The commission’s view is that the digital imprints requirement in the Elections Act 2022 will increase transparency by helping voters to understand who is paying to target them online. It could provide further transparency if the requirement was extended to cover all digital material from unregistered campaigners, regardless of whether they paid to promote it. The commission has said that other changes in the Act relating to non-party campaigners will bring limited additional transparency while increasing the complexity of the law. As currently drafted, the Online Safety Bill would introduce new freedom of speech protections for some campaigning content, but it does not include any provisions that would directly affect the transparency of political campaign activities.
Today, openDemocracy and Who Funds You? released an audit showing that the least transparently funded think-tanks raised more than £14 million in the past two years from mystery donors. Those think-tanks appear across the media, such as on the BBC. They have secured hundreds of meetings with Ministers since 2012, and advised the likes of the former Prime Minister on policy choices that were subsequently proven disastrous. What steps is the committee taking to ensure that the funding of such think-tanks is transparent and accountable, and that foreign funding bodies are not able to commandeer our politics?
The commission regulates the spending of organisations campaigning for or against a political party or candidate during the regulated period ahead of an election, or for a particular outcome ahead of a referendum. It also regulates donations to political parties and candidates. Unless an organisation is engaged in regulated campaigning activity, it will fall outside the commission’s area of responsibility. The commission does not have a role in regulating the spending of political activity more generally.
As for foreign money, the commission is committed to ensuring that political funding is transparent and to preventing unlawful foreign money from entering UK politics. It continues to recommend changes to the law to ensure that voters can have greater confidence in political finance in the UK. That includes duties on parties for enhanced due diligence and risk assessments of donations and a requirement for companies to have made enough money in the UK to fund any donations.
There is a long-standing understanding between Government and the electoral administrators that legislation on elections should be clear at least six months before it must be implemented. That will also apply to the introduction of voter ID. The Association of Electoral Administrators has said that the timetable for implementation presents significant challenges.