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European Union Referendum: Alleged Russian Interference

Volume 791: debated on Tuesday 19 June 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will conduct an investigation into alleged Russian interference in the European Union referendum, including the Leave.EU campaign.

My Lords, the Electoral Commission is the independent regulatory body responsible for ensuring that elections and referendums are run effectively and in accordance with the law. The Government are committed to defending the UK from all forms of malign foreign state interference, whether from Russia or from any other state. To date, however, we have not seen evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes by any foreign Government, but we remain vigilant.

My Lords, do the Government not recognise that this piecemeal approach is potentially quite dangerous? Given that it is the considered judgment of the chairman of the DCMS Select Committee—the Minister’s Conservative colleague—that the leaders of the Leave.EU campaign have been lying, and given that there is ever-rising evidence of illegality, with even Mr Banks admitting that there was Russian collusion in the leave campaign, is it not now urgent that the Government should authorise a comprehensive investigation into what exactly happened? After all, this calls into question the very marginal outcome of the referendum, where for every 17 people who voted leave, 16 voted to remain. Does that not, in turn, raise real questions about the whole Brexit process?

On the first question, the noble Lord will know that it is for the Electoral Commission to investigate any alleged irregularities concerning the referendum. It has already published a decision on Leave.EU and fined that body £70,000. Investigations continue into allegations that Vote Leave avoided the cap on election expenditure on the referendum by channelling resources into another, linked organisation, and that is a matter for the Electoral Commission to resolve. As far as the outcome is concerned, 1.3 million more people voted to leave than to remain, and I am not sure that one can attribute that fairly substantial margin to the activities of the Russian bots or, indeed, any other outside agencies.

My Lords, there is absolutely no doubt that the Russians are behaving in a dangerous and threatening way in cyberspace: we know that and it is a real threat to Europe. The noble Lord was no doubt celebrating yesterday the victory of 203 years ago, when we thrashed the French, in conjunction with the Prussians, at Waterloo; and the victory of 100 years ago this week, when, with the French, we thrashed the Germans at the second Battle of the Marne. We have expended a huge amount of blood and treasure on European security. Does the Minister not believe, in view of that, that the decision on Galileo is quite extraordinary?

If I may focus on the first part of the noble Lord’s question, which is about Russian involvement in covert activities, he may know that the Intelligence and Security Committee, on which two noble Lords sit, is currently investigating Russian involvement in the 2016 referendum and the 2017 general election. It makes sense to allow that important inquiry to be completed, and then we will have a clearer view of the impact, if any, of Russian involvement in the election, which is the subject of this Question. So far as Galileo is concerned, I commend the noble Lord’s ingenuity but I have listened to fellow Ministers give very adequate answers on Galileo and I will not attempt to rise to that level.

My Lords, will the Minister say whether the Government are satisfied that the Electoral Commission has access to all the rather complex means—obviously, I do not want to go into intelligence matters in this House—that foreign Governments have to interfere in our affairs? Is the Electoral Commission really equipped to carry out that inquiry in all its aspects?

The noble Lord makes a very good point in that, obviously, it makes sense for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, not the Electoral Commission, to have overall responsibility for our relationship with Russia. It makes sense for the DCMS to have overall responsibility for “fake news” and for the Information Commissioner. It makes sense for the Cabinet Office to have overall responsibility for electoral law and a dialogue with the Electoral Commission. Where all these things come together, which I think is the noble Lord’s point, clearly, we need a collective view. It makes sense to await the outcome of the ISC inquiry that I mentioned a few moments ago, the DCMS inquiry into fake news that is currently under way, and the Electoral Commission inquiries into the referendum campaigns. When we have all that, we can stand back and see whether we have the right resources and the right information in the right place and come up with a collective view on the serious issue raised in the original Question.

My Lords, Cambridge Analytica was using so-called online political microtargeting, which involves collecting, often illicitly, huge amounts of personal data, creating personal profiles for voters and delivering specifically tailored, often false messages. Irrespective of the question of expenses—and I have no doubt that this could form part of the many inquiries that the Minister has mentioned—is this not exactly the kind of secret online targeting which is a threat to our democracy? Should it not be made transparent and be highly regulated under our electoral law?

The specific case that the noble Lord mentions—the alleged misuse of data provided by Facebook to Cambridge Analytica—is currently being investigated by the Information Commissioner. So far as the impact of social media is concerned, research shows that social media consistently ranks as one of the least trustworthy sources of information—along with politicians. By contrast, the public continue to see national and regional television, news websites and broadsheets as the most reliable sources of news. This may help put in context the concern just expressed by the noble Lord.