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European Union Referendum

Volume 792: debated on Wednesday 4 July 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of whether the referendum on leaving the European Union was conducted fairly and free of foreign interference.

My Lords, the Electoral Commission is the independent regulatory body responsible for ensuring that the EU referendum was conducted fairly, effectively and in accordance with the law. The Government have not seen evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum by any foreign Government. We remain vigilant against attempts to erode trust in our democratic processes and institutions and will defend the UK from all forms of malign foreign state interference.

My Lords, how timely it was for Vote Leave to choose this morning to leak the Electoral Commission report that finds it guilty of four offences, including serious overspending and illegal co-ordination. There are other investigations under way into the various leave campaigns by the National Crime Agency and the DCMS Select Committee, which has mountains of evidence about foreign funding, fraud, destruction of evidence and collusion with a hostile Government, namely Russia. Can the Minister tell the House who in the Government is joining the dots and looking at the wider picture to ensure that future referendums and elections take place on a level playing field and are free from foreign interference?

The noble Lord referred at the beginning of his question to the draft report that was circulated to a number of individuals who I understand are named in it in order to allow them time to consider it and make representations. The Electoral Commission will consider representations it has received and will publish a thorough and detailed closing report in order to provide a balanced account. The noble Lord also referred to various other inquiries, including the DCMS Committee inquiry into fake news. I think it makes sense to await the outcome of those inquiries and of the continuing investigations by the EC into the referendum that he referred to. As for joining the dots, that is a good question because a large number of government departments are involved in this key issue. I think that the Cabinet Office has a role to play in bringing all the relevant agencies together.

My Lords, my noble friend is always the most fair-minded of Ministers in this House. As far as foreign interference in the referendum campaign is concerned, will he join with me in deploring the interference by the then President of the United States, Mr Obama, on the anti-Brexit side?

Despite the very flattering introduction to my noble friend’s question, he has raised something that is not at all on my radar. I am very reluctant to get involved in diplomatic or Foreign Office relationships. Perhaps I can write to him once I have taken advice from someone who is better informed than I am on this.

My Lords, given what we have just heard about the draft report from the Electoral Commission and what the Minister heard yesterday from my noble friend Lord Rooker and myself on the Bloomberg report, how can the result of that referendum still be considered valid?

I think there were many reasons why people voted as they did in the referendum. There was worry that globalisation had passed a number of communities by. There was concern about immigration and the perceived threat to independence and sovereignty. There were homegrown reasons why people voted as they did, wholly independent of the sort of influences that the noble Lord referred to. If one looks at the potential involvement of Russia, the number of tweets involved in no way accounted for the 1.3 million people who voted for leave rather than remain. My noble friend Lord Ashton responded to the debate last night excellently.

My Lords, would the Minister accept that, when he stood for 10 or 11 elections and won them in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, had he been found to have overspent to any material extent, his seat would been forfeited and he himself or someone else would have had to refight that election? Does that principle apply to referenda?

I believe that we should respect the result of the referendum. A number of inquiries are going on into the referendum, which have been referred to. The Electoral Commission is looking into a number of allegations. It makes sense to await the outcome to see whether those allegations are upheld, but I have seen nothing that would account for the very substantial difference in the numbers who voted leave rather than remain.

My Lords, the case for Brexit once rested on promises of sunlit uplands. Those have long vanished. The only thing Brexiteers now cling to is the will of the people, but that cannot be measured by a cheating referendum, dodgy money and manipulation under Putin’s guiding hand. When will the Government accept that the will of the people must be properly and fairly measured now by a people’s vote on the actual Brexit deal?

Noble Lords had an opportunity to debate and vote on that in the recent EU withdrawal Bill. The notion of a second referendum was not one that found favour in either House. On the rest of the noble Baroness’s question, since the referendum, Parliament has voted to trigger Article 50 and we have passed the EU withdrawal Bill. That gives us a democratic mandate.

My Lords, I know the noble Lord agrees that our laws on elections and referendums are not fit for purpose. Will he give an assurance to the House that the Government will act when all these inquiries and investigations are over?

Yes. On one of the many occasions that we have debated this, I think I quoted a comment made by my party before the last election about the fitness for purpose of the current legislation. It makes sense to await the outcome of the court case, the EC inquiries into the referendum and the elections, and other inquiries. Then we can stand back and look at how the electoral law can best be brought up to date so that we have a digital framework for a digital age.

My Lords, will the Minister go back to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and tell us, if he knows, whether the law that applies to election results applies also to referendum results?

My understanding is that there have been occasions where people have overspent. It has not been the case that they have then been disqualified and there has been a by-election. It depends very much on the circumstances—whether there is deliberate dishonesty. On some occasions, returns have revealed overspending but that has not resulted in the disqualification of the Member concerned.