Foreign Influence on Elections

Oral Answers to Questions — Electoral Commission Committee – in the House of Commons on 28th March 2019.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

To ask the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, what steps the Commission is taking to (a) identify and (b) prevent foreign influence on elections.

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Labour, Houghton and Sunderland South

It is vital that there is no foreign interference in the UK’s elections, and transparency about who is spending money to influence voters is an essential safeguard. The Electoral Commission monitors party donations and campaign spending to ensure that the laws on foreign influence have not been broken. Where there are specific allegations that the UK’s political finance law has been broken, the commission can investigate, issue civil sanctions and refer cases to the police or the National Crime Agency for criminal investigation.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but from previous questions from my hon. Friend Stephen Kinnock she will be aware of Russian influence. We know that that influence is happening and has happened. Many of us worry that we are not well enough organised to identify it. When can we get a coalition with GCHQ and security services that will reassure Members that interference, which we know is going on, can be stopped?

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Labour, Houghton and Sunderland South

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. The Electoral Commission’s regulatory remit is confined in law to UK-based parties and other campaigners. It liaises with the UK Government and security services, working to ensure that our elections are free from foreign interference and to address the issue of threats to our democracy. Those questions might be well addressed to Government Ministers.

Photo of Craig Mackinlay Craig Mackinlay Conservative, South Thanet

The hon. Lady has a unique relationship with the Electoral Commission; I perversely do as well now, and I have fast-track communication with it. I have lots of complaints about the Electoral Commission, but I raise one small thing. Let us try to repair the organisation one step at a time. Can we insist that it dates all its guidance and documents in the bottom left-hand corner, as we do in any other part of Government? Whether it is Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs or Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, there is always a date, but that is not always the case with Electoral Commission documents. Let us please just put that right.

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Labour, Houghton and Sunderland South

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. I am sure that the issues he has raised this morning will have been heard. I will ensure that the commission responds in full to the issues he has raised.

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

There is clearly a specific issue when it comes to the use of spending on digital campaigning. We now know that almost half of campaigners’ money is being spent on digital and social media platforms. What is the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission doing to ensure that our laws are updated to reflect that current landscape and that people who have power over the electoral system are held to account, transparent and do not create an atmosphere of mistrust?

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Labour, Houghton and Sunderland South

This is a growing area of concern. In its recent report on digital campaigning, the Electoral Commission recommended greater transparency on the sources of digital campaign materials and those paying for them and that the commission should be given greater powers to compel information from social media companies.