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European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:38 am on 31st January 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench 11:38 am, 31st January 2018

My Lords, it is humbling to speak in this debate after so many excellent speeches. I want to focus on a somewhat different issue from those raised by most people here, the issue of Russian interference in the Brexit referendum campaign, and to reinforce the argument for a meaningful vote or votes in Parliament. The Dominic Grieve amendment is indeed a valuable start and it must not be lost, but it is essential that there are additional amendments to ensure that parliamentary sovereignty really rules in this process. Clearly, Parliament cannot seek to interfere with the referendum result unless the British people can put the misinformation behind them and come to understand, as they are beginning to, the reality of the risks to their jobs and standard of living presented by Brexit.

I will talk about Russian involvement in the Brexit referendum campaign as someone who lived in Moscow and worked within a Russian ministry—funded, I should say, by the British Government; I do not want people to get the idea that I am some sort of Russian spy. During my three-year period in Moscow I developed a deep affection and respect for the Russian people with whom I lived and worked. I am not anti-Russian. At the same time, we should not be naive about interference by other countries in our precious democratic processes. Governments need to take steps to protect the British people from those influences in the future. Whatever Government we have in place, it is vital that work is done to interfere with this process. What is the point of another referendum, or an election, if Russia may determine the outcome?

We know that Russia has put massive resources into developing social media infiltration tools. As your Lordships know, my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox is on the Twitter board and knows a thing or two about these matters. She is aware of such Russian investments. Russia would make these investments only in order to use the tools against the West. Of course, Brexit will damage Britain and the rest of Europe: it is a pretty brilliant stroke by Mr Putin. We know for a fact that in the Trump presidential campaign, 126 million Americans received personally tailored Facebook fake news. Someone closely involved in the digital economy—not my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox—takes the view that it is almost certain that Russia used similar social media methods to influence the result of the Brexit campaign. This is, however, very difficult to prove. When I contacted the Electoral Commission last summer, it was investigating Russian involvement in the Brexit referendum. At that time I was told by an investigator working closely with the FBI that Russian money funded the Brexit campaign—not totally, but substantially—and that it was the link between the Brexit and Trump campaigns. In fact, I have been told rather more than I feel able to say today.

Suffice it to say that already, more people are against Brexit than support it, as other noble Lords have said. If sufficient information comes to light about Russian distribution through Facebook of misinformation tailored to local communities during our referendum, we can expect that a growing number of the British people will want Parliament to intervene. There is a risk that this information may not come to light in time for 2018. For a start, Facebook is a closed dataset. As your Lordships will know, the information on a Facebook page is available only to “friends” of the user. Also, Facebook has 2 billion monthly users; imagine the task of going through that material, albeit electronically, to find the information. It may, therefore, not be possible for Facebook to get hold of the information in time. It has, however, employed thousands of staff to do just this job. The question is whether they can find out what happened and, if so, when.

I have two questions for the Minister; one that I hope he or she can answer, but the other may be more difficult. First, is the Minister aware whether or not MI6 is investigating Russian involvement in the Brexit campaign using social media infiltration tools and funding? Secondly, has MI6 commissioned work to develop tools to combat the Russian equipment to prevent interference in our referenda and elections in future? The British people and Parliament need this information.

As well as amendments on a meaningful vote for Parliament, I will want to support amendments that relate to the charter of human rights. However, I cannot overemphasise the importance of parliamentary sovereignty and meaningful votes for Parliament.