Parliamentary inquiry calls for new rules to ‘safeguard our democracy’

Posted on the 20th January 2020

Experts including MPs, regulators, the Electoral Reform Society and FairVote show how to tackle potential ‘deluge of dirty money and dodgy data misuse’

  • ERS spokespeople are available for interview. Contact [email protected] / 07717211630
  • Report now LIVE here

A cross-party group of MPs have called for sweeping changes to electoral regulations at the launch of a new, ground-breaking report setting on how to protect UK elections and referenda from ‘dirty money and dodgy data misuse’.

The report, Defending our Democracy in the Digital Age is a new report published today (20 Jan) by the APPG for Electoral Campaigning Transparency set out 20 ‘vital’ recommendations to preserve the integrity of the UK’s electoral process.

The landmark report is the result of a major inquiry which took place over several months in 2019 and called a range of leading experts on electoral law [key recommendations at end of release]. The Parliamentary group received written and oral evidence from more than 70 organisations and experts including Facebook, the Information Commissioner’s Office, and the Electoral Commission.

Dr Jess Garland, Director of Policy and Research at the Electoral Reform Society, gave evidence to the inquiry. Commenting on the report, she said:

“Britain’s current campaign laws leave us dangerously exposed to foreign funding, ‘dark ads’ online and rampant disinformation. Even where protections exist, the fines at regulators’ disposal are seen as the ‘cost of doing business’ – rendering the rules far less effective.

“It’s time to update our analogue-age campaign legislation to ensure our elections are safe from unscrupulous states and manipulation. There is a consensus on many of the proposed changes in this timely report. The government say they are committed to ‘protecting the integrity of our democracy’. That has to start with ensuring our electoral defences are bolstered for the digital age – and with major elections coming up we urge ministers to act swiftly.”

Speaking at the report launch Stephen Kinnock MP, Chair of the APPG said:

“For far too long we’ve taken our democracy for granted. We’ve been complacent and our complacency has allowed maligned forces to undermine our democracy.

“Our report today focuses on what we can do as a country to strengthen the flimsy defences of our electoral law.

“This has truly been a cross-party initiative and we hope that the publication of this report is the first sign Parliament is actually waking up and realising our democracy is under threat.”

Speaking at the report launch Craig Westwood, Director of Communications, Policy and Research, Electoral Commission

“We’ve heard a lot about how digital technology has revolutionised political campaigning.

“Digital campaigning can be a really good thing, and we don’t want to lose sight that digital technology can open up the campaigns and parties and reach out to voters and engage people with policies and politics. But we have also heard about the negative things. Where regulation has failed to keep up.

“The regulatory framework we police exists to underpin voter confidence. What we’ve seen recent years is the system being tested and cracks appearing. We think now is the time to act to shore it up against any future problems.

“We’re really looking forward to working with the APPG to bring some of these ideas and recommendations in the report forward.”

Deirdre Brock MP, Vice-Chair of the APPG said:

“This is the campaigning issue of the modern age. Rotten boroughs, treating and restricted franchises were the forerunners to this – it’s a question of how we ensure that people can cast a vote that counts, free from unfair influence and in command of as much information as possible.  Restricting that choice is restricting democracy, no matter how that restriction is imposed.

“I’m sure I’ve bored people rigid by pursuing the doings of Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ during the Brexit referendum and afterwards but it’s important.  Transparency is the first part of open debate and honesty is the greater part of democratic debate. We need our politics and our politicians to be aspiring to at least that.  These aren’t lofty ideals, just the baseline we should start from.”

Speaking at the report launch Caroline Lucas MP, Vice-Chair of the APPG said:

“There is now more of an understanding that defending our democracy is something we urgently need to do.

“In principle, the internet can be the most democratic space in society if we work hard to achieve that – shared, resourced, owned and created by the people who use it. But it is also home to powerful monopolies.

“We need to think creatively about the right ownership models that would create a genuine public space on the internet. We need to think about if Facebook and Twitter are broadcasters and if they should be regulated as such.

“We cannot take our democracy for granted. It’s something we need to defend and fight for every single day.”

The 20 recommendations cover three areas; transparency, monitoring and deterrence. They include:

  • Establishing a new Office for Election Integrity to stop rule-breakers slipping through the regulatory gaps
  • Abolishing the cap for fines on breaching electoral law
  • Close foreign donor loopholes by ensuring all donations have to be UK-based, reducing permissibility check requirements from £500 to 1p
  • Moderating the ability of campaigns to micro-target voters based on personal data. The ICO is still waiting for a full reply from the government to its 2018 Democracy Disrupted report
  • Switching to a per-seat cap on total spending, to streamline national versus local spending limits
  • Giving the Electoral Commission the ability to prosecute 
  • Making ‘persons of significant control’ legally accountable for organisational offences

ENDS

Report now live here: https://fairvote.uk/defending-our-democracy-in-the-digital-age-new-report-launched/ 

The APPG on Electoral Campaigning Transparency was founded in 2019 against the backdrop of record fines for electoral malpractice, yet these penalties were “just the cost of doing business” to wealthy donors. More recently, at the 2019 election, more people were noticing political campaigning adverts online and wondering who is behind them.

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