Parliamentary inquiry sets out how to overhaul ‘loophole-ridden’ electoral law

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’

A new, ground-breaking report from a cross-party group of MPs has set out 20 ‘vital’ recommendations on how to protect UK elections and referenda from ‘dirty money and dodgy data misuse’.

Defending our Democracy in the Digital Age is a new report published by the APPG for Electoral Campaigning Transparency, and will be launched at 4pm TODAY, Monday 20 January in Parliament (Grimond Room, Portcullis House – RSVP details above).

Speakers include: Stephen Kinnock MP (Chair of the Group), Deirdre Brock MP (Vice-Chair), Caroline Lucas MP, (Vice-Chair), Craig Westwood, Director of Communications, Policy and Research, Electoral Commission, Kyle Taylor, Director of Fair Vote UK, the APPG’s Secretariat.

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. 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.

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

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.”

Stephen Kinnock MP, Chair of the APPG said:

“The outdated nature of UK election law has pitched us into a battle for the very soul of our democracy. Facebook and other digital giants now play a hugely significant role in our elections and referendums, but most of the current legislation was created before the phrase ‘social media’ even existed.

“It was in 2018 that the cracks in our democratic processes really started to show, when former Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission, Claire Bassett told the DCMS Select Committee the current maximum per-offence fine of £20,000 was – for political actors – no more than “a cost of doing business”. Now, nearly four years on from the EU referendum, absolutely nothing has been done to protect our system from dodgy money and dirty data.

“That’s why our new report is so important. The APPG’s 20 recommendations across the areas of Transparency, Monitoring and Deterrence set out – for the first time in a generation – what changes need to be made to ensure the rules governing our elections are fit for the digital age.

“It is all too easy for politicians to watch from the sidelines, but now is the time for Parliament to show leadership. Now is the time to reform the rules, strengthen our institutions and restore trust in our democracy.”

Kyle Taylor, Director of Fair Vote UK, who act as Secretariat for the APPG said:

“Fair Vote UK was borne out of the whistleblower allegations involving major violations of electoral law and data breaches. Our mission has always been to look forward and update laws with haste to urgently safeguard our elections. The last time significant updates were made to election law was 2001. Facebook and Twitter didn’t even exist.

“This report outlines the most important changes necessary – all of which have cross-party support and could be enacted now. Protecting our sacred democractic institutions isn’t a partisan issue. We hope urgent action follows this report’s publication.”

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.”

Caroline Lucas MP, Vice-Chair of the APPG said:

“The law-breaking over spending limits during the referendum campaign exposed how vulnerable our electoral system is. Both Leave campaigns broke spending limits but the fines available to the Electoral Commission were derisory. We are used to some political parties having much deeper pockets than others. But if we want people to have faith in our democracy and in the fairness of the outcome of elections, we must have transparency over how parties are being funded, so people know where the money is coming from and who is behind it. We cannot take our democracy for granted.  Trust in our politics is at an all-time low and we have to fix that urgently if we are to fix our country.”

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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