Skip to main content

Elections: Personal Data

Volume 790: debated on Wednesday 18 April 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are satisfied that current electoral law adequately prevents the misuse of personal data in United Kingdom elections and referendum campaigns.

My Lords, the misuse of personal data in UK elections is governed primarily by data protection law. The Information Commissioner has said that she has an ongoing investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes, in which she is continuing to invoke all her powers and is pursuing a number of live lines of inquiry. The Government are currently considering recommendations from the commissioner, including some for enhanced legal powers.

My Lords, I welcome the slightly more positive tone from the Minister since our previous exchanges on 28 March, but I particularly draw his attention to the fact that my Question relates also to referendums. Given that the Foreign Secretary panicked and sought to rubbish the evidence of whistleblowers even before they presented it, given that leave campaigners were seeking, obviously, to avert an adverse judgment when they attacked the impartiality of the Electoral Commission, and given that when the Conservative chair of the investigating Select Committee in the other place was asked whether the Brexit poll was compromised he said that we may need a public debate about that, do the Government not recognise that any complacency gives added voice to the demand for the public to have a free and fair vote at the end of the Brexit process?

The last question the noble Lord put to me is a matter in which we will be engaged in the forthcoming debate on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, where there may well be an amendment of the type that he envisages, and it would be wrong for me to anticipate that debate. So far as his first points are concerned, the Information Commissioner and the Electoral Commission are independent offices, with robust chairmen and chief executives, and I am sure they are capable of withstanding pressure from whatever direction it may come.

My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Lord has seen the comments made yesterday by the chair of the Commons DCMS Select Committee, which referred to extracts from interviews given by Nigel Oakes, founder and CEO of SCL Group, in which he made reference to the Nazis leveraging,

“‘an artificial enemy’ to make people scared, and through this to incite hatred of Jewish people”,

and, chillingly, by the former communications director of Leave.EU, Andy Wigmore, who was reported praising the Nazi propaganda machine and boasting of Leave.EU borrowing outrageous and provocative tactics from Donald Trump to keep immigration at the heart of the 2016 referendum campaign. As the chair’s statement said,

“these statements will raise concerns that data analytics was used”—

in the referendum campaign—

“to target voters who were concerned about this issue, and to frighten them with messaging designed to create ‘an artificial enemy’ for them to act against”.

Very encouragingly, today the Minister has said that the Government will consider action in the light of the various investigations that are taking place, but the point I put to him is this: I believe our very democracy is under threat and the Government must take action in this area.

I begin by endorsing what the noble Lord has just said and deploring any language that incites racial hatred or, indeed, any other form of hatred in this country. He will know that the Information Commissioner is investigating exactly this issue of whether information has been improperly used to seek to influence the outcome of an election or a referendum. I made it clear in response to the noble Lord that we are in active dialogue with the Information Commissioner. We have already accepted some amendments to the Data Protection Bill which is currently in another place. We are prepared to do so again if it is necessary to deal with any inadequacies in the legislation.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this is a global problem that cannot be resolved on a one-country basis? If the Electoral Commission is to have additional powers, which I am sure it is going to need, how are the Government going to approach the broader issue and try to reach international agreement to tackle this extremely grave issue? There really is a threat to our democracy, I believe.

Of course, we can have our own rules governing how elections are conducted in this country, and any outside organisation would have to comply with the law here. However, to respond to the good point that the noble Lord makes, we are actively engaged with the commission on its public consultation on the back of its recommendation for measures to effectively tackle illegal content online that it published in March this year. We are going to play a full and active part in shaping the ongoing commission work that follows publication of the voluntary guidance. I return to what I said right at the beginning: regardless of what is happening in the rest of the world, we can have a robust electoral system in this country, not least because we have manual counting and, on the whole, manual voting, which are less vulnerable to corruption.

My Lords, following the previous question about the problems of international interference in all forms of elections throughout the world, is it not the case that technology is moving so fast that any change in electoral law will have to be drafted in a very flexible manner so that it keeps up with the changes in technology, whether the threat comes from Russia, America, Cambridge Analytica or anywhere else?

I agree with my noble friend. I know Henry VIII is not always man of the match in this country, but the Data Protection Bill provides order-making powers so that the Government can act quickly to keep rights and responsibilities up to date and respond to the emerging threats that my noble friend has just mentioned.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there may be widespread evasion of the basic principles of our electoral laws aimed at ensuring that there is a level playing field, and that the costs of gathering data, analysing it and then using it for communications purposes in general elections are not properly apportioned between constituencies? In referendums, its use by third parties ensures that we no longer have a principle whereby either side of a referendum campaign can spend the same amount of money. Before we have another general election or another referendum, we must put our electoral laws right because they are clearly not fit for purpose.

The noble Lord will know that there is a case currently before the courts on precisely the issue that he has raised: the allocation of expenditure between local constituencies and the central party. It would be sensible to await the outcome of that case before deciding whether any legislative changes are necessary.