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House of Lords Hansard
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Elections: Personal Data
18 April 2018
Volume 790

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to prevent possible abuse of the United Kingdom’s electoral system following the evidence given by Mark Zuckerberg to the United States Senate on 10 April.

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My Lords, the Government take the security and integrity of our democratic processes very seriously. We have measures in place to protect elections from undue interference, both on and offline. We talk regularly with the major tech companies about a range of safety and security issues; we work closely to support those responsible for overseeing and delivering our elections; and we keep the need for legislation under review.

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My Lords, I hear what the Minister says, but are the Government listening to the obvious concern from all over that our political integrity is under threat? If the Government were listening, surely our institutions would already have caught up with the much stronger powers of enforcement and regulation such as those of the Financial Conduct Authority, the regulations in place regarding the press, TV and radio or the powers to break up market dominance that we have in other sectors? Will the Government start catching up now?

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The noble Lord will know that the Data Protection Bill is at the moment in another place, having passed through your Lordships’ House. That Bill gives extra powers to the Information Commissioner to safeguard the integrity of our democratic process, as he indicated. For example, once the legislation is on the statute book, the maximum fine for an organisation such as Facebook would rise to £1 billion. New criminal offences are being created and the Information Commissioner is being given extra powers. As I said a moment ago, there is a dialogue with the Information Commissioner and if at any point she feels that she needs additional powers, over and above those in the current legislation, we are more than ready to consider them.

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My Lords, how many desk officers are dealing with this problem?

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Quite a few!

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I have had some in-flight refuelling from my noble friend to my left who has responsibilities for DCMS and, in a nutshell, his answer was “Lots!”.

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My Lords, have any of these desk officers drawn to the noble Lord’s attention the opinion submitted to the Select Committee in the House of Commons relating to alleged non-declaration of payments during the referendum to AIQ data services? Specifically, in paragraph 13 of that opinion, the view is expressed that,

“the extensive grounds for suspicion of the commission of offences under PPERA are sufficiently strong, and the potential offences sufficiently serious, that there is a good case for the exercise by the Commission of its Schedule 19B investigative powers”.

Can the Minister indicate whether he is aware that the Electoral Commission is pursuing this particular line of investigation and, if and when it does, will he give the House an assurance that, if requested, the Government will ensure that it has sufficient resources to do so?

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On the question of resources for the Electoral Commission, it is answerable to the other place. There is the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, as the noble Lord will know. I am not aware of any dispute about resources, and I am not aware of the Electoral Commissioner having asked for any more resources. If, at the end of the inquiry, which the noble Lord will know is going on into allegations of underdeclaration during the referendum campaign, the Electoral Commission feels that it needs more powers, the Government are indeed in listening mode.

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My Lords, the noble Lord made reference, during an earlier Question, to the international nature of most issues to do with data protection. Can he say—particularly given that after next March, we shall no longer have a seat at the table, for instance when European Governments are discussing the potential for collaboration on matters of this kind—what the Government are doing to ensure that we are properly plugged into all of the various international ways in which these issues are being discussed and promoted?

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Next month, on 25 May, the General Data Protection Regulation come into effect and we will be abiding by that. On top of that, the Data Protection Act goes beyond in providing extra safeguards. I am sure that the Government want to ensure that, post our departure from the European Union, we remain in the forefront of protecting this country against the sort of external influences referred to by the noble Baroness.

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My Lords, will the Minister have another word with his colleagues—or preferably with the officials who brief him—to ask them why they have not drawn his attention to the excellent report of the ad hoc Select Committee of this House, which was published yesterday, dealing with the effect of digital media on referenda and elections, which is what this Question is about?

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I was indeed aware of the report referred to by the noble Lord. It raises a really interesting question. Information technology is challenging the business model for election campaigns as we have traditionally known them: knocking on doors, leaflets and public meetings. That model is being challenged by the social media and to some extent being displaced by it. To the extent that social media can reach people who are alienated or bypassed by the traditional method of campaigning, that is a good thing. We have to ensure, however, that the legal framework within which we now operate is fit for purpose and that personal data is not misused. We should try to turn to our best advantage the fact that we are engaging people in the democratic process who previously were not so engaged.

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My Lords, the questions being asked are about digital interference with elections and the Electoral Commission. Does the Minister think that the Electoral Commission is basically toothless, in that it cannot even police a message on the side of a bus about £350 million going to the NHS? Should it not have more powers to stop blatantly lying statements during elections and referenda?

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The Electoral Commission has been absolutely clear that it does not want to get involved in deciding whether a particular advertisement is truthful or not. It regards that as something fit for the political dialogue between the parties. If somebody believes that a claim is untrue, they are at liberty to denounce it, but I do not think that the Electoral Commission wants to get drawn into the truth or otherwise of political campaigns.