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Elections and Referenda: Protection Against Corruption

Volume 799: debated on Monday 7 October 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made with ensuring adequate protection of (1) elections, and (2) referenda against corruption by (a) disinformation campaigns, and (b) digital technologies.

My Lords, the Government take online manipulation and disinformation very seriously, particularly in relation to our democratic processes. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is leading work across government to tackle this. Working more broadly, we have set up a Defending Democracy programme in the Cabinet Office. This pulls together work and expertise from across government to strengthen the integrity of our electoral system and defend it from hostile activity, including disinformation.

My Lords, time is moving on. During May, the Government replied to a number of questions from various Benches about preventing online corruption of future elections and referenda. The noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, always gave careful and considered answers and assured the House that the Government were already taking steps to ensure that there was no such corruption. He talked about ensuring that we have,

“a robust framework for our election process, which is resistant to corruption and enhances public confidence”.—[Official Report, 1/5/19; cols. 962-63.]

Since then, the evidence of online disinformation campaigning has grown very greatly. Some of it is anonymous and some is traceable to hostile states. It has been documented in some part by a very recent report from the Oxford Internet Institute. What steps have Her Majesty’s Government taken since May to ensure that future elections and referenda are not corrupted at source, and that the electorate can have confidence that results are not being secured by foul means?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes some very good points. I have read with interest past exchanges between her and my noble friend Lord Young—who I wish was here at the moment. I know that I am repeating to a certain extent what my noble friend said. We do take the situation very seriously and realise the urgency of it. It is very important that we do something about this, act correctly and get it right. In my initial Answer, I brought up the Defending Democracy programme. This was announced in July and its whole point is to pull together existing work and expertise from a number of departments, to protect and secure UK democratic processes, strengthen the integrity of UK elections and encourage respect for open, fair and safe democratic participation.

My Lords, given the advice from the Electoral Commission, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the DCMS Select Committee that our electoral legislation is no longer fit for purpose, will the Minister commit to implementing the Electoral Commission’s excellent codes of practice, which were published in July? They would improve transparency, give clarity to parties, agents and candidates, and move some way to meeting the point made by the noble Baroness. Would the noble Earl give strong representations to his colleagues that the necessary secondary legislation should be included in the Government’s programme next week?

I thank the noble Lord for his question, and I will pass on his concerns to the relevant Minister whose responsibility this is. Some important work is being carried out. As the noble Lord mentioned, the Information Commissioner’s Office published its draft code of practice for the use of personal data in political campaigning for public consultation on 9 August. The consultation closed on 4 October and it is good to see that some of the social media platforms have their codes of practice already in place.

Will the Minister assure the House that no government spending will be used to promote a partisan approach to Brexit, particularly as we are likely to have an election fairly soon? It appears to be the case now, because a whole lot of ads are being funded by taxpayers’ money saying that we will leave on 31 October, despite legislation passed, including by this House, which makes that unlawful unless certain conditions are met. Can the Government assure us that taxpayers’ money is not being used as part of the upcoming general election campaign?

My Lords, the important fact that the noble Baroness mentions is that the advertising campaign concerning leaving the EU on 31 October is to ensure that the country as a whole, and business in particular, is aware that this is our plan.

Does my noble friend agree that Britain is—or has been—looked at by the rest of the world as an exemplar not only for good government but for perfect electoral practice? As we cannot manage the good government now, could we please get the electoral practice right?

My noble friend raises a couple of points. This is why I will reiterate what we announced in July—our Defending Democracy campaign—which will bring everything together in all departments to seek various areas of security and safety on the internet.

My Lords, does the Defending Democracy unit have a clear definition of what it means by democracy? At present we are in a situation in which the question of whether the rule of law is an important part of democracy is under challenge and the relative weight of referenda and elections is also under challenge. It would be good to know that the Defending Democracy team has some clear definitions to contribute to the public debate.

I think I made it quite clear where the Defending Democracy programme is moving towards. It is protecting and securing our UK democratic processes. That is my top line on this issue and the most important thing—to protect our democratic processes.

My Lords, is not the very nature of this corruption that tech businesses operating anonymously and with no legal limits on what they are able to spend are gathering personal data with the intention not just of predicting the emotions and behaviour of individuals but of influencing them? At the same time, people are unaware of what is being done to them. Is this not a violation of personal freedom? Do the Government intend to legislate to curb these abuses or do they just see electoral advantage in allowing them to continue?

The noble Lord mentioned data and how it is being utilised. I watched “The Great Hack” last night and recommend it to noble Lords—it is an interesting film. This is why it is so important that we work closely with the Information Commissioner, as we did during the Data Protection Bill and in the wake of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica controversy, to make sure that she had the powers she needed to investigate complex data breaches in our increasingly digital economy and society. The important thing is transparency. When these imprints and ads come up on various sites, we have to know where they come from. The other day, for example, I was looking at a site and up came an add relating to a hoover. I was trying to buy a hoover the other day and looking for it online. That was not important, but the important thing here is that, if we have political ads coming up on our screen, we know where they come from and they are transparent.