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Elections: Online Interference

Volume 797: debated on Wednesday 1 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they intend to take to prevent or mitigate online interference with any future elections or referenda.

My Lords, the Government are committed to ensuring the security and integrity of our democratic processes and defending them from all forms of interference. To date, we have not seen evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes. UK voting mechanisms do not lend themselves to direct electronic manipulation as voting and the counting of ballots are highly manual processes conducted under the watchful eye of observers.

My Lords, I wish I could share the noble Lord’s optimism. The ways that exist for interfering in elections are not confined to direct interference at the polls. We are talking about interference in campaigning, and there is ample evidence of that. There is no evidence of how successful interference has been in particular cases; the nature of the problem means that such evidence cannot exist. This is an urgent matter. I believe that the country would be ill served by further democratic processes, whether elections or referenda, where people could not tell whether they had been fairly conducted.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, that we take these issues seriously. We are now actively considering the recent report and recommendations of the Electoral Commission, the recent report of the Information Commissioner on digital campaigning and the role of Cambridge Analytica, and the recent report of DCMS on fake news. The Secretary of State will give evidence to the Select Committee next week. We hope shortly to have the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on Russian interference in the referendum and the 2017 election. We will then take steps to ensure that we have a robust framework for our election process, which is resistant to corruption and enhances public confidence in our democratic institutions.

Perhaps the Minister would like to congratulate the Observer and Carole Cadwalladr on her Scoop of the Year award from the London Press Club for exposing the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It is worth seeing her TED talk on this, if noble Lords have not. It was investigative journalism, not our regulator, that identified these problems. Given that we are likely to have the European elections soon and that, because of their international implications, there is even more temptation for interference from outside, will the Minister agree to meet people in this House with particular expertise in campaigning and digital matters to look at the evidence he referred to and see whether we can get some assurance on this issue?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I recently attended one such all-party meeting to discuss these issues and I have no hesitation in accepting her suggestion that there should be another. I have said before from this Dispatch Box that we have an analogue legislative framework seeking to operate in a digital age. We are determined to update that framework to make it fit for purpose and I welcome the suggestion of all-party talks.

Can my noble friend advise the House on whether there has been any progress on the consultation aimed at extending to online electoral propaganda the same imprint that now applies to printed materials?

My noble friend will know that last July we consulted on extending the requirement for an imprint, which already exists for printed material, to digital campaigning material. The Government have now concluded their considerations and an announcement will be made very soon.

We should acknowledge that the Minister is taking this matter very seriously, as we heard from his Answer. That is very encouraging. As well as the various bodies that he referred to, could he ensure that the Electoral Commission and the appropriate departments of government meet and discuss the arrangements for elections and referenda with the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, which has revised its guidelines for both referenda and elections?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for that suggestion. As he will know, the Electoral Commission is independent of government, but I see no reason why it should not respond positively to the suggestion he made.

My Lords, the Electoral Commission is independent of government but depends on government for its resources. Given the extent to which confidence in our electoral system and campaigning has been hit by various allegations, stories and uncertainties over where financial contributions have come from, is the Minister confident that the Electoral Commission has the resources to restore the necessary confidence in our electoral campaigns and elections at present?

For once, most uncharacteristically, the noble Lord is incorrect. The Electoral Commission is not dependent on the Government for its resources; it is dependent on the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission in another place. I am grateful for his gracious nod in response. The budget is set by the Speaker’s Committee, but I can say that in the last year for which we have figures the Electoral Commission underspent by £1.1 million.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that any form of interference in elections is important and should be dealt with? Therefore, I encourage the Government to adopt Labour Party policy on voter ID and require people to produce some form of ID at all elections, as the Labour Party does when selecting candidates.

However, I say to my noble friend that voter ID is part of our policy to restore confidence in the integrity of the democratic process. He will know that last year we had pilots for the local elections and the Electoral Commission’s evaluations showed that they were a success. The overwhelming majority of people cast their vote without a problem. Tomorrow there will be another round of voter ID pilots in local government. We have consulted a wide range of civil society groups to ensure that voter ID will work for everyone.

I can do no better than to refer my noble friend to the very capable Answer given from this Dispatch Box only yesterday by my noble friend Lady Williams.