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EU Referendum: Conduct

Volume 793: debated on Monday 22 October 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have received reports or information about (1) outside interference, and (2) irregularities, in the conduct of the European Union referendum.

My Lords, the Government have not received any reports or information about any successful outside interference in the European Union referendum. We nevertheless remain vigilant and are committed to defending the UK from all forms of malign state interference in UK democratic processes. The Electoral Commission’s report on the referendum, published in September 2016, stated that the poll was delivered without any major issues and that there was a clear and timely final result.

I don’t believe it. Everyone knows the irregularities, the fraud and the corruption that took place. The Electoral Commission declared that there was illegal spending by Vote Leave. A whistleblower at Cambridge Analytica showed that Russian money was pumped into the Vote Leave campaign through Aaron Banks and others. This result was obtained by fraud and corruption. The Government have an opportunity to put this right and to satisfy the wishes of at least 700,000 marchers on Saturday by giving the British people the opportunity to decide whether they want to accept the deal, once the terms are known, or to stay in the European Union through a people’s vote.

My Lords, the Prime Minister has made her position quite clear on a second referendum: she does not want one. The Electoral Commission is investigating whether Mr Banks was the true source of the loans reported by a referendum campaign in his name and whether any individual facilitated a transaction with a non-qualifying person. But it is important to keep this in perspective. The Atlantic Council and the Oxford Research Institute, both of which have researched this, found that the impact of the Russians on the referendum was at best marginal. One estimate was 0.3% of tweets. I was as disappointed as the noble Lord with the outcome of the referendum, but unlike him I do not believe that it was lost because of what I might call the Zinoviev Twitter.

My Lords, this is the Act of Parliament that set out the conditions under which the referendum was fought. This is not a minor matter of rules or regulations; this is the law of the land. Can the noble Lord confirm that the Electoral Commission passed files detailing what had happened in terms of lawbreaking by the leavers during the campaign to the Metropolitan Police several months ago? Can he reassure the House that the police will never halt or delay an investigation because it is claimed that there are political sensitivities?

I think it is a malign slur on the police to imply that they would defer to political pressure in that way. It is indeed the case that the responsible person for Vote Leave has been referred to the police, as has Mr Grimes, in relation to false declarations of campaign spending. A number of pro-remain organisations were also fined by the EC for breaking referendum law, including the Liberal Democrats.

My Lords, will the noble Lord agree that the most irregular aspect of the EU referendum was the £9.5 million the Government spent on a deceitful little brochure which went through every letterbox in the land in an attempt to mislead the British people into voting to stay in the EU?

The Government followed the precedent of earlier referendums, including those from the 1970s and 1990s, in distributing a leaflet setting out the Government’s view.

My Lords, the DCMS Committee in the other place has just published alarming evidence of a so-called “Mainstream Network”, which appears to have spent £250,000 to reach 10 million Facebook users, urging them to lobby their MPs to “chuck Chequers”. Could the Minister ask the Electoral Commission to investigate this because it could fall into a pre-election period, or get his own department to consider whether, if this is not against the law, some regulation is needed if we are not to have just millionaires putting money into our political system?

I understand the concern expressed by the noble Baroness and, indeed, by DCMS. It might be a matter for the Information Commissioner, who has been given new powers under the Data Protection Act, which has recently been passed. She is already investigating the possible misuse of data held by Facebook and used by Cambridge Analytica. We will shortly publish a White Paper on online harm setting out our objective to make the UK the safest place in which to be online.

I am grateful to the noble Lord. My noble friend Lord Foulkes spoke with passion and eloquence on behalf of the 700,000 people who marched. If I can say a word on behalf of the 17.4 million people who voted leave, it is this: ever since the referendum result was declared—this just another step along the way—there has been an unremitting campaign to try to discredit or, at best, reverse the result of the referendum on numerous different fronts, of which this is just the latest example. Can the Minister put this all in perspective and recognise that the 17.4 million people who voted leave were not all duped by the Russians and were not all ignorant about the issues which were before them? All they asked was this simple request, which we want the Government to get on with: to leave the European Union.

The noble Lord will know that after the referendum the relevant legislation was passed through both Houses. Legislation will shortly be introduced, following a successful negotiation with the European Union. I share his wish, as much as anybody else, that this whole matter be brought to a conclusion swiftly and cohesively, and we can then move on to other matters.