Regulation of Political Opinion Polling Bill [HL] — Second Reading

– in the House of Lords at 11:14 am on 19th June 2015.

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Moved by Lord Foulkes of Cumnock

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, many Members of the House will recall that I introduced this Bill in the last Session. It only got to First Reading, but when I introduced it in this Session it got a much more animated welcome, for reasons that I will go into.

First, I will go back a few years to when I was a student—well, that is many, many years. I did some work on polling then, and I learnt some of the techniques of polling, such as random sampling and the importance of finding the people who were chosen for the random sample and going back to them until you actually get their views; you do not take any substitutes. I learnt about quota sampling and the importance of getting class, sex and age in the right numbers and the right groupings to represent a cross-section of society: the make-up of the whole population.

I also learnt about the inexorable margin of error, however good your polling is. Most important of all, I was told about what makes a good poll and what does not. A poll should be run in a scientific, politically neutral manner, with no influence from those who have commissioned and indeed paid for it. That means, to take just one example, avoiding leading questions and ensuring that the wording of questions is fair and unbiased.

For some time now I have been concerned at the direction in which polling in this country has been moving. Rigour and accuracy seem to be subordinated to the demands of speed in getting the poll out and keeping the cost down: instant polling and cheaper polling. The media expect polls to be completed in an extraordinarily short time, often to be ready for publication the day after the sample has been taken. That means that there has been a preference for a predominance of internet and telephone polling, often using predetermined panels which stay the same throughout the whole of the polling period.

My concern about the dangers of this corner cutting were reinforced when I attended a seminar chaired by my noble friend Lord Lipsey, who I am glad to see is going to speak in the debate. Polling experts John Curtice and Peter Kellner were in attendance and they confirmed, in answer to a question I put, the paramountcy of speed over accuracy because of the incessant demands of the media. That is the background which gave rise to my strong determination to introduce this Bill.

What reinforced for me the point that accurate polling is an important issue for the future of our democracy was the one rogue YouGov poll held on 7 September 2014 that seemed to indicate for the first time in the referendum that the Yes campaign was ahead, by 51% to 49%. This caused a widespread panic among politicians in the Better Together campaign. It resulted in a vow set out on the front page of the Daily Record to go for even greater devolution of powers to Scotland and led to the creation of the Smith commission. In light of the actual result of the referendum, it is clear that the fears of a Yes victory were unfounded and that the nationalists had directly benefited from just one highly inaccurate poll. It is not right that the real issues of democratic politics should have been so materially affected by a statistical prediction that turned out to be so wrong. Indeed, the course of history was changed by that one inaccurate poll.

The general election gave further evidence of the direct and highly undesirable impact of polling on politics and on events. The constant polling—and it was constant—and the constant media coverage which resulted from that made it seem beyond doubt to the media and to all of us that the contest for the general election was going to be neck and neck. Some polls suggested that Labour would be the largest party. All of that polling shaped the nature of the debate. Members of this House will recall that throughout the election, the main topics of debate were not important policy issues such as defence, foreign affairs and the health service, it was the consequences of a Labour minority Government, with the SNP set to hold the balance of power.

Noble Lords will remember the posters of Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s top pocket and of Nicola Sturgeon pulling the strings. All those resulted from the polls, which predicted that the election was going to be neck and neck. Consequently, major policy issues were absent from the campaign and the result of the election could well have been different if we had focused on those major policy issues. Inaccurate polls, as they turned out to be, again appear to have changed the course of history.

As a result of those manifest polling errors, I have found that when I talk to—I was going to say “comrades”—colleagues and others, there is now far greater support for the creation of some kind of regulatory body overseeing political opinion polling than ever before. That is why I have reintroduced this Bill in this Session. The political will is there to ensure that similarly damaging mistakes are not made in the future and that our democratic process is not undermined.

Even the British Polling Council realised that something went wrong and admitted it. It has set up an inquiry into why the polls in the run-up to the election were so consistently inaccurate. But the British Polling Council is a self-regulating body and will be so in carrying out the inquiry. It proposes merely a one-off investigation. Understandably, the council claims credit when the polls are correct but it needs to accept some blame now that its methods have been shown to be ineffective. To ensure that a more rigorous and accurate system is introduced, we need an independent and permanent regulator.

Contrary to what has been said in some media headlines and comment, the Bill does not legislate to ban polls but would allow the proposed regulatory authority to impose limits on their publication if it thought fit. That is already the case in Spain, France, India and Italy where, if it is thought that that could be helpful, the decision could be taken. The Bill would replace the self-regulation of the British Polling Council with an independent body which would have responsibility for issuing regulation and guidance on things such as sampling methods, the wording of questions and arrangements concerning publication, including how close to election day polls could be published.

I should answer some of the criticism made by Professor Ron Johnston of Bristol University in a letter to some noble Lords—interestingly, he did not send a copy to me—and by the Political Studies Association on Twitter. I wish that both had approached me directly. They have expressed concern that the Bill might infringe academic freedom to undertake polling on political attitudes and behaviour for the purposes of independent research. That certainly is not my intention. Clause 1(8) makes clear that the authority’s regulatory powers will be restricted specifically to polling concerning voting intentions in, first, local authority elections; secondly, in parliamentary elections, including the Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish Parliaments; and, thirdly, referenda. Academic research on other political behaviour will therefore not be affected. If there is any worry that wording changes might be needed, I would be happy to consider any amendment necessary.

It is also important that all those with an interest in polling are represented on the board of the authority. The Bill proposes that we should have representatives nominated by the British Polling Council, which would represent the industry, as well as representatives from all the political parties and the media. Indeed, I am open to other suggestions as well. Transparency is also important, and this Bill provides that the authority would publish its rules within six months of its establishment and consider amendments at least annually.

I welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Cooper of Windrush, will speak in the debate—in the absence, sadly, of the super-pollster Lord Ashcroft from our midst. Are we not less spectacular and exciting in his absence? Incidentally, he is not really a pollster. He contracted organisations to carry out his polling during the election. He decided where it would be, the questions and the publication—he is a multimillionaire, of course, so he can pay for it—but he would not tell us which organisations carried out his polling.

So we have the noble Lord, Lord Cooper, from Populus, who will no doubt give us a view from the industry. I will be interested to hear what he has to say. I feel that the industry has been unduly defensive about my Bill. Given that the BBC is regulated, that we have regulators such as Ofcom, and that other organisations and industries are regulated, it surely makes sense that the multimillion-pound political opinion polling industry is brought into line with the others. I look forward to the noble Lord’s comments.

In conclusion, polling has grown exponentially in recent years.

Photo of Lord Blencathra Lord Blencathra Conservative

I am very grateful to the noble Lord. I do not want to be mischievous—well, not too mischievous—but has he seen the report about the Glasgow pensioner who got odds of 7:1 on an outright Conservative victory, apparently put down £30,000 and cleared £240,000? Has the noble Lord considered recruiting him to head up his polling organisation?

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

That is a very interesting suggestion. As usual, the noble Lord is not being mischievous; he is being very helpful. It would be good to have an independent chair of the polling authority. I am not exactly sure whether it should be that pensioner. We must find out who he is and whether other predictions and suggestions he has made have been successful. We certainly should take that on board.

Photo of Lord Hamilton of Epsom Lord Hamilton of Epsom Conservative

Can I raise a more serious question: is there any point to polling at all? You ask people what they are going to do at the next election. They say, “The next election is not for weeks or months. I haven’t even made up my mind”, so their views are not even very relevant.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

That is a very interesting question and much wider than what I am suggesting. If the noble Lord is suggesting that the regulatory body I am setting up should have a wider remit, that is certainly something the House can look at. I would not be averse to looking at it.

As I was saying, in the general election of 2015 we saw almost daily polls for a while—it was astonishing. However, almost all of them turned out to be wrong. The media moguls, who are very rich and own most of our newspapers, commission most of those polls. They publicise them and they become a very powerful election tool. As the noble Lord implied, this has moved beyond a method of independent measurement of voting intention to having real and increasing influence over the result, with potentially serious consequences for our democracy. Polls now play a major part in deciding the future of our country. It is therefore essential that they be carried out in a rigorous and unbiased manner. That is what the minimal and independent oversight that I am putting forward in the Bill sets out to achieve. It is with that aim in mind that I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Cooper of Windrush Lord Cooper of Windrush Conservative 11:28 am, 19th June 2015

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, noted, following the recent retirement from your Lordships’ House of my noble friend Lord Ashcroft, I think that I am the only Member of this House who is a pollster by trade. Therefore, I declare my obvious interest and draw the attention of the House to my entry in the register. I am the co-founder of a research company. For well over a decade I have earned my living by conducting research. A very small part of that research is polling, a very small part of which is political polling. The Market Research Society says that less than 1% of all the market research conducted in this country is polling and a tiny fraction of that is political polling. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, exaggerates when he describes it as a multi-million pound political polling industry.

I put firmly on the record that I, of course, accept that the recent general election was a serious failure for those of us who produce opinion polls that try to capture accurately the proportions in which people support the different political parties. The polls did not get it all wrong; they were pretty accurate in describing and predicting the scale of the landslide that took place in Scotland. They got the vote share for the Liberal Democrats and UKIP about right, but they got wrong the single most important thing—the proportions of Labour and Conservative votes in England. That was a serious error.

Voting intention polls are meant to scatter either side of a mean—in other words, when you look back after the election, there should be about as many polls a bit over what each party got as there are a bit under. However, that did not happen with the recent general election. All the final polls overstated the support for the Labour Party and understated the support for the Conservatives. In fact, if we look back further, there were more than 1,000 polls in the second half of the last Parliament, and, far from scattering either side of a mean, only one of those polls put the Conservative share of the vote higher than the 38% that they eventually got.

We know that at some point between 2010, when the polls were pretty accurate, and 2015, when they were wrong, tried and tested methods suddenly failed to capture accurately a snapshot of how voters were going to vote, and in what proportions they were going to support the Labour and Conservative Parties. One of the flaws of the regulatory body proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is that, had it existed during the last Parliament, it would have had no point of reference and no way of detecting during that five-year period that suddenly, poll methods which had been accurate had become inaccurate. It is only after they err at an election that we can see that clearly, and at that point, obviously, they must be addressed.

There was a serious failure and the polling industry takes it seriously. Before breakfast on the morning after the election, the polling organisations had all agreed without reservation that a full and open inquiry had to be held. That inquiry was established within 24 hours under the joint auspices of the British Polling Council and the Market Research Society and under the independent chairmanship of Professor Patrick Sturgis, a highly respected academic and director of the ESRC’s National Centre for Research Methods. The inquiry holds its first public evidence-gathering session this afternoon.

Since the general election, I have encountered an amazingly large number of people who are very keen to tell me that they knew all along that the polls were wrong, and they had always foreseen a Conservative victory. I struggle to recall many people who said that before the fact, but I note for the record that the Minister, my noble friend Lord Bridges of Headley, is one of the few who certainly did. As noted in yesterday’s Question for Short Debate, he not only placed a bet a year ago that the Conservatives would win a majority but even correctly predicted the exact size of that majority. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said, perhaps we should all have saved ourselves the trouble and just polled my noble friend Lord Bridges. It would have been quicker, more accurate and cheaper than polling the 4,000 others whom we polled in our final pre-election poll.

However, it is important to remember that we have been here before, and more important still to remember the lessons of that history. One of the reasons why almost everybody assumed the polls were right was that they had been right for the previous four general elections. However, those four consecutive successes for the polls came after another humiliating failure. As many noble Lords will remember, in 1992 the polls were also wrong—in fact, they were even more wrong in 1992 than they were in 2015. After that failure there was a full inquiry, conducted publicly and transparently, just as there is now. Its conclusions led to a series of changes in the way that voting polls were conducted. These changes by and large fixed the problem. As I noted, at the next four elections, the polling organisations that used those post-1992 methods got the result right. They scattered either side of party vote shares and remained within their margin of error. That is about as accurate as we can expect polls to be, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, noted earlier. Most if not all the changes that were adopted by the industry to fix the failure in 1992, which resulted in the polls being more accurate subsequently, would have been less likely if the noble Lord’s Bill had applied and the regulatory body he proposes had existed.

The noble Lord has expressed a nostalgic attachment to face-to-face polling, as if that is the immutable gold standard of doing a poll, but the switch away from face-to-face polls was one of the central recommendations and conclusions of the 1992 inquiry. The inquiry concluded that for many different reasons it had become too difficult to get a representative sample of the whole population—of all different types of voters—by doing a face-to-face poll, so one of the recommendations was to switch to random digit-dial telephone polling. It was very controversial at the time. Many people opposed it and felt that switching from face-to-face to telephone at a time when only about 90% of households had a fixed-line telephone was a dubious step to take. After the inquiry, some pollsters switched to the phone method; some did not. Learning from the inquiry, some adopted new measures of weighting polls; others did not. At the next election in 1997, the pollsters which had made those switches were accurate and the ones that had not got the result wrong again.

The lesson from the last time the polls were wrong is that we need to define the problem openly, frankly and fully, and then innovate to solve it. The flaw at the heart of the Bill, in my opinion, is that it would obstruct this process, not help it. The noble Lord’s Bill would give a new regulatory authority responsibility for, “specifying approved sampling methods”. As I say, it is highly likely that in 1992 such a body would have judged telephone polling to be too risky and would have probably stopped the change that made the single biggest step towards fixing the problem and restoring accuracy to the polls. The noble Lord also wants “the wording of questions” to be governed by the new authority that the Bill would create. That seems to be verging on the Orwellian—the idea that we have a state-established body that will decide what you can and cannot ask, and in what terms, seems extraordinary to me.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

Just on that specific point, does the noble Lord not agree that in the Scottish referendum the wording was vital? There were discussions between both Governments about it, and wider discussions about it, but it was an absolutely crucial issue.

Photo of Lord Cooper of Windrush Lord Cooper of Windrush Conservative

I entirely accept, of course, that the wording of questions matters. Everybody who works in opinion research and everyone who does polls knows perfectly well that the way you ask the question can make a big difference to the answer you get. But my point is that on any issue of consequence, substance or controversy, where there will be impassioned views on both sides, there is no universally accepted neutral way of expressing a poll question. That goes to a central error at the heart of the Bill, which is the idea that these things are or ever could be subject to clear-cut right or wrong answers. There is no consensus—or anything close to one—among research organisations about either the best way to conduct a poll or the right way to phrase the questions that you may ask. That is why the British Polling Council was created: to ensure transparency and disclosure, rather than attempting to define the undefinable or police a supposedly objective “correct” approach, because no such approach exists. In my opinion, the state-backed regulator proposed by the noble Lord would stifle or kill the experimentation and innovation that have worked for the industry in the past, and which it still needs.

The third and final power proposed for the new regulatory authority is the power to ban the publication of polls before elections if it so chose. I think this would be an extraordinarily illiberal step, an affront to freedom of expression and one which certainly the courts of France and other places have judged to be a prima facie breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. There are two further very clear practical reasons why it is a terrible idea.

First, it would create an asymmetry of information. The Bill posits restrictions on the publication of polls. It would not and could not stop polls being conducted, certainly by political parties, which would continue to conduct private polls and would no doubt continue to talk to journalists about what those polls say. It would not stop polls being conducted by, for example, hedge funds and investment banks, and quite likely by media clients as well, as the noble Lord says. All it would do is to stop those polls being openly reported. Pollsters would get to sell what would have become privileged information to private clients—information which, without the provisions of the Bill, they would have had to read in the newspaper like everybody else. The Bill would turn a world where everyone has the same information into one in which the powerful would know what was going on but the voters would not.

I was struck by the way that the noble Lord spoke about the supposed influence of the polls in the recent election. Most of his remarks were actually about the way that the polls were reported and the dominance in the media coverage of the picture that they were telling which, as we now know and clearly accept, turned out to be wrong. However, unless he is also proposing to circumscribe the freedom of the press to comment on what they think is going on in public opinion and how they read the state of the parties, I do not see how his Bill would in any case achieve the objectives that he set out. I assume that he would not propose to circumscribe the freedom of the press as well.

The second fundamental flaw with the Bill is that, in the internet era, it should be pretty obvious that banning the publication of polls is totally unenforceable. That fact was explicitly at the heart of the judgment of the French courts in 1998 to scrap the law that France had to ban polls in the seven days before elections because they judged even then, nearly 20 years ago, that the viability of media blackouts was fatally undermined by the emergence of the internet. There would be nothing we could do to stop foreign polling organisations conducting online surveys and publishing them online. There would be nothing we could do to stop anyone else publishing on websites with domains beyond UK jurisdiction the results of these polls, so any attempt to ban the publication of polls is simply unenforceable and futile.

I submit that the provisions in the Bill could not and would not have done anything to alter the fact that the polls were wrong, or to stop them being wrong. In fact, it would have made it much more difficult for the polling industry to respond responsibly to those problems. That is why anyone who cares about opinion polls and their accuracy, and their important role in a vibrant, free democracy, should oppose the Bill.

Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour 11:42 am, 19th June 2015

My Lords, I am one of those whom the noble Lord identified who now claim to have got something right during the general election when the polls were getting it wrong, but in my case I can document the fact. I did not get the result right—I had a substantial bet on a Labour-minority Government, though I did get it at 5:1 before it went back down to 11:8—but I recovered my money from a small bet on the Liberal Democrats getting fewer than 10 seats. Sometimes your money goes where your heart lies.

What I did during the campaign, maddened by the overinterpretation of and reliance on the polls of the Guardian, was to write to point out in moderate terms—and wearing my hat as chair of the All-Party Group on Statistics—the limitations on polling, which I shall come to. So I can document it but not through showing people the pages of the

Guardian

, because it declined to publish the letter. I was not totally surprised because it was paying out a lot of money to commission polls and then oversold them like mad, so of course the

Guardian was not very keen to publish this letter—although senior members of editorial staff say, in retrospect, that they think they should have done. Anyway, that is quite long enough on “I was right all the time”.

The performance of opinion polls in recent elections is worse than has been appreciated. Over the last six general elections, the opinion polls have got it completely wrong twice, a 33% rate. If they used that other invaluable tool of forecasting, a pin, they would have got a 50% hit rate. The amount by which you gain in having the polls over the use of a pin is not very great, but it is worse than that. First, although they got the winner right in four cases out of six they did not get the share of the vote for each party right in those cases. For example, in 2010 they overestimated the Lib Dems’ share. Secondly, even when they got right, it was often the result of pure chance. I went to a fascinating academic conference on the 2010 election, which, to summarise briefly, showed that the polls made a series of mistakes which happened to cancel each other out.

In the light of all that, I welcome the Sturgis inquiry, whose session the noble Lord, Lord Cooper, and I are both attending this afternoon. In preparation for that, I reminded myself of the study by the Market Research Society into the failure in 1992. Funnily enough, I am not sure that this inquiry will come out with anything very different. It identified three main sources of error: first, shy Tories, or people who did not like to say that they were voting for the Tory party; secondly, failures in the quotas, which I will come back to, which meant that they were not using representative samples; and, thirdly, differential turnout. Those were the main causes. Professor Sturgis may not get much further forward, although I hope he will.

The real question underlying this is whether polls technically can achieve the degree of accuracy that is necessary when they forecast elections. We had quite a lot of polls during the election, for example, that said something like Labour 30% and the Tories 30%. That could mean, within the statistical margin of error, Tory 33% and Labour 27% or the other way round. In other words, it could mean a 6% Labour lead, a 6% Tory lead or that they genuinely were neck and neck—and that is only in 19 cases out of 20, with the 20th case being even further out, as I think was true of the famous YouGov poll in the Scottish referendum.

That is the statistical margin of error, but it is only the beginning of the margin of error, as it assumes that you have a perfect sample which is representative of the electorate as a whole. But you do not have a perfect sample; you have a less and less perfect sample, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has pointed out. If you do it by telephone, you have the increasing problem of mobile telephone ownership, which can distort the figures. You can do it on the internet, but not everyone has access to the internet. You can also have what is called panel effect, whereby because you are asking the same people they become more informed and more interested, and they move from one party to another differently from the electorate.

In the olden days, when polling worked rather better, it was of course done by face-to-face samples, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has reminded us. Pollsters were able to get it quite right because they were able to balance their samples to make up for these shortfalls. The crucial thing was that in those days voting very closely followed social class: working-class people voted for us, while middle and upper-class people voted for the other side. As a result, it was relatively easy to adjust your sample. As long as you had the right percentage of people from each class in it, you were probably not going to be far out, and therefore you could weight your samples accordingly. However, that relationship between class and voting has gradually been eroded, and there is not really a good substitute. Public versus private sector, for example, is something of a differentiator, but there is nothing as powerful as class used to be. It is very much less easy to weight a sample to get a correct one, although responsible pollsters make valiant efforts.

Another problem is that a lot of people just do not answer when you approach them: only one in five people who are rung up answer, because they do not know whether it is a push-pollster, somebody trying to sell them double-glazing or a genuine pollster. You do not know anything about those people, so you have no idea whether your sample is representative of the population as a whole. There are big margins of error. This is not of course helped by my old profession—I used to write up polls myself and I am guilty of all the offences I am about to accuse others of—in which you are forced to exaggerate. Suppose Labour has gone one month from 36% to 34%. The correct report of that is that there is no change in Labour’s standing; it is the same number. The report you will read will very likely say, “Labour slumped last month following Ed Miliband’s unfortunate incident with a bacon sandwich”. They had not fallen and there is no evidence that they had; there is even less evidence that it was due to Ed’s bacon sandwich. So journalism is more than a little responsible. Of course the two egg each other on, because the pollsters know that the more that journalists exaggerate the story the more publicity it will get, and the journalists want that publicity too, so the necessary caveats simply do not appear.

Having said that, I shall tell the House about the remark recorded in the Library Note about the problems of the polls and about my noble friend’s Bill in particular. The chairman of ComRes, on which I addressed the House in the Moses Room the other day, said that the Bill,

“acts on a problem that doesn’t exist”.

Most of the pollsters have been very upfront and honest in admitting that there is a problem, but not, it appears, all. This matters because—let us face it—the last general election was mostly about whether it was a good or bad thing if we had a Labour-minority Government backed by, or in some relationship with, the SNP, not a separate though equally important debate about whether people really wanted a Tory-majority Government or something short of that. Did it affect the result? We will never know, but it was important.

I turn briefly to the question raised by my noble friend’s Bill about the regulation of polling. You cannot very often separate my noble friend and me on these or indeed many issues, but I have a slightly different emphasis from him on this point. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cooper, about the difficulties of statutory regulation was strong, as indeed were his points about the banning of polls during the run-up to an election, but there are problems with statutory regulation. My own experience of statutory regulation is that the people you are regulating spend the whole time trying to find their way around the regulations, instead of doing what you want them to do, which is to say, “We’ve got a problem and we must solve it”.

I am therefore broadly in favour of self-regulation. I sat for years on the council of the Advertising Standards Authority, which I believe to be a very effective self-regulator, though not everyone agrees. I felt that that was the right way of going about it because you have advertiser buy-in; if they had an adverse verdict from the ASA, they did not argue the toss but just withdrew the advert. Unfortunately, the existing self-regulation does not measure up. The rules of the British Polling Council, which in many ways is an admirable organisation, cover transparency only; they tell you that you have to put your samples and the questions you ask online, that sort of thing, but they do not actually cover substance at all. The Market Research Society does somewhat better; a section of its rules is about how questions should be framed so that they are neutral, but not all polling companies belong to the MRS. In the case of my own complaint against ComRes at the moment, I have to complain about the chairman as an individual rather than the company. The MRS rules are rather broad, and less specific than I would like.

So there is a shortfall in self-regulation, and this is one of the challenges that the pulling industry now faces. Either it puts in place effective, wide-ranging and considered self-regulation, going beyond the very limited regulation imposed by the BPC, or it will be Foulkes. There is no doubt about it. It will not happen in this Parliament, I do not suppose, because this Government are quite well favoured by what happened when it went wrong last time, but some of us will harbour a desire for revenge. If the polling industry does not put itself right, we will put it right in a way that will be undesirable.

I have a final word to say about the banning of polls in the run-up to elections. I am afraid that here I am a feeble “don’t know”. I think that there is a case for and a case against, and although I lean towards the case against because I do not like interfering with free speech, the case for is also powerful and, as has been pointed out, other countries such as France and India already ban polls. I suggest that one or other House of this Parliament, in an appropriate committee, should look at the arguments for and against this. It would be a very useful analytic piece of work and would inform future policy-making in this field.

I very much hope that the House will give a Second Reading to this Bill this afternoon, because this is a subject that cannot be too much debated in your Lordships’ House as it is being in the polling industry. As I have said, I do not agree with every dot or comma of the Bill, but I believe that, unless the spirit of the Bill is taken on board by the polling industry, this kind of problem will arise time and again in future.

Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 11:55 am, 19th June 2015

My Lords, yesterday we had a fairly full discussion in the Moses Room, led by my noble friend Lord Lipsey, about political opinion polling and, from the Labour Party position, the very regrettable failure of the electorate to live up to the forecasting of the polls and the expectations of our candidates. Today we have been fortunate to have further expertise from my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock and the noble Lord, Lord Cooper of Windrush, who did not speak yesterday but who enlightened us today with reminders of random sampling quotas, margins of errors, scattering, and things that some of us were taught a long time ago.

Your Lordships will, I hope, be pleased to know that I am not going to repeat what I said yesterday. There is a very full report in Hansard for any who are interested. All I will say is that when pollsters get it wrong, as in 1992, this year, or indeed in the Scottish referendum, it has serious consequences if the reporting of such misleading polls influences either the behaviour of parties or more seriously the behaviour of voters. The motivation behind this Bill is therefore genuine and serious, because of the influence that polling can have and for the reasons that my noble friend Lord Lipsey has just given. There is a special responsibility on pollsters, and on the media that report them, to raise their game.

Whether the answer set out in the Bill is the correct one is a matter for further debate. I certainly share some of the worries about the pre-approval of sampling and other methods, as that could stifle innovation and lead to even more clustering and huddling. I also cannot see that there could be acceptable or non-acceptable questions, and I share the concerns about the stifling of free speech if solid polling research was banned. However, as I said yesterday, there is some urgency to raising the industry’s standards, especially before we have to face the first recall ballot for an MP, where perhaps in a single constituency a vote to trigger a by-election could be heavily influenced by some local, and possibly shoddy, polling. We also need to think about how to curtail the drive for that cheap, headline-grabbing polling, undertaken clearly for commercial rather than for domestic gain—with speed being of the essence rather than accuracy, in the words of my noble friend Lord Foulkes. Furthermore, we should look at how polls are reported; they are often made the lead story rather than background intelligence.

The issues raised by this Bill are too important to be left just to pollsters, because these issues affect what information is placed before the electorate and whether that will change and influence their votes and therefore who forms the Government. I regret that the current inquiry, good though it may be as a first step, has failed to include a much wider source of expertise, both from outside the UK but also from campaigners, candidates and journalists—or perhaps, in the light of what we have just heard, bookies—who also have an interesting take on the use and relevance of polls. It is not just those who put them together who have an interest in this but those who use their outcome.

We are very strict about what candidates can say, especially about their opponents, and how much they and political parties can spend, but we give free rein to newspapers to champion a party or campaign on an issue with no limit on expenditure. A number increasingly give coverage to their own commissioned polls which they then cover as fact. As I confessed yesterday, I was particularly wounded in 1992 and this year by having fallen for the polls, but my disappointment is of no consequence. What matters is if voters were similarly persuaded and if their subsequent vote was affected by that. For this reason, I welcome the debate that my noble friend has engineered today, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 12:00 pm, 19th June 2015

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, on securing this debate. A lot has been said about the bet I made, so let me start by offering the noble Lord a cup of coffee, or something stronger, paid for by my bet, and we can toast the pollsters together.

When I first read of this Bill, my initial reaction was that it might possibly be a case of sour grapes that the noble Lord’s party did not win the general election, but then I realised I was being extremely unkind to the noble Lord. He has been talking about this for many years—I think it goes back to the 1980s—and, more to the point, he has a history of wanting to regulate and perhaps even ban things, starting with Space Invaders in the 1980s, so this is part of that.

I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said about the Bill. It provokes an interesting debate, and we had a very interesting debate yesterday. I shall start by asking your Lordships a question: is this Bill good for democracy? My answer is, firmly, no. As a number of noble Lords said, the Bill is built on an assumption that the electorate should not be told what they themselves are thinking during a general election campaign, or at least during parts of it. Call me old fashioned, but I trust the people. I believe in giving them the information, however painful it might be for one party or another—and believe me, having worked in Downing Street in the 1990s, I know how painful it can be.

Let us consider the Scottish referendum. The noble Lord said that the YouGov poll set the campaign alight, and indeed it did. He called it a rogue poll. I respectfully point out that it was the first of three polls in quick succession showing that yes and no were neck and neck. The following day, TNS reported 50:50 and on 12 September, ICM reported 49:51—so three companies, all of which had reported big no leads weeks earlier, showed 50:50, plus or minus 1. Putting that key point aside, is the noble Lord saying that the public cannot be trusted with this information and that they cannot be told something that helps them weigh up how to vote in the critical weeks running up to the day they cast their vote?

Let me now ask your Lordships another question. Is the polling industry badly regulated at the moment? My answer is no. Pollsters know that the fortunes of their business rely on the credibility of their research. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the leading companies in the sector observe and abide by the code of practice that the twin regulators, the MRS and the BPC, have set out. I believe that we should leave them to regulate the sector, but I am sure the regulators will heed the words of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, who speaks with such authority and experience in this sector, and the fact that we are having this debate today, and will look at their regulations.

The need to abide by these regulations explains why the industry is so concerned about its failure to forecast the result of the election in May. The terms of reference of this inquiry, which holds its first evidence meeting this afternoon, are broad and far reaching. It is,

“empowered … to make recommendations about the future practice of polling”, and to investigate,

“whether the findings and conduct of the polls were adequately communicated to the general public”.

That relates to the point the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, made about reporting.

Let me turn to the opinion polling during the last general election. The noble Lord’s argument seems to be that thanks to the polls the Labour Party lost the election. So he wants to shoot the messenger. We do not know that this is the case; that is the point of the inquiry. Was there a sudden switch? Were people not being straight with the pollsters when asked for whom they would vote? Were the sample sizes wrong? Was the methodology at all to blame, and for how long were the pollsters getting it wrong—might this problem have distorted their findings for months? We do not know the answers to these questions, and that is the purpose of the inquiry. However, let me summarise what we do know.

In 1992 the pollsters also got it wrong, predicting a Labour majority. They changed their ways, and as my noble friend Lord Cooper and the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, outlined, their methodology has changed. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said, it can always be improved. It seemed that it had been improved, because, as we saw in the 2005 general election, the polls were the most accurate predictions ever made of the outcome of a general election. This was without a regulator being set up after 1992, which demonstrates that it is possible to get to improve without regulation of that kind. In 2010, all but one of the nine pollsters came within 2% of the Conservative share, and five were within 1%. If opinion polls have become the sat-nav of the British constitution, it is quite clear that in May the sat-nav went squiffy, predicting that the British would turn leftish. Instead, the electorate ignored that and turned right.

Therefore, I humbly suggest that we leave it to the experts to find out what has gone wrong with the systems, but the noble Lord appears to disagree. He already knows enough to tell us to legislate. I humbly argue that this would be a good case of legislating in haste, and we have seen this kind of thing happen before. I, for one, do not want to see a Dangerous Pollsters Act—and the pitfalls of entering into this terrain are highlighted by the Bill itself, which has, if your Lordships will forgive me, a strange whiff of George Orwell mixed with Inspector Clouseau about it.

First: Orwell. The opinion police—for that is what these regulators would be—would have unlimited powers; the Bill simply lists those presumably deemed important. It would specify “approved sampling methods”. Consider online polling, now conducted by many pollsters. Back in the 2008 London mayoral elections, all the telephone polls showed Ken Livingstone was ahead. After YouGov published two online polls showing that he was trailing Boris Johnson, Mr Livingstone attacked the polling methodology. His office said:

“YouGov’s polls are misleading the public and we have therefore decided to make a formal complaint”.

Had the noble Lord’s idea of approved methods been applied by the opinion police, would they have permitted any online polls, or would they have banned them in favour of traditional polls, which got the outcome of that mayoral race so wrong? Here the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, shows the immense debate around methodology. What evidence is there that such a debate could be resolved satisfactorily by a regulator?

Next, the Bill would provide guidance on the wording of questions—no doubt emanating from Room 101. The noble Lord raised that in an intervention. However, as my noble friend Lord Cooper said, trying to seek such agreement on wording is like chasing a will-o’-the-wisp. On the wording of questions, where is freedom of speech and debate if an unelected body is guiding pollsters on what they can and cannot ask the public? On top of that, the opinion police will have the power to ban the publication of polls “in such a period” as they consider “appropriate” before an election or referendum. What is appropriate? Might that be a week, a month, or several months before an election, and how and when is this decision to be made?

So much for Orwell. What of Clouseau? The inspector of the opinion police would have his work cut out. Consider what happened in his own country of France. As many of your Lordships may know, there had long been a ban on the reporting of opinion polls in the week before French elections. In the 1997 legislative elections some newspapers broke this regulation. One got round the ban by putting the findings of an opinion poll on its website, which was linked to a Swiss newspaper. The result: the French ban has been reduced to 24 hours. So, we can hear the hapless inspector crying, “Zut alors!”, as he realises that this law, which he is meant to enforce, was designed for an analogue age.

The Bill before us stipulates that “a person” who breaks the rules may be fined. In the digital age, what if that person, sitting in some far-flung country, sets up an online poll? What is to stop a foreign newspaper conducting a poll and publishing its results online? What is to stop a website with its servers based in another country publishing a poll? Will Inspector Clouseau chase after them? Then there is the definition of opinion polling. It is,

“intentions with regard to voting”— that is, intentions as to how people would vote. In the jargon, this is the “top line”—the raw percentage that each party might secure.

It would appear that, even if these polls were restricted, it would be perfectly possible to publish polls related to a party’s or a politician’s competence, credibility, affability, whether they are in touch or out of touch—the list is endless. A poll giving rise to the headline “Labour not trusted to run the economy” would presumably be allowed. So, too, for that matter might be “Public alarmed by SNP/Labour pact”. All this would be permitted by the opinion police—a loophole so large that even Clouseau might be able to get through it.

That brings me to my third question: whom would the Bill benefit? Not the British public, that’s for sure. Instead, it would benefit two groups: first, private companies, especially in finance, which have deep pockets and want to get the inside track on what the public are thinking so that they can take positions on currencies and stocks before an election; and, secondly, the polling companies themselves, which would be able to charge a fortune for these private polls. Therefore, if this House wishes to give the banks and the hedge funds insider information on the democratic process, this Bill would certainly do the trick—and make pollsters rich in the process. However, something makes me think that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is not in the hedge fund fan club.

To conclude, the noble Lord has done us a great service by highlighting the enormous pitfalls of going down the route of regulation. The Bill is unnecessary. Its measures would not work, and it would dent our democracy and curb our freedom of speech. We should be free to express our opinions and to know what others think. Unsurprisingly, therefore, this Government have strong reservations about the Bill.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour 12:12 pm, 19th June 2015

My Lords, this has been a very interesting, and at times quite exciting, debate. I loved the Orwell/Clouseau allusions.

Perhaps I may deal with the Minister’s comments first. My point about Space Invaders had nothing to do with aliens or ET; it concerned the machines that young people get addicted to. In the 1980s, it was Space Invaders; now, there are other kinds of machines and activities which young people get addicted to and which create problems. One of my colleagues in another place raised this matter very recently.

The Minister mentioned the Scottish referendum and challenged me, because not just one poll but three polls were wrong. That reinforces my argument. All three of them were wrong and that makes it even worse. I am sure that the Minister’s reply was written before he heard my speech. I did not argue that I was introducing the Bill because Labour lost the election; quite the reverse. That was not part of my argument. I will come back to the Minister shortly but I think that in the end, he gave at least a little bit of an indication that he was willing to discuss this issue further.

I welcomed the response from my noble friend Lady Hayter on the Front Bench. She made a particularly important point about recall ballots. It would be quite outrageous if opinion polls were used in the way that they have been against an MP who was facing a recall ballot. That is a very important point and I was grateful that my noble friend said that she welcomed the debate on this issue.

I was particularly grateful for my noble friend Lord Lipsey’s welcome. He and I usually agree on most things. We agreed on most of this today, and I look forward to further discussions with him, in Committee and outside, so that we can consider this whole issue further.

I think that the noble Lord, Lord Cooper, with no disrespect to the Minister, made the most effective criticism of my Bill. I respect that, because he knows exactly what he is talking about. This issue needs further discussion. He said that the pollsters got it wrong in 1992. I remind him that they also got it wrong in 1970. He may be too young to remember that far back, but I remember it very well; I was a candidate in that election. They thought that they had got it right in 1992, but they got it wrong again. It seems that they get it wrong every 22 years.

The noble Lord referred to tried and tested methods. However, it seems that the methods that were tried and tested are being abandoned, and that is my concern. He also raised a question about publication and suggested that it may be the media that need regulation. I would not disagree with that. That is being dealt with elsewhere in another context, but it should be looked at in relation to this issue as well.

I hope that we will look at this. I said in my introductory speech, and I reinforce and underline it now, that I am willing to look at amendments. I just want this to be looked at. If there is a better way—if my noble friend Lord Lipsey or even the noble Lord, Lord Cooper, can come up with a better way—I am willing to look at it and to consider a substantive amendment.

I must say that I respect the Minister—his speech was fascinating and enjoyable, especially his Orwell and Clouseau allusions—but way back in the 1980s I proposed something. I was strongly, sometimes violently, opposed by the industry, the Minister pooh-poohed me and the other place threw out my proposal. It said that it was ridiculous. Why was I suggesting it? Why was I imposing this limitation on people’s freedom? I was proposing at that time to ban smoking in public places. Now it is the accepted norm. Everyone agrees with it.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I am most grateful to the noble Lord—perhaps I may call him my noble friend—for letting me intervene. I was rather struck when listening to the Minister’s contribution because I read an article from 2012 in the

Daily Telegraph by a certain George Bridges—I am assuming that it is the same George Bridges as the Minister—in which he said:

“But politicians who are guided by polls are chasing will-o’-the-wisp in a forlorn search for popularity. They are not selling baked beans, but something more complex: vision, belief and leadership. And the more politicians change to reflect every passing fad, the less the public believes what they say, and will-o’-the-wisp flits away”.

I congratulate the noble Lord on his championing of the ban on smoking in public places at the time, which shows a bit of the vision and leadership that was not entirely deflected by the polls. I thank him for airing this issue in the Chamber today.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

I am really grateful to my noble friend, but I would have been even more grateful if he had given me that quotation earlier. I could have used it in my speech because it is a devastating one in relation to the Minister.

He has reminded me of something else that I was going to say to the noble Lord, Lord Cooper. He said that political polling makes up less than 1% of the income of polling and market research organisations such as Populus. However, it is a key and prestigious part. Their reputations depend on getting it accurate. The soap manufacturers and chocolate producers look carefully at how accurate these things are, so although it is only small, it is an important part.

There has been substantial criticism from the other side and support on this side, but this is something we should look at further. I shall conclude by asking the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at 12.20 pm.