Amendment 45B

Elections Bill - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 12:45 pm on 17th March 2022.

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Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts:

Moved by Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

45B: After Clause 25, insert the following new Clause—“Disclosure of status as a recognised third party(1) Section 89 of PPERA (Register of notifications for purposes of section 88) is amended as follows.(2) At end of heading insert “and third party disclosure of registered status”.(3) After subsection (4) insert—“(5) During a period in which a notification under section 88 is in effect and the Commission has entered details of the notification on the register in accordance with this section, a third party shall disclose its status as a recognised third party in a prominent place on the homepage of its website.(6) For the purposes of subsection (5), a reference to a third party's “website” means any part of a website relating to that third party which that third party has caused or authorised to appear.(7) Subsection (5) shall not apply where a third party does not have a website within the meaning of subsection (6).(8) A person commits an offence if, without reasonable excuse, they contravene subsection (5).””Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment requires registered non-party campaigners to disclose their status as such on a prominent place on their websites, so as to increase transparency for the public.

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, the purpose of this amendment is very simple. It is to increase transparency around third-party campaigners—not campaigning—by inserting a new clause entitled:

“Disclosure of status as a recognised third party”.

The amendment is not concerned with imprints on electronic or printed material, the complexities of which we shall wrestle with when we come to Clause 37 in Part 6. It is much simpler than that. I am extremely grateful to my noble friend and the Bill team for agreeing to address this issue now.

This amendment is confined to the contents of the homepage of a website—if it has one—of a registered third-party campaigning organisation. If the amendment were accepted, the homepage of that registered organisation would be required to carry a statement, along the lines of: “XYZ”—the name of the organisation—"is registered as a third-party campaigner under Part 6 of PPERA 2000”, or similar wording. This would alert a reader or viewer that the organisation was an active campaigner in the political sphere. It might mean that the viewer or reader might wish to make further inquiries before becoming more deeply engaged with this organisation.

Would such a provision bring about a sea change? Of course not, but it would serve for the small proportion of interested people as a way of increasing the transparency of what is going on. In these circumstances, it would be the desirable outcome fitting the purposes of this Bill as a whole. In my view, there is broad support for such a proposal. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that, after two minutes and 12 seconds, I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector), Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, yet again I support the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts. I share his view that it is good for charitable and voluntary organisations and campaign groups to be involved in civic activities. There should be full transparency around their involvement.

I do not disagree in any way with his suggestion. I would make it a condition of registration with the Charity Commission that an organisation should have a website. Certain things would have to be on that website, such as accounts and a copy of the organisation’s governing documents, precisely so that people could find out basic information about who was behind the entity. But why confine this to a website? Why not have it on a Facebook page or a Twitter handle, for example? I think the noble Lord is coming at an issue that is of growing importance and much bigger than this Bill.

I have started to talk to a number of the regulators, including the Fundraising Regulator, about what is an organisation. It is now quite common for campaign entities to be described as an organisation when they are nothing more than a Facebook page. They may be crowdfunded, but they do not have to produce accounts or show who or what their membership is. They do not have to show their governing documents. They are simply a presence. They can exert quite considerable influence in political campaigning—not necessarily as yet in election campaigning, perhaps, though I bow to others who have greater knowledge about this.

It is certainly a growing phenomenon in campaigning on political issue—one that I think regulators will have to start discussing. Indeed, I know that these discussions are beginning. I was talking to a regulator the other day about how they deal with a very prominent campaign, Insulate Britain, its fundraising activities on a platform and whether they were or were not compliant. This issue is starting to emerge. All sorts of people are having to work through it for the first time.

In this spirt, I ask what might seem a bit of an “anoraky” question of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots. He and I are entitled to be the anoraks on this subject in this House. Small and technical though the question may be, I think it is potentially of growing importance in the time to come.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots, for his introduction. As I am sure Members of this House are aware, new digital tools and channels have significantly changed the campaigning landscape in the UK during the last decade. This includes the use of organisational websites.

Unfortunately, concerns about the transparency of some websites that have been set up for political campaigning are starting to have an impact on public trust and confidence in campaigns. The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, seeks to address this further. We support his aim in doing so.

Following the 2019 general election, the Electoral Commission said that it had been contacted by people who had been concerned about misleading campaign techniques from across the political spectrum, including on websites. It received a large number of complaints, raising concerns about presentation, tone and content.

Transparency is incredibly important. We are pleased that this is addressed later in the Bill. In the Electoral Commission’s research after the 2019 election, nearly three-quarters of people surveyed agreed that it was important for them to know who produced political information that they saw online. Fewer than one-third agreed that they could find out who produced it. Again, it is important that the amendment talks about having the information on the website in a prominent position, not tucked away and hidden.

The Electoral Commission’s research also confirmed that transparency about who was behind political campaigns was important. Nearly three-quarters of those questioned—72%—agreed that they needed to know who produced the information they were looking at online, including on a website. Unfortunately, fewer than one-third—29%—agreed that they could find out who had produced that information.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, has said, this is a simple amendment, but we also agree this is an important small change. The more transparency we can provide when people are looking online during general or local elections, the better. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said it was a good thing that civic organisations are involved in electoral campaigning. Of course it is. I am sure we all agree with that. But that does bring issues around transparency as part of how campaigning on websites is managed. I do not imagine everyone is going to be deliberately hiding information, but perhaps they do not even think about the importance of providing it.

I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on this, because in some ways this is missed out from the discussions we are going to be having later on in Committee around digital imprints and improving the law on digital campaigning, which we will be dealing with further on. I would also be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on what the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said about expanding this to include other social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. We know that many of the problems with misinformation during election campaigning come from those social media platforms, but we also appreciate that actually it is very difficult, when they are not registered in this country, to manage that. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that as well.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee, Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee 1:00 pm, 17th March 2022

My Lords, again, this is a significant point that has been raised, and I am grateful to those who have spoken in this short debate. I hope I have come to assure the noble Baronesses, Lady Barker and Lady Hayman, opposite, that, setting aside the fact that some people’s misinformation is other people’s information, we know what we are talking about and that these are important areas.

I am grateful to my noble friend for proposing the new clause. As he has explained with commendable brevity, his intention is to require third-party campaigners to disclose their registered status in a prominent place on their website, where such a website exists. That was supported strongly by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. Registered third-party campaigners are already publicly listed on the Electoral Commission’s website—I will not venture to comment on the legibility of that website —and this Bill will introduce further requirements to ensure that any UK-based group spending over £10,000 registers with the regulator.

Further to this, I agree with noble Lords that it is worth emphasising that the digital imprints regime in the Bill—and we will come on to discuss that section later—will require campaigners, including recognised third-party campaigners sometimes referred to as “registered”, to declare who they are, as the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked, when promoting relevant online campaigning material to the public. So I can certainly go with the spirit of what was said by all noble Lords who have spoken.

On the specific amendment of my noble friend, while the Government entirely agree with the principle that the public should clearly be able to identify recognised third parties, I can reassure the noble Lord that the current rules, supplemented by new rules in the Bill, will provide for that. It would be good practice for this to happen. For many people, entry into a new organisation is via a website; not everybody is active on Twitter and Facebook, as the noble Baroness acknowledged. So I will want to consider further how we can ensure that this good practice will happen, because the fundamental point that has been made by noble Lords is important. In that light, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his proposed new clause.

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, I am grateful for the support for this amendment. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that I am proud to be an anorak with her, on this and other issues. She of course had a considerably more sophisticated approach to what should appear and how it might be covered. If this were to be developed, I had always thought that, since this is a fast-developing space, the Electoral Commission, having got this bridgehead, would then have some subsidiary code, which would be what it required third-party campaigners to provide somewhere on their website. I saw that as a second stage, having got this initial agreement. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. She is essentially right about public trust and confidence and the growing interest in and significance of third-party campaigning. I am grateful for her support.

My noble friend talked about the Electoral Commission website. I do not think it is very informative, and I do not think people should have to go to the Electoral Commission website to find out whether someone is a third-party campaigner or not. They should be able to see from the organisation itself. I am grateful for two-thirds of a loaf from my noble friend—or maybe half a loaf. I hope we are not going to fall back on “it would be good practice if”, because that is a let-out. I notice he used the words “good practice” in his summation, so I hope that he will reflect further; I, and I suspect others in the House, would feel that “good practice” did not go far enough in this small but important area. With that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 45B withdrawn.

Clause 26: Recognised third parties: changes to existing limits etc