In its current form, without the amendments, the Bill allows promoters of electronic material to avoid placing an imprint on the material if it is not “reasonably practicable” to do so. Instead, it allows the imprint to appear
“in a location that is directly accessible from the electronic material.”
The amendment would make things clearer for voters so that material is more transparent, and allows voters to make more informed decisions.
As evidenced in Scotland’s recent parliamentary elections, the clause will in practice lead to almost all imprints appearing on a promoter’s website or home page rather than on the actual material. I do not feel that is strong enough. It cannot be classed as an imprint if the voter has to go and seek that information on the home page of a website. For most observers of the material, there will be no discernible change from the situation as we see it now—they will not be able to see a promoter’s details. It should be a requirement that imprints appear on the material itself. It would bring digital material in line with the imprints on printed material, where political parties have to include an imprint on every single piece of content.
While it is positive that Scotland’s recent parliamentary elections were the first in the UK to be conducted with a digital imprint rule in place, it was disappointing that a loophole was left in the legislation, which is now being carried forward into the Government’s Elections Bill. All political parties in Scotland took advantage of the loophole in May, placing an imprint on their home page and not necessarily on the material that was being promoted. This provision does not provide any security against sharing, downloading and re-promoting, where many voters will see material second or third hand as organic content as it spreads over social media.
Numerous stakeholders wrote to the Minister to highlight their concerns. I have certainly seen concerns expressed by the Electoral Reform Society, Fair Vote UK and Transparency International, who have highlighted to elections offices in Scotland that there is a risk that the imprint may be lost or removed, deliberately or accidentally, when the material is shared. A significant amount of sharing happens off the platform, as users download videos before resharing them on messaging apps that are often encrypted. The imprint is then, of course, disconnected from the content. This is a huge loophole; it could be the equivalent of attaching an offline political ad’s imprint using a paperclip. The first recipient would then clearly and inconspicuously remove it before showing anyone else. It is essential that the imprint be embedded so that it is always connected to the political advertisement. I urge the Government to close the loophole and make it clear that the video, image or online campaign materials must contain a clear imprint within the material, as is common practice with many political video advertisements in countries such as the United States.
These sensible and pragmatic amendments would close a loophole that we have seen in Scotland and stop the legislation being implemented for UK-wide elections with a glaring loophole in it.
Very briefly, we will support the amendments. There is no doubt that as a Parliament and a country we are behind the curve and are playing catch-up with those who are experts in digital campaigning. What we do have in our armoury is the demand for transparency. That is all we asking for here: transparency on who is funding and who is the source of these digital political advertisements. That is essential.
We have concerns about what the Government mean by “reasonably practicable”. We need a higher threshold than that. I fear that it would be far too easy for people who are expert in such matters to get around that and to present a convincing argument to the laity on what is reasonable and practicable and what is not. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood was right that we have an opportunity to get this right, or certainly to start to close that gap.
The Scottish Parliament elections showed that parties and campaigners largely understood the regulations and were able to comply with them. Anyone who followed those elections, particularly on Twitter, could not have failed to see every candidate changing their Twitter bio during the campaign to explain that. People understood it and people did it.
We have to be alive to the fact that there are people out there who are far more advanced in their technology and their understanding than we are. We should be closing every loophole available to them, to ensure that transparency is increased and that there is no way for them to come out. So we will support amendment 87 and 88.
The Government are opposed to amendments 87 and 88 because they seek to remove a much-needed element of flexibility in the digital imprint regime for campaigners. Under our proposals, an imprint must be included as part of the material being promoted. Only when it is not reasonably practicable to do so can the imprint be in an alternative location—one that must be directly accessible from the material.
We have looked at this issue closely. Clause 37 is not a loophole for campaigners to exploit, to avoid including an imprint in the material. Instead, it is a reasonable and practical provision that ensures that campaigners are able to comply with the requirement to include an imprint in digital material, regardless of the digital platform they are using. This is an essential provision that must be retained.
As Members will know from their own experience of campaigning online, there will be many instances where it is impractical to include an imprint within the material itself. For example, a text-based tweet on Twitter could constitute material that requires an imprint, but given the character limit, including an imprint would leave little room for anything else. That is why, under our provisions, where it is not reasonably practicable, a promoter could instead comply with the rules by including an imprint in a location directly accessible from the material. That could be done by including a hyperlink in the material or by placing the imprint in a user’s Twitter biography.
The Government are mindful that the digital imprint regime must strike the right balance between increasing transparency in digital campaigning and having a regime that is proportionate and enforceable. The Opposition’s amendments would undermine those efforts as they do not provide for any flexibility on the location of the imprint. That could have the unintended effect of incentivising campaigners to avoid certain digital platforms or mediums for a campaign, due to the unreasonable burden of doing so.
The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood said that there was another loophole in terms of material being republished that would not include the imprint. That is not the case. Clause 37 does cover republished material—I am not sure whether she has a different interpretation—and I will come on to republished material when we debate clause 37, when I will explain more fully how the clause does that.
Digital campaigning has become an integral part of campaigners’ efforts to communicate messages and ideas to voters. It must continue to be facilitated, while providing the electorate with increased transparency about who is promoting campaigning material online and on whose behalf. Our provisions do that. For all the reasons that I have outlined, the Government oppose the amendments
I am slightly concerned that the Minister has not learned all the lessons from the Scottish parliamentary election. By moving to import what we know has not quite worked in Scotland and applying it to the whole of the United Kingdom, we are missing an opportunity to learn from other Parliaments and make better legislation in this place, so I will push the amendment to a vote.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Clauses 38 and 39 stand part.
Government amendment 2.
Clauses 40 to 43 stand part.
Government amendments 21 and 22.
That schedule 10 be the Tenth schedule to the Bill.
Clauses 44 to 46 stand part.
Government amendment 3.
Clauses 47 and 48 stand part.
That schedule 11 be the Eleventh schedule to the Bill.
Clauses 49 and 50 stand part.
Government amendments 4 to 6.
Clauses 51 to 56 stand part.
I will now continue to present the Government’s proposed new digital imprint regime and the various requirements pertaining to it, which are outlined in clauses 37 to 56. I will also discuss the Government amendments to the clauses as and when relevant.
There are two types of electronic material in scope of the regime—paid-for and unpaid, or organic, material. I will define paid-for—that is, the electronic material— first. Following last year’s public consultation, we have taken on board the consultation responses and expanded our initial proposals to go even further. To that end, clause 38 requires all paid-for electronic material in scope of the regime to include an imprint at all times and regardless of who has promoted it. This aims to capture the type of digital political advertising that currently poses the greatest risk due to its impact and reach: paid-for electronic material that allows individuals to spend significant amounts of money, without identifying themselves, to publish material with the aim of influencing voters.
Two conditions must be met for electronic material to be considered paid-for material in scope of the regime. The first is that material can reasonably be regarded as intended to achieve the purpose of influencing the public or any section of the public to give support to, or withhold support from, a registered party, a candidate or future candidate, an elected office holder, the holding of a referendum in the UK or any area in the UK, or a particular outcome of such a referendum. That is much wider in scope than the print regime, and rightly so. It reflects the realities of campaigning online, where content can be present all year round and is not restricted to specific electoral periods. The provisions have therefore been deliberately designed to capture a broader range of online campaigning material that is not solely linked to seeking to promote or procure electoral success at a particular election.
The second condition for paid-for material in scope of the regime is that the promoter of the material, or the person on behalf of whom the material is published, has paid for the material to be published. Payment does not solely comprise monetary payments, and includes a person providing any other form of payment in return for the publication of the material, including benefits in kind. Broadly speaking, our proposal for paid-for material is thus intended to capture all paid-for digital political advertising.
I turn now to defining “other electronic material”—organic or unpaid material—that is also part of our regime. Applying the regime only to paid-for material would leave significant transparency gaps, given the vast amount of electronic material that is unpaid or organic, which could include posts on a social media platform. Under our regime, therefore, certain political entities will also be required to include an imprint on their other electronic material. By contrast with paid-for material, that is material for which there has been no payment for its advertising.
Our provisions outline the two conditions that a piece of electronic material must fulfil to be considered other electronic material in scope of the regime. The first condition is that, broadly speaking, the material must reasonably be regarded as material that promotes or procures electoral success at certain UK elections, or that promotes or procures the success or failure of a recall petition that wholly or mainly relates to referendums in the UK.
The second condition is that the promoter of the material, or the person on behalf of whom it is published, is one of the following political entities: a registered party, a recognised third party, a candidate or future candidate, an elected office holder, a referendum campaigner or a recall petition campaigner. I wish to emphasise that we have purposefully chosen to restrict the unpaid side of the digital imprint regime to the unpaid material of those specific political entities. That is to avoid stifling political debate and imposing on the general public a requirement to include an imprint where they are expressing their personal political opinion. Additionally, the proposal strikes the right balance between providing a high level of transparency to voters and not placing an undue burden on key political actors to include an imprint on every piece of material they promote.
As campaigners can also share negative campaigning material—for example, about other parties and candidates —material that prejudices the electoral prospects of other parties, candidates and future candidates will also require an imprint. That includes candidates or future candidates on a party list. The concept of future candidates is introduced in clause 28. Future candidates are individuals whose intention to stand as a candidate at a forthcoming election has been declared, but whose formal candidacy has not yet officially begun. That could be someone else declaring on an individual’s behalf, such as an agent or party, or an individual self-declaring as intending to run for elected office on their social media channel.
As candidates become formally recognised at an advanced stage in the electoral cycle, they are able to campaign long before they officially become a candidate. An imprints regime that includes only candidates risks creating a gap in transparency for voters, which is why we are extending the new regime to future candidates. The provisions for the unpaid material of specific entities complement those applying to anyone paying to promote electronic material, thus creating a broad regime that goes further than the print regime and reflects the reality of modern digital campaigning.
Our provisions set out what information must be included in the new digital imprints. The requirements apply to both paid-for and unpaid electronic material that falls within the scope of the regime. As hon. Members will know, having an active online presence is crucial for political parties and campaigners in order to connect with the public and get their message heard. However, voters do not always know who is promoting material online and on whose behalf. Therefore, it is important that the provisions provide certain requirements that an imprint must meet, to ensure that all imprints provide the necessary level of transparency for the public. First, an imprint must be included as part of the material. Only when it is not reasonably practicable to do so can the imprint be in a location that is directly accessible from the material—for example, a hyperlink within the material or placed in a biography—when limited to a certain number of characters, such as in a tweet.
Secondly, the imprint must also be legible or audible and retained as part of the material when republished, if not altered by the person republishing, which I hope addresses the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. That is required to accommodate the design of various digital platforms and ensure that an imprint is accessible to voters, regardless of the platform on which the material is accessed. To ensure maximum transparency and effective enforcement, our provisions state that the imprint must contain the name and address of the promoter of the material, and the name and address of any person on behalf of whom the material is being published but who is not the promoter.
We must ensure that the digital imprints regime is capable of adapting to the fast-moving world of digital campaigning and technological advances. Therefore, the measures also provide for the information that is required to be included in the imprint to be modified, if necessary, using a regulation-making power.
The regime aims to strike the right balance between providing a greater level of transparency to voters while ensuring that the imprint requirements are proportionate and enforceable. To that end, generally the republishing or sharing of electronic material by another person will not require a new imprint, because the original imprint should be retained in the material. A new imprint may be required, however, if the material has been materially altered since it was previously published.
I wish to emphasise that we are not in any way attempting to regulate the press and other media through this regime. The regime should not act as a practical barrier to journalists by requiring them to include an imprint when they publish material of a political nature. The provisions therefore provide an exemption for material published for journalistic purposes—which is to say, electronic material the primary purpose of which is the publication of journalism—unless the material consists of an advertisement. Party political broadcasts or referendum campaign broadcasts are also exempt as both are already subject to regulation outside of the regime.
Breaching the digital imprint rules will be a criminal offence. That means that if electronic material in scope of the regime is published without an imprint or with an incorrect imprint, the promoter of the material and any person on behalf of whom the material is being published becomes liable for a criminal offence.
The Bill outlines a number of defences, which includes the defence that the contravention arose from circumstances beyond the person’s control. Furthermore, it is a defence that the person took all reasonable steps and exercised all due diligence to ensure that the contravention would not arise. It will also be a defence for anyone charged with an offence to prove that they acted in accordance with the statutory guidance, which I shall turn to in detail in a moment.
To ensure consistency with wider electoral law, we will maintain for the digital imprints regime the division of responsibilities between the police and the Electoral Commission that exists for the print regime. As a result, the clauses provide for the Electoral Commission’s investigatory powers to apply to the digital imprints regime. That will enable the commission to investigate possible digital imprint offences effectively, as it does with the print regime. The police already have the necessary investigatory powers.
We will also give the Electoral Commission the ability to impose civil sanctions in respect of certain offences and only for material related to political parties and referendums. The police will be responsible for material concerning candidates, future candidates and holders of elected office. As with the print regime, the Electoral Commission will be able to refer any criminal offences to the police, if required.
A person guilty of that offence will be liable to a potentially unlimited fine on summary conviction in England and Wales. On summary conviction in Scotland or Northern Ireland, the fine will not exceed level 5 on the standard scale and would therefore not be unlimited.
In specific circumstances outlined in schedule 10, a candidate or their election agent may be guilty of an illegal practice for breaching the requirements when promoting electronic material without an imprint. That is consistent with the existing approach for printed material. That being said, evidence from the print regime suggests that the police and Electoral Commission already enforce imprint offences proportionately and effectively and that campaigners overall demonstrate high levels of compliance with the rules. We believe the existing enforcement approach will work equally well for the digital regime.
Material in which the imprint is incorrect or missing should not be able to remain online and influence the views of voters without providing them with the required level of transparency. Therefore, it is imperative that as part of our regime infringing material can be taken down. The clauses provide for access to material that contains an incorrect imprint or no imprint at all to be disabled or to be taken down from the digital platforms hosting the material, such as social media companies.
Notices to take down—orders to take down, when issued by the courts—can be sent by electronic means, or by post, allowing platforms to address the requests quickly. To ensure that due process is followed, the notices or orders may only be issued by the Electoral Commission or the courts once they have determined that material is in breach of the rules. The take-down notice must include the grounds for serving the notice, the consequences of non-compliance and the rights of appeal. No such provisions are required for court orders. It will be a criminal offence for any person who receives a take-down notice or order, such as a digital platform, to fail to comply with the notice or order without a reasonable excuse. It is important that digital platforms are aware of the consequences if they fail to comply with a notice.
To ensure that the measure is proportionate, there will be a period of not less than 14 days within which recipients of take-down notices from the commission may respond to such notices, providing sufficient time for representations to be made without significantly increasing the time that material is accessible to members of the public. The provisions are integral to ensuring that digital platforms play their part in supporting the goal of bringing to voters the transparency they rightly expect.
Turning to Government amendment 3 to clause 47 and Government amendments 4 to 6 to clause 51, it is important that the timings for sending and responding to notices such as take-down notices are clear to both the relevant authorities and the recipient. Since the introduction of the Bill, we have identified four small Government amendments that will be helpful in clarifying when notices issued by the commission or the police are legally considered to have been given to the recipient, which, in turn, may have implications for the start of the period for making representations to the commission. The amendments to clause 51 and the reference to notices in clause 47 will remove any ambiguity about when and how a recipient, such as a digital platform, has received a notice. I therefore urge the Committee to agree to the amendments.
Proportionate and effective enforcement of the rules will be crucial to ensuring the digital imprints regime delivers its aims. To assist with effective enforcement, we are empowering the relevant authorities to request the information they need from those holding it, including from social media companies, to determine whether material is in scope of the regime. To that end, our provisions will place a general duty on any person to comply with a notice from the Electoral Commission or the police to supply information as part of the enforcement of digital imprints. The authorities will therefore be able to contact organisations, such as social media companies, to obtain the information they require to effectively investigate potential digital imprint offences, which may include names and contact information about promoters or those who manage social media pages.
If material has subsequently been deleted, the clause allows the police or the commission to request a copy of the original material or advert from the digital platform. The information obtained will allow the enforcement authorities to determine whether material is in scope of the regime or not, and will help inform their decision making as to whether further investigation or action is required. The police and the commission will therefore be able to enforce the digital imprints regime both proportionately and effectively.
As this is a brand new regime for the digital sphere, we are keen to encourage the high levels of compliance we have observed for the existing print regime by supporting campaigners in understanding the new rules applying to them. We will therefore be introducing statutory guidance to assist campaigners and the authorities with the operation of the new regime. The Electoral Commission and the police will be required to give regard to it in the discharge of their functions related to the digital imprint regime, which will ensure that the authorities give regard to the need for the enforcement of the regime to be proportionate.
The Electoral Commission will draft the guidance, which must then be approved by the Government, with or without modification. Once the draft guidance has been approved, it must be laid before each House of Parliament. There will be a 40-day period during which Parliament may resolve to approve the guidance. Any revisions to the guidance—on the commission’s initiative or as directed from time to time—must be approved by the Government and be subject to parliamentary approval. The guidance will be an invaluable resource for both campaigners and the authorities in understanding the practical application of the rules, which is particularly important as technology advances.
For the digital imprints regime to function effectively, it must remain responsive to changes in digital campaigning and rapidly evolving technology, which is why we have included provisions for regulation-making powers. The regulations will allow the regime to be updated when required, including modifying the details of the imprint and updating key definitions. Regulations may be made on recommendation by the Electoral Commission or, alternatively, following consultation with the commission. The regulations will be subject to the affirmative procedure, meaning that both Houses of Parliament must approve them. The statutory guidance will be subject to the negative procedure, as previously explained.
Finally, the Government would like the Committee to consider three small amendments—amendments 2, 21 and 22—that we have tabled in order to clarify the relevant elections where an imprint on other electronic material in scope of the regime will be required. Since introduction of the Bill, we have identified that the reference to the Local Government Act 2000 in clause 40, and in schedule 10, applies only to part 2 of the 2000 Act when it should also include reference to part 1A of the 2000 Act. This is because the Government are clear that material that promotes or procures electoral success, or the election of a particular candidate or future candidate, should include elections for the return of local authority elected Mayors in both England and Wales. These amendments will ensure that this is indeed the case. I urge the Committee to support them.