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Vote Leave Campaign

Volume 790: debated on Wednesday 28 March 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of whether the Electoral Commission has sufficient powers to investigate claims that the Vote Leave campaign broke electoral law during the 2016 referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.

My Lords, the Electoral Commission has ongoing investigations into spending and campaigning on the EU referendum, and the Government will consider any specific recommendations that arise from those. The commission has not so far called for greater investigative powers.

My Lords, these very serious allegations come in the context of the former CEO of Cambridge Analytica claiming that he could fix election outcomes for a fee, using entrapment. Does the noble Lord think that the maximum £20,000 fine per offence that can be imposed by the commission is anywhere near meeting the gravity of the allegations, if proven? Does he consider the Government have shown respect for the independence of the commission, when the Foreign Secretary arrogantly dismissed the whistleblower’s claims as utterly useless? Will the Prime Minister apologise for the shameful outing of Mr Sanni by her political secretary?

My Lords, on the first part of the noble Lord’s question, it is the Information Commissioner’s Office that is investigating the specific allegations about the misuse of data by Cambridge Analytica and its associates. That is a different regime to the one that comes under the Electoral Commission. On the specific question of the £20,000 fine, the noble Lord is correct that the Electoral Commission has expressed concern in the past that this might be regarded as simply the cost of doing business, and it is making representations that it should be enhanced to a higher level. The Government are considering those representations and, alongside any other recommendations that come out of the investigation currently under way, we will then consider what further action to take. Whatever the Foreign Secretary may have said about these allegations, it is the independent Electoral Commission that has the final word as to whether or not an offence has been committed. I have nothing to add to what the Prime Minister has said on the final part of the noble Lord’s question.

My Lords, is it the case that the Government are taking seriously attempts, either by foreign powers or by UK citizens or individuals, which strike at the very heart of the integrity of our whole democratic process? That is the question; that is the issue. The powers of the Electoral Commission, confronted by the power, influence and wealth of other countries and international organisations, are frankly derisory. That is the reality of the situation. I understand and accept what the Minister is saying about ongoing investigations. But if we are intent on protecting the strength, virility and fairness of our democracy, these situations have got to be addressed at a much higher level, and powers need to be enhanced to deal with them.

The Prime Minister made it clear recently that these are very serious allegations which do raise questions for the integrity of our democratic system. So far as the Information Commissioner is concerned, it is she who is investigating the misuse of data. The Data Protection Bill currently going through Parliament, now in the other place, gives enhanced powers to the Information Commissioner’s Office to get the information that is needed. If more powers are needed, the Government have said they will seriously look at that issue before the Bill emerges from Parliament. But I agree with the noble Lord that, on the whole, we have a robust electoral system and its integrity is amongst the highest in the world, but we need to take every safeguard we possibly can to make sure that it is not undermined by alien forces from overseas.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that, as long ago as 10 March last year, I drew to his attention and to that of the House that the leave campaign then was accused not only of lying in the substance of its campaign but of cheating in the process of delivering it, and I gave examples? Can the Minister explain why the investigation of these increasingly serious allegations has taken so long? He says the law is robust, but this is a very long period indeed in which there has been no satisfactory outcome. It would appear that both the Electoral Commission and the police say they have appropriate resources, but is there a lack of effective electoral law here or are there discrepancies? After what we have seen and heard in the last few days, and given the very narrow result of the EU referendum—for every 17 people who voted to leave, there were 16 who voted to remain—do the Government not recognise that there are continuing public doubts about the integrity of the system, which he has just described as being robust, and which then challenge the legitimacy of the whole Brexit process?

I think it is worth quoting what the Electoral Commission said in its report on the referendum:

“The evidence outlined in this report confirms that, through careful management of the potential risks associated with the timing and profile of the poll, we saw a referendum that was delivered without any major issues and the announcement of a clear, timely final result”.

We will never know if the law was broken and whether it made any difference. My personal view is that it was unlikely, and there are better explanations as to why people voted as they did, rather than that they were targeted by an algorithm.

My Lords, can the Electoral Commission take into account the £9 million spent by the Government on the pamphlet which went to every household in the land urging our people to vote to remain in the European Union? Surely that was in effect part of the referendum campaign, was it not?

The Government followed the precedent of previous national referendum campaigns in 1975 and also the campaign on Scottish independence. The Government published a leaflet in accordance with precedents setting out the Government’s view. There was nothing irregular or improper about that at all.

My Lords, given that the remain campaign spent considerably more than the leave campaign—not even counting the £9 million spent by the Government—and that the vote leave campaign has been investigated twice over these issues already by the Electoral Commission, does the Minister agree that it is important that the Electoral Commission is not put under significant political pressure on this matter?

The Electoral Commission is independent of the Government and accountable to Parliament. Under the leadership of Sir John Holmes, with Claire Bassett as the chief executive, it is well able to defend its independence against any aggressor.