Electoral Commission Investigation: Vote Leave

– in the House of Commons at 12:37 pm on 17th July 2018.

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Photo of Chuka Umunna Chuka Umunna Labour, Streatham 12:37 pm, 17th July 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on the findings of the Electoral Commission’s investigation into the conduct of the Vote Leave campaign.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I am proud to say—[Interruption.] Is there something happening as I begin my words, Mr Speaker?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

Let us take that and work with it.

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 place on the record my thanks to all those involved in the electoral community, which works hard at every poll to deliver it within the law such that we can be proud of our democracy.

The Electoral Commission is the independent body that oversees the conduct of elections and referendums and regulates political finance. The commission regularly reports on the running of elections and referendums and conducts thorough investigations into allegations that rules have been breached. Electoral law exists to ensure fair campaigning, and the commission has determined that those rules have been broken. Both Vote Leave and BeLeave have been fined and referred to the police, and it would not be appropriate for the Government to comment on ongoing police investigations.

That electoral rules have been breached is rightly a cause for concern, but that does not mean that the rules themselves were flawed. The Government will continue to work closely with the Electoral Commission, along with many other stakeholders in the electoral system, to protect the integrity, security and effectiveness of referendums and elections. Let me make it clear for the record that we will continue to implement the referendum’s result and to make a success of it.

Photo of Chuka Umunna Chuka Umunna Labour, Streatham

The findings of the Electoral Commission are shocking, and Vote Leave’s actions are an affront to our democracy and to the fundamental British value of fair play. The commission’s legal counsel described Vote Leave’s behaviour as follows:

“Vote Leave has resisted our investigation from the start, including contesting our right as the statutory regulator to open the investigation. It has refused to cooperate, refused our requests to put forward a representative for interview, and forced us to use our legal powers to compel it to provide evidence.”

Who do these people think they are? They think they are above the law.

With new facts arising every week, it is well known that there will be no extra £350 million a week for the NHS, and so on. We know Vote Leave’s claims turned out to be a fantasy, but we now know it cheated, too, and it is official. Given that there was a four percentage point gap between leave and remain, and given that Vote Leave overspent by just under 8%, does the Minister agree that we cannot say with confidence that this foul play did not impact on the result?

Does the Minister believe that Vote Leave acted in contravention of natural justice and of our democracy in acting in such an obstructive way? What urgent legislation will the Government bring forward to address the Electoral Commission’s serious concerns about the enforcement regime for electoral law, which it has raised today?

And who was at the scene of these crimes? Vote Leave was co-led by the current Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who co-convened its campaign committee. Where is he? Why is he not here? That committee was charged with overseeing the implementation of a framework that included the way in which fundraising was conducted and donations collected. He, along with the former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was part of a core group of the committee who met on a daily basis to ensure the campaign was on track. As such, either the Environment Secretary knew what was going on, which is a very serious matter, or, if he did not, how can we have any confidence that he is capable of overseeing his Department? What did he know? The International Trade Secretary, the Transport Secretary and the Brexit Secretary also sat on that committee. What did they know about what was going on?

In short, members of the Cabinet sat in an organisation that has been found to have flouted our democracy. Does all that not demonstrate that we need a full, urgent public inquiry into the leave campaign, given that it calls into question the legitimacy of the entire Brexit process that is preoccupying this House?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

What this report demonstrates is that we have an electoral regulator that operates to rules that Parliament has set and that has found people in contravention of those rules. The hon. Gentleman asks a number of questions that go severely away from the report and, just to be clear, the report—I am reading from the report’s front page—is

“of an investigation in respect of Vote Leave Limited, Mr Darren Grimes, BeLeave, Veterans for Britain”.

The report is not in respect of a number of others raised by the hon. Gentleman, and I will therefore not enter into those questions. [Interruption.] I simply will not enter into discussion of other named individuals, nor will I enter into discussion of ongoing investigations, whether by the police or by the courts. [Hon. Members: “Why not?”] Do we really need to begin by asking ourselves why the Government should not interfere in independent investigations and police examinations? I cannot believe that the Labour party needs the answer to that question so early in the afternoon.

As I said in my earlier remarks, we are getting on with delivering the result of the referendum. We have very clearly set out why we think that is the right thing to do, and it is fundamentally because we believe in the people’s ability to make a choice. That is why we respect the referendum result. Unfortunately, it is clear that the hon. Gentleman does not believe in the people’s ability to choose, and I think he argues instead that they should be asked again and again. I do not agree with his arguments but, none the less, I am here today to answer questions on this report by an independent regulator—I am happy to do so within my powers.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

On a more general point, does my hon. Friend agree that one of the great glories of this sadly now diminished country was our electoral and democratic system? This example today is gross, and I say to her that if we are to retain the integrity and the trust of the voting public, the whole damn thing needs to be blown and started all over again.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I understand the seriousness of that point and the points made earlier by Chuka Umunna, which were similar, but what I would just note is that the rules we are looking at in this report are rules that comprise our democracy. Our democracy comprises having such rules, among some other very important principles. In essence, our democracy is underpinned by the fact that we have such rules. That the rules were broken means that the system is in fact working; that we have a regulator that is able to conduct an investigation is one of the things that marks out the quality of our democracy. That the rules were broken does not actually mean the rules in themselves were flawed. In concluding my answer to my right hon. Friend’s question, let me say that Parliament, over the course of many years, has put in place those rules for referendums and for elections. If I heard him correctly, he asked for a wholesale reform of all of those rules. That is a very large undertaking indeed and it goes wider than the report we have before us today. I note that other investigations are ongoing, such as the Information Commissioner’s, and that ought to be looked at in the round by Parliament.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I congratulate my hon. Friend Chuka Umunna on securing this urgent question and on his introductory remarks. Today’s report from the Electoral Commission is a devastating indictment of the official leave campaign’s conduct during the referendum, which has been found to be based on cheating and possibly lawbreaking. Financial expenditure was deliberately co-ordinated through what now appears to be nothing more than front organisations, and Vote Leave failed to co-operate with the Electoral Commission inquiry. It showed contempt for the law set by this House, which makes a mockery of claims to “take back control” and displays the breathtaking arrogance of people who clearly believed that the law of the land did not apply to them.

We only got to hear about these activities because of the bravery of whistleblowers. What was the response of those involved? They outed one of the whistleblowers as gay, without his permission, and therefore put him and his family at risk. One of the people responsible for this outing was working as a senior adviser in Downing Street. The Prime Minister refused to sack him, so presumably she supports, or at least excuses, these monstrous actions. Will she now, on the back of this report, dismiss him as an adviser?

Of course, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, senior members of the Government were involved in the Vote Leave campaign. Those include the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the recently departed Foreign Secretary, who is uncharacteristically silent today. Will they now come to the House and explain their role in both the initial scandal and the cover-up? If the leaders of the Vote Leave campaign cannot be trusted to abide by the rules of the referendum, how can we trust them to abide by the rules of any future election? Indeed, how can we trust them to conduct their ministerial duties with honour, integrity and honesty? So can the Minister tell us whether those leaders of Vote Leave who are now Ministers or who are former Ministers will be referred to the Cabinet Secretary for investigation as to whether they have broken the ministerial code?

Yet again, we have been confronted this week by the chaos this Government have got themselves and the country into, dumping their own euro civil war on the rest of us and sowing division throughout. We have Brexit extremists at war with their own Prime Minister, and a Government who at every stage have put party before country. Hon Members in this House and the public are entitled to ask how on earth we got here, yet British politics and the British people deserve better than this. We cannot allow cheating and dishonesty to become accepted norms in our political system, so let me ask the Minister: what is her proposal to bring decent honest politics back to the fore? If this Government have not got any, perhaps it is time they moved aside for a Government who have.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

Given that Labour Front Benchers are so committed to propriety, perhaps they should report themselves to the police for their national spending in the 2015 general election, for which the Labour party was fined by the Electoral Commission in October 2016. They are on thin ice if they think they are able to say that this cuts only one way. It does not.

We have in front of us a report of an investigation in respect of named individuals. I have already said that I am not going to comment on ongoing investigations, and that covers several of the points that the hon. Gentleman just raised. I will say again that the Electoral Commission is an independent organisation and can undertake any investigation that it feels is necessary. Indeed, as you know, Mr Speaker, it can report back to this House through your Committee on the Electoral Commission. That is its governance. The point is that we need to be able to say to the public who are watching this debate that we are getting on with delivering the result of the referendum in which they voted. [Interruption.] I can hear some Opposition Members shouting; perhaps it is that faction of the Labour party that believes in having a second referendum, or perhaps it is that faction of the Labour party that believes in not having one, or perhaps it is that faction of the Labour party that does not know what it believes in. What we believe in is that our independent—[Interruption.]

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

We have an independent electoral regulator and it has done its work. I applaud it for doing its work and I am pleased that we have a regulator that is able to carry out such investigations into our democracy. That is what our democracy comprises—that we have rules that can be investigated is what makes this a democracy. That is a good thing. As I said before, there are questions that arise from this investigation and from others that are still ongoing. Those ought to be looked at in the round in due course. Where appropriate, the Government will of course come back to the House to do that.

Photo of Amber Rudd Amber Rudd Conservative, Hastings and Rye

This matters. May I respectfully say to the Minister that she should not let the Government’s commitment to delivering on the referendum result obfuscate the real questions that are being raised? This has not come out of the blue; there has been a series of accusations and suggestions, in not only this campaign but others. The protection of the valid confidence that the public need to have in our elections every time is absolutely vital.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

My right hon. Friend is right. We should all be in agreement that we should be seeking to protect confidence in our democracy. That is precisely the point. The point is that the regulator has carried out this investigation and we should be able to look at its report and understand what it says. That is today’s job in hand. After that, there may come things to which we need to return as a House, including various aspects of regulation, which would of course be a matter for Parliament. I made the point earlier that the extent of regulation that we apply to our democracy is quite great. It has been put together by Parliament over many decades. As my right hon. Friend says, this does all matter—absolutely. That is why we should all be prepared to look at the report and the other ongoing investigations and look at such things in the round.

Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords)

The Government are presiding over crisis and chaos as they drag the country towards an exercise in collective self-harm on an unprecedented scale. They are doing that on the back of a campaign that was morally questionable, based as it was on mobilising fear and prejudice, and politically questionable, based as it was on glib half-truths and lies, and we now know that it was a campaign that was organised illegally. The Minister’s responses are woefully inadequate. We need to know whether the Government will draw a line between themselves and the people implicated in this illegality. If they do not do so, they will lose any respect and integrity that they have left. I would like an assurance from the Minister, now, that anyone who was involved in working for Vote Leave, or who was on its board, will cease to hold office in Government or cease to be on the Government payroll.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not going to make that commitment today, because a number of questions raised in the report are still subject to ongoing investigations. As I have already pointed out, that is in itself one of the important principles of our democracy and of how the regulation works independently of Government. The short answer is that no, I am not going to give such commitments here today.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee

Order. There is extensive interest in this subject and I have granted the urgent question for the very simple reason that I have judged it to be urgent, so I am keen to accommodate colleagues. I remind the House, though, that there is a statement to follow and that the debate on the first group of new clauses and amendments to the Trade Bill has to conclude by 3.30 pm. There must be some time for debate on those matters; otherwise, it rather obviates the purpose of the remaining stages. I will call some colleagues, but some colleagues may be disappointed. I shall do my best, and I ask colleagues to help each other.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Will my hon. Friend put the synthetic outrage of remain campaigners into some kind of context by reminding the House that many of those same remain supporters in this House tried to change the Electoral Commission’s rules on referendums to enable the then Government to breach the purdah rules? Fortunately, that attempt by that Government was thwarted by this House. Many of those remainers would have liked to have a relaxed purdah arrangement.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

My hon. Friend’s point reminds us that, as I said earlier, there are arguments on this issue that cut both ways. He highlights how he sees an example of an infraction in another direction. I simply return to the point that we in the Government are getting on with implementing the result of the referendum. We think that is the correct response to retain the people’s trust in our democracy. As has already been said, that matters.

Photo of Luciana Berger Luciana Berger Labour/Co-operative, Liverpool, Wavertree

I do not think there is any moral equivalence between Members in this House attempting to change the law and organisations outside this House breaking it. Today, we found out that Vote Leave did break electoral law. Our democracy is fragile, and we have a responsibility to protect it and not take it for granted. How can we look the next generation in the eye and tell them to have faith in British politics when we know that false claims have been made, that the rules have been broken, that there has been international and foreign interference, and that the legitimacy of the most important vote in a generation has been undermined so profoundly?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

The answer to the hon. Lady’s question is that because we have an investigation, we can look voters in the eye and say that where rules have been broken, punishments follow. That is what the report says.

Photo of Sarah Wollaston Sarah Wollaston Chair, Health and Social Care Committee, Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons)

The reality is that punishments are not following. We are talking about deliberate cheating and this money going to a firm that used highly sophisticated targeted Facebook advertising. In a quote since removed from the Aggregate IQ website, Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings said:

“We couldn’t have done it without them.”

That is Dominic Cummings, who will not appear before Select Committees, having claimed during the campaign that he wanted to restore the sovereignty of Parliament. He runs away from accountably himself. Consequences must follow. We cannot have confidence that the referendum was secure, and it should be rerun.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

The report is clear that consequences do follow. The Electoral Commission has issued fines and referred both Vote Leave and the BeLeave founder to the police. That is what I refer to when I say that consequences and punishments are following.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Labour, Wolverhampton South East

I reported the leave campaign’s intentions to both the Electoral Commission and the police two-and-a-half years ago, and four months before the referendum itself. In February 2016, Mr Baker, who was then a leading figure in the leave campaign, wrote to colleagues saying:

“It is open to the Vote Leave family to create separate legal entities, each of which could spend £700,000: Vote Leave will be able to spend as much money as is necessary to win the referendum.”

The Electoral Commission’s rules are specifically designed to stop this kind of thing. It says that we should

“stop people getting around the spending limits by coordinating several campaigns at the same time.”

We have now established that spending limits were broken by the leave campaign precisely through separate legal entities following a common plan to get around the rules. Why is it that when such intent was reported four months before the referendum, it has taken two-and-a-half years to get to this conclusion? What does it say about the integrity of this result? Is it not ironic that the so-called people’s revolt against the elite was conspiring from the get-go to get around the rules with limitless money from goodness knows what source? Does the Minister not agree that this needs to be fully investigated to cleanse the cloud that has been cast over our democracy by these findings?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

It is exactly the case that allegations of impropriety should be investigated. As I have said a number of times, it is that that means we have a robust democracy. I hear the right hon. Gentleman’s story. In part, I think it ends with this investigation. An investigation has been carried out, and it should be welcomed that it has been carried out and that it has found a result. If, on the other hand, his points are about the efficacy of the Electoral Commission—I think he was driving at the fact that it took two and half years—then that is a matter for Parliament. The Electoral Commission is accountable to Parliament through your Committee, Mr Speaker. It is indeed an independent regulator of Government, as it should be, and it is accountable to Parliament for how it conducts investigations and indeed whether it does so quickly enough.

Photo of Anna Soubry Anna Soubry Conservative, Broxtowe

Mr Speaker, it will not have escaped your notice, and I know that it will not have escaped the Minister’s notice, that one of the most respected Members of this House, my right hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Soames, has, in condemning what has occurred in the leave campaign, gone so far as to call for a re-running of the referendum. These are serious matters. They go to the heart of government and, of course, to the heart of democracy and the trust that people must have in the democratic process. There are concerns not only about the overspend, but about the source of the money. The evidence is mounting. It is clearly there that another country—let us be honest, it is Russia—exercised its influence to undermine this country’s democracy and indeed this country’s security as it has a long history of doing. I say to the Minister that this is not a party political matter. It is nothing to do with delivering Brexit; it is about democracy. Can she give us an assurance that this Government will take these very important matters extremely seriously and act now on them?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I absolutely can give the assurance that the Government take these matters extremely seriously. That is the very point here. The very point here is that we have a precious democracy that demands our protection, and that is what we do by having an Electoral Commission, an independent regulator, that can make such investigations, publish them, expose the points of that investigation to scrutiny, and be held accountable in its turn by Parliament. Then it is for Parliament to consider whether, in the round, amendments might need to be made to the rules against which the regulator does that. That is the landscape that we are looking at here.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union)

Vote Leave was a deeply dishonest campaign with deeply dishonest slogans and a cast of right-wingers who were prepared to go to any length to achieve their ideological endgame, and now we know that they cheated and broke the law. Can the Minister confirm whether the right hon. Members for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) and others involved will be jointly liable for the Vote Leave fine? Can she also confirm that of course this strengthens immeasurably the case for there to be a final say on the deal and a chance to exit from Brexit?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

No, I am not in a position to comment on individuals. I have already said that very, very clearly. What I will say again for the benefit of the Liberal Democrat party is that we will be delivering the referendum result and we do not intend to hold a second referendum.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Conservative, Chesham and Amersham

I regret the atmosphere in which this urgent question is taking place. I have just spent nine months sitting on the Independent Commission on Referendums under University College London’s Constitution Unit looking at what is wrong with the rules on referendums, and looking specifically at financing. A member of the Opposition party also sat on that commission. We have looked at the use of public funding, spending limits and transparency, and there is a common concern that our regulation does not fit the purpose that we would like in a modern democracy. May I recommend to my hon. Friend the Minister that she reads this report cover to cover and takes on board our recommendations for new regulations and new legislation to try to improve this area, which, after all, is a very important part of our democracy these days?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I have begun to read that report and I welcome its thoughtfulness about how referendums fit into the rest of our election landscape. I look forward to more discussions with my right hon. Friend and her colleagues on it.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee

These are extremely serious matters. That said, we do need much shorter questions if we are to have a chance of accommodating some colleagues—[Interruption.]—and shorter answers as well. We will have to move on in a quarter of an hour or so.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Labour, Tottenham

We have in our democracy clear rules so that we do not exercise, or see the exercise, of undue influence. For that reason, certainly in the last decade, we have had two elections declared void—in South Thanet and Oldham East and Saddleworth. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government can declare this referendum void on the basis of the evidence that we have been provided with by the Electoral Commission? If not, given that this was an advisory referendum by this Parliament, can she bring forward a vote in this Parliament to declare this referendum void?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

No, the Government will not be bringing forward such a proposal.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

Let the law take its course. By what factor did the Government and the other remain campaigns outspend the leave campaigns? It was 2:1, was it not?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

My right hon. Friend reminds us that there are designated lead campaigners in referendums. The subject matter of this report is in part how leave campaigners interacted with other campaigners. The virtue of having this report is that it allows us to examine spending—it brings spending into the light. It is about transparency of spending, as is, of course, the rest of the apparatus of what we do to regulate elections. This is an examination of allegations rather than the whole dataset. Again, my right hon. Friend reminds us that there are people who feel that these arguments cut both ways.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow SNP Leader of the House of Commons, Chair, Scottish Affairs Committee

A £60,000 fine is peanuts to these people. Found guilty, they could not care less and instead defiantly lash out. For these Brexiteers, and all the UK parties, our electoral laws are an optional extra and fines but a mere electoral expense. When will we get serious about our electoral laws, because no one and no political party takes them seriously? It is time to review the whole useless, ineffective system. When will the Minister do it? ‘

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman thinks that his political party does not take these rules seriously; we do.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the faux outrage that we are hearing today from Members from all parts of this House, some of whom have now left, is nothing to do with a breach of the rules by the leave campaign? It is to do with the fact that they lost; they are not representing the people. They lost that referendum despite the fact that they themselves overspent by millions of pounds.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I came here today to try to respond to the subject matter of the report, but also very clearly to lay on the record again that the people in this country want us to get on with delivering the result, rather than to go back over it.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

The Government propose legislation. The Electoral Commission has made specific recommendations to the Government about what they need to do. Will the Minister do it?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is referring to the Electoral Commission’s earlier report on digital campaigning, which I am considering very carefully. As I said earlier, there are a number of issues to look at in the round. There are other ongoing reports and investigations such as that of the Information Commissioner, which last week produced a progress report, but not its final report. As the right hon. Gentleman knows from his experience in government, it is important to look at those things together, and that is what the Government will do.

Photo of Henry Smith Henry Smith Conservative, Crawley

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government, in the run-up to the EU membership referendum, spent over £9.25 million on a taxpayer-funded leaflet advocating that we remain members of the European Union?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

It is the case that such a leaflet was produced, and that was because the Government recognise the importance of the public being informed ahead of a referendum. Again, I think that the debate—even on that leaflet—has been had. The point is that we should now get on and implement the result.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

I feel slightly sorry for the Minister, because she has been sent to defend the indefensible. Given her complacent demeanour today and her complete lack of acknowledgement about how serious this issue is, can she tell us quite how big a scandal would have to be before she actually reacted to it appropriately?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I am sorry that the hon. Lady has felt the need to get quite so personal. I am not complacent. If she had been listening carefully, she would have heard me say that these issues are very, very serious. I am also saying that the Government respect the work of an independent regulator and do not comment on its ongoing investigations, but will wish to look in the round at the results of all the ongoing investigations.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Have the Government received any representations from the Labour Front Bench to rerun the referendum?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

Not at the last count. I believe that there were 60-odd individuals who did want to do so, but I am not sure whether they are on or off the Front Bench at this time.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Co-Leader of the Green Party

The Government’s response to electoral fraud is shockingly, obscenely complacent. In trying to give some impression that she is taking this matter seriously, could the Minister agree to three really simple things? First, the fines should be unlimited, because £20,000 is pitiful; it is a tap on the wrist. Secondly, campaigns should declare their expenditure online in real time so that they cannot overspend in this way. Thirdly, does she agree that we need a digital bill of rights so that we can clear up the data harvesting that has been taking place on an industrial scale by organisations such as Facebook?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I welcome the hon. Lady’s policy suggestions as a contribution to this point. If she will forgive me, she underlines exactly what I have been saying—that we need to look at a number of these issues in the round. For example, her last point does not at all come from the report before us today; it comes from the Information Commissioner’s work.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

This is undoubtedly a very shoddy affair. In hindsight and on reflection, the referendum campaign—on either side of the argument—was not our finest hour in democratic activity. Would the Minister take the point about the reporting of expenditure in real time, as was mentioned by Caroline Lucas? Reporting after the event leads to the sort of situation that we have at the moment. If we do not address this matter of real-time reporting, the shysters and the snake-oil salesmen who seek to undermine our democracy will have won.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I welcome that as a policy consideration that ought to be looked at in the round alongside the results of a number of ongoing investigations. I would just return to the core point, which is that we have these rules in place. It is these rules that buttress our democracy and that mean that we have an independent democracy where sanctions follow misdemeanours, and that is what the report tells us today.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham East

If the Minister will not talk about the specifics of this case, will she address a very simple general question? Can she envisage any level of corruption so gross that it would ever invalidate any referendum?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I am really not in a position to answer the question. The hon. Gentleman tries to tempt me with a yes or a no or a very simple question, but this is not a simple matter. There are a number of reports across a number of different investigations with a number of elements that are still ongoing. It is for that reason that I have come here and tried to be very clear, in a way I hope is understood by parliamentarians, that I cannot prejudge the investigations of independent bodies. [Interruption.] If you would bear with me for one second, Mr Speaker, I will offer a thought to the House. Those who have looked at election regulation over time—including many Members of this House who served here for some decades—have not seen fit to place in those election rules the idea that a result can invalidated. I am simply stating the current law. That concept does not yet exist in our law. It would be a new concept, as it has not yet been seen fit to be put in place by Parliament.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

Transparency is hugely important. I know that investigations are ongoing, but following this report does my hon. Friend agree that all investigations into our elections and the running of our democracy generally must be conducted in a way that is thorough, transparent and that people have faith in?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

Yes, I do. That is exactly my view. Investigations should also be done by an independent organisation that is given the space and time to conclude its work.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Labour, Wigan

I never thought that I would see the day when a Government Minister would come to this House and seek to downplay one of the most serious attacks on our democracy in history. This is not just about overspending, as important as that is. This is about dark money, foreign interference in our democracy and serious misuse of data. The Government must commit to a full, police-led investigation of all aspects of this matter. I suspect that I know why the Minister will not commit to that; there are at least four sitting members of her Cabinet who are not here today, but who served on the campaign committee for the organisation in question. That is even more reason why the Government must now stand up for our democracy and against its abuse.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

The hon. Lady is quite seriously misrepresenting my words. What I have said today is that these are very serious matters. I have agreed with all right hon. and hon. Members around the House who say that this matters and that it is serious. That is precisely my point. The hon. Lady went on to say that this matter ought to be the subject of a police investigation. It is. Individuals from this investigation are also being investigated by the police. The hon. Lady also said that this is—

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee

Order. Please resume your seat, Minister. I say two things. First, Members should not stand up while an answer is being given; that is not the right way in which to operate in the Chamber. Secondly, may I very politely say that the Minister could help herself by giving somewhat pithier answers? It would be most unfortunate if people thought that long answers were preventing other people from having the chance to ask a question. A short answer, not a disquisition, is required. Minister, we are grateful.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I shall leave that one there and wait for the next question.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

The Minister’s own words are that this cuts both ways, but I do not think that that is the case. The Electoral Commission has been absolutely clear. It did all it could, but it lacks power to do more. Will the Minister correct herself? This does not cut both ways, does it? As my hon. Friend Lisa Nandy said, this is one of the worst, most despicable abuses of electoral law that we have seen in the lifetime of this House.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

The hon. Lady raises an important point about the powers of the Electoral Commission that has been put forward in its reports—for example, on digital campaigning. As I have said, the Government will be looking at those issues in the round.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

First, Scottish Tory dark money; now, the Electoral Commission showing that the leave campaign broke the law. We have these rules for a reason—to stop people buying our democracy—and yet the Minister appears complacent about that. So what confidence can our constituents have not only in the referendum result, but in the former and current Government Ministers who were involved in the running of Vote Leave?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I will say it again: the issues in the report are extremely serious. It is right that they have been investigated. The Government are not going to comment on individuals or organisations that are subject to ongoing investigations. We hope that those investigations will be speedily concluded. We believe that that is a way to give further confidence to our constituents in this referendum and in other elections.

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

In the light of what the Electoral Commission has said today—and, indeed, the evidence that has been given to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, on which I serve, that has clearly proved that this referendum was won by cheating—will the Minister do what the Government should be doing, call this referendum null and void, and protect British democracy?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

No, we will not be re-running the referendum; we will be continuing to deliver its result. However, the hon. Lady reminds us that her Select Committee—an organ of this Parliament—is also conducting an ongoing investigation into fake news. There is another part of the larger set of issues that I am referring to that I want us to be able to look at together.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy)

This House is the guardian of free and fair elections. It is now clear that this referendum result was corrupt because it was bought, quite possibly with Russian money. Which Minister will now ask the Director of Public Prosecutions to consider a joint enterprise prosecution so that it is not just the staff of these campaigns that are prosecuted but the governing minds as well?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

The police have already received references from this investigation, and I think that stands for itself.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

Does the Minister understand that the anger is because we are not discussing a parish council election or a local authority by-election, but a matter that goes to the heart of the most important political and constitutional arrangement that has happened in most of our political lifetimes? Does she recognise that the scale of the fines being imposed is derisory, not just in terms of the overspend but the size of the prize that the leave campaign cheated to obtain?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I entirely understand the points that Members have come to the House today to make. I am simply acknowledging that there are broader issues than only those in this report that need to be looked at together to continue to maintain confidence in our democracy. For the record, though, I think that any election, parish council or otherwise, is important and deserves its security.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Labour, Wolverhampton North East

Today, Darren Grimes of BeLeave has accused the Electoral Commission on Twitter of putting him through hell by seeking

“to justify this by saying that I failed a box ticking exercise”.

Can the Minister confirm that what has happened here is much, much more serious than that? The Electoral Commission has found that Vote Leave broke the law, that it cheated during this referendum, and that it had undermined our democracy. What are the Government now going to do about that?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

Certainly, what is in this report today is very, very serious. Consequences follow for those organisations that are named in it.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Intervention), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

The issue of the lack of transparency on social media political advertising is a problem for every democratic country. In the US, there are moves to prohibit anonymous advertising whereby social media platforms have to publish who pays for the adverts. Is this something that the British Government are considering?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

Yes, it is. In response to a report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, we will shortly bring forward a consultation on ensuring that there are imprints on digital campaigning material just as much as there would be on paper. I think that is important.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

The Minister confirms that there is now an ongoing police investigation as a result of this report. Does she not therefore think it is right that all those who could potentially be part of that police investigation recuse themselves from Government until it is concluded? Surely law-makers should not be law-breakers.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

It is not for me to confirm a police investigation—it is for the Electoral Commission. It is not for me to comment on what ought to be in a police investigation—it is for the independent regulator. I think that distinction is quite important.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee

Order. I am very sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but the House is heavily constrained for time. Perhaps I can give advance notice, in respect of the statement that is about to be delivered, that the exchanges on it will need to be extremely brief. We have a live debate on the Trade Bill, and the votes on the first group of amendments have to be at 3.30 pm, so extended exchanges on the statement will not happen today.