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Electoral Commission

Volume 792: debated on Tuesday 17 July 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I would like to repeat an Answer to an Urgent Question given in the other place earlier today. The Answer is as follows:

“I am proud to say that the UK has a clear and robust electoral system, and we should all be proud of the democracy in which we live and work. I would like to place on record my thanks to all those involved in the electoral community who work hard at every poll to deliver it within the law, such that we can be proud of our democracy.

The Electoral Commission is the independent body that oversees the conduct of elections and referendums and regulates political finance. The commission reports regularly on the running of elections and referendums, and conducts thorough investigations into allegations that rules have been breached.

Electoral law exists to ensure fair campaigning, and the Electoral Commission has determined that those rules have been broken. Both Vote Leave and BeLeave have been fined and referred to the police. It would not be appropriate for the Government to comment on ongoing police investigations.

That electoral rules have been breached is rightly a cause for concern, but that does not mean that the rules themselves were flawed. The Government will continue to work closely with the Electoral Commission, along with many other stakeholders in the electoral system, to protect the integrity, security and effectiveness of referendums and elections.

Let me make it clear for the record that we will continue to implement the referendum’s result and to make a success of it”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, on 28 June and on previous occasions in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, agreed with me that our legislation on elections and referendums was not fit for purpose. But today the Minister has repeated the Answer given in the other place by the Minister for the Constitution. In the fourth paragraph, he said:

“That electoral rules have been breached is rightly a cause for concern, but that does not mean that the rules themselves were flawed”.

Are the Minister and I correct—and I think we are—or is his honourable friend the Member for Norwich North in the other place correct? We cannot both be.

On several occasions, I have repeated a statement that my party made just over a year ago:

“There is a broad consensus that election law is fragmented, confused and unclear, with two different sets of legislation and poor guidance from the Electoral Commission”.—[Official Report, 7/6/18; col. 1403.]

As the noble Lord knows, a number of inquiries are under way that I do think we need to wait for before we decide how best to legislate. I am aware of the strong views of the Electoral Commission that the current level of sanctions is too low.

There are the DCMS inquiry into fake news, which we need to wait for, and the Intelligence and Security Committee’s inquiry into the activity of the Russians in the referendum and recent elections. There are ongoing investigations by the Electoral Commission into the referendum, and a court case is still pending. We have just had a very interesting report on referendums from UCL. I am not in favour of delay, but it makes sense to have the reports of the various inquiries that I have just referred to before we decide how best to proceed. I make it clear that the Government take extremely seriously what has been reported in the investigation out today.

My Lords, I attended the exchanges earlier in the other place. Can I express the hope that our Minister will be rather more forthcoming than his colleague there? She kept referring to rules having been breached. These are not the rules of a game; this is the law of the land. This was a case of knowingly breaking the law—hence the reference to the police. Did the Minister note that no fewer than five very senior Conservative MPs urged the Government to recognise the implications for the integrity of the outcome of the 2016 referendum? If this was an election result, it could have caused that result to be declared invalid. Given the possibility—or perhaps now even the likelihood as the days go by—of a People’s Vote poll to make a choice about the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, do the Government accept the extreme urgency of the need for the reforms to which he has just referred? How and when do the Government propose to introduce legislation? If he is going to tell us again that there is some difficulty about that because of Brexit legislation, perhaps I may invite him to undertake an examination of my Private Member’s Bill to see if that would offer an opportunity.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his repeated offer to use his Private Member’s Bill as a vehicle for necessary legislation, and I look forward to debating the remaining stages of his Bill in due course. I, too, followed the exchanges in the other place and I am grateful that I am answering questions here and not elsewhere. On the question of legislation, as I have said, we are currently considering whether the Electoral Commission should have more powers; we know that the commission wants the maximum fine to be increased from £20,000 to a higher level.

On the question of the referendum, I can only repeat what my honourable friend said in the other place, which is that the Government believe that the outcome of the referendum should be respected. Were there to be any more referendums, each one would require specific legislation, and there would be an opportunity to amend the legislation. I think that I am right in saying that the legislation for the EU referendum was amended in the light of a report from the Constitution Committee in your Lordships’ House, which recommended that the law be tightened on acting in concert. On the question of more general legislation, as I have said, I am not seeking to delay, but some key issues are under investigation by committees of this House and of another place. It makes sense to await the outcome of those before we decide how best to legislate.

My Lords, on all these reports, we now have the report of the Electoral Commission, which found that the Leave campaign broke the law; we have very strong evidence of Russian involvement; and there are reports of other investigations which have been carried out into the veracity of the referendum. Yet the Minister says that the Government are still willing to accept the result. What would it take for the Government to think again and recognise that this was a flawed referendum?

The Government do not believe that the referendum was flawed and I cannot envisage the circumstances in which they would come to a different view. On the exchanges in the other place, I did not hear a unanimous request to rerun the referendum: rather, the discussion focused on whether the laws we have at the moment should be tightened and changed were we to have any more referendums.

My Lords, my noble friend and his counterpart on the Opposition Benches were talking about reform of the electoral law. What the Minister said in the Commons in the quotation that I heard just now was that the mere fact that a regulation has been breached does not show that the regulation is flawed. Those two sentences stand together perfectly well.

I am grateful to my noble and learned friend. As my honourable friend in the other place said, that electoral rules have been breached is rightly a cause for concern, but that does not mean that the rules themselves are flawed.

My Lords, when the mayor of Tower Hamlets was elected because regulations had been breached, it was necessary to rerun the election. Can we be told the substantial difference between a case like that and the case we are talking about now?

The question of elections of MPs or mayors has been raised before. The commission does not have the power to disqualify MPs if they are found to have overspent in an election campaign, and I imagine that the same would be true of mayors. However—and I think this answers the noble Lord’s question—the commission can refer cases to the police or the relevant public prosecutor and generally do so if cases involve an element of deliberate dishonesty. That is the distinction.

My Lords, the Vote Leave whistleblower, Shamir Sanni, is adamant that the cheating and overspending was common knowledge in Vote Leave—everyone knew. Let us look at the rogues gallery of people inside Vote Leave who must have known about the £500,000 deliberate overspend. Some of those on the committee were Steve Baker, Iain Duncan Smith, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth—who is not in his place—Liam Fox, Chris Grayling, the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, who is also not in his place, Dominic Raab, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. Does the Minister agree that the country is owed an apology from all those people for the dishonesty that took place on their watch and that those still in office should step down until the police investigation is complete?

I refer the noble Lord to paragraph 1.13 of the Electoral Commission’s report:

“No other person was under investigation by the Commission”.

Does the Minister think that there is the slightest chance of the BBC giving a fair and balanced report of the Electoral Commission’s report?

I have not had time to listen to the BBC and its report on the Electoral Commission. As the noble Lord knows better than anyone else, if he believes that the BBC has been guilty of any bias, there are procedures for making the relevant complaint.

Does the Minister accept that, in extremis, there can be circumstances in which the behaviour of a party in a referendum can distort the outcome of that referendum? In those circumstances, what redress is there?

I refer the noble Lord to the reports of the Electoral Commission and UCL, which came out yesterday. They both say that they do not believe that the irregularities we have referred to would necessarily have affected the outcome of the referendum.

In looking forward to changes in legislation, would my noble friend give serious consideration to real-time reporting of expenses? Nowadays, we face fast-moving election programmes and campaigns. In this case and in others, it appears that the legislation has not kept up with the processes that can be adopted and followed.

That is a helpful suggestion. We should consult with the political parties to see how practical it is, but that suggestion was made in the exchanges in the other place. It is well worth looking at that to see in advance whether anyone is heading for an overspend.

My Lords, if the referendum was not fundamentally flawed, why are the Government so reluctant to concede that there is now a very strong case for a judicial and public inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 referendum?

It makes sense to complete the inquiries that are on the way. Other investigations into the referendum are still being conducted by the Electoral Commission. A court case on the issues we are talking about is pending. It would not be helpful to try to launch a public inquiry against that background.