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Elections: Electoral Commission Recommendations

Volume 792: debated on Thursday 28 June 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure the continued integrity of elections in the United Kingdom in the light of the Electoral Commission’s recommendations.

My Lords, the Government welcome the Electoral Commission’s report on digital campaigning and will consider its recommendations carefully. In line with this, the Government will consult this summer on whether to introduce an imprint for digital electoral material and how such a requirement could be appropriately framed. The Government are committed to increasing transparency in digital electoral campaigning to maintain a fair and proportionate democratic process.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that response, but he will know that the chairman of the Electoral Commission has called for legislation. Will the Government give that careful thought? If so, will they make sure that the legislation also applies to the commission so that it is obliged to respond more expeditiously? More than two years after June 2016, we are still waiting for its comments on the Vote Leave campaign and whether it behaved responsibly or not.

My noble friend will know that the Electoral Commission has made requests for legislation, particularly to increase the sanctions that are available to it. He referred to some commission inquiries. Last month, the commission published an inquiry into the activities of Vote Leave during the referendum campaign. He is quite right that there are two outstanding inquiries: one into Better for the Country Ltd and Arron Banks, and one into Vote Leave, Darren Grimes and Veterans for Britain, which commenced in November last year and, as I understand it, will be completed later this year. The Electoral Commission is an independent body so I need to be careful with what I say, but I am sure that Sir John Holmes will read my noble friend’s comments.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that our legislation on elections and referendums has not kept pace with technological advances, risks interference from abroad and is generally not fit for purpose?

Yes; and I refer to the reply that I gave the noble Lord when he asked me the same question a few weeks ago. We have an analogue legislative process in a digital age and we do need to bring it up to date. I think it makes sense to wait for the outstanding court cases that are currently before the courts, the outcome of the DCMS inquiry into the impact of fake news on modern democracy and the reports to which my noble friend just referred into the referendum campaign. Once we have those, we can step back and look at the legislative framework and see how it will best be brought up to date.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the excellent report published this week by the Electoral Commission into the need to regulate more properly digital campaigning in elections and referendums illustrates the advantages of having an independent body to advise Parliament on the need to change and modernise our laws to protect the health of our democracy? If so, does he therefore reject the suggestion in a report from the former chair of the Conservative Party a little while ago that the Electoral Commission could be stripped of such powers to advise Parliament?

The noble Lord refers to the excellent report Securing the Ballot, produced by my then honourable friend Sir Eric Pickles—now, happily, my noble friend Lord Pickles. The noble Lord will have seen the Cabinet Office’s response dated December 2016 to all the recommendations made by my noble friend Lord Pickles, so he will be well aware of the answer to the question that is contained in this document.

My Lords, do these recommendations contain any suggestions at all as to what can be done to be vigilant about Russian intervention in the British electoral process?

My noble friend raises an interesting question. I think the honest answer is that all countries in the West have to wake up to a new form of conflict where military and non-military weapons are joined together in an integrated and dynamic way in order to achieve political aims. My noble friend is right: Russia is at the forefront of this so-called hybrid warfare, with a wide spectrum of capacity which has the potential to damage political and democratic institutions. That impacts on a wide range of government departments, and we have to make sure they are correctly aligned to see a proper response to this very real threat.

Does the noble Lord, Lord Young, agree that it might be helpful for the Electoral Commission to direct its attention to an aspect of our elections in this country, namely the system of by-elections for replacement of hereditary Peers? Can he confirm that there is one taking place next Tuesday in which the statistics are as follows: 31 electors and 19 candidates? To make it even more absurd, the total number of people—that is, hereditary Peers—who can take part constitutes 0.004% of the electorate in Britain. Is there any electoral system anywhere in the world quite as ridiculous as this? Will the noble Lord please do the very simple thing, which is to acknowledge this and to support a Bill to scrap them?

I commend the noble Lord on his persistence and ingenuity in campaigning tirelessly for his Private Member’s Bill. He refers to an anomaly. This was introduced in 1998. If it was so absurd, why, for the next 12 years, when his party was in office—when he, indeed, was Chief Whip—did he allow this anomaly to remain on the statute book?

Have the Government had a chance yet to consider the publication this week by Bloomberg of a report relating to referendum night, when the use by hedge funds of secret, unpublished exit polling created hundreds of millions of pounds of profit, aided and abetted by the lies told by Farage about what he knew about the exit polls and the result? The use of secret exit polls to make money on election nights is a really serious issue that was not raised in the House’s Select Committee, the report of which will be published next week.

The noble Lord draws attention to a debate taking place next Tuesday, I think, on the Select Committee report on political polling. That, I think, is probably the appropriate place to raise that. I have seen the reports. My understanding is that what happened was not illegal, because the information was not put into the public domain on election day, but I agree that this is an issue that could be raised on Tuesday. The Minister who has the good fortune to reply to that debate will have a slightly longer answer than the one the noble Lord has just received.

My Lords, further to the remarks by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, on the election of hereditary Peers, does my noble friend agree that there is nothing more arbitrary than the appointment of Peers to your Lordships’ House? At least those who are elected, even by a very small electorate, are sifted to some degree.

My noble friend makes a valid point: there is a small number of noble Lords who can have some claim to democratic representation. Whether my noble friend would extend that argument to the argument that we should all be elected, I very much doubt.

My Lords, perhaps I may pursue the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, on foreign funds coming in to influence British politics. The Minister will recall that the Foreign Secretary suggested last weekend that the CBI’s receipt of EU funds discredited the remarks it was making. The CBI receives I think 1% of its funding from the European Commission. If one were to apply that test to Vote Leave, or perhaps even to the Conservative Party as far as Russian funding is concerned given the donations to it, it would raise awkward questions. Could the Government look at the requirement for even greater transparency in political donations, and donations to think tanks and charities of one sort or another, where foreign Governments and foreign sources, whether in the Gulf states or among right-wing millionaires in the United States, come in to affect British politics and society?

The noble Lord raises a serious issue. I do not know whether he has had the time to read the Electoral Commission’s report on digital campaigning, subtitled Increasing Transparency for Voters, but it makes recommendations on the specific areas he raised. There are a series of recommendations about foreign involvement in the democratic process and recommendations about transparency on where money has come from, with particular injunctions on the social media to make it clear, when they put advertisements on their sites, who has paid for them. This is an important issue and to some extent it is embraced in the report I just referred to.

My Lords, have the Government considered what additional resources and capacities the Electoral Commission may need if it is to address effectively the difficult and complex question of abuses of digital campaigning?

The Electoral Commission is not funded by the Government. As the noble Lord may know from his experience in another place, there is an Electoral Commission committee that sits under the Speaker. That committee in the other place is responsible for fixing the budget for the Electoral Commission. I am not aware that there has been a recent dispute between the Electoral Commission and the Speaker’s committee about resources, so as far as I am aware the Electoral Commission has the resources it believes it needs to do its job.