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Elections and Referendums: Foreign Interference

Volume 797: debated on Thursday 9 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the adequacy of the regulatory framework for protecting elections and referendum campaigns in the United Kingdom from foreign interference, including financial contributions.

My Lords, the UK has a robust electoral system with processes in place to defend it, and there is ongoing work to ensure our elections remain secure. The Government are committed to protecting electoral and democratic processes from foreign interference into the future. Measures such as those announced by the Government this week will continue to strengthen our resilience against any foreign interference and ensure that the regulatory framework is as watertight as possible.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that there is now an emergency? There is no time for new legislation. The statement made by the Cabinet Office at the weekend of a new consultation is far too little and far too late. Shadowy campaign organisations are already spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on Brexit messages on digital media, and nobody knows where their money is coming from. Just two—Britain’s Future and We Are The 52%—have outspent all the political parties, clearly seeking to distort the poll, which is in just 14 days. The Brexit Party will not tell the Electoral Commission where a £100,000 donation has come from until well after polling day. Surely the Minister recognises that it is totally unsatisfactory for Parliament and government to rely on the investigations of BuzzFeed, the Guardian, the Observer and Channel 4 to defend the integrity of our electoral system. The Government must now recognise that the outcome of the poll on 23 May, in 14 days, could be as dodgy as that in June 2016. Will the Minister undertake to meet me to discuss what can be done urgently to address this serious situation?

As I have said before from this Dispatch Box, there is no evidence of successful interference in the electoral process in this country, either in referendums or elections. As I said in the Answer I gave to the noble Lord a few moments ago, we are considering the issues. While we do not believe there has been abuse, we are anxious to be ahead of the game. We are now considering increasing the transparency of digital political advertising, including by third parties; closing loopholes on foreign spending in elections; preventing shell companies from sidestepping the current rules on political finance; and taking action to tackle foreign lobbying. I hope the noble Lord welcomes the announcements we have just made.

My Lords, when I received my postal vote yesterday, in the same post I received an electoral address from just one party—not the Tory party, sadly not the Labour Party, and not even the Lib Dems, but from the Brexit Party. That indicates that it is well organised and very well financed. Yet on television, under pressure from Sophy Ridge, Farage refused to say where £200,000 has come from. We will not know until the end of July, which is far too late. Surely there is something the Government can do. Can the Minister talk to the Electoral Commission and make sure we know that these sources of finance are legitimate and come from the United Kingdom?

I assure the noble Lord that a communication from the Tory party will be on its way well before polling day. I hope he finds it a persuasive document.

My understanding from the television is that the majority of the finance for the Brexit Party has come from relatively small donations, of some £25, to Nigel Farage. It is up to the Electoral Commission to supervise elections, to monitor the rules and to take necessary action if any of them are broken.

Does my noble friend recognise that it is no secret where a lot of this foreign interference comes from? The outcome of the presidential election in America and the referendum here gave no unhappiness at all in Moscow. Can I take it that the strongest representations are being made to the Russian Government that this conduct is unacceptable, we now know where it is coming from and we will watch it carefully?

I am grateful to my noble friend. We have invested £1.9 billion in the national cybersecurity strategy for precisely the reason that he has outlined: to resist interference in the electoral process. Estimates of the reach of the Russians suggest that 105 accounts reached 16,000 people during the referendum campaign, in many cases simply amplifying arguments in circulation. The majority was 1.3 million. I honestly do not think that one can attribute that majority to the activity of Russian spooks.

My Lords, of course it is essential that we have maximum transparency in all organisations involved in referendum campaigns, general election campaigns and the like, but does the Minister agree that we need maximum transparency also on the part of those well-financed organisations whose aim is to reverse the result of referendums? I refer of course to the People’s Vote campaign, which is a campaign to reverse the vote of the people in 2016. It is massively well financed, with opinion polling across the country in individual constituencies and with leafleting and campaigning—I have kept many of its documents because it kindly sends them to me as well. Will he ensure that, in any future investigation into transparency, organisations such as the so-called People’s Vote campaign are included?

Were there to be another referendum, there would need to be primary legislation, which would give an opportunity to the noble Lord and others to see whether the current legislation is adequate. Anybody taking part in any future referendum would have to register as a political party. There are maximum spending limits on such activity and there is the necessary transparency associated with it, but I take on board the warning from the noble Lord.

The various parties will put out their manifestos, which will explain where they stand and what they want people to support. Depending on how people vote, the necessary conclusions will be drawn. I see where my noble friend is coming from, in that there will be a clear temptation to add up the totality of votes for the “remain parties” and for the “leave parties” and see what the result is. Whether people are then motivated or influenced by the level of turnout is something that we will have to determine on the day.