Election Campaign Finances: Regulation — [Ian Paisley in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:47 pm on 8th July 2021.

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Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:47 pm, 8th July 2021

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley. I commend Damian Collins for securing a debate on such an important topic. He has long been a campaigner for transparent electoral campaigning and finances, particularly through his time as Chair of the DCMS Committee. It was good to hear his reflections on non-party campaigning groups, which I will return to; campaigning and spending outwith principal election periods; and the sizeable impact of social media campaigns on citizens, even with relatively little spend. I found his warnings on the need to future-proof our responses to hitherto undreamt-of technological and digital advances particularly important.

I also want to mention the comments of my hon. Friend Anum Qaisar-Javed on her personal experience of campaigning in a recent by-election. Of course, social media can be used as a force for good and to enable our electorate to hear more about their candidates and the parties they would be voting for, but she also referenced recent examples of illegality in the 2019 general election and other actions taken by the Government in what certainly appear to many of us to be blatant attempts to circumvent democracy.

Stephen Kinnock called for a strengthening of our democratic system to fight what he describes as blatant corruption. He says, and I agree with him, that we have taken democracy for granted for too long and we have been complacent while shadowy groups have undermined that precious thing. He also ably outlined a few of the recommendations that our all-party parliamentary group on electoral campaigning transparency made in our report. I am sure the Minister, who I welcome to her place, is aware of those recommendations. It will be interesting to hear her reflections. This debate is vital. We need to restore confidence in the electoral process, and I hope today’s debate goes some way towards raising issues that need to be examined properly by the Government and by all of us..

I welcome the report from the Committee on Standards. It is good to see an official body still committed to supporting higher standards in public life. Heaven knows this Government certainly do not. The view once held of a Westminster system with checks and balances sufficient to outweigh the lack of a written constitution has gone, stripped away by a group of self-interested and unreconstructed politicians. Scotland has bitter memories of Thatcher and the destruction that she and her party wrought on the communities of our country, but I think even she would blanch at this Government’s approach to governance: ineptitude and slavering greed, shot through with a staggering sense of entitlement and a callous disregard for the difficulties of ordinary folk, and now further attacks on the democracy that underpins public life throughout these islands. Who cares for lost voting rights?

I am very proud to be a member of the all-party group on electoral campaigning transparency and of the report that we produced in January 2020 after a lengthy inquiry, with its 20 recommendations for improving the electoral system. I commend the many expert witnesses to the inquiry, as well as colleagues, and particularly Fair Vote UK, for all their efforts.

We cannot have a debate on campaign finance regulation without discussing the ways in which that regulation is so regularly circumvented, particularly through the use of social media and digital platforms in political campaigning. Electoral legislation more than 20 years old does not encompass the massive shift that there has been to digital campaigning, so it certainly needs updating and strengthening—a point that journalists such as Carole Cadwalladr have been making, and something that we on the APPG have been arguing for.

The Elections Bill, hastily released to provide governmental cover before the Committee’s report was launched, contained little more than a few scraps thrown to the campaigners, which is perhaps why the Government have decided to remove the word “integrity” from the Bill’s title. Even Ministers cannot swallow it. Now that that report has been published, I look forward to the Minister indicating how the Government will incorporate the more than 40 recommendations that it makes for the Elections Bill. I would particularly like to see the Government address the long-standing dark money issues that hover around so-called non-party campaigners.

The infamous Brexit donation that came via a former Scottish Conservative chair and Tory candidate, routed through the Democratic Unionist party to take advantage of the less strict reporting regime in Northern Ireland, springs to mind. It came from a secretive body based in Scotland called the Constitutional Research Council. We still do not know who supplied the DUP with that record £435,000 donation, which it used to pay for a wraparound advert in a newspaper that does not even appear in Northern Ireland days before the EU referendum.

That is not the only example. Unincorporated associations are regularly used to funnel money into UK politics without revealing the sources of the money. The Scottish Unionist Association Trust provided 54% of the income for the Scottish Conservatives from December 2019 to December last year. Another 25% came from the Stalbury Trustees. What those organisations have in common is that no one knows where they get their funds from. We could also mention the Midlands Industrial Council, the United and Cecil Club, the political committee of the Carlton Club, the Leamington Fund, the Scottish Conservative Prize Draw Society, the spring lunch and so on.

Money with no proper sources declared is funnelled into party politics. It stinks. It reeks of corruption. The letter of the law was not broken, we are told, but the spirit of the law is bent beyond recognition. How can the recipients of the cash be sure that it satisfies the requirements of the legislation when they cannot know where it originated? We need a robust body, independent of Government, to monitor and have the powers to enforce when they find error, deliberate or otherwise.

I am delighted that the Committee on Standards gives the commission such strong support in its report. The commission’s current powers are insufficient. I agree with the Committee that the commission’s powers should be strengthened, not weakened or removed, and that non-party campaigners should disclose more information, such as, for example, the basics of a website address, and should register at each election in which they intend to campaign. Various campaign groups sprang up just before the last Scottish election, using Facebook adverts in particular to push political messages. It was impossible to establish who paid for the ads and the groups’ political links. That is currently legal, but it cannot be right that non-party campaigning groups do not have to outline to the public who funds them. It cannot be right that we do not know what links they might have to political parties or to political lobby groups, which are themselves funded secretively and might even present themselves as, say, educational charities.

I note that those calling the loudest for the weakening or even removal of the Electoral Commission’s powers have clearly benefited in the past from the largesse of undeclared donors—people who do not want the slosh of cash in public life to be monitored. It is worth noting, as was made clear in the evidence of witnesses before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee recently, that the quality and clarity of Electoral Commission advice depends largely on the quality of the legislation. These are not Electoral Commission rules; these are rules set by Parliament. If problems come about during elections and appear in Electoral Commission ambiguities reports, it is up to Parliament to address that. One could therefore argue that the Government and their supporters are taking issue with Electoral Commission methods while ignoring the part successive Governments have played in creating those methods before now.

Another important point is about oversight of the commission, which is in part conducted through the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. I believe now is the first time ever that one party has a majority on that Committee, and it is the party of Government. That cannot be healthy. I urge the Government and the Speaker to look at how that undemocratic and unfortunate situation might be reversed. Will the Government also look at incorporating anti-money laundering regulations, including such features as risk assessments, enhanced due diligence and setting out specific procedures for record keeping, monitoring and the management of compliance with the policies? “Know your donor” needs to be integral to our campaigning culture.

What people are looking for in the regulation of election or referendum campaign finances is transparency; a level playing field; confidence and trust in the electoral processes, and for those to be simple and clear; strong accountability and enforcement action; and for the regulator to be independent of political or other influences. Our legislation needs to reflect that.