advice to go to the country in 1978—otherwise who knows what might have happened to history since? I commissioned polls for the Sunday Times. I was a member of the advisory committee of NatCen, an academic pollster, and I am co-chair of the All-Party Group on Statistics. I believe in polling. Good polling can contribute to public policy-making in a democracy. But it has to be good polling and this ComRes poll is not good polling. It is polling ruthlessly designed by an organisation driven by faith—that is, CARE—and a polling company driven by greed to get the answers it wanted.
Moreover, ComRes has previous in this field. CARE again asked it to design a poll showing public opposition to the Dignity in Dying campaign and the Bill it was promoting. I remember being involved at the time and, again, twisted questions were shamelessly paraded in a bid to persuade policymakers that the public was opposed to legislative change. This kind of polling is not helpful to anyone. Classically, when I wrote to ComRes to say that I was approaching Peers about its poll, which I have already discussed, its reaction was to threaten me with legal action. That is not how debate should be conducted in a democracy.
So what should we do about this? One thing would be to leave it to the market. ComRes has been well and truly rumbled on this occasion, and its reputation will suffer as a result. I hope that I have had some success in persuading noble Lords not to agree to participate in future ComRes polling—I certainly will not myself after this experience. In any case, any organisation thinking of commissioning the company will think twice, because it will know that, again, it will be a twisted poll and will be the subject of ridicule by Peers, MPs, and even journalists. It is of some consolation to me that the mitochondrial poll, which was much quoted in our debate, received practically no national press publicity. I think that that was because the questions were so blatantly loaded that even without careful study it was obvious that it amounted to nothing. However, I do not think that relying on the market is good enough—not all such crooked polls will be as easily identified, other firms may be tempted down the ComRes route, and propaganda dressed as evidence may become endemic. Therefore, some form of regulation is required.
Unfortunately, existing regulation is inadequate. Faced with the ComRes poll, my first thought was to appeal to the British Polling Council—surely that is what it is for. But it is not. The British Polling Council is a perfectly good organisation—I am thrilled with the inquiry it has set up into the failings of the polls during the general election, so I do not criticise it—but its remit is incredibly tightly restricted. It makes sure that polls publish the questions that they ask—the size of their samples and the techniques they use, which is of course a very good thing—but it does not have any rules that dictate that the questions must be fair and not loaded, and so it is inadequate.
I turn next to the Market Research Society, whose slogan, with which I strongly agree, is “Evidence Matters”. The rules at the MRS are not very specific, but there is a general principle that:
“Researchers shall protect the reputation and integrity of the profession”,
on which I have hung my complaint. However, it must be said that by no means all polling companies are members of the MRS, so I have had to find an individual member within the company I am complaining about, Mr Andrew Hawkins, the chairman—who is a member—and that way I am able to pursue the complaint. I will see how I get on; I do not wish to prejudge that in any way. However, that does not amount to an adequate system of regulation.
One alternative would of course be direct state regulation—it would be easy for people reading the terms of my question to think that I am in favour of that—but despite the wording of the question, I rather hope that the Government are not contemplating statutory regulation, at least for now.
This is about what would be effective. If you put in statutory rules—I know this, having been on the Personal Investment Authority, which has incredible powers; there are papers 12 miles thick—companies then set out to find ways to evade the regulations. Again, as we know, in the area of financial services they have been pretty effective at it. What is needed in the polling industry is a change of culture—or rather the culture that is applied by the best should be applied to the whole industry and not be circumvented by Johnny-come-latelys, those on the make, and so on.
A change of culture is more likely to happen if it is done by self-regulation, where you are judged by a group of your peers, rather than by imposed external regulation. Ideally, therefore, I would like to see a self-regulator modelled on the Advertising Standards Authority, on whose council I was once privileged to sit. I know that my noble friend Lady Hayter has reservations about the ASA; that is because all my complaints are upheld and all hers are turned down, to summarise in shorthand. Seriously, however, it does have the respect of the advertising industry and the public, and I believe that most people have confidence in its rules.
Maybe good will triumph in this, or maybe it will not, with companies such as ComRes willing to stoop low to make a quick buck and continuing to prosper. I do not know why the noble Lord, Lord McColl, says, “disgraceful”. He will get a chance to make his own speech; if he wishes to defend these practices, he can do so then. It would be a sad outcome if companies such as ComRes triumph, and this is where the Minister comes in. As I have said, I do not look to him to promise state regulation—I hope that he will not—but I look to him to express ministerial concern and to urge the industry to consider its own regulation. If the industry had the impression that if it did not act the Government might have to consider doing so, it would be a very good thing and would get the right kind of self-regulation in place.
My Lords, I think it was generally accepted that the 2015 election was not the pollsters’ finest hour, although I have to admit that I, too, got it wrong: I predicted to my friends a Conservative majority of 20, so I was out by eight seats. The vast majority of companies in the industry predicted the vote shares of most of the parties correctly within the margin of error, and several were within the margin of error on all vote shares.
The British Polling Council and the Market Research Society were exceptionally fast in, first, recognising that things had not gone as well as they should have, and, secondly, setting up a comprehensive review under the auspices of Professor Patrick Sturgis at Southampton University. That review has yet to hear evidence—its first session is actually tomorrow—so we should not prejudge its outcome.
That said, the vast majority of polls during the campaign pointed to a much closer result than we eventually saw and it is right to consider the implications of that variance. Establishing a regulatory authority to regularise question wording and sample design, far from increasing the accuracy of polling, has the potential to compound the problem further. All scientific inquiry relies on a cycle of experiment, evaluation and modulation. Polling firms ought to be encouraged to experiment with novel methods and trial their own question wording and sample design, rather than being prevented from doing so. It is also in their commercial interests to try to out-compete their rivals and develop more accurate methods, and we ought to cheer them on as they do so.
With regard to a ban on publication of opinion polls before elections, we should remember that it is voters, not polls, which change election outcomes. A ban would not prevent such polls from being conducted; rather, it would lead to a small number of wealthy individuals and organisations being the only ones with privileged information, leaving the wider public at a disadvantage. Even if we wished to deny voters access to this type of information, in the 21st century it would be impossible to do so. The internet makes a mockery of enforced censorship. We could try to emulate the practice of North Korea and prevent our own citizens having information which is so freely available throughout the rest of the world, but it simply would not work. Political bloggers such as Guido Fawkes use servers in countries such as Ireland and the United States which the Government could not block even if they wished to. British voters would therefore be left open to the unchecked rumours and misinformation that would result from such a ban.
The idea of a voluntary agreement not to publish is interesting, but I suspect that it would ultimately be doomed to fail. The question of who enters into the agreement is fundamental. Even if all the established members of the British Polling Council agreed not to publish polling in the final week before an election, it would not prevent new entrants and overseas pollsters doing so.
The polling industry may be licking its wounds but I do not doubt its integrity in seeking honest answers from the post-election inquiry. We must be able to hear the results of that and understand what went wrong before leaping for the statute book. We are privileged in this country to have a polling profession which, through the good offices of self-regulatory bodies such the British Polling Council, is clearly committed to transparency. That is quite a rarity. In the United States, for example, voters have access to a far poorer quality and quantity of information about individual polls. The industry here ought to be commended for its transparency. Our role should be to recognise and encourage that and to find ways of enabling more and greater competition to encourage greater accuracy.
I am concerned about what has been said about the ComRes polling for the charity CARE in relation to the proposed three-parent, pronuclear and maternal spindle transfer techniques. In addressing this subject I should declare an interest: I have worked closely with CARE over the years. It has provided me with invaluable assistance, especially in relation to my human trafficking Bill. Criticism of this polling seems to hang very much on a report commissioned by the Wellcome Trust—one of the principal advocates for changing the law to permit the controversial procedures—to critique some of the polling in question. That report is deeply flawed in four respects.
First, and most importantly, the report criticises the polling against benchmarks that would be appropriate only if a deliberative public consultation was being discussed, in which lots of background information could be provided. Both more deliberative public consultation exercises and polling have their place and their respective strengths and weaknesses, but to critique one against the standards of the other is to make a very basic blunder. While deliberative public consultations can contain lots of information and nuance, and can in turn receive lots of information and nuance, polls cannot do so. The questions have to be relatively short, and as long as they can provide a range of responses other than simple yes or no answers, the responses are predetermined.
The CARE poll questions were designed very obviously to measure public opinion on pronuclear and maternal spindle transfer as these were defined in common parlance by the media, which spoke almost universally about “three-parent embryos” and “three-parent children”. Far from it being inappropriate to design questions reflecting that terminology, it would have been illogical and poor research practice not to do so. Moreover, as a matter of scientific fact, the designations “three-parent children” or “three-parent embryos”, while disliked by some, were not inaccurate, in that the resulting children will have DNA from three rather than two parents.
The aim of the questions has also been misrepresented. Their aim was first to track basic attitudes in response to the information gleaned by the public through the media, and, secondly, to test responses to a range of arguments both in favour of and against permitting the procedure. This is basic standard practice in any campaign. The purpose of testing arguments in favour of the procedure is to understand which of one’s opponent’s arguments are the strongest and which are the weakest. The purpose of testing arguments against the procedure is to recognise which arguments are the strongest for CARE itself to deploy. Publishing all the results was not an attempt to distort public discourse but rather to ensure that CARE and ComRes were compliant with the British Polling Council requirement for full transparency.
Secondly, the report objected to the polling on the basis that it had been commissioned by an organisation opposed to the introduction of PNT and MST. I found that rather odd. Most polls are commissioned by organisations that want to test public opinion to see whether it fits with their own position. To suggest that this is somehow inappropriate is to misunderstand polling completely. Indeed, the point has been made that the report commissioned by the Wellcome Trust has been commissioned by a body with a very clear agenda. The irony of its position, however, does not seem to have occurred to it. None of us approaches these things from a position of value neutrality. For the record, as a doctor, I am very much opposed to the use of pronuclear transfer but am more open to the use of maternal spindle transfer. Thirdly, the report seeks to criticise the polling on the basis of an assessment of the press coverage secured, which is entirely irrelevant to the efficacy of the polling in question. Fourthly, the report lays great stress on stakeholder interviews but is entirely lacking in transparency. Parliament has looked at these matters and decided what it has to do.
In conclusion, I state that ComRes did not threaten to sue the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, but the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, pointed out to it that he intended to have a debate in your Lordships’ House, which would, of course, be privileged.
My Lords, I want to look at opinion poll industry regulation in a general way, rather than focusing on a particular case, as the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord McColl, have done.
In the spirit of the Motion I am going to offer an opinion. My first point is about opinion itself. Opinion is, by definition, fragile and changeable. It is lite—that is L-I-T-E, for Hansard—and that is very different from attitudes and prejudices, which are firm and more long-standing. We live in a time of opinion, when people just tweet things without much thought—bang, out goes the view. Very few people now are paid-up members of political parties, unions or churches because they want to live in a freer world of opinion, not of attitudes and prejudices. That means that politicians and churches, but also pollsters, have to work a lot harder at trying to capture what is in our minds, because we live in this world of opinion. It means that opinion polls are inherently inadequate in giving an objective view, because they are not dealing with objective elements in people’s minds. We have to be very careful in trying to regulate something that we cannot control or weigh the expectations of very easily.
I want to look at the 2015 election, which seems to have raised a lot of questions about the polling industry. This illustrates my point about the nature of opinion and how fragile and shifting it always is. I invite noble Lords to think about the difference between being asked to answer a set series of questions and going into a particular context—a booth in a polling station—for a private moment of making a decision with a pencil and a piece of paper. They are very different moments of the mind, of engagement, of thoughtfulness. The attempt to correlate them by the opinion poll industry will therefore always be rough and inexact. We have to be careful about comparing and assuming a necessary correlation between the views expressed when there is a set series of questions and voting and acting privately in a particular moment.
Like religion, politics requires an extended conversation that helps opinion find its place in a bigger scenario. That is why good politics, like good religion, works through conversation. In theology, when we try to interpret the word or words, we practise what we call hermeneutics. Some of your Lordships will know that Hermes was the Greek messenger god—the god of travellers, because there is movement, and also the god of thieves, because there is sometimes destruction and disruption. Real meaning and values in human life come from conversation that is extended, set out and developed, and within which people have opinions. We are influenced by forces that are not easily measurable by one set of answers in any one moment, because we are influenced by our intuitions, feelings, hopes and fears. Those things do not fit into a person’s predetermined set of questions captured in a moment, which we have to answer in a way that is measurable alongside the answers of others. The material that the pollsters are dealing with is inherently unstable, developing and very difficult to capture.
Therefore, it was rather inaccurate when one of the commentators said that,
“the 2015 election was a collective failure for the British polling industry”.
It is enormously self-indulgent to think that. The 2015 national election and the difference from the polling industry was not a collective failure of the British polling industry. It was a victory for voters, free speech and free thinking, and for having the opportunity to be free and to make a decision in a moment that counts, and not being held to account by a predetermined set of questions that some pressure group or interested party has asked the voter to engage with—as the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord McColl, said—for their own advantage and benefit rather than for what the political process is all about. Sometimes we need to wait for freedom to be expressed and to emerge. We cannot capture it when it suits a particular group at a particular moment for a particular set of phone calls.
My opinion is that we should let the polling industry do its best. I would categorise it more in the realm of entertainment than science. It is helpful, people enjoy it and it is useful but we need a sense of proportion. I think it will always be a sideshow to how freedom operates and human beings coming to a mind and collectively expressing that.
My Lords, like the right reverend Prelate, I will keep more to the May election. ComRes has been mentioned quite a lot and I read just after the election that it said that it had had been a,
“difficult few days for pollsters”.
They should have tried being in the Labour Party. The nub of the problem is that the pollsters got it wrong, as in 1992 when I experienced the same 10 o’clock shock. I was sitting alongside the then deputy leader of the Labour Party, Roy Hattersley, whose minder I was at the time. I had anticipated him being Home Secretary within a few hours. So I am a bit bitten by this.
While 1992 and 2015 may have been bad for business for the pollsters, it raises bigger issues for the country and for those seeking to run it if the publication of misleading polls alters voting behaviour. Of course, in moments of loss such as I and my noble friend went through that night, we activists feel that blow, and we are reminded of course of Bertolt Brecht’s “Die Lösung”:
“Nach dem Aufstand des 17 Juni”.
Yesterday, therefore, was the anniversary of when the country,
“Had forfeited the confidence of the government”,
making the solution,
“for the government to dissolve the people and elect another”.
The temptation to do that on 7 May was great.
However, the more serious question posed by my noble friend Lord Lipsey is serious, albeit that he has concentrated on a different variety of polling: namely, that commissioned by or for a particular campaign, often with loaded questions. He is, of course, one of the most experienced in the field, having studied, used, commissioned, interpreted and reported on polls since I first worked alongside him in 1970.
The problem we discuss today is an old one: whether our reliance on soothsayers and fortune tellers, or indeed bookies, can affect our actions or policies. Pollsters are not soothsayers, but because of the role that they play in how we as politicians frame our campaigning and even our policies, and in how voters choose to vote, there is a special responsibility on them to raise their game, as there is on the media that report them.
My noble friend brilliantly covered the traps and shortcomings of some polling. While we acknowledge that the polls have often been accurate, today’s debate is about where the sampling, the methodology or the questions failed the industry and the body politic. I would worry about any pre-approving of sampling or other methods, as this could stifle innovation and lead to even more clustering or huddling. I also cannot see that there can be acceptable or, perhaps more importantly, unacceptable questions. However, there is some urgency to improving the industry, especially before we face the first recall ballot for an MP, where, in a single constituency, a vote to trigger a by-election could be heavily influenced by some local—and possibly shoddy or loaded—polling.
However, I wonder whether the industry has the appetite to do more itself. Has enough yet happened in the way of peer reviewing its academic approach in order to raise standards or to guard against the drive for cheap, headline-grabbing polling, undertaken for commercial rather than democratic gain? As my noble friend suggested, I do not perhaps share his faith in the ASA model, but I share with him the desire for improvement and for the industry to take a long, hard look at how it produced its figures.
However, that is only part of the story. As the right reverend Prelate suggested, we also have to look at how polls are reported, not only by newspapers but by radio and TV, which sadly too often take their agenda from the papers and can make the poll a lead story rather than background intelligence. We should also look at how this translates on the doorstep. Part of my own shock at the 10 pm exit poll came from the fact that I had mostly been campaigning in London, where my own experience pretty closely reflected that of the published polls and therefore gave me too much confidence that they were right elsewhere. I would be interested to hear from experienced campaigners outside London whether their feel was different from the published polls and whether voters’ responses appeared influenced by their expectation of the outcome.
The opinion poll inquiry has, I think, been called comprehensive. Sadly, I do not find that. It is very UK-focused, as if we have nothing to learn from elsewhere, and also misses the input of candidates and campaigners; and indeed of journalists, who may have tales to tell of how they were given the data—exactly when, how close to when they had to use them and with what spin. There is also the question of the degree to which news reporting and the polling were so intertwined that there was no independent review between one activity and the other. As the noble Lord, Lord McColl, noted, the inquiry will be holding a public meeting tomorrow afternoon, I think at the Royal Statistical Society. I hope that some of those wider questions can be posed there.
The issues raised today are important—perhaps too important to be left to pollsters. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lipsey on initiating the debate and on sharing his considerable expertise. I look forward to the thoughts of the Minister, who—I told the House this last week but some noble Lords may not have been there to hear it—placed a bet 12 months ago on a Conservative majority of 12. Perhaps we should just replace the pollsters with the Minister.
I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for that introduction. Sadly, no one has come to me asking for my services, although my son keeps asking me to partake in the National Lottery each week, as he is sure I can win. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, on securing this debate and am very grateful for the other contributions, which were very interesting. Indeed, this has been a very thoughtful debate, although a short one. I am delighted that we have risen above the sterile argument about regulation, good or bad, although I will touch on that.
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has, as the noble Baroness said, extensive experience of polling and psephology, and I certainly cannot claim to rival that. However, he and I do share the honour—I think I am right on this—and probably the scars of having worked in the back rooms of Downing Street, only to be handed our P45s by the British people. My noble friend Lord McColl and I were there in 1997, so we all know what it is like—this could turn into a bit of a group therapy session—when you are desperately hoping that the polls are wrong but they turn out to be right; or, as in this case, not quite so right.
It strikes me that the noble Lord’s speech in this debate has focused on one particular aspect of opinion polling—the methodology—and in particular those polls that are deliberately designed to get the answers wanted by those who commission them. I do not want to get too much into the details around the ComRes issue; if your Lordships do not mind I would rather rise above that and just talk about broad issues.
Let me start by putting the noble Lord’s mind completely at rest by saying that this Government have indeed no plans to regulate opinion polls. I am delighted that there has been an outbreak of consensus on this point. Many of your Lordships would agree that statutory regulation is not the answer to the issue that we are concerned about: accurate opinion polling. There is widespread agreement that opinion polls lubricate political debate. They help to get that debate moving and to air views, and regulation of any form of opinion polling would put us on a slippery slope towards an unwanted intervention in free debate, benefiting only those with deep pockets who could afford their own polls, as my noble friend Lord McColl so rightly said.
Touching on a few of the points that I think we will discuss in tomorrow’s debate on the same issue, the power that a regulator would yield would be entirely disproportionate. It would end up sanctioning research which could then be portrayed as the official point of view. I have no idea how this would work during a general election. Would it be banned? Would the regulator be asked to adjudicate on which questions were permitted, the methodology and so on? Also, what is the scope of this regulator? While those of us within the bubble of Westminster are fixated on political polls, as I am sure your Lordships are aware the vast majority of pollsters’ business is with commercial entities who want to test what consumers think. Just think about this—you would have a cat food television advertisement that would read, “Nine out of 10 say their cats prefer it, as certified by the Consumer Research Authority, Cracom”, or words to that effect. That would be disastrous and a slippery slope. It would be unwanted regulation of business and bad for democracy. Is this necessary? I think not—but no doubt someone can produce an opinion poll to show whether it is.
As regards innovation, a number of your Lordships picked up on what I think is a key point. Regulation would threaten the debate and innovation on which polling depends. Polling is similar to that most dismal of sciences, economics. It was famously asked of the economics profession why it did not see the crash coming. Yet despite this collective failure, no one has yet called for statutory regulation of economists—not that I want to put ideas in your Lordships’ heads. This is because we understand that the technical problems inherent in economic forecasting cannot simply be regulated away. We know that improvement will only come through intensive research, open debate and rethinking of old assumptions. I would argue that it is just the same with the science of public opinion polling—a point that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby spoke eloquently about.
As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, well knows, this science is a far more complex business than simply phoning up random members of the public and asking what they think. Samples have to be weighted and there is no consensus about the best way to do this, obviously. Surveys have to take account of cognitive bias, and methodologies are constantly being tinkered with and adjusted. Indeed, there is a certain amount of competitive edge that companies have within that. I was particularly struck by the right reverend Prelate saying that asking someone how will they would vote days before a general election can have some bearing on how they actually behave when they enter the polling booth—picking up that little stubby pencil, their hand hovering over the box and then saying, “Actually, I am going to put my cross here”. To compare those two thoughts and those two reactions to the question is very difficult, and this is exactly what I hope the Sturgis inquiry into the last election is going to get to.
This brings me to the question of conflicting polls—one poll suggesting the public support something and another poll suggesting they oppose it. My response is, as a number of your Lordships have been saying, let us interrogate the methodology and debate the issue further, and then let the public decide. This, I would argue, is what freedom of speech and expression is all about. I strongly believe that the public—aided by a free press and vigorous debate in Parliament and elsewhere—can smell a dodgy poll. As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said himself, the poll he is concerned about seemed to receive very scant coverage or mention in your Lordships’ House during the debate.
If people discover that a poll is dodgy, there are means of making complaints, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, is now following. However, I would further argue that just as frightening from the pollsters’ perspective is the route that ends by being placed in the stocks of public opinion, and the shame of one’s work being lampooned and castigated by the public. Having read the weighty analysis of the poll on the parent embryo survey and what has been said about it, my strong sense is that this remains perhaps the best route to address the noble Lord’s concerns, despite what he says. It is not for me to say whether the self-regulatory bodies should do more, but if I were in their shoes I am sure that, in light of this debate and others about polling, I would want to take note of what the noble Lord is saying.
This brings me to self-regulation. I declare that in the private sector I did not just place bets, as the noble Baroness predicted, on what I thought a company might or might not do; I actually commissioned a number of opinion polls from reputable companies on issues that were of relevance to private companies. In my experience, great care was taken by pollsters to ensure that no question was seen to be leading or partial. Any suggestion from me or anyone else in the organisation I was representing that a question was, and it would be rejected and changed.
I endorse the comment of the noble Lord that the vast majority of opinion-polling companies abide by the rules and standards of the Market Research Society and the British Polling Council. One has to ask why these companies do so. It is clear that there is a simple reason: it is in their interests to ensure that their research observes the letter and, crucially, the spirit of the code of practice, and that they are seen to be asking balanced questions and presenting answers in an impartial way. Only then does their research command the respect of politicians, the media and, in turn, the public.
Furthermore, the industry fully understands that transparency and trust go hand in hand. Members of the British Polling Council must already publish their results in full, with the questions exactly as asked, a description of the sampling methodology, the raw unweighted data and, crucially, the name of the client commissioning the survey.
On the specific point the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has been addressing about the assembling of the questionnaires themselves, if he or anyone else who is interested cannot sleep at night they might to turn to the MRS’s guidelines for questionnaire design. It is a nice, weighty document of about 28 pages, which states:
“Members must take reasonable steps to ensure … that participants”—
that is, those who opinion pollsters are polling—
“are not led towards a particular point of view”.
This applies to the objectives of the research, and to structuring and writing questionnaires. I am sure these guidelines will be taken into account in considering the issue the noble Lord raised; as he himself said, let us see what happens.
Moving on, all this shows that like any other business or service, the polling industry’s prosperity is built on trust. If opinion polls are to be taken seriously, people—be they the public, journalists or your Lordships—must trust them. If opinion polls become a laughing stock, pollsters go out of business. Why would anyone commission research if they feel they cannot trust the results? This is why, as my noble friend Lord McColl and other noble Lords have mentioned, the polling industry is undertaking such a thorough investigation of what happened at the general election. It is in not just our interests but its own that it does this. It is just as concerned as everyone else to get to the nub of what went wrong. As has been mentioned, the inquiry’s first evidence session is tomorrow.
To my mind this is the right response to a poll failure—a transparent review of what went wrong, followed by innovation and experimentation. The methodology has to be, and be seen to be, robust so we all await the result of this autopsy with interest. I trust that the noble Lord will make his voice heard in this inquiry, and that it will be heeded. Furthermore, the noble Baroness made a number of interesting points about the inquiry taking on board experience from other countries.
Government regulation certainly would not solve many of the issues relating to methodology that the noble Lord mentioned. Regulating the industry would simply centralise the debate and decision-making process, with no guarantee that the challenges surrounding sample size, questions and so on would be overcome. A statutory regulator would be too slow and unwieldy to respond to the innovation and change brought about by big data, cognitive psychology and the digital revolution. Indeed, it would be an analogue solution in a digital age. Crucially, such regulation could—and in my view definitely would—stifle the very debate that opinion polls seek to inform. That is why government regulation is the wrong answer to the right question—a question about conduct and methodology. It is a question that the noble Lord has every right to highlight, and the existing self-regulatory bodies have every reason to heed. The Government do not plan to regulate the opinion polling industry. As Walter Bagehot wrote, and I am sure the noble Lord will say:
“The place of nearly everybody depends on the opinion of everyone else”.
Whether the decision not to regulate will have an impact on the place of government, I am not sure; I suspect we would need an opinion poll to find that out.