Clause 35 - Definitions relating to electronic material and publication

Elections Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 26th October 2021.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

With this it will be convenient to discuss clause 36 stand part.

Photo of Kemi Badenoch Kemi Badenoch Minister for Equalities, Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (jointly with Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

The provisions pertain to the Government’s proposed new digital imprint regime. The new regime will require promoters, and those promoting on their behalf, behind digital campaign material targeted at the UK electorate to declare themselves, providing greater levels of transparency to online campaigning. In clause 36, “the promoter” of electronic material is defined as

“the person causing the material to be published” and to publish means to

“make available to the public at large or any section of the public.”

The imprint rules will apply to all material in electronic forms that consist of or include speech, music, text, and moving or still images. It is important that the definition of electronic material is comprehensive to reflect the wide scope of the regime. At the same time, we must remain cognisant of the practicalities of imprint requirements for certain mediums. For that reason, telephone calls and SMS messages will not be in scope of the regime, due to the impracticalities of including an imprint in an SMS or a telephone call.

Clause 36 defines key pieces of terminology that are relevant to the digital imprints regime, specifically the political entities that will be required to adhere to the new regime and that are prominent actors in political campaigning in the UK. The definitions in the clause cross-reference other pieces of legislation to ensure that there is consistency with the terminology used throughout the Bill. Both clauses provide clarity to campaigners who will be subject to the regime and provide consistency to the enforcement authorities that will enforce the regime and wider electoral law. For these reasons, I urge that the clauses stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement

We are pleased to see provisions in the Bill on the regulation of digital content. The Electoral Commission has advocated digital imprints since 2003. While digital technology and campaigning have proceeded at quite a pace, legislation to ensure that the ways electronic communications are used are transparently portrayed to the electorate has been somewhat slow by comparison. Extending the imprint rules will help voters to make more informed choices on the arguments presented and to assess the credibility of campaign messages in a digital space in the same way as with print material. When digital material is disseminated by a political party, voters who see that material will be aware of that fact and will be able to make their assessments accordingly.

It is right that political parties, candidates and campaigners should not be able to conceal their identity online, any more than they would if they printed out a leaflet and pushed it through doors. However, I want to flag a slight loophole in the legislation, which allows reshared content to disseminate without an imprint. I would be interested in working with the Government —I extend the hand of the Opposition here—to find a way of resolving this issue.

There do need to be requirements on online content to show who has made it, who is paying for it and how it is being promoted so that voters can make informed choices. Amendments to subsequent clauses may go some way to doing that, but broadly speaking it is a great relief to see this measure before the House in the Bill. It is something that we have called for for a considerable time, and it is great to see us moving slightly further forward, although there are still some loopholes left to be closed.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 35 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 36 ordered to stand part of the Bill.