All MPs are aware of market research inquiries that are fake. There is convincing evidence that the abuse has spread to politics here in Newport West.
The opinions of MPs are valued. Lobbying interviews with MPs are usually rejected as a waste of time although dozens of groups try it. A sneaky alternative to drip information into the ears of MPs as fake market research. The invitation is accompanied by a bribe. Between £50 and £200 is offered as a contribution to a favourite charity. Some MPs pocket the money after declaring it in their registers of interest. Most are legitimate market research inquiries from respected companies.
Others are not. I recall one that purported to be seeking my opinion on formula milk. The questions were ridiculously long. Usually on the lines of 'The Midwives Association have said that the formula milk is the best options for most mothers. Do you agree'. It soon became apparent that my opinion was not being sought but my attention was being bought to spread their propaganda. This is probably good value to the commercial company when all other attempts at lobbying have failed.
An undercover investigation by C4 News, broadcast on Thursday, claimed the workers may have been carrying out paid canvassing, banned under electoral law, as they promoted key Conservative messages to undecided voters in the weeks before the election. Under the guise of alleged market research, voters in Newport were approached and asked questions that contained information damaging to Jeremy Corbyn. I had complaints about the volume and persistence of the callers. It was suggested the calls originated from a Cardiff Tory Party phonebank. This would have been legitimate had they been volunteers. Channel 4 made the serious charge that the call centre was paid by the Tory Party to make the fake market research calls and, even more serious;y, canvass by phone for their marginal candidates on polling day. If that allegation is true the Information Commission and Electoral Commission must act.
On the final day of the last parliament I raised the final point of order drawing attention to the fragility of our election rules that are no longer fit for purpose.
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab)
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wish to raise a matter that strikes right at the heart of the integrity of our democratic system. It is based on the final report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, as well as two articles in The House magazine, one by a Conservative Member and one by a Labour Member, all of which sound notes of alarm that our electoral system is the most vulnerable it has been since 1880. There is powerful evidence of foreign Governments interfering in the elections in America and possibly here. There is also overwhelming evidence of money being paid in huge amounts, entirely invisible to the system, by the use of methods including algorithms, botnets and artificial intelligence in a manner understood by nobody except those who participate in it. We should be vigilant in this election, because the Electoral Commission does not have the tools to deal with interference of this kind, and we are trying to run a modern election with the tools of the 19th century.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. He has registered a strong and deeply felt concern, and it is now on the record. It is not, however, a matter for me, and I do not say that flippantly. Algorithms are certainly not a matter for the Chair, and I am sure that colleagues will be greatly reassured to hear me say that. The wider issues are ones for us all.
The hon. Gentleman, who has now served in this House without interruption for three decades, the overwhelming majority of which, by his choice, has been as a Back-Bench Member, has demonstrated once again, not least for the benefit of Members completing their first Parliament, that he has written the textbook on how to be a Back Bencher. He has written the textbook in that he has published such a book, which is a well-thumbed tome of which I am proud to possess and to have read a copy, and he has written the textbook in the sense that he exploits—I use that word non-pejoratively—every last opportunity to give voice to his concerns. Unless someone is about to surprise me gratuitously, his has been the last point of order. I thank him, and I hope that we can leave it there.
The sitting is suspended. Shortly before the sitting resumes, I shall cause the Division bells to be sounded.
The Welsh Tories seems to have proved my point.