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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:57 pm on 8th July 2021.

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Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 3:57 pm, 8th July 2021

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley. It is a pleasure to respond to this debate on behalf of the Labour party, and to follow Deidre Brock. I congratulate Damian Collins on securing the debate and on his thoughtful remarks, which in places were worrying. I also thank my hon. Friend Stephen Kinnock for his important comments on the prevalence of dark money and dirty data, the complacency with which this issue has been treated up to now, the shortcomings of the Electoral Commission, and his recommendations on transparency, deterrence and monitoring.

Members can certainly agree that the laws that govern our elections are complex, fragmented and confusing. We need the highest possible standards for electoral finances—free, fair and corruption-free—with strong regulation to guard the integrity of our democracy and to guard against the influence of foreign state and non-state actors and all threats to our democracy, both at home and abroad. It is widely accepted that our electoral laws are not fit for the modern age, with many written before the creation of the internet. Such an archaic system has left huge loopholes in the way our elections are regulated. The Law Commission’s report back in 2016 made a series of constructive recommendations about electoral law, but the Conservative Government have failed to take any action before now.

The fact is that, over the past decade, the Conservatives have failed to take any action to modernise our electoral laws or close the loopholes that allow foreign money to flood into our democracy. The reason is clear. The archaic laws benefit the Conservative party, allowing wealthy foreign donors who have never paid tax in the UK to bankroll their campaigns. Instead of closing these loopholes, the Government’s Elections Bill announced this week will further weaken our donation laws, allowing rich Conservative expats unlimited access to our democracy and opening the floodgates to foreign money coming into our politics, at our peril.

It is disappointing that the Government have chosen to pre-empt the Committee on Standards in Public Life report with the Bill, which represents a step back in our democratic process. Indeed, as Dr Jess Garland at the Electoral Reform Society pointed out:

“The Elections Bill not only fails to take into account the comprehensive recommendations of the Committee, but continues to leave many of the most troubling loopholes in our election laws wide open.”

Many of those loopholes have been listed by previous speakers today.

Labour welcomes the “Regulating Election Finance” report published yesterday by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. We certainly need this Committee more than ever. The report suggests practical steps to modernise and streamline the way donations are made. The report lays bare the damage that years of inaction by the Government has caused, undermining transparency in our democracy. A key issue at the heart of the report is the role of the independent elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission. Labour is clear that an independent watchdog is paramount in having proper accountability in our democracy. The Committee on Standards in Public Life’s report overwhelmingly supports that view, recognising that an independent electoral watchdog is the cornerstone of any democracy.

I am sure that Members of the Committee were deeply concerned by the recent comments by the Conservative party co-chair, Amanda Milling, calling for the regulator to be abolished or radically overhauled, removing all independent oversight in the conduct of our elections. The regulator needs to be stronger, not weaker. Such action would be hugely harmful and a worrying step for the integrity of our democracy, and one that Labour will continue to strongly oppose.

This week’s Elections Bill contains numerous worrying provisions that weaken and politicise the Electoral Commission, enabling the Tories to dictate the priorities and agenda of an independent watchdog. I hope that the Minister will respond to the concerns raised by the Committee’s report regarding the unbalanced membership of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, which for the first time, as has been mentioned, has a majority of members from the governing party. I share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon about that. Can the Minister, who I welcome to her place, confirm that she agrees with the Committee that

“independence can be ensured only if cross-party consensus is maintained”?

The report also highlights the weaknesses in laws governing online space, which allow foreign money and untraceable advertisements to threaten our elections and the security of democracy in the UK. In my own election, I was faced with advertisements placed by an opponent who claimed she was a Nobel prize winner; that was not true, but it was hard to counter these advertisements, We need rules that ensure that the data that is used and put out can be retracted and changed, and the record can be put straight during the election, not afterwards when it is too late.

I hope the Minister will take on board the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s recommendations to tighten the requirements to identify the true source of donations. The public deserve and need to know how money is being spent and where that money comes from. It is their vote, after all.

Labour is clear that the Government could prioritise many of these changes right now, well in advance of any election. This is urgent. What is more, the Government have a clear opportunity to use the Elections Bill to introduce the measures. Instead, we have Tory Government who are scaremongering over voter fraud and pursuing dangerous voter ID policies, instead of working to genuinely increase the transparency and accessibility of our democracy. Indeed, I note that the Bill is no longer called the electoral integrity Bill. Can the Minister explain why the name was changed? Could it be because the Bill has nothing to do with integrity and everything to do with voter repression? I look forward to hearing the answer.

If the Government really want to improve the integrity of our elections, they should consider the findings of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, strengthen the regulation, close the loopholes and stop using parliamentary time to weaken the pillars of our democracy.