The Politics of Polling (Political Polling and Digital Media Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

– in the House of Lords at 4:42 pm on 3rd July 2018.

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Moved by Lord Lipsey

That this House takes note of the Report from the Select Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media The politics of polling (HL Paper 106).

Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Chair, Political Polling and Digital Media Committee

My Lords, I understand that our debate this afternoon is not time limited, so it may give comfort to noble Lords if I assure them that I intend to resume my seat in time for anybody who wishes to catch the kick-off tonight.

It was a real pleasure and privilege to chair this committee. The self-congratulatory phrase “the House of Lords at its best” is grossly overused but I am going to use it once more, because I think if anyone attended our evidence sessions and the grillings that we gave to our witnesses, they would feel that sentiment was justified. We were wonderfully well served by our two clerks—Helena Peacock, until she left for the BBC, then Sarah Jones—and our peerless policy analyst Beth Hooper. We were also well guided by our specialist adviser, Patrick Sturgis, of the University of Southampton, who has also served us subsequently by convening a conference of polling’s good and great to discuss our report.

It was a pleasure to chair this group of people, but it was not easy. At the beginning, the committee members had a range of instincts, from one who was in favour of strict regulation of polling to one who thought that everything was fine and dandy as it was. They were, incidentally, both members of the same political party.

My confidence as chairman was not exactly boosted when, at the end of each of our sessions, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, would mutter: “I can’t see how we are ever going to get agreement on this”. Little did she know that, as we entered the last stages of our drafting, I would be borne off to Guy’s and St Thomas’. Thanks to them and the NHS, I am standing here this afternoon. That left her to persuade the committee that it would agree on something. I am very grateful for her efforts in that regard.

Most Select Committees of this House are about agreeing a set of recommendations to government for changes in policy and the law. Ours was, I think, slightly different. Three successive votes—the 2015 general election, the 2016 referendum and the 2017 general election—had produced results entirely contrary to what the polls had led people to expect. To misquote Oscar Wilde, to get one election wrong may be regarded as a misfortune, to get two wrong looks like carelessness, and to get three wrong suggests that something somewhere has gone horribly amiss. So our first and fundamental task was to assemble evidence on whether these were blips or might go on happening. Was polling no longer fit for purpose, serving only to mislead voters as to what they collectively thought?

The good news from polling’s point of view is the research by Will Jennings of the University of Southampton, which we quote and shows that internationally there is not much evidence of a decline in polling accuracy over the years. Of course, that could mean that it has not got worse but it could also mean that it was always pretty bad and continues to be bad. That is a matter of opinion. However, these three successive setbacks will have pollsters on tenterhooks about the results they will achieve in the 2022 general election. Even if they get it right, it must be said that, as happened in 2010, they sometimes get it right because their errors cancel each other out.

There is good reason to be cautious in trusting the polls. First, polling is, by common consent, getting more difficult. Our report highlights two main reasons. One is non-response rates. A pollster might approach upwards of 10 people to get one who is prepared to join in and answer the questions, whereas far fewer used to be required. That creates a bias towards those interested in politics, who are much more likely to say yes than someone who knows nothing about it.

The other reason is the decline of social class as an indicator of voting intention. Once upon a time, as long as pollsters got the right proportions of working and middle-class people, they were all right. All the middle-class people voted Tory, all the working-class people voted Labour and pollsters would get the result right. That is not the situation today. Today, Labour gets more middle-class votes than working-class votes. No doubt that makes it much more difficult for pollsters to know whether their samples are right.

Beyond that, there is the separate question of the margin of error. Strictly speaking, there is no scientific way of measuring the margin of error for non-random polls, which all pollsters use today, except one or two state-backed pollsters. Since we reported, however, the British Polling Council has put the margin of error at 4%, based on past poll errors. Let us be clear about what this means: it is not a measure of the margin of error in the total lead of a party. It does not mean the Tories are on 42% and Labour is on 38% within the margin. It is the measure of the error in each party’s share. Say you have a poll that tells you Labour and the Tories are both on 40%. Within the margin of error, that could mean that Labour is on 44% and the Tories are on 36%, or it could mean that the Tories are on 44% and Labour on 36%. If you see a 40:40 poll, is your immediate assumption that either party could be well in the lead or that they are level-pegging? Not many people realise the margin of error—certainly not the hedge funds, which apparently pay huge sums for sophisticated polling that still gives them no more insight into the true state of the parties than anyone else.

The polls, therefore, are not very accurate. What if, via the commentators, the public believe what they say? Will that affect election results? Did Labour lose in 2015 because voters believed Britain was headed for what the Tories called a coalition of chaos? On what basis? On the basis of the polls. Did Jeremy Corbyn do so well in 2017 because the polls meant that no one thought that he had a chance in hell of winning?

We discuss the evidence in our report, and it is mixed. However, we do not recommend a ban on polling in the run-up to elections, such as is in place in 16 of the 28 EU countries. Nor do we recommend the statutory regulation of polls. We were not for a ban on polls largely because we thought that polls would be done anyway, probably overseas. Badly reported offshore polls would be even worse than well-reported onshore ones. We were not for state regulation because we felt it might inhibit innovation in polling; and because we did not think it would work. The example of the Commission des Sondages in France was not encouraging. However, if they get it wrong again in 2022, the question of banning or regulating will be revisited, and probably should be.

We made a more modest suggestion of a greater role for the Electoral Commission with regard to polling during elections. The Electoral Commission last week produced its own agenda for changes in its powers, and the Government are consulting on that—I hope in a more positive spirit than when they responded to this report. We did want increased regulation in the sense of increased self-regulation. When there is a choice, self-regulation is always better because it gets into the culture and changes how people behave, whereas regulation always seems imposed. We want the British Polling Council to take on new responsibilities, including holding a public inquiry into the performance of the polls after each election and providing an advisory service on poll questions.

We concluded that many of the problems with polls are down to media reporting of polls. There are some reporters and commentators who have a good grasp of what polling is about and its limitations. There are some who are less good. It is a perennial temptation in today’s competitive news environment to distort and exaggerate. “May soars”, when a poll shows a 1% increase in the Tory lead—well within the margin of error—makes a better story than “parties remain level pegging”. In my many years of reporting polling, I would not guarantee that I had made no such distortion. The media is also prone to report, as if they were polls, surveys carried out by pressure groups which are neither representative nor random. We look to IPSO to strengthen its efforts to crack down on those who seek to mislead the public about what the polls are saying.

Finally, and briefly, I will refer to digital. This was included in the committee’s remit, but the problems associated with it mushroomed during the committee’s lifetime, and we were forced to conclude that we could not do proper justice to it. We asked the Liaison Committee to set up a Select Committee specifically on the digital side of our work; sadly, it has not yet agreed. Time heals many things. We commended the Government’s digital charter and the work going on on it; and noted the work of the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. I will just say this: if some of the fears that have been expressed about what is being done to our politics in the digital space are correct, the threat is surely graver that anything that arises from opinion polls misleading, as they may occasionally do.

I look forward to this debate. I trust that we have provided both a guide to those interested in where polling stands today—a reference volume of its strengths and weaknesses—and a road map of the direction in which it needs to go tomorrow if it is to retain any credibility within our democratic system. I commend our report to the House, and beg to move.

Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 4:53 pm, 3rd July 2018

My Lords, I welcome this report. It is well researched, informative and balanced. It draws out clearly the political weight attached to polls and the challenges to ensuring accuracy in reporting.

As the report recognises, there are problems with the actual polling methodology, the reporting of the polls, and the lack of critical interrogation of the polls by the public. As we have heard, there are pressures on the print media to report polls in sensational terms, which lead to distortions and a focus on politics as a race, rather than an informed reporting of substantive issues. Where policies are covered, the surveys may be interpreted in crude ways, either wilfully or out of ignorance. There is, as has been touched on, the added dimension nowadays of how polls are covered on social media. As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, mentioned, there are issues with digital media that go beyond the commission’s remit and require addressing with some urgency.

I want to focus on the dimension of public understanding of polls. Improving methods of sampling and ensuring greater transparency in the methodology— and, if necessary, sponsorship—are necessary but not sufficient to ensure greater public understanding of polls. As the polling organisations put it to the committee,

“it is up to readers of all media to decide whether and what to believe”.

In its coverage of digital media, the committee notes that some witnesses,

“suggested that better education to support improved digital literacy amongst the population could help to tackle some of the issues associated with social media”.

That, in my view, applies also to polls and how to interpret them.

As the report shows, some media cover polls in a way that is wholly misleading, placing a weight on the data that they cannot bear. Readers may be too prone to accept the interpretation offered. This may affect behaviour. The committee recommends that the Department for Education ensures that critical literacy and digital skills are taught to people of all ages, including children and young people at schools and colleges, so that they can assess and analyse the information they read online. I think that the skills are needed not simply for what is read online, although I appreciate that, increasingly, information is accessed online. The key point for me is the need to enhance public understanding, not only to combat deliberate disinformation but to deal with poor coverage or ignorance in reporting. The problem at times is as much ignorance on the part of those disseminating material as it is wilful manipulation of data.

I therefore welcome the committee’s report. It identifies well the problems and advances recommendations to tackle them. It engages with what is a serious issue in maintaining a healthy democracy. The Government in their response acknowledge the seriousness of online manipulation and outline some of the steps being taken, including internationally, to tackle the problem.

However, the response is in part disappointing. The Government are overly dismissive of the committee’s recommendation that the Electoral Commission should have an enhanced role in monitoring voting intention polling. I am not necessarily advancing a greater role, at least not yet, but I recognise the committee’s reasoning and I was not impressed by the Government’s failure to engage with it. The response appears contradictory. The relevant paragraph opens by stating:

“The Government believes that regulation is a matter for the polling companies”.

It ends by stating that,

“the Government’s approach is to consider regulation as a last resort rather than the first option”.

The opening sentence implies that it is not an option, be it first or last. Perhaps my noble friend Lord Ashton can clarify what precisely is the Government’s stance in the event of self-regulation failing to achieve greater transparency.

However, my main concern is the weight that the Government attach to the citizenship curriculum in helping pupils to distinguish fact from fiction and to explore freedom of speech. To read the response, one would think that the opportunities mentioned are available and being utilised. There is nothing in the response that commits the Government to doing anything beyond what already exists. It neglects the fact that there is what I regard as a crisis in citizenship education. How can the goals embraced by the Government be achieved through citizenship education when there are not the teachers available who are qualified to teach citizenship? In a recent Written Answer, my noble friend Lord Agnew of Oulton revealed that of the 4,800 teachers in secondary schools teaching citizenship in November 2016, it was estimated that fewer than 9% had a relevant post-A level qualification. Even if one includes those with a post-A level qualification in history, it remains the case that eight out of 10 teachers teaching citizenship have no post-A level qualifications in the subject.

Although citizenship is on the national curriculum, schools lack the incentives to take it seriously. Your Lordships’ Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement provided a damning critique in its recent report, The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and Civic Engagement in the 21st Century, concluding:

“The Government has allowed citizenship education in England to degrade to a parlous state. The decline of the subject must be addressed in its totality as a matter of urgency”.

The Government’s response needs to be read in the light of that conclusion. There appears a mismatch between what is in the response and what is actually happening in our schools. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister will tell us what the Government plan to do to ensure that the teaching of citizenship meets the claims made for it in the response.

Citizenship education can fulfil an invaluable, indeed necessary, role in ensuring that we have a citizenry that understands our political system, including how to interrogate polls and look critically at information disseminated through social media. As the Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement noted:

“Citizenship education can also go some way toward mending the democratic inequality that exists in society”.

James Weinberg of Sheffield University told the committee:

“We have evidence … that citizenship education, where it is done effectively and consistently, can predict political efficacy, participation and levels of knowledge”.

I reiterate my congratulations to the Select Committee under the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, on producing this important report. I hope that my noble friend Lord Ashton will be able to go beyond the printed response to tell us what the Government are doing to ensure that the committee’s concerns are met. The issues raised in this report are not simply technical points for polling nerds but issues crucial to the health of our political system.

Photo of Baroness Jay of Paddington Baroness Jay of Paddington Labour 5:02 pm, 3rd July 2018

My Lords, it was a privilege to be a member of such an interesting and thought-provoking committee. I give my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, not just for his excellent chairmanship but for his comprehensive and easy-to-follow description of our report’s findings. I offer my personal warm thanks to the clerk, Sarah Jones, and her team. They gave me enormous support in the few weeks when I was locum chairman and the report was being written, during which the divisions the noble Lord referred to had certainly not gone away.

The noble Lord has well described the sense of crisis about polling which led to this committee being appointed but, at the end of its inquiry, my overall conclusion is that although the polling industry itself may well be facing serious problems, those problems in themselves do not constitute a major threat to our elections or to our democratic process. In other words, I suspect that political polls, particularly voter intention polls, play a much less influential role than many of us have believed. They are likely to be even less significant in future.

In my view there are much greater concerns about some aspects of how digital media affect politics. As your Lordships have heard, although we touched on these in our report we regrettably did not have time to explain them thoroughly. Our emphasis, as the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord Norton, have shown, was on what we should call mainstream polling. Here, the experts were admirably frank in their admissions of relative failure in the recent headline tests of two general elections and the EU referendum. There is no question but that the UK industry operates to the highest professional standards, but all our witnesses were clear that several factors are today making political polling much more difficult. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has already mentioned a couple and they are worth repeating. There was general agreement that key challenges now include the increasing difficulty of persuading members of the public to take part, the decline in class-based voting and the volatility of the electorate’s choices.

To me, one of the most important factors is the issue of differential turnout, which seems to have been the defining problem in recent experience. As Professor Sir John Curtice, president of the British Polling Council, told us:

“It is pretty clear from the experience of both 2000 and 2017 that estimating correctly who is and who is not going to turn out, particularly the differences in turnout between different demographic groups, is now one of the principal challenges facing the polling industry”.

There seems to be no evidence that any one of these factors or challenges will lessen, let alone disappear, in the foreseeable future. From the polling industry’s perspective, they will probably get worse. Therefore, we should expect that, realistically, national voter intention polls will continue to be uncertain guides to election outcomes, and political polling in general may not be an essential tool in the conduct of our politics. Does this matter? The fundamental question has always been: do polling results directly influence voters’ decisions? Perhaps equally important is the question: do politicians change their actions and policies on the basis of polling results?

I was impressed by how little hard evidence there seems to be that polls persuade individual voters to change their behaviour, but politicians and political parties seem to have been much more susceptible. The noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, summarised this to us by saying:

“The existence of the polls themselves, producing the results that they do”, all the time, means that,

“the human beings who are leaders cannot be expected to ignore”, them. I am, after all, the daughter of a Prime Minister, James Callaghan, who apparently postponed a general election on the basis of a private poll. More recently, it is said that polling information affected Gordon Brown’s decision not to hold a snap election in 2007.

History does not yet relate precisely whether the Conservative Party’s apparently unassailable polling position crucially determined the timing of the 2017 election. But in future, perhaps Theresa May and her successors would be well advised to look at the evidence we took and study more carefully the serious difficulties pollsters acknowledge in sampling and predicting today’s electoral behaviour. If I was now a frontline political adviser, I would hesitate a long time before deciding to hold any test of public opinion on the basis of polling—not, I emphasise, because statistical skills are in decline but because social and behavioural changes in the population have created unprecedented challenges in respect of accuracy.

Of course, the importance of the polls, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said, has often been exaggerated by the way they are reported by the media. Our report rightly includes a great deal of criticism of the headline approach to often complicated statistics and indeed the distortion of nuanced messages. We recommend that the British Polling Council should develop its work on informing journalists about the nature of proper polling and should try to educate editors and producers to translate such things as “margins of error” in less misleading ways. Personally, I am pretty sceptical about how successful such efforts may be. I think it much more likely that the mainstream media will, itself, reduce the prominence it gives to polls, particularly during elections.

My view was reinforced by our evidence from the BBC, ITV and Sky News, all of whom said they had moved away from highlighting polls in their coverage during the 2017 election campaign, while Deborah Mattinson, the founder of Britain Thinks, reported to us that,

“previous experience made a lot of newspapers feel that they had their fingers burned”, and that,

“there will probably be fewer polls”, in the future.

Perhaps the best summary of current attitudes was given to us by the Royal Statistical Society. It said that the 2015 election had created a considerable backlash against the polls from both the public and the media, which had been reinforced by the EU referendum and the 2017 election. It concluded that,

“there remains much debate about the usefulness of polls”.

If their usefulness is in doubt, if they have no great impact on individual voting decisions, if they are less prominently reported and if, as a result, our political leaders pay them less attention, surely we should all be less concerned than we have sometimes seemed to be about the impact of polls on our politics and indeed on our democratic process. If we can persuade our political leaders to be less mesmerised, I think we can afford to relax.

As I said earlier, frankly, I am much more troubled about the effect of digital media on politics—the second strand of our committee’s remit. Although it was frustrating, I think that we were right to recognise that this was far too large a topic to be covered properly in our reporting timeframe. However, we took some evidence about the relatively simple issue of the impact of the internet on the mainstream polling industry, where the net clearly makes it cheaper and quicker than before to conduct large surveys. For me, Professor Curtice summarised the present situation crisply by saying that being cheaper and quicker did not necessarily equate to doing polling well.

It was also useful that we succeeded in getting some interesting views on the way that digital news media and social media platforms have revolutionised the way we absorb and use information, and on the relevance of this revolution to our political conduct. We touched on the potential for misinformation in the political sphere, particularly when this can be algorithmically manipulated by those with an interest in malignly influencing any democratic process. The House will of course be aware of the vast number of international investigations into this kind of activity, but, again, we could touch only the surface of the global debate.

None the less, the report has a clear focus on the need for urgent government action to explore possible ways of regulating at least some parts of the digital universe. We emphasised that the use of social media to direct and distort democratic debate adversely was deeply concerning, and we recommended that, particularly with online advertising, the Electoral Commission should be given wider responsibilities. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has already said, in their response the Government have not reacted positively to any of the suggestions about increasing the role of the Electoral Commission but they have promoted the extensive role of the digital charter.

When he gave evidence to us, the Secretary of State, Matt Hancock MP, was energetically optimistic and determined to use the charter to find general solutions. The formal government response states:

“The Digital Charter is a rolling programme of work to agree norms and rules for the online world and put them into practice”.

I certainly do not challenge those good intentions but, once again, I am somewhat sceptical about success. When I look at the giant digital corporations based in California and embedded in the American financial and political system, I do not see an easy accommodation with the highly regulated, financially controlled political systems that we are familiar with in western Europe. I am, frankly, not surprised that when a Commons Select Committee travelled to Washington to hold hearings with the west coast corporations—at that time about fake news—the discussion was described by observers as a dialogue of the deaf. It may be that the big platforms themselves will take action, and there are some suggestions that this is beginning to happen; none the less, there needs to be much more international research and many more conversations and negotiations at a technical as well as a political level.

As I said, I regret that our committee was unable to take some of these issues forward. As your Lordships are aware and as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has repeated, we suggested to your Lordships’ Liaison Committee that another committee should be appointed with this specific remit. This proposal was not accepted for the current Session but I very much hope that it will be looked at again.

To conclude, I think that the House of Lords is particularly well placed to conduct a dispassionate and concerted investigation into the broader risks to democracy which threaten us in a world of digitally determined and volatile politics. The Lipsey committee has opened up an enormous agenda which we must return to.

Photo of Baroness Janke Baroness Janke Liberal Democrat 5:14 pm, 3rd July 2018

My Lords, I too pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for his leadership on the committee and also the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, for the role that she played in the closing stages, bringing things together and spreading harmony between the different views on the committee. I also pay tribute to the committee team for their very high-quality support. Many of us felt that we learnt a great deal from the material and the witnesses whom we met.

This report should lead us to think about the democratic process as a whole. It has already been mentioned that we have not done much on the digital world, but our democratic processes are very precious. If they are not to be susceptible to subversion and corruption and the risk of powerful and wealthy interests, we must look urgently at the influences on the democratic process.

As a politician, I know that many of us fear and are fascinated by polls. I remember one election when I was a councillor I was almost dreaming of leaflets that said “Liberal Democrats 6% in the opinion polls”. But the polls do not always take into account a regional perspective or the difference between city regions and travel-to-work areas. The referendum showed huge divergence of opinion across the country, and the national tendency to focus on what people think in London should be questioned.

As the report says, polls can be very influential, not least in the way that they are reported and the way that pressure can be exerted on politicians and electors. The lack of accuracy in the recent performance of the polling industry, which has been well documented, can also add to the lack of trust that we see many of our fellow citizens have about the ability of systems to deliver what they want and expect. This whole issue of trust is important, particularly in elections.

The important questions for me are: who is commissioning a poll and what are their interests, financial and otherwise? Who is paying for a poll? How transparent is the methodology, and how has it been validated in terms of consistency of approach, selection of participants and objectivity of analysis? Obviously, that comes down to how effectively our polling organisations are regulated.

As we see from the report, self-regulation of political polling is mainly carried out through the British Polling Council and, to some extent, the Market Research Society. The BPC is effectively an association. It has voluntary membership, voluntary staff and very little money. It does not and cannot express a view on the merits or otherwise of a particular poll. Transparency of funding is limited to printing the name of the client—no information on the sources of funding—and that is all the information it requires. The Market Research Society has a code of conduct that sets clear standards and has disciplinary procedures, but it does not cover all polling organisations. The chief executive recognised that activities conducted during a general election need much more careful monitoring.

The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, mentioned the French Commission des Sondages. That seems an interesting organisation in that its members are representatives from the highest legal and judicial bodies and it is funded through the French Ministry of Justice. Its job is to ensure that polls on electoral debates are not tainted by methodological error or manipulation which may affect the fairness of the election. The commission can also issue notices, “mises au point”, in the press when a poll does not meet the acceptable standard. A witness commented that sometimes this could lead to the polling organisation concerned or the director of the study to actually leave the poll sector. It might also lead to the media terminating contracts with targeted polling organisations. Seven of these mises au points were issued during the 2012 presidential election, but none in 2017. As the report states, the committee was not persuaded that this method offers any distinct advantage, but I would say that having government-backed regulation with a framework in law must be a big plus when it comes with effective powers to call out bogus polls, certainly when compared with the laissez-faire approach we have here at the moment.

We have already mentioned the media and our hope is that the findings and recommendations of the report will influence them, although I am inclined to agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, that I am not expecting great things to come from that. However, when we think of how we who stand for elections have to count our however much it is per head of population, how we have to have special printing on our leaflets and take them back in again or face prosecution if they are not correct, how every committee room meeting and telephone call has to be documented, we none the less have these big players in the polls that can be paid for by organisations and are not transparent, yet election law says absolutely nothing at all about them.

It has been pointed out already that we have not covered digital, but it seems that it is even more the case that our electoral law does not really see the wood for the trees. Much as I am pleased to see the digital charter being pursued, a close examination of our electoral law governing elections as we have it at the moment would be a very good thing.

The committee drew back from a ban on voting intention polls in the run-up to elections. The view that was moderated across the committee was that we should give polling organisations and the press a chance to better police themselves, and I hope that that will happen. The digital threat, which I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, will talk about in her speech, is absolutely massive in scale and is something which again I hope will be examined in much more detail as it relates specifically to elections and electoral law.

This report provides usThe Politics of Polling with a great detail of information about, insight into and understanding of polling and its influence. If adopted, the recommendations will certainly take us forward, in particular those which recommend further action. What is both obvious and alarming is the advancing sophistication along with intelligent means of persuasion and influence which are now at work and are unconstrained, thus running rings around our outdated electoral processes and law while at the same time its proponents take pleasure in boasting about how little these things affect their activities.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and my fellow members of the committee. I hope that the recommendations will be taken forward and that the Minister will be able to respond to the concerns which have been expressed, some of which are extremely urgent. Despite the disappointing response from the Government, I hope that we can find the means to take this work forward.

Photo of Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Crossbench 5:23 pm, 3rd July 2018

My Lords, the report of the Select Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media, of which I had the honour to be a member, was intended to address one pretty urgent but relatively well-defined topic and then one less well-defined topic, which to me is probably even more important. The urgent topic was to inquire into why the polling organisations provided estimates which in the event turned out not to be as accurate as had been expected in two general elections and the referendum campaign. That was very well defined. The less well-defined topic concerned the role of digital media in political campaigning. So, the remit was actually quite complicated and the Select Committee rather short-lived. For that reason, I am particularly grateful to our chair—the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey—the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and the clerks for handling a very complicated set of topics that did not entirely gel.

As the report makes clear, the committee concluded that, in the main, problems of recent political polls were probably not due to deficiencies in the conduct of polls by polling companies. That is solid and reassuring, but it is not a reason for complete satisfaction because we also reported that pollsters were encountering greater reluctance to respond, public confidence in what polls report was declining and there were considerable problems with the use of polling results by parts of the media.

The report’s recommendations address some of these issues. They include greater co-ordination between the industry, the professional body—the British Polling Council—and the Market Research Society, as well as between the Electoral Commission and media regulators. They are measured on proportionate suggestions and it is good to see that the Government are taking them fairly seriously. However, the recommendations do not address the wider issues raised by the spread and power of digital media that bear on political polling. I think that this is because we found the evidence patchy and difficult to assess in the brief time available. Indeed, in some cases witnesses suggested in evidence taken in private that matters were worse than they would, or perhaps could, say in public.

As the topic is vast, I will speak only about a few relevant matters. First, digital media include social media but not all digital media are social media. That is fundamental. Social media content is posted by individuals and controversy arises at two points. The first, better-known issue is that content posted by individuals may mislead or harm. Your Lordships’ House has had considerable opportunities to discuss some of the harm that can be done to individuals by certain uses of social media, such as fraud, cyberbullying, trolling, defamation and many more.

Of course, such action also goes on without the support of digital technologies and is usually criminalised. The difference and the difficulty with content posted on social media by individuals is that it may be posted anonymously, so sanctions are very hard to impose. There is a big debate to be had about the effects of social media use that targets individuals and the limits of arguments for permitting anonymously posted content. Anonymity is often supported with claims that it is needed for whistleblowing. That is incorrect; I think that confidentiality is much more relevant than anonymity to whistleblowing, if you want it to work. The second reason for anonymity is to report news under oppressive regimes. Thank God we are not facing that. This is hardly an argument for permitting anonymity, whatever the communication. The rise of anonymous posting is in itself a social phenomenon about which we need to think intensively and urgently.

The second way in which the use of social media can lead to harm is when posted content is organised to reach some but not others, thereby exerting some control over what individuals receive. Targeted advertising and messages may shape the content that individuals receive and can thereby add or limit content that supports—or, alternatively, seeks to undermine—a given cause. We did not obtain any solid evidence of the extent to which the content that individuals receive has been subject to control or influence. That was one of the big gaps in our evidence. Evidently, if we imagine a wide-open conversation of mankind, we can tell ourselves that the more voices are included, the better—for social life and democracy. However, if the spectrum of choices or positions that are heard is being shaped by other considerations and is often selected to support a cause, or limit support for another cause, then fundamental questions arise about the feasibility of democracy in the age of social media, and now to digital media that are not social media.

There is one more effect that social media have. Social media also monetise the data that individuals supply by using those data to organise and target advertising—by which, of course, the companies secure their revenue. Once again, there are legitimate reasons for concern. There is no reason to suppose that the content that is distributed by social media will secure any even or unbiased distribution of information or evidence to electors. In fact, we have good evidence of the contrary happening, although I think not yet evidence of the scale, the effects or the effectiveness with which this is happening. We just know from some empirical studies that there is uneven distribution of content. These, I think, are reasons why the report could not offer a more systematic account of the effects of digital media, especially social media.

However, digital media go further. Digital media include not just social media but other digital enterprises where the content is not posted by individuals; it is made available by organisations; created, we may say, by organisations; and, indeed, invented by organisations sometimes. Some of these organisations, of course, have clear political purposes, including, very frequently, undisclosed and sometimes malign purposes. It is often hard to detect the source or the allegiance of digital media. Here, a blogger may be indistinguishable from a journalist and probably calls himself or herself a journalist. Here, discipline, let alone credentials, may be wholly absent. Here, there is no editor. Yet we talk about digital media as though they consist of professional journalists who are disciplined by editors who seek to provide reliable content for others.

We talk about digital technologies as if they can be regulated. This may be the deepest of our difficulties. It is often said these days that what we need to do with digital media is to make sure that they are not treated as platforms but as publishers. If they were publishers they would, for example, be subject to the law on defamation, to take one simple example. As platforms, they are not. Nor, of course, are the individuals who post stuff anonymously subject to the law of defamation. This is an extraordinary escape from legal and regulatory discipline. Can it be remedied? Until about a year ago I thought so.

I think we face two major obstacles in addressing what digital media can do. One is the jurisdictional problem. It is extraordinarily easy for these technologies to shift their supposed location: they have very little fixed infrastructure and they can move, as we see by the fact that they pay so little tax. They can move their headquarters where they choose. If we seek to regulate them, it is quite likely that they will find more convenient jurisdictions in which to operate. The other reason why I suspect they cannot be regulated as publishers is that being a publisher is, as many of us know, pretty arduous. You have to read the stuff. There is too much, however, that is posted; they could not carry out the due diligence that is the daily work of publishers.

We talk as if we still lived in a world in which journalism can be reliably distinguished from self-expression, in which political advertising can be identified by seeing who paid the bill. I think that is given the lie by the fact that what we are actually regulating is the paid-for advertising of the political parties during election campaigns, a very narrow form of control when all sorts of other things are going on. I do not think it will prove viable for much longer to regulate only advertising by political parties during election campaigns and to turn a blind eye to all the other advertisers using the same technologies and spreading what they choose to spread. Political persuasion is now cheap and it can be done by those who have no business doing it. We are all aware that the mighty Facebook apparently did not realise that it was hosting political advertisements that had been funded from Russia. I think that is a warning call for all of us. If we are to retain democracy we have to find ways of detecting and ending practices of this sort.

Photo of Lord Smith of Hindhead Lord Smith of Hindhead Conservative 5:35 pm, 3rd July 2018

My Lords, it was an honour to serve on this Select Committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. It is good to see him back to full strength following his illness towards the end of the committee’s deliberations.

Recent political polling, as has already been mentioned, has been problematic, with three of the last seven elections being incorrectly called. The general election in 2015 was widely considered to be an embarrassment for the polling industry, and this poor standing was not enhanced by its performance at the 2017 general election and the referendum. What became clear to me during the process of taking evidence on polling was a certain amount of blame-gaming between the polling companies and the media. Polls taken during a campaign are effectively a snapshot of a horserace. There is no real way in which these snapshots can be tested, since the election has not yet taken place; and while the polling companies do state that there are margins of error and that often the sample sizes are not significant, these health warnings do not, or rarely, translate into how a poll is reported in the media.

As a result, when the polls have been proved to be incorrect following the finishing post of an election, the media will blame the pollsters for getting it wrong, and the pollsters will blame the media for not properly reporting the polls that have been published. In fairness to both the polling companies and the media, there is a recognition of these shortcomings. I hope that during future elections there will be improved accuracy of polls, with polling companies recognising that people’s social habits have changed, and that as a result, the methods used for taking polls will be updated or, perhaps more interestingly, we will revert to the old style of knocking on doors. The media need to take more care in reporting polls, making sure that sample sizes and margins of error are clearly indicated and explained.

What is the point of polling? That is a question that I frequently asked—a question that on several occasions proved to be the most difficult one for witnesses to answer. In fact, I am still not sure that some of them have worked out what the answer should be. Many witnesses referred to the fact that the exit polls had been very accurate in recent elections, but that should not really be such a surprise: exit polls are not a snapshot of the horserace but, of course, a shot of the finishing line, when people have voted, and they are taken from a much larger and UK-wide sample. I also asked, rather waspishly, what was the point of the exit poll, apart from giving Mr Dimbleby and others something to talk about from 10 pm on election night until 6 am when the outcome is known. Again, there seemed to be some hesitation, before a falling back on the need to educate and entertain.

However, the question to which I found it most difficult to establish a definitive answer was whether polls have an effect on the way that people vote. In other words, could the outcome of future elections be affected by misleading information, potentially distorting the democratic process? My own view is that some people like to be on the winning side, and could therefore be swayed by a poll indicating a particular party’s strength, while others might be persuaded to vote against a party, if a poll were to indicate a landslide, in order to create a balance. I should point out that this is merely my gut instinct: it was shared by several witnesses but not all. What was clear, however, was that there is no grand conspiracy involving polls being deliberately wrong or deliberately misreported to create such a hypothetical scenario.

I cannot express how important I think it is that our recommendation for a proper and enforceable framework for the regulation of polling be put in place. This is the challenge for the British Polling Council, media regulators and the Electoral Commission, since if polling continues to be inaccurate then there is a risk that future elections could be affected by misleading information, potentially distorting the democratic process.

The question of the effect of digital media on polling was perhaps the most interesting part of the Committee’s work, but as our report states, the issues raised were so significant that they stretched beyond our remit and we did not have the capacity to give due attention to them all, although I am very pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, covered many of the points in her excellent address. I do, however, know a lot more about manned and unmanned bots than I did previously and there is concern, rightly, that measures should be put in place to tackle online manipulation and disinformation.

I am pleased that our recommendation to co-ordinate a strong international response to tackle any attempt to maliciously interfere with the UK’s democratic process has been supported by the Government and that work is already under way with allies and partners to promote a collective response. This is the real challenge for the future.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour 5:40 pm, 3rd July 2018

My Lords, I add my thanks to our chair, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and our locum chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, both of whom were really exceptional and showed their vast experience in politics and Parliament. I also thank the staff, who were exceptional, and the witnesses, without whom we would not have had a report.

Like most, if not all, the Select Committee reports that we see, the report is a compromise. As the chair alluded to earlier, I argued very strongly for strong statutory oversight and regulation of political polling. But even the mild compromise that we put forward in the report has been rejected in the disappointing government response, which says:

“The Government believes that regulation is a matter for the polling companies”.

That was complacent when it was published but after the Bloomberg revelations it now appears criminally irresponsible. My noble friend Lord Rooker asked an Oral Question last Thursday in response to which the noble Lord, Lord Young—who is in his place—gave a hospital pass to the Minister who is here today and said that he would answer all the points, so I am looking forward to his answer to the point I am going to raise. It is just one, very serious issue. I hope it will convince the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, that there is at least one matter of real concern that needs to be dealt with.

The revelations by Bloomberg, after seven months of detailed investigation by a team led by Cam Simpson, which interviewed people involved in the polling companies and the hedge funds, show that there was a secret conspiracy between the polling companies and the hedge funds to manipulate currency levels in order to make billions of pounds, in which Nigel Farage appears to have been one of the conspirators. His recent denials on social media, if anyone has seen them, have become even more desperate, which convinced me that he was involved.

So how did all this start? During the Scottish referendum, the pound fluctuated with the rogue polls. There were two: YouGov and another one. As we discuss in our report, we were all concerned about the accuracy of polls as a result of that. But the hedge funds were looking rather differently. They saw the chance of making money out of these kinds of fluctuations when referenda take place. They thought, quite rightly, that the European Union referendum would be even more influential than the Scottish referendum in causing currency fluctuations. On the night of the European Union referendum poll, in the run-up to the result, a lot of us were astonished when Nigel Farage appeared on national television—and it was broadcast throughout the world—conceding defeat in that referendum. He was backed up by Joe Twynam from YouGov, who also predicted a remain victory. The headlines went nationwide and the pound went up to $1.50, which the hedge funds wanted, of course.

However, both Farage and YouGov apparently knew from their secret polling—purchased at substantial expense from four other polling companies: Survation, ICM, ComRes and BMG—that the actual result was entirely the opposite and it was going to be leave. So when the actual result was announced, the pound dropped and the hedge funds made a huge killing—billions of pounds—because they had this inside information that they had paid all that money for. So the hundreds of thousands—perhaps even millions—of pounds that they paid to the polling companies for these secret polls was in fact a real bargain investment for them.

The law on this is quite clear. It says that if,

“any section of the public”, is given information which is not publicly available, it is a criminal offence. So action needs to be taken in relation to that. Farage had inside information of the polls and he needs investigation. The polling companies were party to this and they need investigation. The hedge funds were party to this and they need investigation.

The Bloomberg report has been spread widely over social media but very little of it has received coverage in the mainstream media. I wonder why. Could the vested interests be twisting arms in relation to this? It is just a suggestion. Why has the Metropolitan Police not taken action? Does it need someone to draw its attention to it? Has it not heard of the Bloomberg report? It has been available to it. Why has it not taken action?

This brings me particularly to Nigel Farage. We seem to have become inured to Farage and some of his outrageous activities. This is one of many. There are also his connections with Russia and his misuse of European Parliament funds. Why is he being protected— indeed, projected—by the media? Why do his views receive so much coverage but some of his actions do not? I hope the Minister can deal with this in his reply, although I know it will not be easy and I would be happy to look forward to a detailed response in writing.

I also hope that the Select Committee might be reconvened to look at this—I say this to the chair and I have written to the Senior Deputy Speaker about it—because we did not know about it at the time so we could not ask questions about it, and of course the polling companies were not going to volunteer that kind of information. I am a member of the Liaison Committee, which is looking at the future structure of committees and is going to recommend, I think, that there should be the opportunity for committees to be reconvened if they need to look further at a matter into which they carried out an investigation.

This is a scandal, which can no longer be swept under the carpet. If it is, Parliament will be seen to be impotent and we will not have been carrying out our duty and our responsibility.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour 5:49 pm, 3rd July 2018

My Lords, I was not a member of the Select Committee. It is a very interesting report and I am glad that I have been able to listen to the speeches today. I have decided to follow up my Oral Question last Thursday for the very reason given by my noble friend Lord Foulkes—that the mainstream press has basically tried to ignore the issue that has been raised.

It is 9.40 pm on Thursday 23 June. Polls on the EU referendum close at 10 pm. The law means no exit poll information until the close of poll—or, more correctly, no exit poll information to any section of the public before close of poll. Does it matter? Is anyone interested? Well, thanks to the Bloomberg report entitled The Brexit Short: How Hedge Funds Used Private Polls to Make Millions”, which was published only on Monday last week, we know a lot more than we did.

I have no problem with people buying polling information, and as a non-lawyer I cannot see a law broken—although it appears that the issue of exit poll information getting to people before close of poll has not been tested in the courts. Information is gold and can be used for betting on horses as well as financial markets. Information about the market can also be used to change the market—and done in secret it poses questions. It is not insider trading but it can look like market manipulation.

Here we have a unique situation: a national referendum on the UK’s 44-year membership of the European Union with which our economy and social fabric are intertwined. The votes are taking place on 23 June and the counting starts to flow only in the early hours of 24 June. The world’s financial markets are open 24/7 wherever you are, so knowing what might have happened as people actually voted could be useful information for placing financial bets. It turns out that half a dozen pollsters, listed by my noble friend, were simultaneously working for hedge funds and, after 10 pm, sharing information with the media. None of this was disclosed by the pollsters, and, so far as I can see, none told the committee, either. It is not illegal—indeed, it is all legal and secret. So before 10 pm some pollsters had exit information which, given the fees they were charging, could be expected to be of high quality. According to Bloomberg, the fees were astronomical. We are talking about a £1 million fee to the pollsters.

I have never met Mr Farage, who is a person of importance in public life in the UK. He is clearly very brave. I remember the 2010 election when he had an aircraft accident and was incredibly lucky to get away with his life. He moves in circles above my pay grade and calculates his every move himself—or it is done for him. He is careful as a political leader with public statements, and, given that it was the 4 million UKIP votes in 2010 that terrified our former Prime Minister into agreeing an in/out referendum, he carries substantial influence in the UK and beyond our borders. He is both a City expert and an MEP. In other words, he is an opinion former of considerable substance to people in the UK and outside.

So I go back. It is 9.40 pm on 23 June, and there are 20 minutes to the close of the poll. Mr Farage is in the Sky studio recording his post-10 pm statement. It was a concession: “Remain will edge it” and “UKIP and I are going nowhere”. When he recorded this, Bloomberg claims he had information from Survation that leave, not remain, had won.

“In an interview with Bloomberg, Farage said he had learned of Survation’s results before making at least one of two public concessions that night, meaning there was a good chance he was feeding specious sentiment into markets”.

Indeed, behind the scenes pollsters were selling information to hedge funds that leave had won. This information could not by law be given to the public before 10 pm. Bloomberg research tells us that Mr Farage twice told the world that leave had likely lost, when he had information that leave had won.

As the polls closed, YouGov predicted that remain had won 52-48, and, according to page 4 of the Guardian on 25 June 2016—I have gone through my cuttings again—Mr Farage said remain had edged it because his,

“friends in the City”, were betting on the UK staying in. The Guardian also reported on that day, two days after the close of the poll, on the same page:

“Little attention was paid to a bigger poll of 10,000 people commissioned by Leave.EU founder and Ukip donor Arron Banks which turned to be on the money at 52-48 for leave”.

Bloomberg research tells us that hedge funds wanted data streamed throughout the day on 23 June, polling day. This could not by law be published. Many academics worked on these polls for the hedge funds, but declined to comment, citing non-disclosure agreements. Two books published since claim that Mr Farage learned about the unidentified financial services exit polls well before the close of the poll. They also say that Mr Farage learned of the result before recording his concession to Sky at 9.40 pm, which was used at 10 pm.

Mr Farage, Bloomberg claims, has changed his story—I have seen this on social media—at least twice about who he spoke to. He has claimed that his Sky concession was not a “true concession”, but he cannot explain why, 70 minutes after the Sky broadcast, he gave a further concession after 11 pm. Why would a man of his political substance on this crucial evening claim a remain win when he had information that leave had won? His words moved markets, and as the sub-heading of the Bloomberg report states:

“Private polls—and a timely ‘concession’ from the face of Leave—allowed the funds to make millions off the pound’s collapse”.

So the issue is not one of Mr Farage being misleading. He can as an elected MEP do that any time. He should not be the target—although I did go to Thanet in 2015 to stop him getting into the Commons, and was quite successful. No, the issue is that, as Bloomberg puts it:

“With one hand, the pollsters fed the public information that affected the outcome and moved the markets. With the other, they sold data privately to clients betting on market moves created by their public-facing polls”.

That is what should be investigated and regulated, because that is where the real rip-off comes about. It is not about individuals; it is about the open manipulation of the market by giving false information.

I do not think this could happen in a general election. It probably would not be the same, but the referendum was unique because there was not proper, effective exit poll. For reasons that have been explained by the pollsters, it is no possible to replicate the success of exit polls in a general election. This quite clear misuse of information by the pollsters to mislead the public and feed the markets, created by their own false moves, ought to be investigated.

Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 5:58 pm, 3rd July 2018

My Lords, from my position in this debate no one will expect me to unwrap the enigma that is at the heart of the representations that have just been made, so I must just replicate what was done by the noble Lord, Lord Young: there will be another hospital pass for the Minister in a moment. The urgency of the plea cannot be ignored. The case has been well made, and we look forward to how the Minister will help us to deal with this matter. I felt that other contributions to this debate wandered into the territory of the digital aspect of polling. The contribution by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, did this in particular. It leaves me recognising not that I or anybody should be responding but that notice has been given that this whole area needs urgent attention, and indeed the report says so. It says that Governments, regulators and platforms themselves are on the back foot and that urgent—the word “urgent” is used several times in the report—attention needs to be given to the subject.

I hope the Minister will be able to give us some assurance as to how this is to be taken forward. The report appeared in March this year, four or five months ago, and many things have happened since. Mention was made of Cambridge Analytica but that was only just happening at the time. Today we have heard about the Bloomberg report and many other aspects of the way that these platforms are behaving and all the activity that is happening. Heaven knows what will happen when the Mueller report on the possible interference of Russia in American electoral policies causes us to see the consequences of all that.

I mention digital not to discuss it but to recognise that the report indicates that that is where the action must now be. As far as the report itself goes, I learned a lot about the mechanics of making polls, the differentiation that is made between the variables and the volatility of public opinion, demography and the need for transparency, and lots of other things. Six out of eight speakers in this debate have been members of the committee, and they have faithfully taken us through the material contained in the report and given us a very good picture of the ground that it covers. The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, has helped us to get a whiff of some of the controversy and subterranean movements that were happening within the discussions of the committee. That made for more drama, and of course we have had a lot more since.

This is a very important report. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, on bringing it together in this concise way. Possibly he will recognise—indeed, this is mentioned in the report—that it goes only as far as the remit took the committee. Now we need action on where the real drama is—the digital area where polls can happen in particular ways and opinion can be moulded through particular technological devices. I look forward to getting some reassurance from the Minister on that. With that, I pass the rugby ball across the Dispatch Box to the Minister.

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 6:02 pm, 3rd July 2018

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for chairing the committee and to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, for stepping into the breach when needed. I further thank the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for taking the time to meet me yesterday to discuss his report. I also thank members of the committee for their timely inquiry and detailed work in examining such a complex set of issues. Lastly, I thank those who have contributed to this debate for highlighting a critical area of concern to the House and indeed to our democratic system of government.

With regard to the committee’s recommendations, as the Government said in our response to the committee, many of its initial recommendations are for the British Polling Council. The council is an independent body, so we feel that it is not for the Government to comment on the detail of the recommendations. What I might say, though, is that after the 2015 general election no one was more interested in addressing polling inaccuracies than the polling industry itself—because there are clear reputational and financial repercussions for the industry from inaccurate or poor-quality polling. We continue to support the independent self-regulation of polling by the BPC and judge that this model is most effective at addressing the risks, rather than additional regulation at the moment. I am sure that the BPC will look carefully at the committee’s recommendations.

I welcome that fact that during its investigation stage the committee took evidence from the Electoral Commission as the independent regulator of elections. While fully respecting its independence, the Government work closely with the commission on a wide range of election issues. We share a concern to ensure that our electoral systems are safe and secure. We do not believe that there is a case for extending the remit of the Electoral Commission to cover polling standards or to create a register of political polling. As I have already argued, self-regulation is the right way to ensure high-quality and transparent polling, with companies responding to existing market incentives rather than bureaucratic ones to improve the standard of their activities.

However, the committee also recommended ensuring that political advertising was clearly advertised, with “digital imprints” for online election materials. As we heard in the debate, imprints are familiar in relation to printed election leaflets and so on. I agree with the committee and several noble Lords who have spoken today that more work needs to be done in the digital world on this issue. So I am pleased to confirm that the Government will soon launch a consultation to consider how digital imprinting might be taken forward.

In their speeches, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and my noble friend Lord Norton also referred to an expanded role for the Electoral Commission, including the commission’s own report of 26 June. I have already spoken about some of the commission’s recommendations—for example, digital imprinting—and how we are addressing them. In reply to my noble friend, other recommendations, including greater transparency in digital campaign spending and greater sanctioning powers for breaches of electoral law, will be considered carefully by the Cabinet Office. We believe that these issues are important. However, we believe it is right to consider these together once we have the recommendations and lessons from the commission’s ongoing investigations and the current court case is completed.

The committee also made a series of recommendations for tackling the recent spread of online disinformation, including so-called “fake news”, and my noble friend Lord Smith addressed this in his speech. The Government take the issue of online manipulation and disinformation seriously, particularly where it may influence political debate. Our democracy is built on trust in electoral processes, as the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, reminded us, and on confidence in public institutions. Disinformation can undermine that trust. It is absolutely unacceptable for any nation to interfere in the democratic elections of another country. To date, we have seen no evidence of successful foreign interference in our democratic processes. However, we are not complacent, and the Government would take robust action should any evidence emerge that this has happened in the UK or that it is being attempted.

I agree with the committee that more work is needed, especially in the online space, to address the negative effects of disinformation and manipulation. As part of our digital charter, the Government have already taken steps to tackle the areas identified in the committee’s report and more besides. The first challenge is to understand more fully the scale and impact of disinformation. As part of this, we look forward to the DCMS Select Committee’s report this summer into fake news. Further, the Government are undertaking research over the summer, working with academics, media and representatives from the tech sector, better to understand the problem. Combined, this will inform the Government’s ongoing policy response, focused on education, technology, communications and ensuring that the right regulation is in place.

As part of our work on internet safety, on which we will publish a White Paper by the end of the year, we are looking at online advertising and microtargeting, and with ways to increase transparency. This is one of the most effective ways of ensuring that people have the information they need to make informed choices. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, neatly outlined in her speech why the committee decided that the digital space was beyond its abilities in the time available. We will take her points to heart. We agree that we will not be able to leave everything as it is for ever.

The noble Baroness talked about content on social media. The internet safety strategy that I mentioned just now is looking at exactly those issues, including anonymity. We agree with the need to tackle anonymous abuse and illegal content. As the noble Baroness said, this is a complex issue given the need also to protect human rights.

Targeted advertising is not just for elections. DCMS is looking at advertising in the round. Where does targeting become manipulation? Transparency is important, but not a full solution. The scale, source and impact are hard to assess. That is why, as I said, we look forward to the report of the DCMS Select Committee in the other place and, as I also said, we will be looking a lot of these issues over the summer.

As part of this, as the report rightly notes, the Government want to help citizens, both young and old, to build their digital literacy skills, because it is important that everyone can spot the dangers, think critically in an informed way about the content that they are consuming and understand that actions have consequences online, just as they do offline. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, highlighted the consequences of failure correctly to understand the significance of the margin of error. There is already a range of initiatives across the school curriculum to help with this. DCMS is working with the Department for Education and others to look at how we might build on them, as well as working with other institutions and organisations to reach a wider audience.

In partial answer, at least, to my noble friend Lord Norton, in the citizenship curriculum, pupils are today taught critical media literacy so that they can be helped to distinguish fact from opinion, as well as explore the freedom of speech and the role and responsibility of the media in informing and shaping public opinion. I will, however, take his remarks about qualifications and pass them to the Department for Education. We are working on this over the summer in our digital charter. One of the five key areas is education and guidance to ensure that citizens have the skills to tell fact from fiction. That was in the response to the report.

Emerging technologies also have great potential in helping the Government to tackle online manipulation and disinformation. We welcome steps taken so far by the industry—for example, removing the bots that disseminate this information—but more needs to be done to tackle the problem and to support other, smaller companies to address the issue. To do this, we need companies proactively to engage with us on emerging tech solutions.

Another way that the Government will safeguard citizens from online manipulation is to address the issue of personal data misuse by technology companies and platforms. As the Prime Minister said, the allegations related to Cambridge Analytica are very concerning, and it is absolutely right that the Information Commissioner is investigating this matter. She is committed to producing a report about the wider implications of her investigation, and we look forward to reviewing the findings.

I cannot avoid it—eventually, I have to come to the issue of Bloomberg. I was aware of what my noble friend said last Thursday as he handed the issue over to me. He is obviously a politician of great experience, and when he gives a hospital pass, you can be sure that you are hospitalised. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, I am back. My noble friend was right to say that private polls are not illegal. As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said, the law on exit polls is clear. The Representation of the People Act 1983 prohibits the publication of exit polls at UK parliamentary elections before the close of the poll, and this was applied for the EU referendum.

We do not comment on private arrangements between private polling companies and private hedge funds, but I would say that, if anyone has evidence that an act was illegal under either electoral or financial law or regulations, they should report it to the appropriate authorities. With reference to Mr Farage, I can only repeat what he was reported to have said to Bloomberg. He is reported to have said—rather inarticulately, but the gist is clear:

“That would have been, that would have been—for he and I to have spoken ahead of that 10 o’clock—would have been wrong at every level. Wrong for me, wrong for him, just would have been wrong”.

I am very reluctant to go any further. As I said, we do not comment on private deals.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

I respect what the Minister said. We are not asking him to comment on a private deal. There are two points to be made. First, if information is made available to a section of the public, the law is clear—that it is effectively being made available publicly—and the section of the public in this case was the hedge funds. So some breach clearly took place. Secondly, the evidence may be circumstantial, but it is overwhelming. Surely there must be some way that the Government can deal with it. It is not a private arrangement, it is a major issue whereby billions of pounds have been made by currency speculation because of a secret deal between the polling companies and the hedge funds. If the Government cannot take that up and do something about it, they are more impotent than I thought.

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The first thing is that the Government have to act according to the law. The law must be obeyed and if there is a breach of the law, the authorities should investigate it. When a private poll is commissioned, quite apart from why a particular poll should be regarded as more accurate than another, that is a different question to a section of the public. I am told that that point was made in the Bloomberg report to which I referred. If it has been shown that acts have taken place that were illegal but questionable, the Government should look at the law. If, however, acts have taken place that were contrary to either electoral or financial law, the authorities should look at it and complaints should be made by people who have evidence of that.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

One problem, as I understand it, is that this may not be something that the Department for which the Minister is directly responsible can deal with. Will he draw it to the attention of Ministers in the department which might be able to act?

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The first thing I will do is find out which department that is, and I will certainly draw the Bloomberg report to its attention. I assume it knows about it already, but I am very happy to do that.

Moving on, and going back to the report at hand, the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, asked whether the Government shared the concern that polling is being misreported and can be misleading. We agree with the British Polling Council that transparency is the best way to guard against polls being misleading—whether deliberately or accidentally. We therefore welcome its statement in May this year, which introduced a new requirement for its members to report the level of uncertainty when reporting estimates of voting intention. We are also encouraged that it will revise its guidance to journalists on the reporting of polls and will work with other relevant organisations to develop a suitable programme of training for journalists. Of course, broadcasters have a duty through Ofcom to ensure impartial reporting.

I have, however, taken on board the caveat to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey—that if at the next general election, the polls get it completely wrong again, all of us will have to revisit the issue.

In tackling all these issues, the Government are committed to working with international partners, industry and civil society. I welcome the recent discussion at the G7 summit about tackling disinformation, and look forward to continuing to work with like-minded partners.

I thank noble Lords again for their contributions and hope they can see that we are taking this issue seriously from some of the things we have said about what we are doing before the publication of the White Paper, particularly on the digital space, the internet safety strategy and the digital charter, along with the work we are doing this summer and the assurances I have given that the Cabinet Office is aware of these issues. We will consider the issues raised carefully, with a view to taking concerted action.

Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Chair, Political Polling and Digital Media Committee 6:20 pm, 3rd July 2018

I shall be very brief, or kick-off really will be threatened, certainly for participants in the next debate. I thank the Minister for his reply and in particular for the tone of that reply, which was in contrast to the official government response to the committee. I welcome in particular what he said about the British Polling Council, although I do not agree with all of it. Transparency on its own is not enough. That was the old BPC doctrine; the new doctrine goes further than that. For example, it staged an inquiry into the 2015 general election and, if self-regulation is to work, it must have an increased role. I take the Minister’s words to mean that the Government would in no way be opposed to that and, indeed, would welcome it, because that would secure the self-regulatory alternative that he and, on balance, I would prefer.

I thank all those who have participated in this debate and the kind words that were said about the committee and its work. It was comforting, as chairman, that most of the debate was about two issues—digital and social media and the Bloomberg affair—which were not covered by the committee. So I assume that we got the rest of it right.

Motion agreed.