Amendment 180A

Elections Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 28 March 2022.

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Lord Clement-Jones:

Moved by Lord Clement-Jones

180A: Clause 39, page 48, line 28, leave out “reasonably practicable” and insert “possible”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment replaces “if it is not reasonably practicable to comply” with “if it is not possible to comply” to ensure that the majority of electronic material is within scope of the bill’s intentions.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Digital)

My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendments 194A, 194B, 196A and 212C. I am a relative interloper on this Bill as I was not able to speak at Second Reading. Part 6 has taken a long time to come in Committee, but the digital aspects of election campaigns are nevertheless of great importance. For the convenience of the House, I thought it best to group all these digital amendments together, although they cover rather different aspects of digital campaigning.

Before I start, I will say that I was looking forward to a joust with the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, but I send my best wishes to him for a speedy Covid recovery. On the other hand, it is a pleasure to see the versatile noble Earl, Lord Howe, taking part in these proceedings.

Digital campaigning is of growing importance. It accounted for 42.8% of reported spend on advertising in the UK at the 2017 general election. That figure rose in 2019; academic research has estimated that political parties’ spending on platforms is likely to have increased by over 50% in 2019 compared to 2017. As the Committee on Standards in Public Life said in its report in July last year, Regulating Election Finance:

“Research conducted by the Electoral Commission following the 2019 General Election revealed that concerns about transparency are having an impact on public trust and confidence in campaigns.”

In that light, the introduction of digital imprints for political electronic material is an overdue but welcome part of the Elections Bill.

The proposed regime as it stands covers all types of digital material and all types of appropriate promoter. However, a significant weakness of the Bill may exist in the detail of where an imprint must appear. In its current form, the Bill allows promoters of electronic material to avoid placing an imprint on the material itself if it is not reasonably practicable to do so. Instead, campaigners could include the imprint somewhere else that is directly accessible from the electronic material, such as a linked webpage or social media profile or bio. The evidence from Scotland’s recent parliamentary elections is that this will lead in practice to almost all imprints appearing on a promoter’s website or homepage or on their social media profile, rather than on the actual material itself. Perhaps that was encouraged by the rather permissive Electoral Commission guidance for those elections.

Can this really be classed as an imprint? For most observers of the material, there will be no discernible change from the situation that we have now—that is, they will not see the promoter’s details. The Electoral Commission also says that this approach could reduce transparency for voters if it is harder to find the imprint for some digital campaign material. It seems that

“if it is not reasonably practicable to comply” will award promoters with too much leeway to hide an imprint. Replacing that with

“if it is not possible to comply” would ensure that the majority of electronic material is within the scope of the Bill’s intentions. What happened to the original statement in the Cabinet Office summary of the final policy in its response to the consultation document Transparency in Digital Campaigning in June last year? That says:

“Under the new regime, all paid-for electronic material will require an imprint, regardless of who it is promoted by.”

There is no mention of exemptions.

The commission says it is important that the meanings of the terms in the Bill are clear and unambiguous, and that it needs to know what the Government’s intent is in this area. In what circumstances do the Government really believe it reasonable not to have an imprint but to have it on a website or on a social media profile? We need a clear statement from them.

As my noble friend Lord Wallace said, Amendments 194A and 196A really should be included in the “missed opportunity” box, given the massive threat of misinformation and disinformation during election campaigns, particularly by foreign actors, highlighted in a series of reports by the Electoral Commission, the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, as well as by the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, on which I sat. It is vital that we have much greater regulation over this and full transparency over what has been paid for and what content has been paid for. As the CSPL report last July said,

“digital communication allows for a more granular level of targeting and at a greater volume – meaning more messages are targeted, more precisely and more often.”

The report says:

“The evidence we have heard, combined with the conclusions reached by a range of expert reports on digital campaigning in recent years, has led us to conclude that urgent action is needed to require more information to be made available about how money is spent on digital campaigning.”

It continues in paragraph 6.26:

“We consider that social media companies that permit campaign adverts in the UK should be obliged to create advert libraries. As a minimum they should include adverts that fit the legal definition of election material in UK law.”

The report recommends that:

“The government should change the law to require parties and campaigners to provide the Electoral Commission with more detailed invoices from their digital suppliers … subdivide their spending returns to record what medium was used for each activity” and

“legislate to require social media platforms that permit election adverts in the UK to create advert libraries that include specified information.”

All those recommendations are also contained in the Electoral Commission report, Digital Campaigning: Increasing Transparency for Voters from as long ago as June 2018, and reflect what the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation set out in its February 2020 report on online targeting in specifying what it considered should be included in any such advert library. The implementation of these recommendations, which are included in Amendment 196A, would serve to greatly increase the financial transparency of digital campaigning operations.

In their response to the CSPL report, the Government said:

“The Government is committed to increasing transparency in digital campaigning to empower voters to make decisions. As part of this, we take these recommendations on digital campaigning seriously. As with all of the recommendations made by the CSPL, the Government will look in detail at the recommendations and consider the implications and practicalities.”

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee report last December followed that up, saying at paragraph 216:

“The Government’s response to the CSPL report on electoral finance regulation provides no indication of which of its recommendations (not already included in the Bill) the Government is likely to adopt … prioritise for consultation or when or how the Government proposes to give legislative effect to recommendations that will not be included in the Bill. The Government should give clarity on its next steps in this regard.”

So the time has come for the Government to say what their intentions are. They have had over six months to do this, and I hope they have come to the conclusion that fully safeguards our democracy. I hope the Government will now see the merits and importance of those amendments.

On Amendment 194B, the CSPL also recommended changes to electoral law regarding foreign actors. We had some discussion about this issue during the debate on Amendment 35. The CSPL says at paragraph 6.29 of its report:

“As we discuss in chapter 4, the rules on permissible donations were based on the principle that there should be no foreign interference in UK elections. However, the rules do not explicitly ban spending on campaign advertising by foreign individuals or organisations.”

It specifically refers to the Electoral Commission’s Digital Campaigning report, which said:

“A specific ban on any campaign spending from abroad would … strengthen the UK’s election and referendum rules.”

It quoted the DCMS committee’s February 2019 report, Disinformation and “Fake News”, which said that

“the UK is clearly vulnerable to covert digital influence campaigns”,

and the Intelligence and Security Committee report, which stated that if the commission

“is to tackle foreign interference, then it must be given the necessary legislative powers.”

These are powerful testimonies and recommendations from some very well respected committees. As a result, the CSPL recommended:

“In line with the principle of no foreign interference in UK elections, the government should legislate to ban foreign organisations or individuals from buying campaign advertising in the UK.”

This is very similar to a recommendation in the Electoral Commission’s Digital Campaigning: Increasing Transparency for Voters report of 2018, which I referred to earlier. In response, the Government said: “We are extending this”—the prohibition of foreign money—

“even further as part of the Elections Bill, to cover all third-party spending above £700 during a regulated period.”

However, the current proposals in the Bill have loopholes that foreign organisations can readily use, for instance through setting up multiple channels. A foreign actor could set up dozens of entities and spend £699 on each one—something very easy for online expenditure.

Amendment 194B would ensure that foreign entities were completely banned from participating at all and would make absolutely certain that the Government’s intentions were fulfilled. Again, I hope that the Minister will readily accept this amendment as strengthening the Bill against foreign interference.

Turning to Amendment 212C, tackling societal harms caused by misinformation and disinformation is not straightforward, as our Joint Committee on the Online Safety Bill found. However, consistent with the report of the Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies, Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust, chaired by the much-missed Lord Puttnam, we said:

“Disinformation and Misinformation surrounding elections are a risk to democracy. Disinformation which aims to disrupt elections must be addressed by legislation. If the Government decides that the Online Safety Bill is not the appropriate place to do so, then it should use the Elections Bill which is currently making its way through Parliament.”

There is, of course, always a tension with freedom of expression, and as we emphasised in our Joint Committee, so we must prioritise tackling specific harmful activity over restricting content. Apart from the digital imprint provisions, however, the Bill fails to take any account of mounting evidence and concerns about the impact on our democracy of misinformation and disinformation. The long delayed report of the Intelligence and Security Committee on Russian interference of July 2020 was highly relevant in this context, stating:

The UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and political influence operations and must therefore equip itself to counter such efforts.”

Protecting our democratic discourse and processes from hostile foreign interference is a central responsibility of the Government. The committee went on, very topically, to say:

“The links of the Russian elite to the UK—especially where this involves business and investment—provide access to UK companies and political figures, and thereby a means for broad Russian influence in the UK.”

It continued:

“We note—and, again, agree with the DCMS Select Committee—that ‘the UK is clearly vulnerable to covert digital influence campaigns.’”

The online harms White Paper published in April 2019 recognised the dangers that digital technology could pose to democracy and proposed measures to tackle them. Given the extensive regulatory framework being put in place for individual online harms in the Online Safety Bill, newly published last week, why are the Government reluctant to reaffirm the White Paper approach to elections and include it in this Bill? The Government responded to our Joint Committee report on this issue last week by saying that they agreed that misinformation and disinformation surrounding elections are a risk to democracy. However, they went on to say:

“The Government has robust systems in place that bring together governmental, civil society and private sector organisations to monitor and respond to interference in whatever form it takes to ensure that our democracy stays open, vibrant and transparent”

—fine words. They cite the Defending Democracy programme, saying:

“Ahead of major democratic events, the Defending Democracy programme stands up the Election Cell. This is a strategic coordination and risk reporting structure that works with relevant organisations to identify and respond to emerging issues”.

So far, so vague. They continue:

“The Counter Disinformation Unit based in DCMS is an integral part of this structure and undertakes work to understand the extent, scope and the reach of misinformation and disinformation.”

The Government, however, seem remarkably reluctant to tell us through parliamentary Questions or FoI requests what this Counter Disinformation Unit within the DCMS is. What does it actually do? Does it have a role during elections? Given that government response, it seems clear that the net result is that the Elections Bill has, and will have, no provisions relating to misinformation and disinformation.

Amendment 194B is a start and is designed to prevent one strand of disinformation, akin to the 640,000 Facebook posts that led to the Capitol riots of 6 January last year, which not only has immediate impact but erodes trust in future elections. The Government should pick this amendment up with enthusiasm but then introduce something much more comprehensive that meets the concerns of the ISC’s Russia report and tackles online misinformation and disinformation in election campaigns.

I would of course be very happy to discuss all these amendments and all the relevant issues with Ministers between Committee and Report stages.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green 7:15, 28 March 2022

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, on an extremely full exposition of his amendments, which makes me almost superfluous but I will add something anyway. The Minister is leaving, but I just say to him that the Government appear to want to get this excruciatingly poor Bill through before Prorogation. If they are going to do that, will they please accept some of the more sensible amendments so that the Bill contains some useful stuff that we can all use as politicians to make the whole process much fairer? The growing complexity of digital marketing makes online campaigning a major battleground for political dirty tricks; we all want to avoid that.

In 2019, political parties used data from Experian Marketing Services and Facebook to target specific campaign messages to individual voters. They also used Facebook services that allow advertisers to find customers similar to an existing group of customers. This allows targeting by age, location, interests, likes and a whole host of other personal data. The big risk of this, of course, is that political parties can promise anything to all people in a way that they could not before. We have politicians lying to our faces—the Prime Minister stands up and lies at the Dispatch Box. We all see him doing it; some of care and a lot of us do not. We can see it; it is happening. Now, however, there is an industry that would allow politicians to target their distortions of the truth on specific groups of people. The same candidate could target Brexit supporters with a pro-Brexit message, remain supporters with an anti-Brexit message and everyone else with a message saying that Brexit is a waste of time and we should all be getting on with more important things.

The threat to the integrity of our democracy is obvious; this is something we really do have to tackle. We need to move on with the times and be a bit more modern about accepting that we have a problem. There is a real risk that whichever party uses dodgy digital marketing in the most egregious and misleading ways will be most likely to win an election. We are at risk of a digital arms race in which truth and integrity are impediments to getting elected. I urge the Government to pick up at least some of these amendments, which would make our whole political system much clearer, cleaner and fairer.

Photo of Baroness Wheatcroft Baroness Wheatcroft Crossbench

My Lords, I support these amendments, so comprehensively introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, in particular Amendment 194B. It is clearly right that overseas actors should be specifically banned from interfering in our political process and publishing propaganda online. It is relatively easy for them to do that.

Clause 39 imposes a duty on those publishing election-related material to make clear the source of that material. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, has made clear that this is a loophole big enough for most people to get through; it is simply not enough. It would be naive in the extreme to assume that those who wish to influence our elections are not wily enough to circumvent these sorts of stipulations, and neither are they likely to be put off doing so by the fact that they would be breaking British law, as Amendment 194B would insist.

The bots that churned out online propaganda ahead of the referendum amounted to interference in our electoral process on an industrial scale. We cannot say categorically whether they affected the result, but we know they tried. Yet the Government have neither investigated what happened nor done anything that we can see to prevent such online terrorism. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, put it, “So far, so vague”.

As others have mentioned, the Russia report from the Intelligence and Security Committee was highly critical of the Government’s failure to examine what had happened and to take action, yet the Government continue to resist anything tangible. That is why a cross-party group of MPs and Peers, of which I am one, has filed a legal action to try to force our Government to investigate and protect the integrity of our electoral system. That action has today been filed with the European Court of Justice. It will, of course, take a while before it produces anything, and I hope that in the meantime the Government take action that would render such legal action—to prompt them into doing what they should do—unnecessary.

Does the Minister believe that Clause 39, even with this amendment, will prevent malign interference in the UK’s electoral process? Does he really believe that what is being done quietly is having any effect at all? Does he not think that the time has come, if the Government are taking real action, for us to be told about it and for the need for it to be enshrined in law?

Photo of Lord Mann Lord Mann Non-affiliated

My Lords, I would have rather welcomed being targeted by a foreign Government in the various elections I stood in. It would have been relatively straightforward to have turned that around—I would have used more traditional methods of communication—and exposed it. But I am not quite sure how we would be able to take North Korea, Mr Putin or whoever through the courts in this country for any remedy or preventive action. Donations, of course, are an entirely separate issue, but these amendments are on electronic communications.

I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and I will respectfully give a different point of view on his Amendment 180A, which is very well intentioned but rather misses the point about transparency and where the digital age is going. The concept of putting in an imprint to demonstrate who has put a particular advert or piece of propaganda out there is very valid.

It is quite feasible that I will not be standing at the time of the next general election, unless some odd mayoralty is formed that I suddenly decide I should run for. I have had my day fighting elections. But if I was, I would think about how I could harness the latest technology so that people’s clothes would carry my name and slogan. Particularly at football matches, you regularly see straplines that change every few seconds; I would have them at strategic locations, firing out different messages. If others were doing so at prime locations and I had sufficiently robust funds to allow me to join in with using those advertising methodologies, I would certainly look to do that.

When it comes to proper transparency, it seems to me that the concept of, say, an agent having to have everything declared precisely on a website is far more useful for the efficacy of elections than anything that would anticipate that, for example, the latest high-tech jumper I am wearing, advertising a candidate, could somehow be spotted to have on it something that could then be used to hold me to account. It seems to me that some of the tried and tested methods could be more useful for the intention—here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones—of ensuring that there is maximum transparency and legality in elections. I would be interested in the Minister’s views on whether this section of the Bill is sufficiently future-proofed for where technology will be next week, never mind next year.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I will briefly intervene, having heard the noble Lord, Lord Mann. It is important to understand that, as far as Clause 39 goes, the amendment talks about making sure there is some way of identifying the message you have. Of course, if it says “Vote for Mann” it might be a reasonable presumption that it had been sponsored by somebody supporting the candidacy of Mr Mann, as it would be. But the evil, if I can put it that way, of much social media advertising is that it is not clear what it is doing. You have negative campaigning as well as positive campaigning. It is not necessarily done in a way that makes it obvious that what you are reading is not a news item or a fashion page—to pick up the point from the noble Lord, Lord Mann—but it nevertheless conveys an important message to a particular category of reader. So I ask the Minister to address the substance of my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones’s Amendment 180A.

“Reasonably practicable” has already been completely circumvented in Scotland, so we know it does not work there. It is inconceivable that whatever lessons were learned by campaigners in Scotland will not immediately transfer to campaigns across the United Kingdom. It is a good challenge for the Minister to explain what is wrong with “possible” and maybe, behind that, to say whether the Government have decided not to implement the clear advice of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Electoral Commission, both of which, I respectfully suggest, might be offering advice that is slightly more researched than that of the noble Lord, Lord Mann.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones for the amendments he has brought forward with a great deal more expertise about this new dimension of campaigning than I have. I first learned about this new dimension of campaigning when I looked into post-Soviet Russian politics and discovered the new term “political technologies”, used by campaigners working for Putin to mould public opinion and to try to interfere in other countries, using the newly available digital media to help their efforts.

Of course, this also costs money. As we have seen in the United States, the use of digital media, data mining and negative campaigning—as has already been mentioned —is one way in which, unfortunately, American politics is being debased. We do not want that to happen in Britain.

There are those close to this Government who are good political technologists and we have seen some of their work already. They also have access to a great deal more money than any other political parties, and if we want to hold future elections on anything like a level playing field, we need some tight rules to cope with this rapidly changing area. Part 6 at present starts down that road but, as we have heard, it is weak and has not taken account of recommendations from the CSPL and the Electoral Commission. I very much hope that the Minister will take back that it needs to be strengthened.

We all recognise that we are now up against a very tight deadline for this Bill in this Session. I have said on a number of occasions since the Bill first reached this House that it is better to get it right than to rush it through. If it has to be held over or has to start again, it is better to do that than to leave a deeply unsatisfying Bill with opposition parties feeling that they have been misled and cheated, with the rules biased in a number of ways against them.

I say to the Minister: please take this back as a matter of urgency. This is an area which, as we all know, contains a number of new threats to democracy from the way in which our younger generation, in particular, now live online, and we need to have some strong safeguards.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 7:30, 28 March 2022

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for his excellent introduction to a range of amendments. We should not simply think that negative campaigning and threats to our election process are new things as a result of new technology. These sorts of things have been going on for many years. Certainly, I have seen a political party put one leaflet down one street saying one thing and then another down another street saying the complete opposite.

All of these things are addressed effectively through effective transparency, with people knowing exactly where this information comes from. I think the noble Lord, Lord Mann, is right there. That is why it is important that the Minister specifically addresses the point in Amendment 180A. I am worried that we spot a problem, understand the issue, say we are addressing it in legislation but then create a loophole where everyone can escape.

I am grateful for Adobe sending me its briefing on this issue. It basically says that we have the technology and there is a standard being developed for content authenticity initiatives—CAI—which, if adopted, and it is being adopted, can address this issue. I do not understand why we have this loophole. Technology can ensure that the imprint of who has created and published the content is there. I do not see the circumstances where it is not possible. Even if it is not possible on the face, they now have the technology to point out easily how you find it. Therefore, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones says, I do not see why we have this wording of “not reasonably practicable”. I am not even sure I would agree that it is not possible. It is possible—the technology is there so we should do it.

Noble Lords have referred to the Russia report. We said at the beginning of Second Reading—and I am not going to make a Second Reading speech—that the Bill is a missed opportunity. It could have embraced a lot more and the issues identified in that report will need to be addressed in future legislation as they have not been addressed here.

I hope the Minister can specifically address the issue in Amendment 180A; I particularly hope she has seen the briefing from Adobe and the industry which says that this is possible. They have created a standard which they expect everyone to adopt—in fact, Facebook, Twitter and others are all adopting it. If they are adopting it, can we not use the legislation to ensure that it becomes compulsory for all political actors to comply with this legislation and that we do not have a loophole?

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for a very thorough piece of scrutiny of this part of the Bill. I think it would be useful if between now and Report we had a meeting with him and other interested parties to discuss this further and also address some of his very in-depth speech that I will not answer this evening because we might be here all night. We will get answers to him very quickly so that we can discuss them when we have that meeting.

The noble Lord, Lord Mann, and many others are right: this is fast moving. What we see today is probably not what we will see in five years’ time, and we need to future- proof. I think we all understand that.

There were some very specific questions that I will answer upfront because that will give some context to what else I am going to say. First, on digital imprints, it is important that “reasonably practicable” is understood. It should be read as commonly understood; “reasonably practicable” is commonly understood. The Electoral Commission and the police will need to interpret this phrase in context in the course of their enforcement of the Bill. The statutory guidance will provide further details on the location of this imprint and what is required. There will be further guidance on this.

A number of noble Lords spoke about the Intelligence and Security Committee and said that political adverts should include an imprint. The Government’s digital imprint regime delivers the ICS’s recommendation to introduce a requirement to add an imprint on digital paid-for political advertising. As digital campaigning is not confined to election periods or geographical boundaries, the regime is intended to apply all year round, UK-wide, and regardless of where in the world content is promoted from. Following a conviction or a civil sanction, the courts can make an order or the Electoral Commission may issue a notice to anyone, including social media companies, requiring them to remove or disable access to infringed content. Failure to comply with a notice or order would be a criminal offence.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, brought up the issue of targeting messages. Targeting messages at voters is a legitimate activity that allows campaigners to maximise their resources and target their message at the right audience. All campaigners must comply with direct marketing and data protection laws when using personal data in their campaigning, but it is a legal activity.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

This is about transparency, so that the public can know that somebody is saying different things in different places—that is all.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

Understood. Listening to the debate, two words have come out, and we will reflect those. One is “safeguarding”, and one is “transparency”, as the noble Baroness has just said. Those two things are important as we move forward with the Bill.

The provisions in Part 6 of the Elections Bill will introduce one of the most comprehensive “digital imprint” regimes operating in the world today; that is the positive thing. However, it is crucial to take a proportionate approach to the scope and application of the regime to ensure that it is enforceable and to avoid stifling political debate. It is for this reason that the Government do not support the noble Lord’s amendments, as we consider that they would introduce unreasonable burdens on campaigners and therefore risk restricting freedom of expression.

Due to the way some digital platforms are designed, it will not always be practical to display the imprint as part of the material itself—for example, in a text- based tweet where there is a strict character limit. Amendment 180A would not give campaigners the much-needed level of flexibility and therefore risks unreasonably hampering their ability to campaign on particular digital platforms. I have listened to the points made about new technology coming out; it is important that we keep an eye on that, so that if that is possible in the future—

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

I am not asking my noble friend to reply this evening, because this is a complicated question, but I think I heard the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, say that the digital material would not have to have an imprint on itself and that it could refer you by a link to another page. If that is the case, we could have a situation where if you are retweeting things, you may get even further away from the reality of what is happening. It was also not clear to me, because of the Government’s reaction to an earlier amendment, whether a third-party campaigner had to disclose on their home page that they were registered as a third-party campaigner. I am not sure that I have the links quite right here. If the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, was correct, perhaps my noble friend could unpick that when she writes to us after today. I am not asking her to reply to that now.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I take note of that and will make sure that my noble friend understands the unpicking of all of that.

I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that this flexibility does not amount to allowing campaigners to place the imprint wherever they want. Under our regime, campaigners would be required to ensure that their imprint is displayed as part of the material and only when this is not reasonably practical may the imprint be located elsewhere—as my noble friend said—but it must still be directly accessible from the campaigning material. Those who do not comply will be committing an offence.

Turning now to Amendment 194A, the Government are mindful that transparency requirements on campaigners remain proportionate and that they are not unduly discouraged from participating in public life. Candidates and registered campaigners already have to detail their electoral spending in their returns to returning officers and the Electoral Commission and provide invoices for payments over a certain amount. Invoices provided to the Electoral Commission are then made available for public scrutiny. The practicality and impact on campaigners of requiring them to submit more detailed invoices or receipts about digital activity would need to be looked at very carefully, as the detail provided is determined by the suppliers themselves and not necessarily by the recipient.

Similarly, in relation to Amendment 196A, the Government welcome the steps already taken by many social media companies in this area. We continue to keep transparency rules under review, but given the steps taken already by platforms such as Facebook, we do not propose to mandate centralised libraries of digital political content. Requiring all campaigners promoting paid political advertising to themselves maintain a library of those adverts with specified information for at least 10 years risks adding a significant and unreasonable administrative burden on campaigners, particularly smaller groups that rely on volunteers or groups that are established only for the lifetime of a particular election campaign. We know that some small campaigns happen and, in our opinion, keeping a library for 10 years would be unreasonable.

Amendment 194B seeks to ban foreign actors from promoting political advertising—an issue a number of noble Lords brought up—within scope of the digital imprint regime targeted at the UK electorate. With regards to the noble Lord’s proposal to outlaw advertisement of paid electronic material, as set out in Clause 40, by non-UK residents and entities, he will be reassured to hear that electoral law already sets out a stringent regime of spending controls to ensure that only those with a legitimate interest in UK elections can campaign. Measures in Part 4 of the Elections Bill will stop ineligible foreign spending on electoral campaigning by restricting third-party campaigning above a £700 de minimis threshold to UK-based or otherwise eligible campaigners. This includes spending on any digital advertising that is seeking to encourage UK electors to vote in a particular way. Anyone who incurs expenditure in contravention of this will commit an offence. Therefore, this will by nature prohibit much of the advertising that the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, has identified in his Amendment 194B. The noble Lord is shaking his head; this is something we can discuss further at our meeting.

Amendment 194B also contains a proposal to ban the promotion of other electronic material, as set out in Clause 42, by non-UK residents and entities. It is important to note that Clause 42 applies only to a list of types of electoral entity, such as candidates, registered political parties and third parties. This approach is aimed at ensuring that members of the public are able to express their political opinions online without requiring an imprint on election material that is not a paid-for advert. This list of electoral entities is almost entirely made up of UK-based entities, and therefore the noble Lord’s amendment in this area would have little effect—the one exception being individual registered overseas electors who have registered as third-party campaigners. The Government cannot support any amendment that would seek to silence UK overseas electors as they are a legitimate part of our democracy. For these reasons, the Government ask the noble Lord to withdraw this amendment.

Amendment 212C would create a new offence which would seek to criminalise any false statements made by candidates and campaigners on the integrity of the electoral process. We have a tradition of robust political debate and freedom of speech in British democracy. We have been clear in our position that arguments which can be rebutted by rival campaigners and a free press as part of the normal course of political debate should not be regulated. Our electoral regulation should empower voters to make those decisions but not dictate them.

The Government recognise that disinformation and misinformation is an ongoing challenge, and that is why there are robust systems in place that bring together governmental, civil society and private sector organisations to monitor and respond to interference in whatever form it takes to ensure that our democracy stays open, vibrant and transparent. We recognise that there is a role for regulation—for example, as provided by the clarification of undue influence in Clause 8, which would include deceiving voters in relation to the administration of an election. However, any regulation needs to be carefully balanced with the need to protect freedom of expression and the legitimate public debate which is also crucial to a thriving democracy.

Generally, any new offence requires very careful consideration and development, and assessment of its impact. Clarity of language is crucial to ensure that an offence is proportionate, achieves its intended impact and does not unduly limit free speech. For example, the noble Lord’s proposed amendment includes no reference to intent. Therefore, the new clause as drafted could criminalise unintentionally false statements and could therefore be very broadly applied. This clause could also discourage people from raising legitimate concerns where they exist, for fear of the statement being considered false, or lead to a flurry of vexatious claims and counterclaims.

Overall, this clause would infringe on the freedom of speech of campaigners and candidates. Because of this, I respectfully urge the noble Lord not to press this amendment. In saying that, I repeat that we will read very carefully all noble Lords’ speeches on this subject, and we will offer a meeting to those who are interested. We will follow up with a letter covering anything that I have not managed to answer.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Digital) 7:45, 28 March 2022

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft. I am sure that we all wish her well in her lawsuit, which is clearly being taken for all the right reasons. I thank the Minister for her response, particularly her invitation to discuss this further, but the actual response she gave today did not score that many runs as far as I was concerned.

If you look at the intent behind all these amendments —prohibiting foreign interference, greater transparency over digital advertising, expenditure and content, preventing misinformation and disinformation—these are all things we should be striving for to make sure that we have a more vibrant democracy and to prevent damage to it. The Government have pushed back on them, and I am afraid that this is really not acceptable in this day and age. If I could respond to what the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said about digital, there is a difference. We have seen the power of the algorithm to amplify in a really unhelpful, dangerous and sometimes harmful way as far as individual harms are concerned, and it is true of democracy at large as well.

I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Mann. He is clearly an extremely creative campaigner, and walks around with an electronic sweater that advertises—or used to advertise—his electoral qualities. We have to be alert to new forms of campaigning, but we are where we are; this Bill purports to be a way of dealing with digital campaigning, but it does not do the full job. That is exactly the point that we really need to be aware of.

I heard what the Minister had to say about “reasonably practicable” and so on, but the Electoral Commission guidance itself was not that clear for the Scottish parliamentary campaign. It was quite permissive, so as a result, the imprint appeared mostly either in the social media bio or on the website. It did not appear on the actual material itself, so the intent there was not achieved, and I doubt very much, if the guidance is the same—based on the same wording—that that will not be the case in the implementation of this particular provision. The leeway is too great, so it is not comprehensive.

As far as the other aspects go, I will look very carefully at what the Minister said, but, as far as advert libraries are concerned, she is repeating what the Government have said on a number of occasions: “Oh, fine, social media are already doing this.” The whole purpose of regulation in this area, however, is to specify what needs to be contained in those advert libraries. It is not enough to say, “Oh, yes, Facebook is doing it here and Twitter is doing it there”—although Twitter is no longer doing political adverts, there are other platforms such as Instagram.

As far as foreign actors are concerned, the Minister has simply repeated my own words back to me about the £700 limit, so I do not think we advanced the argument very far. As for false information, misinformation, or disinformation, the example I gave in Amendment 212C was simply, in a sense, designed to elicit a response from the Government about their intentions. Clearly, they do not seem to have any particular intention, despite the fact that their White Paper on online harms actually dealt with the subject fairly comprehensively. The question comes back to the Government about misinformation and disinformation. Their response to a whole range of committees—the CSPL, the ISC, and the Electoral Commission itself—seems to be pretty blithe. The question increasingly is: if they are not prepared to regulate misinformation or disinformation, which are threats to our democracy, what are they going to wait for: until we have a clear electoral travesty? If not now, when? No doubt, we will return to this at some later stage, but in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 180A withdrawn.

Clause 39 agreed.

Clause 40: Electronic material to which section 39 applies: paid-for material