Examination of Witness

National Security Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:00 pm ar 7 Gorffennaf 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Louise Edwards gave evidence.

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Llafur, Bethnal Green and Bow

We will now hear, via Zoom, from Louise Edwards, director of regulation at the Electoral Commission. We have until 3 o’clock for this session. I would be grateful, Louise, if you could introduce yourself for the record.

Louise Edwards:

Thank you. My name is Louise Edwards. I am the director of regulation at the Electoral Commission.

Photo of Scott Mann Scott Mann Assistant Whip

Q May I ask you about—it might be interesting for the Committee to understand—the Electoral Commission’s key functions in relation to the threats of foreign interference?

Louise Edwards:

Of course. We are, fundamentally, an organisation that oversees the running of elections in the UK. We also have a role as the civil enforcement and regulator body for political finance in the UK. For foreign interference, that means that we are the experts on electoral law, electoral finance and the running of elections, and we offer that advice to law enforcement and indeed to the security services, on request. We are not a national security body per se. We do not have an intelligence function per se. It is really a question of working with the intelligence services or law enforcement where we can to offer them that advice.

Photo of Scott Mann Scott Mann Assistant Whip

Q Can you describe the threat of foreign interference in our elections, as understood by the commission?

Louise Edwards:

As I said, we are not a national security body, so our knowledge of the threat of foreign interference in the UK is very much based on what law enforcement and the police tell us, essentially. If you think about elections in the UK, we have not been notified by the security services of any successful attempts at foreign interference in UK elections, and I think we take some confidence from that.

On the political finance side—the money that is going in and out of political parties, campaigners and others involved in our democracy—I caught the end of the previous session and there was reference to one notification from MI5 in that area. That is the only one that we are aware of. However, I would say that it is not a matter to be complacent about. There are things that could be done, particularly on the political finance side, to really modernise and improve the safeguards in the system, not just for foreign interference but for any kind of abuse or interference in the political finance regime.

Photo of Scott Mann Scott Mann Assistant Whip

Q I have one more question, if I may. The Bill introduces a new offence of foreign interference, which will criminalise interference in the UK political process. Do you see value in increasing prosecuting options in that area?

Louise Edwards:

There is a key principle here, which is that you could hope there is a link between increasing the penalty that can be imposed for an offence and therefore disincentivising or deterring people from committing that offence. That seems like an in-principle link that you would want to see made. That is what perhaps the Bill is aimed at creating.

The measures in the Bill—the offences relevant to elections that are in it—are offences that the police will have to investigate and that will then go through the courts for prosecutions, so really key to making the provisions work effectively is to ensure that the police have the capability and capacity to take them forward, investigating them and passing them on to prosecutors when appropriate.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Q May I probe a little further to get a better understanding of the role of the commission sitting alongside enforcement agencies in this area? If you were to be made aware of a potential problem, where would the referral to you usually come from?

Louise Edwards:

Do you mean a potential problem in the sense of a foreign state interference issue?

Louise Edwards:

Okay. If we were made aware of that, it is likely that it would be from the intelligence community or the police, because they are likely to be the ones that would have that information.

If we think about the sorts of offences that are being considered in the Bill, they are broadly around, if we look at the political finance ones, for example, the people who put money into the political system. In political finance, you have the people who are making donations and the people who are receiving the donations, that being the political parties, campaigners and candidates. For donors—the people putting the money into the system—the regime as it currently stands has a set of criminal offences that broadly sit with law enforcement rather than with the commission.

We, as a civil regulatory body, have a set of sanctioning powers for political parties and campaigners, so if we were to be notified of an instance of foreign interference—money coming into the political system from a foreign state power, say—our first response would be to discuss the matter with law enforcement, which would then decide whether to pursue it.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Q Have there been instances when you have referred something for further investigation to the enforcement agencies?

Louise Edwards:

That is how the process would work. It is very common for civil regulators to have a route into law enforcement for anything that is a criminal matter. In fact, a number of offences in electoral law are both civil and criminal, so even now, before the Bill goes through, we would hand anything involving a foreign state power over to law enforcement to take forward. If the Bill goes through, we will have to hand that over to law enforcement anyway, because the offences listed in it will be investigated only by law enforcement, not by us.

We have a good, established process to notify police forces around the UK if we think that a matter is for them to look at and decide whether to investigate. We have very strong links with police around the UK through which we can do that.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Q Can you give us any sense of the volume of cases you are looking at in this space? As we anticipate this problem increasing, would it be to the commission’s advantage to have any further resources to assist you?

Louise Edwards:

The answer to your first question is quite simple: we are not looking at any instances of foreign interference at the moment.

The second question is a very good one. If I may be so bold, I do have an ask. One of the challenges when working with law enforcement is that we do not have effective information-sharing powers. One of the things that the Bill would achieve is to bring the police in particular further into the political finance enforcement regime by making the listed offences matters for them only, rather than for us at all. We need a more effective information-sharing power under which we can just hand evidence straight over to the police, unlike at the moment. Currently, it is like we have to say to the police, “Can you please ask us for the evidence information that we want to give you?” If we could cut through that with some decent information-sharing powers, it would make the process an awful lot more straightforward.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Thank you. There is an awful lot for us to look at closely there.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

Q You mentioned a moment ago that we know of no examples of successful interference in elections. Can you unpack what you mean by “successful”? Do you mean changing the outcome?

Louise Edwards:

The intelligence community have not notified us of any successful attempts to interfere in UK elections. As I mentioned, the Electoral Commission is not a national security body—we do not have intelligence functions—so when it comes those matters, we receive the information rather than creating it or analysing exactly what it means.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

Q I realise that this is not your end of the business, but I do not think anybody would claim that there has been no small “s” successful interference in the democratic process in the sense of—I do not know if you heard our earlier session—winding people up, making them think they have less in common than they really do with others in society, and all those sorts of things. I do not want to put words in your mouth, but I think what you mean is actually changing the outcome of an electoral process. Is that right?

Louise Edwards:

That is my understanding of what the intelligence community mean when they tell us that, yes.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

Q I have questions about a couple of things that you have been talking about. I suppose that money coming into the political system depends on our definition of “political system”. A lot of the activity we are talking about probably involves a lot of money in one way or another, but it never actually penetrates the boundaries of what we call our political system.

We talk in other contexts about regulating political advertising—meaning adverts placed by political parties that are registered under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—but in reality, political parties’ advertising is a very small fraction of the total online influencing that goes on in the run-up to elections. What is your expert assessment of how the whole political arena is changing? How do our institutions and our legislative approach need to change to keep up?

Louise Edwards:

That is a very interesting question—how long do I have? The political finance side of the regime—I will unpack what I mean by that in a moment—is very much focused on the concept of regular and routine transparency that is enhanced significantly around an electoral event—an election, essentially.

When we talk about the political finance regime, we are talking about a defined set of actors: registered political parties, third-party campaigners, candidates or other members of political parties, and those who have specific responsibilities under law, including regular donation-reporting obligations. For example, political parties have to tell us about their substantial donations on a quarterly basis, and we then publish all that information.

When it comes to elections, as I am sure you know, there is a period in the run-up to elections called the regulated period. Any spending on campaigning that happens during that period—obviously, it gets more intense the closer you get to polling day—also has to be reported to us and gets published so that people can see it.

However, you are right that that is only one side of the nature of influencing or of the wider concept of political campaigning in the UK. There are some really interesting questions there around whether it is sustainable to look only at detailed spending in the run-up to an election, when you might well argue that political campaigning these days is year-round rather than in the run-up to particular polls.

There is also another side to it: how do you define regulated political campaigning and the spending that has to be reported? Back in 2018, we did some work with voters looking at what they thought about online campaigning specifically. One thing we found was that quite often voters did not realise that something they saw online was actually trying to influence their vote, because it was not immediately obvious on the face of the piece of literature that that was what was happening.

In terms of how things might change or develop in the future, there was a bit of thinking done about this in the Elections Act 2022, which introduced what we call “digital imprints”. They are a little bit of text that goes on a message online and says, “This was produced by this person, on behalf of this person, paid for by this person,” so you can see that it is a political advertisement. It is that level of detail and transparency that now needs to be applied.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

Q To be clear, to which actors does the digital imprint requirement apply?

Louise Edwards:

It applies to anybody who is putting out regulated political material, so it would be political parties, third-party campaigners and candidates. The regime is fairly comprehensive, although not entirely comprehensive. I realise I am going slightly outside the scope of this Bill, but there is opportunity to make it more comprehensive and to really make it clear to voters every time they see a little bit of campaign material online who is paying for it. So it is those established actors who are—

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

Q Exactly, as long as they are part of our regulatory framework.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Llafur, Garston and Halewood

Q We seem to have fairly decent regulation for participants in elections. We all know what imprints are, let us put it that way—anybody who has been elected knows what an imprint is. Some of the effort to perpetrate disinformation—to use a blanket term—whether that is successful or not, does not come from people who want to abide by the rules or who are keen to get their imprint on their material; that is precisely what they are not doing. Do you have any views about how we make it clear what is going on? In that respect, do you think that the foreign influence registration scheme that we are promised will be brought in during the Commons stages of the legislation will have a positive impact on identifying people who are trying to do this, or not?

Louise Edwards:

You have hit upon one of the hardest issues here. Broadly speaking, people who are within the regime already—the established actors we have been talking about—comply with the law. Many of them, in fact, already put digital imprints on their online material, even though it is not yet a legal requirement to do so. The challenge is those who are perhaps based overseas or who do not want to play by the rules, basically. There are real enforcement challenges there, particularly when you are thinking about organisations or individuals based overseas.

If I go back to the recent Elections Act, one of the provisions that the Government brought in at that point was to lower the spending threshold in elections for people who are based overseas to £700: if you are an overseas entity, you can spend up to £700 campaigning in our elections, then that is it—that is your spending threshold. The problem is that, from our point of view, that can only really be symbolic, because it is virtually impossible to enforce spending at that low level. Even if we were to identify an overseas organisation spending in UK elections, they are overseas, so we have no enforcement powers that we can use to try to stop them.

I am painting a fairly awful picture, but there are some ways to tackle it from a slightly different perspective. For example, we have recently started launching a campaign before elections that is helping voters to look at online material with perhaps a more critical eye, to try to assess whether they should let it affect their vote and to give them a place to find out how to express concerns about that material, with the hope then being that we can perhaps raise confidence in legitimate digital campaigning while at the same time giving people an outlet if they see something they think is illegitimate. There is also a fair amount of work that you could do around political literacy at a very young age with voters, to help them to have that kind of critical perspective.

You mentioned the registration schemes. As a civil political finance regulator, our remit does not extend to matters of lobbying and influence, but one thing I would say, if I may, is that when it comes to the integrity of our democracy and voter confidence in it, transparency is key. Any registration scheme that brings more transparency around who is seeking to influence those involved in our democracy can only be to the benefit of the confidence of voters.

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Llafur, Bethnal Green and Bow

Are there any other questions? Okay. I thank our witness for joining this Zoom call and for giving evidence. We will move on to the next panel.

Sitting suspended.