We now come to the emergency debate on the EU referendum and alleged breaches of electoral law. This debate, as colleagues will know as I informed the House yesterday, can run for up to two hours.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the EU referendum and alleged breaches of electoral law.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for helping to facilitate this debate, which as you said yesterday, was in order for an emergency debate under
“They want us to get on with it, and that is what we are going to do.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 638, c. 525.]
She also dismissed concerns about Vote Leave’s activities, in answer to a question from Neil Gray, who is not in his place but was here yesterday. She is hiding behind an increasingly tatty and threadbare comfort blanket—the will of the people: her sole justification for the disastrous act of self-harm she is imposing on the country. She has not in this place been able to deploy any sound economic, diplomatic, cultural or security reasons why Brexit is good for the country, but she has frequently referred to the will of the people.
I am grateful. Although the debate is about electoral law, might I put it on the record, as somebody who wanted to leave, that the law is the law and nobody is above it, and if the law has been broken, or if there are grounds to suspect that it has been broken, the full weight of that law should be thrown at those organisations?
I was not entirely anticipating a friendly intervention, but indeed it was a very friendly intervention.
The Prime Minister does not appear willing to entertain any prospect that the allegations are true and that therefore the will of the people might have been usurped and the people cheated. It was my concern that the law might have been broken that led me to refer the matter to the Electoral Commission and the police.
The hon. Gentleman encourages me to speculate on a matter to which it is difficult to respond. If these allegations, which are unproven, are true and £625,000 was spent illegally in a very focused campaign and, by definition, was targeted on a very small number of people, it is very hard to say what the effect might have been. That is partly what I hope any inquiries might clarify.
Would the right hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that the remain campaign spent about one third more on the EU referendum and indeed that the Government spent more than £9 million of taxpayers’ money sending a leaflet to every house in the UK promoting our remaining? Could that not be seen as biased in favour of that campaign?
Many Members on the Opposition Benches, and possibly some on the Government Benches, will have seen a comprehensive dossier of ways in which Vote Leave and BeLeave allegedly broke the law. If the hon. Gentleman wants to bring to the House, or present to the Electoral Commission and the police, a similar dossier of allegations against Britain Stronger in Europe, of course he should do that, and Members on both sides of the House would welcome it, but the fact is that all we have is the dossier that the Electoral Commission and the police are now considering in relation to Vote Leave’s and BeLeave’s activities. He should not, then, try to muddy the waters in the way I am afraid he is seeking to do.
Many of us in the House were around during the Iraq war debates, when we were given a dossier. Many of us were not convinced, having read that dossier in detail, but others were, and the House voted to go to war, even though the facts on which that decision was based proved not to be true. This dossier is far more convincing than the previous dossier. [Laughter.] Does he not therefore agree that it should be investigated and taken seriously by everybody in this House?
Yes, and I am sorry that there was laughter from the Government Benches. Members of Parliament, whether they supported remain or leave, should be interested in finding out whether the law has been broken. It should not be a subject of hilarity in the way that it seems to be for some Members on the Government Benches.
I am happy to say that it was, I understand, £18,000. The slight difference, though, is that as a party we would love to be able to spend close to the spending limit in relation to election law, but as a party we are never able to. The allegation here is that the combination of Vote Leave and BeLeave spending broke the law, so the hon. Gentleman should wipe the smile off his face, focus on whether the law has been broken and treat the matter more seriously than he appears to be doing.
Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that the tone of the debate so far is incredibly disappointing? We are discussing something that goes to the very heart of our democratic processes. If the allegations in the report are correct, it shows that there is something rotten at the heart of our democracy, and it would behove the other side to take that rather more seriously, because it affects all of us and the credibility of our democracy.
I could not agree more. I am sure that others will contribute to this debate—they may principally or exclusively be from the Opposition Benches—express their concerns about these allegation and ask that the matter be fully investigated in the way it deserves.
I am sure that were he not at the Liaison Committee, the Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, who has done such a fantastic job on this and has just spent four hours listening to the testimony of Christopher Wylie, would be here making exactly the same points as the right hon. Gentleman.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that equally helpful intervention. I hope that during this debate Members who heard that evidence will be able to contribute and update the House on what was said there, although I suspect that a lot of that information will have been contained in the papers this weekend, which I am sure many Members have spent hours assessing over the weekend and since.
I want to focus briefly on the Electoral Commission. This is how its website describes its role in relation to referendums:
“Our focus is on voters and on putting their interests first. Our objectives for referendums are that:…they should be well-run and produce results that are accepted…there should be integrity and transparency of campaign funding and expenditure”.
It is safe to say that neither of those objectives was met with respect to the EU referendum campaign—I am not blaming the Electoral Commission but others involved in the campaign.
What action has the Electoral Commission taken to date? The allegations we read about this weekend were new allegations, but there were existing allegations working their way through the system. I thank WhatDoTheyKnow, openDemocracy and FairVote for their work on this issue. They obtained internal emails from the Electoral Commission that described Darren Grimes’ spending as “unusual”. I think we can all agree it was remarkable that someone whose organisation in the first 10 weeks of its existence apparently managed to raise £107 was given £625,000 to spend in a completely uncontrolled manner. It is remarkable that such confidence was placed in that organisation and the one or two people behind it.
I spoke to some people in the industry about this, and they told me that unless there was collusion it would have been impossible to mine such big data in the timeframe the money was given to BeLeave. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is suspicious indeed?
I do not want to comment directly on that, but clearly it is a very serious allegation that I am sure will be a subject of the Electoral Commission and police inquiries. The commission has confirmed that there is a live investigation under way and that therefore it cannot confirm what progress has been made, but it is under way, and I welcome that.
In the internal emails, the Electoral Commission described Grimes’ spending as “unusual” and found that he broke some of its rules, but it decided to take the matter no further as there were “no reasonable grounds” to believe that Vote Leave and Grimes had been working together.
I must say that the Electoral Commission will have to have very clear reasons if it does not believe this to be the case now, following those new allegations from three whistleblowers at the heart of the Vote Leave-BeLeave machine. It is worth underlining that they are new allegations. What we have heard from the supporters of Vote Leave is “All this has been investigated. There is nothing new here”, but these allegations from three whistleblowers at the centre of the organisation are completely new. These are matters that have not been investigated. Anyone who supported Vote Leave and is now saying, “Don’t bother, it has been done” is wrong.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that when the former chief executive officer of Cambridge Analytica, whose subsidiary, or associated, company AIQ is linked with many Leave campaigns, is openly bragging that it can alter election outcomes for a fee, that is a shaming indictment of the nature of British politics today, and shows that money tends to be seen as more important than our democracy and the force of argument?
I will come on to some reforms that might be needed in terms of the law. Some of what has gone on, if it is indeed within the law, should concern us very much, and we may need to look very carefully at the law itself.
The new nature of the allegations is critical, because the Brexit cheerleaders, such as the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, have been quick to say “Nothing to see here. Move on. The result must be respected. Vote Leave won fair and square.” They will pretend that all this has been investigated before. It has not, and only when it has will we know whether the trail of deceit which so publicly started with the incredible slogan slapped on the side of that infamous red bus—the Foreign Secretary’s comprehensively demolished claim that there would be £350 million a week for the NHS, which he keeps repeating to this day—leads directly to today’s Cabinet table.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about journeys of deceit. He will have noted that no members of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party have joined us today. Their former vice-chair, Richard Cook, leads a group called the Constitutional Research Council, which gave £425,000 to the Democratic Unionist party during the last general election. Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in asking Mr Cook to assure us first that none of that money came from Russia, and secondly that none of it was used to co-ordinate other election campaigns such as those on the European Union referendum?
The hon. Gentleman has made a valid point. Those too are serious allegations that need to be investigated, and I will touch on them briefly in a moment. One thing that concerns me about the donation to the DUP is that it was apparently spent on an advertising campaign that was wholly based in England. That seems a rather strange use of money allocated to the DUP which one might have expected to be spent in Northern Ireland.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport should table urgent amendments to the Data Protection Bill on Report to give the Information Commissioner the initial powers that she needs, but also to enhance co-operation between the Information Commissioner’s Office, the Electoral Commission and the Financial Conduct Authority so that they can follow the money as well as the data?
Absolutely—and I would add that they should be able to follow the money abroad, because I think that there is substantial concern about the possible involvement of foreign actors in our elections here, about the possible sources of funds, and, indeed, about the possible sources of advertising on Facebook and other media.
The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned a number of investigations involving the Electoral Commission that are currently under way. Does he believe that the commission should undertake the task, or should there be a public inquiry, as suggested by the journalist who broke the story?
I am open-minded about whether that might be a way forward. My only concern about it is that the commission has not proceeded as swiftly as we would have liked in the investigations that are already under way. A public inquiry is, by definition, likely to take a considerable period of time, and if there is much more water under this particular bridge I think it will lose its focus. I think it is important for us to focus on this now in a way that will deliver an outcome swiftly, so that people can have certainty about the fairness of our elections.
Open Democracy states:
“The referendum saw a number of different groups register as campaigns on each side. These campaigns were given spending caps, designed to limit how much the rich can sway our democracy. But if one campaign can simply get round its limit by donating to another on the same side, then the cap verges on meaningless. And so Electoral Commission rules are meant to restrict campaigns from getting round spend limits in this way.”
The question, therefore, is whether the commission interpreted the law correctly originally, and how it will interpret it now given what I believe is substantial new evidence.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware—in terms of new allegations—that a month before the referendum itself, the remain campaign set up no fewer than five new campaigns, at DDB UK Ltd, Best for our Future Ltd, The In Crowd, Virgin Management Ltd and Wake Up. Vote? Is he aware that remain channelled £1 million to those five organisations? Does he think that they should be investigated as well, and, if so, why has he not mentioned them so far?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I hope he will produce the evidence that he says he has to hand, and allow the matter to be investigated thoroughly. Otherwise he will be at risk of simply trying to muddy the water, and I am sure that he is not trying to do that.
If the Electoral Commission did indeed interpret the law correctly, we should note that Open Democracy also states:
“As a registered Leave campaigner, Grimes was allowed to spend”
“during the referendum. Earlier this year a Vote Leave source told a parliamentary committee that it had enlisted Mr Grimes’s BeLeave campaign because it was close to breaching its £7 million spending limit and wanted to ensure all the money it had been given would be used. Under UK electoral law, this is fine. The Electoral Commission has ruled that such donations are allowed—so long as there was no ‘plan or other arrangement’
between Darren Grimes and Vote Leave about how the money was spent.”
In other words, one organisation, Vote Leave, can pass a huge amount of money to another, just before it would break the legal limit if it carried on spending. Although that second organisation is very familiar with the activities of the Vote Leave organisation—indeed, co-located with it, using the same supplier for the delivery of targeted messages and, presumably, the same or a remarkably similar specification for the work that Vote Leave pays for—the law says that the two are not acting in concert. If that is a correct interpretation, or indeed if that is how the Electoral Commission will interpret the law once it has considered the new evidence, I must say that I think the law is an ass and will need to be changed, because what it means, in effect, is that there is no limit to the amount that third parties can spend on supporting the main designated campaign organisation in any future referendums.
I would love to hear what the “new evidence” is. It is coming from some very junior people who are currently making contradictory claims on different television programmes. Let us hear what it is, and let us leave it to the Electoral Commission. It has already cleared this twice.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not concentrating on what I said earlier, and I forgive him if that is the case. I said very clearly that the new evidence had been provided by three people who were at the heart of BeLeave and Vote Leave, and who were probably the only the only people who were working for BeLeave. Let us face it: this was not a large organisation. It was an organisation that had a handful of people working for it. I suspect that they know more about BeLeave’s activities than anyone in this place, which is why I have referred the matter to the Electoral Commission and the police so that they can carry out appropriate investigations.
We are hearing about a potential abuse of electoral law, which is threatening to pull perhaps the most important decision of a generation down into complete farce. The Court of Session in Edinburgh has said that it will allow a petition about article 50 to go ahead. There seem to be weekly concerns about Brexit, the vote and the potential economic impact. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the wheels are coming off the great big red Brexit bus that he mentioned earlier? Perhaps it is time for the Government to stop before it crashes completely.
My hon. Friend has carefully enumerated all the different ways in which some of the promises made during the EU referendum campaign have been broken, and why people might now be thinking that a vote on the deal and an exit from Brexit is the only way out for them. Certainly, I must say that sometimes I wonder if the Prime Minister feels the same way, because when she seeks to answer questions about the economic benefits for the UK of us doing this, she is sorely short of any sensible answers.
I want to focus briefly on the issue of the Electoral Commission’s resources. It has confirmed in answer to my letter that it does have the resources it needs. I welcome that and take its word for it; however, when I was a Minister and had some responsibility for this area I was aware from contact with charities, political groups and others that the Electoral Commission often struggled to respond to queries in a timely manner, and there was always an appetite for more guidance and more detailed guidance. Perhaps the resourcing has changed, as it seems to be confident that it has what it needs to investigate this, but, as I said earlier, my hon. Friends and I have concerns about the progress made on some of the existing inquiries.
As long ago as
I am sure that, like me, the right hon. Gentleman is at least cheered by the fact that some Conservative MPs seem very keen to participate in today’s debate despite the fact that 24 hours ago none of them thought there was anything worth debating. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that on matters as important as the long-term constitution and international status of these islands, it is not enough for somebody to assert, full of bluster, that there is nothing wrong? All of us individually and collectively must be seen to be above suspicion, and when suspicions are raised with the volume and intensity of the last few days, there must be a full investigation, hopefully to prove nothing is amiss, but if there is anything amiss, those responsible must be held to account or the public will completely lose any faith in our democracy?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and his point is well made. I am sure he will agree with me and the other Members who have already expressed strong views on the fact that when anyone has broken electoral law—if indeed it has been broken—that requires investigation and appropriate action needs to be taken.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Conservative Members are so desperate to get Brexit that they are happy to get Brexit at any price, even at the price of democracy?
I do not know if that is the case for all Conservative Members; we will see whether their enthusiasm for the debate leads any of them to make a contribution setting out concerns about whether democracy might have been jeopardised if these allegations are true. But they seem to be treating the debate more as a matter of hilarity, so I am not entirely confident that their contributions will reinforce the points made from the Opposition Benches.
I am now going to ask the Minister some questions which I hope she will be able to answer. In some respects I feel sorry for her in this, as I know her to be a very fair Minister. I would much rather have had the Foreign Secretary here to answer questions, because he has a lot of questions to answer in this respect, including on the role he played in the Vote Leave campaign.
I hope the Minister will be able to explain why the investigations of the existing allegations have taken so long. Is that a question of the Electoral Commission or the police lacking appropriate powers or resources? We have heard that the Electoral Commission has said it is not a resource problem. Is there a discrepancy between the different statutory regimes for elections on the one hand and for referendums on the other, which cause difficulty in the examination of infringements? Do these differences cause particular problems when seeking to establish illegal collusion or ineligible donors?
Can the Minister also set out what action the UK Government intend to take to address any failings in electoral law they or the Electoral Commission have already identified, and set out what mechanisms are in place to right past electoral wrongs? Given the narrow margin of the result—for every 17 people who voted to leave, 16 voted to remain—does the Minister recognise that continuing doubts about the referendum’s integrity fuel challenges to the legitimacy of the entire Brexit process? Is the Minister confident that no one who works for the Conservative party, or indeed Ministers or the Prime Minister, is going to be charged as part of this investigation?
I will conclude by saying that whether people voted leave or remain, they are entitled to know that the EU referendum campaign was fairly and squarely delivered, or that people were in fact cheated and the law was broken. As Members from all opposition parties, at least, have said, this will require a thorough investigation. It requires Ministers to refrain from the Trumpian tweeting preferred by the Foreign Secretary, who has already said that there is no case to answer before the case has actually been heard.
I congratulate Tom Brake on securing this emergency debate. As Members will know, I have been raising this issue and concern in the House for almost 18 months now, and when I first did so I was treated as a bit of a crank. Subsequently, however, almost every single allegation that I have used parliamentary privilege to put on the record in this place has proven to be correct.
This debate needs to be taken extremely seriously. It is not about who won or lost the referendum; it is about the integrity and security of our democracy and electoral system. Any of the sceptics who have cast doubt on the nature and quality of the evidence of the whistleblower, Chris Wylie, should watch the four hours of testimony that I watched today before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee: it was absolutely shocking and astonishing, and it should go to the heart of anybody who cares about our democracy.
Mr Wylie laid out clear evidence of serious lawbreaking by the leave campaign: not only collusion between Vote Leave and BeLeave, which is the one that has got most publicity, but collusion between Vote Leave and some of the other leave organisations, including Veterans for Britain, and indeed the DUP. Each of those organisations used either Cambridge Analytica—we know all about that, having heard the revelations last week about how it illegally harvested the Facebook data of tens of millions of people—or Aggregate IQ, a supposedly separate company based in Canada. It is not separate at all; it is all part of the same organisation. We know that 40% of Vote Leave’s budget was spent on Aggregate IQ and the work that it did. We still do not know how AIQ got that data, where the data came from or whether it was legally obtained and used. These are serious questions, and I am very pleased that the Chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, who is a Conservative, is clearly taking the allegations seriously. He will be putting them to the Prime Minister at the Liaison Committee later this afternoon.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree, given the scale of the spending on digital campaigning now, that along with the investigation into what happened during the referendum there is an urgent need for a complete overhaul of the electoral rules to ensure that they are fit for the digital age?
Yes, I entirely agree. I shall go on to say something about that a little later.
Mr Wylie provided compelling and credible evidence not only of the collusion but of the effectiveness of the targeted advertising campaigns that these data companies conduct, based on the data that they have. In the case of the referendum, the campaigns were targeted on 7 million voters whom the companies had carefully profiled as people whose opinions they could shift. In his evidence to the Committee today, Mr Wylie produced a staggering statistic. He said that, in his experience, the methods used by Cambridge Analytica and AIQ in this case would have had the potential to shift between 7% and 10% of the people targeted. Let us not forget that he was and remains a leaver. He wants Brexit to happen, but he does not want it to happen based on a fraud on the British electorate. He said that
“it is completely reasonable to say that there could have been a different outcome in the referendum if there hadn’t been, in my view, cheating”.
There have been attempts to discredit Mr Wylie. There was even a disgraceful attempt from Downing Street to discredit one of his co-whistleblowers by, among other things, outing him as gay. I am amazed that the man who did that is still in his job, because that was totally unacceptable. Let me tell those people who are trying to discredit Mr Wylie that he is one of 200 people who have been allowed into this country because of their brilliance. He has been allowed a special visa because of the amount he knows about how all this stuff works. I do not have a clue how it all works, but he is one of the world’s leading experts, and he is a very serious whistleblower. Not all Conservative Members dismiss his evidence, but those who do do so at their peril. Let us just wait and see where all this ends. Mr Wylie also made a very worrying statement, and I think that this is the first time that a connection has been made between Cambridge Analytica and the Russian FSB—although I had heard about it privately—via the work that it did for the Russian oil company, Lukoil.
It must be clear to everyone in the House, whatever their view on Brexit, that the powers and resources of the Information Commissioner and the Electoral Commission are wholly inadequate. If the Government were serious about getting to the truth by letting the commissioners do their job, we would have less of this “what-aboutery” and more action and support for the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner, in terms of their powers and—critically and more immediately—their resources. Mr Wylie has been working for many hours with the Information Commissioner, and one of the worrying things he told the Committee was that he had had to explain to the officials in that office what all this was about. They do not have enough technical experts. They do not have people who actually understand how all this works and what has been going on. In my view, this guy should be employed by all the global regulators, because he seems to be one of the few people who knows how this electoral corruption works, not only in our country but elsewhere. There was loads of evidence, for example, about what has been going on in Nigeria and in parts the Caribbean. This is not just a problem for this country.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. The accusations that he is outlining go to the heart of the Government, and the people who led the leave campaign are now senior Cabinet members. Does he therefore agree that the Ministers in question should excuse themselves from this investigation and possibly from Brexit-specific Cabinet meetings in the future?
What matters at this stage is that the Electoral Commission, the Information Commissioner, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the Intelligence and Security Committee and Robert Mueller’s investigation in the United States, which is examining things that are relevant to us here, are given the full support and resources from our Government and from all their agencies that they need to do their jobs properly. In contrast to the outbursts from the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs trying to rubbish this testimony, I note that most of the rest of the Cabinet said that the Electoral Commission should be allowed to finish its work properly.
This is in no way a criticism of the Information Commissioner or of the Electoral Commission —they are doing their best—but they do not have enough people, expertise, money or power. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We had the farcical scene of the Information Commissioner trying to get access to Cambridge Analytica’s office for almost a week, while Facebook had got in right at the start. That just symbolises the paucity of the powers that we have to deal with this digital world when our legislation and resources are based on an analogue age.
Finally—this is slightly away from the evidence given by Mr Wylie today—I have received other new information that also concerns me. Members will recall the dreadful murder of Daphne Galizia in Malta last year. At the time she was murdered, I am informed that Ms Galizia was investigating Pilatus Bank, which had its assets frozen last week owing to fears of money laundering. She was also investigating Cambridge Analytica and Henley & Partners, which sells citizenship in Malta, and there are other links with the Legatum Institute, concerns about which I raised in the House several months ago, and the mysterious Maltese professor, Professor Joseph Mifsud, who is named in an indictment by Robert Mueller’s inquiry. All those matters need to be examined incredibly carefully, and I want the Minister to give a full and categorical assurance that, given the significant British links, the Maltese authorities that are investigating such matters will receive the full support and co-operation they need from our law enforcement, intelligence and security agencies.
The hon. Gentleman has made his pithy point pithily, and it is on the record. People can listen and be attentive, and I have become accustomed to listening to Caroline Lucas over the years, which I have always found an enjoyable experience.
The debate was granted yesterday, so there was quite a lot of time yesterday in which to apply to participate. If the hon. Gentleman meant that he was not certain when he would be available because of his pressing commitments, that is duly acknowledged.
Perhaps we can now proceed with the speech of Caroline Lucas.
I recognise that the Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has been doing some incredibly important work this morning. Notwithstanding that, I still make the case that there is staggering hypocrisy among a large number of MPs who promised to enhance democracy by leaving the EU, but who cannot even be bothered to turn up to talk about the potential radical undermining of our democratic processes. I find that genuinely quite breathtaking.
I start by paying tribute to the dedicated, fearless journalism of Carol Cadwalladr over the past year. She has led us to the extraordinary revelations that we are debating this afternoon.
Much of the discussion so far has been about the validity of the referendum vote itself, but I want to argue that this goes much deeper and wider than that single vote, vastly important though it is. The revelations by The Guardian, Channel 4 and others over the past few days go right to the heart of the kind of country we think we are living in. I argue that they demonstrate that current electoral law is woefully inadequate. I think they show that the regulation governing our democratic processes urgently needs to be updated and reformed. They show, I believe, that something is rotten in the state of our democracy.
The combination of big money and big data is overwhelming the chronically weak structures that are supposed to protect us against cheating and fraud. As others have said, we are trying to apply laws from the analogue era to the very different reality of the digital age, and it simply is not working. It took the Information Commissioner almost a week to get authorisation to get through the front door of Cambridge Analytica, during which time presumably the delete button had been pressed a great many times. The Electoral Commission, meanwhile, has been investigating claims of the misuse of electoral funds for almost a year. Why on earth do we not have rules that require donations to be reported in real time, and the same for spending? Why do we not have a body with more resources and real teeth? Things urgently need to change.
Electoral law is based on two fundamental principles. The first principle is that parties and candidates compete on what should be a level playing field in terms of resources, which is presumably why we have national and local spending limits in elections. The second principle is that elections are open and transparent, so parties and candidates have to be transparent in their communications with the voters and it is unlawful to make false claims in those communications. The allegations about the true nature of the relationship between Vote Leave and BeLeave suggest that there may well have been cheating when it comes to the first principle, and the investigations into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, and the spending of huge sums of money on micro-targeted political advertising based on data harvested from voters’ social media profiles, suggest that the second of these two principles is also under great strain in the digital age.
Frankly, Facebook’s desperate adverts on the back pages of Sunday’s newspapers, just a couple of days ago, suggest to me that it knows that its bubble is bursting. We now need to update the law to ensure that people are protected from this social media mega-monopoly. Just because the chief executives of Facebook and Google wear T-shirts to work and turn up on skateboards does not mean that they are not aggressive capitalists, and we need to get a bit wiser to that fact.
The law regulating campaign activity and finance—the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—was drawn up almost 20 years ago, long before Facebook or Twitter even existed, let alone had any role in political campaigns. It is considerably more difficult to ensure the compliance of adverts on social media than the compliance of adverts in newspapers or on billboards. Voters simply do not know what is being done with their data by a company that, ultimately, wants to make as much money as possible from the information it has on each of us. Not surprisingly, the regulators struggle to regulate.
This undoubtedly presents a complex challenge to all politicians, as social media platforms overtake the national and local press and media through which we have traditionally communicated with our electorate, but without the same level of transparency and scrutiny. However, it is a challenge that we must meet. The need for a reprogramming of the way parties and campaigns are funded could not be greater. Whether it is donations from Russian oligarchs on one side of the House or from former Formula 1 bosses on the other side, people are sick and tired of a politics that is awash with big money without proper oversight. I argue that the case for state funding for political parties could scarcely be stronger.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern that the House voted for the Democratic Unionist party’s donation not to be scrutinised before 2017, so that massive donation now cannot be scrutinised in the proper way? We do not know the origin of that cash.
I absolutely share the hon. Lady’s concern; she is right that that should have been looked into at the time, rather than pushed into the long grass. It is yet another reason why I am calling for urgent cross-party talks on updating our online campaign regulations and reforming the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, including consultation with the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner on what new powers and resources they need in order to fulfil their role in safeguarding our democracy.
The revelations by Shahmir Sanni about Vote Leave and BeLeave raise related but somewhat different questions, some of which need to be addressed to, and answered by, certain Members on the Government side of the House, for they strongly suggest that some of those who worked for the official Brexit campaign during the 2016 referendum, some of whom now work for the Prime Minister in Downing Street, committed criminal breaches of electoral law on overspending and collusion. Vote Leave, whose leading members included the current Foreign Secretary and Environment Secretary, formally declared it had spent £6.77 million during the 2016 campaign—this was within the £7 million limit. But that sum does not include a £625,000 donation that Vote Leave gave to BeLeave, the Brexit campaign aimed at students and young people, which BeLeave spent on the very same digital marketing company, Aggregate IQ, used by Vote Leave. As Tom Brake set out powerfully, there is substantial evidence of constant communication between Vote Leave and BeLeave, which were based in the same office, shared the same computer drive and seem to have had advice going between them as to the setting up of their constitution, their bank account and so on. It is insulting to suggest that these two organisations were not co-ordinating very, very closely.
So it is simply not good enough for the Prime Minister to have airily dismissed the questions that were raised by these revelations as she did in the House yesterday. I might add that her attempts to brush off complaints about the disgraceful outing of Shahmir Sanni were beneath her and bring shame on her office. If the laws were broken, those involved need to be brought to justice, because if they are not, and if we do not fix the shortcomings of our electoral law and its regulation, this Government will go down in history as the one who sat and watched while the very lifeblood of our democracy drained away, and voters will have taken back control for nothing. That is why I also think we need an independent public inquiry to establish, as a matter of urgency, whether electoral law was broken by any of those working for Vote Leave and BeLeave, and, crucially, what current Ministers knew at the time.
May I start by congratulating Tom Brake on securing this debate and on the way in which he opened our deliberations? May I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr Bradshaw? He suggested that when he first started raising these issues in Parliament some people perceived him to be something of a crank, but I think he is one of the finest politicians of our generation, and I am proud to sit on these Benches alongside him.
So many things need to be said in this debate that it is hard to know where to start. The three contributions we have heard so far all referred to the recent revelations about the close relationship between Vote Leave and BeLeave, and what that might mean for the ongoing debate about Brexit and the referendum. I agree with all that has been said: there are serious questions that need to be fully investigated by the Electoral Commission, and no stone should be left unturned in understanding who knew what and when.
Having said that, I want to make some different observations about what recent events suggest about our politics and our democracy. At heart, I fear there have been appalling and repeated abuses of power. What seems to have gone on within the various different elements of the leave campaigns just does not sound right. We are talking about people with years of experience dealing with campaign volunteers, some barely out of university, and advising them on setting up a separate legal entity, through which serious funds end up being channelled, at a time when some of the individuals in question are having a campaign fling, only for that relationship to be outed 18 months or so later in a statement from No. 10—the whole thing stinks.
I do not know whether criminal offences have been committed or whether electoral law has been broken, but I am pretty sure that people have abused their power. I may be naive, but I am a firm believer in decency in public life: doing the right thing, even if it may not be to your own immediate personal interest or to your party’s or your campaign’s electoral advantage. Some people would say that I am not cut out to be a politician, and perhaps I am not, but this insidious, cynical, arrogant, perpetual game playing has to stop. It has real consequences for real people’s lives. It will also kill our democracy, and I am sick of it. Perhaps it was my upbringing, but I have some pretty basic values. You do not lie. If you do something wrong, you admit it. You treat people the way you would want to be treated. You respect the law—the letter of it as well as the spirit of it. You play fair; you do not play dirty. In having power, your primary duty is to exercise it responsibly.
I am afraid I will not. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make a speech and contribute to the debate—contributions from the Conservative Benches have been so sadly lacking—he will have time to do so.
I have read the reports over the past few days and looked at some of the emails that were exchanged between some of the key players, and I am worried that what I see is a corrosive abuse of power. If we want the British people to have faith in us, we need to find a way to conduct our politics with decency. I fear that the opposite is currently the case. It has to stop.
Order. I should say to Sir Edward Davey that I am not in receipt of an application from him to speak in the debate, whereas others have applied. I know that he is a figure of considerable celebrity in his constituency and, although it is a divisible proposition, arguably within the House. I am sure that I will be happy to hear him, but he has a habit of looking at me astonished that he has not been called immediately, so in case he wonders why I am not calling him immediately, I say very gently to him that other people, also busy with many commitments and very full diaries, actually got around to applying to speak, so he had better wait. We can look forward to his eloquence and erudition.
It is absolutely amazing that the Foreign Secretary is not in his place, given the gravity of the accusations, his personal centrality to them and the pivotal part he played. He has said that the allegations are “ludicrous” and farcical, that the vote was won legally and that there was fair play. Frankly, what we have already heard and know casts those basic assumptions into doubt. These issues need to be looked at very carefully.
We are talking about the electoral law on which our democracy is based. People watching this debate will be asking themselves whether the referendum was a cheat. Was it based on a lie? Were the economic dice loaded with illegal and dark money? Were the electorate cynically manipulated by Cambridge Analytica, which illegally harvested people’s Facebook data without their knowing it and manipulated their choices to take us on the journey we are now on, which is going to take us into economic Armageddon?
In yesterday’s Russia debate, I called on the Government to pull together a Russia commission so that we can have a root and branch examination of where Russia has interfered not only in our elections, but in our economic, legal and accounting systems. Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem we currently have is that the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner lack the powers and the numbers of staff required to carry out the sort of inquiry we need to the depth that we need?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend’s last point. The Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner are going to have a great deal of difficulty evaluating Cambridge Analytica’s role and the dirty money involved. Russia is a much bigger question. There are questions around whether the targeted bombing of innocent civilians in Syria in the run-up to Brexit, in the knowledge that the Germans were allowing in a million refugees, was instrumental in the Brexit result and whether that was intentional; there are questions about whether President Trump was elected through the influence of the Russians; there are questions about whether the fascists in France got a third of the vote because of the Russians; there are questions about how the Russians influenced the German elections; and there are certainly questions about how they influenced Brexit.
I suggest that I limit my comments here to Cambridge Analytica, its abuse and manipulation of British voters and the dirty money behind it.
I will give way, but just let me finish this point.
People seem to have this misconception that the Brexit result was not close, but I put it to you, Mr Speaker, that if we ushered 33 people into a room, and 17 voted one way and 16 the other, that is the most marginal vote that we could get. That vote could be swayed by Cambridge Analytica and by the other forms of manipulation. It is in sharp contrast to the natural and rightful instincts of British people that this is simply not fair play.
Mrs Moon made an important point about the power of the Information Commissioner to investigate these matters. The hon. Gentleman raises serious issues in his remarks, but, often, the Electoral Commission, and the Information Commissioner in particular, do not have the power to go behind the curtain and take the data that they require to support their investigations. They are largely reliant on companies complying with information notices, and, as we have seen over the past few weeks, that can be a frustrating process.
That is an excellent point very well made. Obviously, it brings into question what further powers those commissioners or others should have to secure the information that they need to bring their legitimate concerns to a conclusion.
On this issue of data, is the hon. Gentleman aware that one of the other allegations that is made is that, after the Electoral Commission’s first inquiry in which it found no case to answer, some of the people who are now at No. 10 allegedly went onto databases to unlink certain documents so that it appeared as though those documents were not available to everybody on the Vote Leave and the BeLeave campaigns. Is he concerned about that?
Well, I am profoundly concerned about that. Again, facts are emerging day by day, and they need to be forensically examined and it is very important that the resources are there to do that. That sort of information coming forward gives us greater reason to be enormously concerned about this. That is why I am so saddened to see that the Government Benches are empty, when the essence of our democracy, as we are about to step on the biggest journey—
The Benches are not empty. The hon. Gentleman has made his point, and I invite Geraint Davies to continue his speech.
One moment. I am still dealing with the previous intervention.
For the record, the Government Benches are virtually empty. They may be 1% full—I do not know—but, frankly, it is pathetic. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to point out that the Government do not seem to care about the integrity of democracy and the law.
When it comes to the question of fairness, does the hon. Gentleman think that it was entirely fair that, while the remain camps and the Vote Leave camps were allowed to spend £7 million each, the Government spent £9 million of taxpayers’ money to convince people to vote remain. Whether or not he thinks that that is fair, it obviously made no, or very little, difference and, therefore, all these arguments are grossly exaggerated. The British people have the good sense to make up their own minds.
If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that because one side spent more than the other side, it is all right for the other side to behave illegally, it is not a very persuasive argument. This behaviour—the clandestine manipulation of people’s views through Facebook and other things plus the dirty money—casts into question the very integrity of our democracy and the decision that was made. That influence may have been pivotal. If one were asked whether an Olympic athlete would have won a race had he not been doped up, one might come to the conclusion that perhaps he would, or perhaps he would not, but the point is that they would have been disqualified, and quite rightly so. The British people want fair play. They want the rule of law, and, fundamentally, that has been cast into doubt.
Even before this unhappy episode, people were already saying that the Foreign Secretary had stood in front of a bus claiming that we would spend £350 million a week on the NHS, had said that he favoured the single market and would vote for it but now says that he does not, and had said that we would take back control but of course we have not have had democratic control in this place because it has been given to Ministers. People are saying, “Hold on—that’s not what we voted for.” They are questioning whether there is legitimacy in what has been happening. They are saying to me, certainly in Swansea, that what they now want, in terms of fair play, is to have a vote on the deal having checked that it does satisfy what they were promised.
But now we are in a completely different ballpark. We are saying that those people were not only misled but cynically manipulated through Facebook, with millions of voters involved in dirty money. The British people are saying, “Hold on—let’s have another look at this.” They are already saying to me, as to everybody, “This whole Brexit process is taking too long, it’s costing too much, we didn’t know the facts, it’s terribly complicated, the EU is running rings round us, and the UK is incapable of negotiating properly. There is a problem here and there needs to be a solution.” That solution, they are saying to me, is that they want a public vote on the deal. Now we have this situation with Cambridge Analytica, which is completely in breach of fair play. Anybody who thought, “Actually it would be unfair to have a vote on the deal because we’ve had a vote”, now realises that what fair play demands is to move forward and have a final vote on the deal.
People like the Brexit Secretary have said, “Democracy isn’t democracy unless it has the right to change its mind.” I agree. People like Nigel Farage have said, “It would be unfinished business if the vote was 52:48—we need a two-thirds majority.” People like the Member for—I have forgotten his constituency. The Member for Somerset—you know, Moggy—said that we should have a second—
Order. The hon. Gentleman should not refer to a colleague in that way. I think the person he has in mind is Mr Rees-Mogg.
Yes. That is the proper way to refer to him.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I am glad that you prompted me because I could not remember the “North East” bit so I inadvertently said “Moggy”. I am sorry about that. The hon. Gentleman is on the record as saying that perhaps there should be a second referendum when the negotiation is completed.
As we go through this unhappy episode and find that we have had electoral breaches, that there is an inherent breach in our democracy, that there are questions over the legitimacy of the referendum, and that there is a need for fair play, people are now asking whether Facebook and Google should have these sorts of powers. Should they not be publicly regulated, as they are becoming very much instrumental in our democracy and we need to overturn that so that the public and our democracy can be protected?
People who were 13 during the referendum will be 18 by the time it is now planned to leave. Surely their futures are paramount. Sadly, many of the people who voted will not be with us then any longer. Now that we are seeing the legitimacy of these votes cast into doubt, surely there is a compelling case, in terms of fair play, that the public should have a vote on the deal. We should move forward, refresh and renew our democracy, and do the right thing for Britain.
I am most grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye without a written application to the Chair. If I may say so, in humbly apologising to you, I had thought that Conservative Members would make speeches in the period of up to two hours that you had allocated to this debate, but we have not had a single speech from the Conservative Benches. I had not written to you, Sir, because I did not think an extra speech would be needed. However, I think it is important that Conservative Members hear the allegations that are made, because they are very deep allegations.
I would have liked to speak in this debate had I not had other matters to participate in. Is it not astounding that the only contributions we have heard from Conservative Members thus far have been what-aboutery and trying to draw equivalence with other matters? On the critical issue that we are addressing today, we have heard nothing. Not one Conservative Member has found it in themselves to address this issue, which is at the heart of our democracy.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is astounding, because this debate is about more than Brexit and the issues being raised in this debate are bigger than Brexit. They are about how our democracy works, parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law. I thought that Conservative Members, particularly the Brexit Conservatives, had wanted to pull us out of the EU in order to defend parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law as they describe it. But they are not here to defend that rule of law today, which is what is so shocking about their failure to make speeches in this debate.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if we ignore this issue—if we do not take it apart and examine it in full—we are allowing a criminalisation of our democracy? We must acknowledge that that is what is at risk here. No matter how inconvenient a truth it is, we must absolutely get to the bottom of it.
Of course, the hon. Lady is absolutely right. If the law has been broken in the serious way that is alleged, it will be a criminal offence. If that is the case, that criminal offence would have been committed in relation to a massive vote that will result in huge constitutional changes. As this is such a serious matter, I would have thought that right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House would surely want not just to listen, but to participate.
During the referendum campaign the Government were in favour of us remaining in the European Union—a position that I shared—and the Conservative party took a corporate stance to be neutral in that campaign. As the leave campaign and the remain campaign have ceased to exist as legal entities, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that any allegations made against either campaigning organisation in the referendum is best dealt with by the Electoral Commission, not by Parliament? This is not for the Government to answer, because this is not about a Government policy.
I find the hon. Gentleman’s intervention rather odd. First, it is in the tradition that we are seeing from the Conservative Benches in this debate—a “whataboutery” statement. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would want the House to hear and debate these allegations, which are in the public domain. They are in the press and the public are talking about them, and it is vital that the elected Members of this House get a chance to debate them. I am so grateful to my right hon. Friend Tom Brake for securing this debate, and I am proud of the Liberal Democrats for calling for it.
My right hon. Friend anticipates a line of argument that I wish to come to in due course. He is absolutely right, though, that the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs were closely involved in the Vote Leave campaign, and we need to know whether these allegations go to the very top table.
I should not be doing the Conservative Members’ job for them but, in the interests of fairness, the hon. Member who has probably done more than most on this—certainly more than me—and who knows more than most about this subject is the Chair of the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Damian Collins. He could not take part in the debate because he was hearing this vital evidence from Chris Wylie. I am sure that he will also be doing his job very adequately in front of the Prime Minister later this afternoon. We need to approach this issue as consensually as we can because it is about not party politics, but the integrity and security of our electoral system.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the efforts and expertise that the Chair of the Select Committee is bringing to that inquiry, which is important to the whole debate. I also agree with the right hon. Gentleman on the need for us to try to cross party divisions, and the divisions that we saw both during and after the referendum campaign.
I have been contacted by leave voters who are disturbed by these allegations. Many leave voters are very patriotic people who believe that one of the key traditions and values of this country is that we respect the rule of law and do not allow cheats to prosper. This issue can bring Parliament and both sides of the debate together. Whoever cheated during the referendum—if anyone cheated—needs to be held to account.
With respect, the right hon. Gentleman has not answered the point made by my hon. Friend Simon Hoare. Of course he is entitled to give his speech, and Parliament is entitled to debate this, but the question we want him to answer is: who should decide whether to take action? Is it the Government, who were parti pris and took one side of the debate in the referendum, or should it be an independent body, namely the Electoral Commission? Who should make the final decision?
A number of bodies could ultimately look at the different accusations. We have a live investigation by the Electoral Commission, and we await the result of that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington spoke very much about the Electoral Commission in his speech. We also have the investigations by the Information Commissioner’s Office into the related allegations with respect to Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ. Many of us feel that the evidence so far suggests that the police should be investigating these organisations, because there could be a criminal act. Let me absolutely clear: I certainly am not suggesting that Ministers are responsible for any investigation. That would not meet my requirements for an inquiry.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that while an independent body should investigate, we perhaps need to update the law and do something here in Parliament in order to adequately respond to these things in the future?
Indeed. I have written to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, Yvette Cooper, to ask whether her Committee could hold a parliamentary inquiry into the different aspects that are not covered by the inquiry of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. I seriously think that the House needs to augment and support the investigations by those independent bodies. We have powers in the House to bring people to the bar to discuss and to give evidence, and that is the right and proper thing to do.
Does the right hon. Gentleman think it is an irony that the same Government who were so keen on the lobbying Act—to such a degree that small charities around the country were frightened of intervening near elections—and who are introducing voter identification and all sorts of ID, simply so that they catch the 29 people or however many it was who committed electoral fraud last time, seem remarkably lacking in concern over this?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. The fundamental issue here is: did people in the leave campaign cheat? Did they break the law? That is what we need to focus on. Geraint Davies made an analogy with athletes and sport. If athletes dope, we expect that to be investigated and then punished, whether or not that cheating affected the result of a race or any competition. It is the cheating and the breach of the law that needs to be followed through, whether or not it relates to the outcome of the referendum.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if Ministers—I am thinking specifically of the Foreign Secretary and the Environment Secretary—are implicated in any illegal activities and are the dopers in the analogy he is using, they should not be above the law, and that when the police are doing the investigation, they should not be intimidated from putting forward a legal case against Ministers, irrespective of their position in this place?
In responding to the hon. Gentleman, I want to be clear that these are all allegations. We need proper authorities to investigate, but of course, if those investigations go to the door of any Member of this House, be they Minister or not, the full weight of the law should go against that individual. No Member of this House should be above the law in those investigations.
I want to be a little clearer than the debate has been so far about how the Electoral Commission, which is key to this, thinks about whether there has been cheating. The Electoral Commission’s guidelines about whether a campaign has colluded are quite clear. It sets out three criteria for whether campaigns are highly likely to be working together.
The first is whether the campaigns spend money on joint advertising campaigns, leaflets or events. The evidence brought forward by Fair Vote, which can be seen by anyone at www.fairvote.uk, suggests that Vote Leave and BeLeave co-ordinated with the same digital strategy vendor, Aggregate IQ, so there does seem to have been co-ordination between their advertising campaigns.
The second test the Electoral Commission has set out is whether campaigns have co-ordinated their spending with another campaigner. The evidence produced by FairVote is very clear: it shows that BeLeave appears to have been assigned specific responsibility for the youth audience by Vote Leave. That is co-ordination and collusion.
The third test on cheating set out by the Electoral Commission is whether a campaign can approve or has significant influence over the spending of another campaigner. Again, the dossier shows that BeLeave was based at Vote Leave HQ, as we have heard, and appears to have reported to Vote Leave directors and shared all its information with their staff.
In other words, the three tests put forward by the Electoral Commission on whether illegal collusion has occurred appear to have been met, according to the evidence in this dossier. I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to read and think about it before they tweet in the way that was done by the Foreign Secretary, who at the weekend dismissed these allegations as ludicrous.
The Foreign Secretary may well have tried to dismiss these allegations, because if they prove to be true, the investigations and inquiries that we all want to follow this debate and public discussion may well want to ask him questions. Ultimately, he was in charge of and a key player in the Vote Leave campaign, and people will want to know whether he knew about this collusion. Did he know that moneys were going from Vote Leave to BeLeave? Did he know that the staff of both campaigns were colluding and working together? Did he know that Aggregate IQ was being used by both campaigns in a very similar way? These are very serious allegations, and we need to have independent inquiries. The same questions could of course be applied to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
I would like to ask the Prime Minister whether she has asked her Foreign Secretary and her Environment Secretary about what they knew. If she is in charge of her Government, she ought to be asking her Ministers what they knew, given the severity and gravity of the allegations now in the public domain. If she is not getting good enough answers from the Foreign Secretary and the Environment Secretary, she should be taking action. There is another issue with regard to the Prime Minister’s responsibilities, which is that she has key members of staff in No. 10 who were staffers in these campaigns and appear to be part of the alleged collusion. At the very least, she should be asking them questions and getting assurances from them, and if those assurances are not good enough, she should take the appropriate action.
I want to ask the Minister whether the Foreign Secretary was speaking for the Government when he pushed aside these allegations as nonsense. Is that what she will say at the Dispatch Box in a few minutes’ time? Does she, speaking on behalf of her Majesty’s Government, agree with the Foreign Secretary that these allegations are all complete nonsense—before they have been investigated? That would be a quite extraordinary position for Her Majesty’s Government to take, and particularly for the Foreign Secretary to take, given that he is supposed to speak for this country about the rule of law in other countries—and one wonders, doesn’t one?
One does wonder about the people connected to the Vote Leave campaign who have tried to get in their rebuttals and answers rather rapidly. The head of the staff side of the Vote Leave campaign, Mr Dominic Cummings, put out a pre-rebuttal before the allegations were in the public domain. It sounds as though he knew quite a lot about what the allegations would be, but perhaps he knew the truth. I am afraid that his pre-rebuttal did not convince anybody. Now that we have the allegations, with detailed evidence of emails and photo grabs of things that have since been deleted, we know why Mr Cummings was desperate to get in his rebuttal. I cannot know whether the Foreign Secretary was in the same position, but one has to have one’s suspicions raised.
It is because the allegations are so grave, affecting the most momentous decision this country has taken since the second world war, that the Liberal Democrats, supported by all colleagues on the Opposition Benches, are absolutely right to ask these questions of the Government. Just because there is no Division after this debate does not make these questions and this debate something the Government can push aside. I say to the Minister that we will be coming back and back again to this until we have answers. When the Electoral Commission reports, the Information Commissioner reports and, hopefully, the police report, those reports need to be published and debated here in this House. We will not let this lie. Why? Because we want to defend British democracy. We want to defend parliamentary sovereignty. We want to defend the rule of law. I hope the Minister will say from the Dispatch Box that that is what she is going to do, too.
I have a direct, personal interest in this matter: it is not one I need to declare under the code of conduct, but I have direct experience of operating in a campaign under the very regulations we are talking about today. In the summer of 2014, I was an activist and campaigner in the Scottish independence referendum. Because of my history and background in the entertainment industry, I was part of a group that was trying to co-ordinate that campaign among the arts and culture industry in Scotland. We wanted to organise a major, high-profile concert in the run-up to the event to demonstrate support and to provide a fillip for the campaign in the final days.
We went to the Yes Scotland campaign, the designated organisation, with the proposal. It said that it did not want to include it in its campaign plan and spend money on it. The advice was to go away and do it ourselves, so that is what we did. I registered my own events company with the Electoral Commission as a permitted participant in the organisation. We hired the Usher Hall, the grandest concert hall in Edinburgh, and we booked the bands. We arranged the production and the publicity, and we had a very successful event. Afterwards, we provided the Electoral Commission with a report and a detailed budget of what we had spent and the money we had received. At no stage did we either report to, or seek the involvement of, the official designated organisation.
I am sure when the hon. Gentleman was considering what actions to take he would never have considered, for example, co-locating with the designated organisation, sharing a server with the designated organisation, or sharing the same supplier on the same basis as the designated organisation.
The right hon. Gentleman is ahead of me. I was going to say that I have had cause over recent weeks to wonder: what if we had done it differently? What if the designated campaign organisation had come to me and said, “We would like you to do this activity, and the best way to do it, because we do not want it in our budget, is if we set up a separate organisation. Just to make it easier for you, our lawyers have done the paperwork to set up the organisation. Just to make it easier for you, you can have our staff and you can work out of our office. Just to make it even easier for you, you don’t need to bother about writing the cheques, because we will book and pay for the hall and the production”? What would have happened if we had done that, I wonder? I am in no doubt about what would have happened: the Electoral Commission would have investigated. It would have found me and Yes Scotland in breach of the regulations. We would have been fined and we would have been reported to the procurator fiscal for prosecution on criminal charges.
I say that because that lived experience frames my opinion of the events we are talking about today, and my opinion is that this stinks to high heaven. In preparation for this debate, I looked at the original investigation and judgments of the Electoral Commission with regard to these complaints, and—I recommend hon. Members do this—at the High Court judgment on the application for judicial review of that decision. What it comes down to—what is absolutely central to this debate—is not whether different campaign organisations were arguing for Vote Leave, but whether they colluded to breach the expenditure limits that were set down. That is central.
Looking at the High Court judgment and other documents, it is clear that the most important thing is whether or not a common plan was in existence between Vote Leave and BeLeave, as defined under the 2000 Act. I have to say, in a situation where Vote Leave sets up a subsidiary organisation called BeLeave, uses its own personnel to establish it, manages to send it its lawyers and all sorts of support, and provides offices, computers and drives on the server for the same people, it is very difficult indeed to escape the conclusion that there was collusion and organisation between the two.
We are being asked to believe that Darren Grimes took a £600,000 contract and went to a data analytics firm in Canada, completely independently of people in Vote Leave, who had already spent £2.7 million with the very same company. It is literally unbelievable and we need to support the Electoral Commission and others in investigating this to the bottom.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that what would be even worse than any of this would be if the Electoral Commission came to the conclusion that it cannot prove it? That would say to me that there is something fundamentally wrong with the laws under which the organisations are operating. That is what this debate is about: how do we stop this from happening again, should they not be found to have been colluding?
Indeed, and we will have to await the outcome of the Electoral Commission’s investigation before we consider whether the legal framework and the support that is provided for the Electoral Commission are in fact adequate for this task.
We have this new evidence. The Electoral Commission, by the way, had already reopened the investigation before the whistleblowing information came out in the last seven days, but we are surely indebted to Shahmir Sanni for what he has done in the service of democracy in this country. I have watched his video recordings and it is clear that we do not share the same point of view. We did not share the same point of view on Brexit during the campaign, and we do not share it now, but I do not think that anyone who watches those interviews can fail to be moved by the decency, integrity and bravery of that young man in coming forward and putting himself at risk. We owe him a great debt.
The response of our Government to the whistleblowing allegations therefore worries me. Others have mentioned this, but the Prime Minister’s explanation yesterday that this was a personal statement by Stephen Parkinson just does not hold water. How can it be a personal statement when someone is at a desk in No. 10 Downing Street, at the heart of Government—when they are on the payroll, issuing a statement from No. 10 Downing Street? This must be the first occasion in history, certainly that I can remember, when the Government have decided to attack a whistleblower by outing them as gay, causing them the possibility of actual harm to themselves and their family, and it is a disgrace.
I agree, and on the email it says “official”, so there can be no question that the Prime Minister did not know what Stephen Parkinson was saying. I have written to the Government today to demand that this young man be apologised to for the actions that have been taken. That is the very least that we can expect. Most reasonable people in this country will be wondering why Stephen Parkinson has not already been sacked, quite frankly, and in many other companies and areas of life, that is exactly what would happen.
I was not talking about the Electoral Commission investigation. I was not talking about the allegations of collusion between Vote Leave and BeLeave. I was talking about a senior official of the Government exposing somebody for being gay in response to their blowing the whistle on what has been happening in Government. That speaks to the character of this Government, who have hours, rather than days, to claw this back and put it right. I hope that when the Minister gets to her feet she will say that the Government will respond to these concerns, speak to Mr Parkinson and take the appropriate action—and I cannot see any other action possible than to say that this man is no longer fit to hold office in government.
What happens when the Electoral Commission does its investigation and comes to its conclusion? Even if the collusion is proven and the regulations were breached, it will not change the result of the referendum; it will not be overturned. Some on the pro-Brexit side seem to believe that the referendum was mandatory on Parliament and the Government. It never was—it was an advisory referendum—so even were the result to be challenged, it would not call into question the many decisions on article 50 and leaving the EU that Parliament has already voted on. I do believe, however, that it would add further poison to the well of British democracy, coming on top of the most mendacious campaign in political history—that fought in 2016—when people were lied to about what it would mean to leave the EU.
Not only were these lies told—lies that were not worth the bus they were written on, frankly—but the regulations and laws governing the conduct of the referendum might have been broken. The Minister needs to reassure us that the Electoral Commission will have all the resources it requires to get to the bottom of this matter. That said, I think that there is already enough evidence—because I presume that the whistleblowers’ statements will be sworn under oath—for this matter to be referred to the Crown Prosecution Service and for a police investigation to take place. That investigation needs to interview under caution the players in this debate, including those who now sit in government holding the highest offices in the land.
That brings me to the Foreign Secretary, who has chosen not to be present. Others have commented on how quick off the mark he was to denounce the allegations and the new information. I am left wondering whether this was just his attempt to be the English Donald Trump or whether this is someone using one of the highest offices in the land to bring their power and authority to bear to intimidate those who would criticise him and make these allegations, and that is very worrying indeed. I want an assurance from the Government today that if the Electoral Commission finds that there has been collusion and breach, those Cabinet Ministers involved in the management of the Vote Leave campaign will resign from office and take no further part in government. It would be ridiculous and would undermine our credibility if the Foreign Secretary and others, having been involved in a breach of our electoral law, were then to seek to hold the highest office in the land.
Finally, my hon. Friend Martin Docherty-Hughes raised a very important matter. As we uncover this, we will find more traces of dark money creeping into our electoral system, and we need the utmost transparency if we are to resist it. I therefore invite the Minister to comment on what action she and her colleagues will be taking with regard to the Constitutional Research Council and the money it siphoned to the Democratic Unionist party for the Brexit campaign. This is an organisation that has no website, no published report, no published accounts—it is the very definition of shady, and it is not something that we should accept in our democracy.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this debate. We have heard a number of important contributions, and it is difficult to disagree with any of them, given that nobody on the Government Benches actually bothered to make a speech, although they attempted to prick the arguments from time to time.
However we voted in the referendum and whatever our views now, the recent revelations in connection with the Brexit campaign raise serious questions about the functioning of our democracy and go to the heart of who we are as a country. First let me say, however, that we would not even be holding this debate were it not for the hard work, courage, diligence and honesty of journalists in the media.
Theirs is a profession that politicians rarely thank. The same applies to whistleblowers. However uncomfortable it may be for the powerful in our society, or for any of us, it is clearly essential to the functioning of a democracy that we protect the roles of both journalists and whistleblowers. It demeans our politics to attempt to destroy a whistleblower’s case not by addressing the matters that were being raised, but by insinuating that there was a malicious personal motive on the part of the whistleblower. It is especially sinister—indeed, it is shameful—when those insinuations emerge from Downing Street and when their source is defended by the Prime Minister personally. After all, the Government have a clear policy on whistleblowing. Their website states:
“As a whistleblower you’re protected by law—you shouldn’t be treated unfairly or lose your job because you ‘blow the whistle’.”
But Mr Sanni has been treated unfairly and in a way that is absolutely disgraceful.
Democracy depends on more than just journalists and whistleblowers. It needs transparency and a rules-based level playing field. If those attributes are missing, our democracy will be in severe danger and I believe that it may well be. The stakes have never been higher because the referendum itself was a major turning point in the country’s history. Moreover, the House will not forget that the Leave campaign was headed by two distinguished Members of this House, who arguably owe their membership of the British Cabinet to the role that they played in the Brexit campaign. To the victor belong the spoils, as they say.
It is too soon yet to draw any firm conclusions that Vote Leave broke the rules, but there are clearly reasons to worry. Before reciting some of the known facts, I remind the House that the law on referendums, which we passed, does not prevent donations from one campaign body to another, but it does forbid collusion between them, because otherwise there would not be a level playing field between the two sides in the referendum. If one campaign exceeds the spending cap by deliberately and surreptitiously spawning satellite or puppet operations, that crucial principle of equity between the two parties is lost.
Let me briefly list the facts that we do now know, some of which have already been mentioned. We know that Vote Leave raised more money than the statutory spending cap. We know that it donated surplus funds to other campaigning bodies, including a youth body called BeLeave. We know that the two campaigns shared the same building, and that there was a revolving door for staff between the two organisations. We know that they both used the same small Canada-based company, AIQ, whose purpose seems to have been to harvest data from social media in order to target Leave messaging to British voters. By a strange coincidence, the Leave.EU campaign—led by Messrs Farage and Banks, among others—used the very same small Canadian firm.
Incidentally, at least two other bodies, which have been mentioned briefly today, received donations from Vote Leave. One is Veterans for Britain and the other is the Democratic Unionist party, none of whose members are in the Chamber. Another remarkable coincidence is that both bodies reportedly used that same firm based in Canada, AIQ, whose premises are, I am told, above a shop.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Veterans for Britain. Is he aware that that organisation consistently gives evidence to the Defence Committee and that—this is relevant to my earlier comments—there is now grave concern about the links between national security and this very debate?
I think that the hon. Gentleman’s point speaks for itself.
So far, so good. Those are the facts as I understand them. Until last week, there was evidence that the various Leave campaigns rubbed shoulders with each other, but no evidence that there was specific collusion. This is where the recent revelations by the whistleblower that have given rise to this debate change the nature of our understanding of what happened. Mr Sanni was right at the core of the BeLeave organisation from its inception; indeed, I understand he was the treasurer, although he says he never saw the money pass through the accounts. He had previously worked in the Vote Leave organisation and says he was directed by it to join BeLeave. He goes on to say that BeLeave was established by Vote Leave and the money it donated was in effect under the control not of BeLeave but of senior members of the Vote Leave staff, and he argues that the money allegedly donated by Vote Leave to BeLeave was actually directed by Vote Leave, to be spent on AIQ. If these allegations of collusion are true, they amount to a serious breach of the regulations and a de facto fusion of the two campaign groups, and one has to assume that under those circumstances there was an illegal spend by Vote Leave-BeLeave of about 10% of the total statutory cap.
That was illegal, yet a further allegation has been made. It is said that after the referendum Vote Leave staff destroyed or doctored the electronic data files they held in order to remove any reference to an interconnection between the two campaigns. It is therefore hard to conclude anything other than that this was a puppet campaign designed to avoid electoral law. If there was nothing to hide, why would they destroy or change the files?
Given the historic scale of the referendum and what it has presaged for our country, we must have a proper and urgent investigation, but the truth is that the House is not the proper place to carry it out, and let us be blunt about the reason why: it is because the Government are in this up to their neck. Two Cabinet Ministers fronted the organisation. They sit here week after week, the Bonnie and Clyde of Brexit—I will leave it to the House to decide who is Bonnie and who is Clyde. They had a pantomime swag bag allegedly full of £350 million a week for the NHS, which, as we know, turned out to be completely untrue. Meanwhile, the sheriff herself, in the shape of the Prime Minister, has publicly defended her own political secretary after his personalised attack on the whistleblower. They cannot represent themselves as honest brokers, so who will step up to carry out the investigation into these new revelations?
It must be the Electoral Commission and, if necessary, the police. At present, however, the Electoral Commission is under-resourced and lacks the necessary powers to carry out the task. After all, the situation last week with the Information Commissioner revealed how limited its powers and resources are in trying to get access to Cambridge Analytica files.
We on this side of the House demand that the Government recuse themselves from looking into these matters and commission a wholly independent investigation instead. The Electoral Commission should be given the extra powers and resources it needs to follow the evidence wherever it takes it. It should then report to this House and to the public directly, so that there is no suspicion of interference by interested parties in powerful places.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant. We have seen the Prime Minister beholden to the extreme wing of her party, who are running wild and unchecked. If she wants to stand up for our democracy and show she has nothing to hide, she will surely now work with any investigation as a matter of urgency.
There are two things that I ought to begin the debate by saying. The first is that, as a Minister, I shall respect the integrity of independent investigations. I shall therefore not comment here today on allegations that rightly belong with Information Commissioner’s Office or the Electoral Commission for investigation. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will join me in respecting that rather important legal principle, which I set out here at the beginning of my remarks to give the House clarity. Secondly, as the Minister responsible for the electoral system, 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.
I turn now to the EU referendum. The Electoral Commission concluded that it was a well-run poll and that it was delivered without any major issues. We also know that it was one of the largest democratic exercises in our history. I recognise that that referendum and its subject matter still elicit high emotions on both sides. Indeed, we have seen that here today. However, with 17.4 million votes to leave the European Union, more people voted for Brexit than have ever voted for anything else in the UK. We therefore have to respect the will of the people in that referendum and we are delivering it. This Government are committed to ensuring the best possible outcome for the British people in the negotiations to leave the EU.
The Minister has just repeated a line that the Prime Minister used to dismiss my inquiries regarding this matter yesterday. Given that some of the Prime Minister’s Downing Street staff are the subject of these allegations and used disgraceful “House of Cards”-style tactics to divert attention by outing a whistleblower as being gay, and given that senior Cabinet Ministers led the Leave campaign, do not the Prime Minister and her Government have a number of questions to answer regarding these events, outside of the Electoral Commission investigation?
I will not be adding anything in this debate to what the Prime Minister said on those issues yesterday.
Turning to the matter at hand under the application, I should like to thank hon. Members for their comments during the debate. Various allegations have come out in the media over the past week, and it is important to be clear about what they involve and about which ones are directly linked to the UK’s electoral law and which ones might not be. First, there was a series of allegations about Cambridge Analytica using Facebook data to profile American voters. That is primarily a data protection issue. It is a serious allegation and the Information Commissioner is undertaking a formal investigation using its powers. The Government are strengthening the remit of the Information Commissioner through our Data Protection Bill, giving it tougher powers to ensure that organisations comply with its investigations, including the ability to impose significant fines. We will consider the Information Commissioner’s proposal for further powers as the Bill passes through Parliament.
Secondly, there have been allegations about whether some of the spending ahead of the EU referendum was properly declared. Some of those matters have already been subject to Electoral Commission investigations, and others might will be so in due course. I return to the point I made earlier that I shall not comment on investigations that are being carried out. In this country, 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.
I regret to say that the hon. Gentleman seems to be under a misunderstanding about the debate that you have granted, Mr Speaker. It is about electoral law, and as the Minister responsible for electoral law, I shall answer on that point.
The Electoral Commission is independent of the Government. It is accountable to Parliament via the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. One important point that has come up today is the suggestion that the Electoral Commission is under-resourced. I encourage hon. Members to look at the commission’s operating costs for this year, which show an underspend against its anticipated budget. Indeed, in January this year, it returned funds.
Now, I leave it to others to draw conclusions from that about whether the Electoral Commission is resourced correctly, but I say again that the commission is accountable to Parliament and that such questions could rightly be in looked into by Parliament and your committee, Mr Speaker.
I will not, because this is a time-limited debate.
To safeguard elections, it is vital to have an independent regulator. The Electoral Commission needs to be able to act independently, without Government interference. I am little disappointed by the loose thinking of Jon Trickett, because I think his argument was that the Government ought to have been able to investigate such things, but then he said that that was not correct. He then said that the Electoral Commission can do that as a fall-back. Let me be absolutely clear that it is a good thing this country has that independent regulator, and we cannot have it both ways. The independent regulator should do its independent job. I have heard too many arguments in the Chamber this afternoon that suggest that this House ought to pre-empt the commission, but we should not do so and, as I said at the outset, I will not do so.
Allegations have been made about campaigners during the EU referendum, and the specific allegations about spending rules and the accuracy of campaigners’ spending returns fall squarely within the remit of the Electoral Commission. The commission has announced investigations into various campaigners in that referendum and has already investigated a number of complaints and found no wrongdoing. It will publish its findings in due course. As the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, who requested this debate—I thank him for doing so—acknowledged yesterday, there may be sub judice issues here, so I repeat that it would not be appropriate for me or the Government to comment on any ongoing investigations.
And the expertise. Okay, I understand the point. The right hon. Gentleman, who is a senior and experienced Member, will appreciate that I am here to answer about electoral law, such was the title of the debate, but it is important that such issues come together. He will have seen the Minister of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend Margot James, who is leading the Data Protection Bill Committee, listening to part of the debate. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Government are seeking to give the Information Commissioner stronger powers, such as around warrantry, compulsion and sanctions, and that the Government are considering doing even more after the Cambridge Analytica allegations. I believe that that will have been made clear to the members of the Data Protection Bill Committee. As for whether the Information Commissioner has the expertise, I would hope that it does, but I shall ask my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge to contact the right hon. Gentleman to ensure that he receives a satisfactory answer.
Allegations that the electoral rules may have been breached are rightly a cause for concern, but that does not mean that the rules themselves were flawed. It is not right to reach any conclusions on such issues until the Electoral Commission’s investigations are complete. It would not be right to jump to conclusions or to attempt to amend the system before any allegations have been proven.
In conclusion, 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.
May I start by once again thanking you, Mr Speaker, for facilitating this debate?
The Minister said that she would not be drawn on the allegations that have been referred to the Electoral Commission and the police, although she did go on to say that we have a clear and robust electoral system. I must gently chide her, because she might want to wait for the outcome of the investigations to see whether our electoral system is in fact clear and robust.
The Minister also would not comment on the actions of the Prime Minister’s political officer. As a number of Members have said, that is not a matter that is sub judice. I think that it is a matter of morals, as the actions that were taken have exposed someone to risk. The Minister did not want to respond to that, so perhaps her view is that it is something the Prime Minister should look into very carefully, and consider carefully the position of that member of staff.
We have heard many challenging contributions from the Opposition Benches and silence from the Government Benches, apart from the Minister’s speech and a few interventions. I asked her a few specific questions at the end, which she did not answer, so I hope that she will be able to do so in writing, specifically on whether any legal reforms are needed.
In conclusion, I do not think that anyone on the Opposition Benches today will leave reassured that the law was not broken and that the people were not cheated, but we will have to wait for the outcome of the inquiry to see whether these allegations are true or false.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the EU referendum and alleged breaches of electoral law.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Have you received any notice from the Government that they intend to make a statement on the very important Kerslake review of the response in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena attack? Although it was positive in many ways, it has raised serious questions about some national protocols and the national helpline run by the Government.
The short answer is no. The hon. Lady highlights an extremely important and sensitive matter, and I appreciate that she does so not least in her capacity as a constituency Member of Parliament. It will be a matter of considerable concern, not just to Members in affected constituencies, but right across the House. I have received no such notification but, knowing the perspicacity and ingenuity of the hon. Lady, I feel sure that she will find a way of highlighting the matter in the Chamber sooner rather than later.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Minister mentioned the role of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission in these types of discussions and inquiries. My understanding is that your Committee’s statutory duties are focused on matters such as the estimate and the resources available to the Electoral Commission. That has been raised as a matter of debate, so I wonder whether you could enlighten the House on what role your Committee might take in this regard.
The short answer is that the right hon. Gentleman is right; the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission preoccupies itself with the estimate, and scrutiny thereof. That is a narrow albeit important remit. We are concerned with resources. There have been occasions when a particular issue appertaining to the Electoral Commission has arisen that has caused the Committee to meet to hear from its officers. However, so far as investigations are concerned—to be fair, the Minister did not suggest otherwise—those are not matters in which my Committee would in any way become involved. There is a model for this in relation to the Independent Parliamentary Standard Authority—the model of a Committee scrutinising an estimate—and Members should have that in the forefront of their minds. We do not get involved in investigations. In so far as the right hon. Gentleman’s point of order and my response to it has made that even clearer, I welcome that.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This debate has questioned whether the Brexit vote may have occurred illegally—or illegal activity may have affected the outcome—and therefore it questions the legitimacy of the vote itself and subsequent activity in this Chamber. In your view, what should be the next steps, in the event that it is found categorically that illegal activity may have reasonably been found to have distorted the outcome of that democratic referendum?
I am bound to say to the hon. Gentleman, who is quite an experienced Member of the House, that that is a triumph of optimism over reality. For him to seek to beguile me into participating in an exchange on that matter is not reasonable, and the puckish grin on his face suggests that he is keenly aware of that fact. The question he puts to me is a hypothetical one and I have always thought that the late Lord Whitelaw spoke very good sense when he said, “On the whole, I prefer to cross bridges only when I come to them.”