Parliamentary Parties Panel minutes: 5 September 2023

Who was at the meeting

Liberal Democrats

  • Kerry Buist (KB), chair of meeting

Scottish National Party

  • Scott Martin (SM)

Conservative Party

  • Alan Mabbutt (AM)

Labour Party

  • Andrew Whyte (AW)
  • Tom Adams (TA)

Plaid Cymru

  • Geraint Day (GD)

Alba Party

  • Chris McEleny (CM)

Electoral Commission

  • Shaun McNally (SMcN), Chief Executive
  • Craig Westwood (CW), Director of Communications, Policy and Research
  • Majella La Praik (MLP), Head of Registration & Reporting
  • Alex White, Senior Communications Officer

Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities

  • Paul Docker (PD)
  • James Hairsnape (JH)
  • Becca Crosier (BC)
  • Imogen Harris (IH)

Minutes of the last meeting and actions arising (PPP 6/6/2023)

SM asked for an update on contact with the NPCC regarding a meeting with the parties. CW said we had reiterated the parties’ request to them, and that we would put them in contact to arrange a meeting.  

KB said she would share examples of inconsistencies between Commission written guidance and guidance given in pre-election webinars, following the discussion at the June meeting.  

KB said the Commission’s guidance on aggregations for accounting units was unclear and needed to be made simpler. AM said it was helpful to not change the guidance too often. KB noted that boundary changes would affect accounting units, and asked whether the Commission could produce a document on the changes as it had previously. CW said the team was aware of the parties’ views, but that he would pass on the parties’ views.

SM asked whether there was an update on guidance on auctions; MLP said there wasn’t. SM asked for the Commission to do more to highlight when new guidance is published online. CW said there was a balance between updating them as political parties, of which there are more than 400, and as PPP members. KB noted the Commission had removed guidance on the long campaign, which the party needed for training.  

CM clarified a point about a previous discussion on the Elections Act measures on online absent voting, to note that primary legislation was needed for the Scottish and Welsh governments to introduce a similar system for devolved elections. BC said that DLUHC is discussing this with devolved governments, but parliamentary time for primary legislation was limited. KB asked what would happen in the event of a referendum; BC said it would depend on the terms. PD added that previously, all those with a postal vote for elections would receive one for a referendum. CW said the Commission’s key concern with the measures was avoiding voter confusion.  

KB asked if the Code of Conduct for campaigners would come back for approval by the PPP. CW said the Commission had only had feedback from one party, but there was still scope to comment by the end of next week.  

CW noted that the Commission had also only received one response to the request to send senior representatives to the proposed higher-level/Commissioner meeting in December, and encouraged other parties to respond within two weeks. SM raised an issue with previous meetings at that level being minuted; CW said an option could be to split the meetings with the regular PPP meeting held later the same day. 

Electoral Commission cyber-attack

KB set out her concerns regarding the timeline of the Commission’s announcement, including the lack of advance notice for the PPP.  

SMcN outlined the steps the Commission had to take before making the announcement, including working with the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).  

KB asked about a recent BBC News report. SMcN said it was true the Commission did not pass the Cyber Essentials test. He confirmed that some laptops were running an earlier version of Windows, and some staff mobiles were outdated, but that neither of these was the source of the cyber-attack, which affected the Commission’s email server.  

SM asked when the Commission informed the ICO. SMcN said within 72 hours of identifying the attack in October 2022.  

KB asked if the Commission is subject to security audits as the political parties are. SMcN said the Commission had a programme of improvements, including moving to the cloud and introducing multi-factor authentication, which ultimately uncovered the attack. He said that the Commission did not know who was behind the attack, or whether the data accessed was then acted upon in any way, but that there had been no changes to the electoral register and the May elections were secure.  

KB said that politically sensitive questions from parties sent via email which were a particular concern.  CM said that it was accepted practice to email returns to the Commission, but that for the duration of the attack such data was accessible.. CM asked why the Commission did not raise with the parties that there was a risk of emails being accessible, during the period after the issue was identified, and to encourage the use of PEF Online or paper returns as a back-up.

SMcN expressed regret, noting the attack had been sophisticated, but said that from October 2022 parties could be confident that the Commission’s systems were secure.  

KB asked if the intelligence services were involved. SMcN said the Commission did not know if any services beyond the NCSC were involved.  

KB asked if measures were in place to ensure that, if an attack happened again, it would not take another year to be identified. SMcN confirmed this, and said the Commission was better placed to identify risks, but that it was not complacent and that it had to win every time, whereas attackers needed to only win once.  

GD asked how parties could ensure they are protected particularly as more processes move online. He suggested there could be a role for the Commission to support parties, so they can play their role in securing the integrity of elections. MLP said the Commission would take this away. KB said that last summer, the parties had written to the Cabinet Office about this; AM said it would be useful to pick that discussion up again.  

SM asked when the Commission’s Chair and Board knew about the attack. SMcN said they were informed when the Commission found out about the attack and informed the ICO. SM asked when the Commission informed the Speaker of the House of Commons; SMcN said it was handled confidentially before the public notification.

SM asked if there was evidence the Commission was deliberately targeted. SMcN said the attack was sophisticated and included elements the NCSC had not seen before, and was designed to evade detection, but that no one had claimed responsibility for it.  

CM said he was still concerned that no consideration had been given to the risk to political parties, and why the Commission or NCSC had not given warning or advice. JH said he would share the parties’ feedback on further support to the Defending Democracy Taskforce.  

Political Finance Online

MLP gave an overview of the project’s discovery phase progress, thanking the parties for their feedback on the Commission’s survey. She said the Commission was building its business case ahead of moving to delivery.  

SM said the survey did not make sense, and noted that the Commission had previously offered to share existing requirements with the parties for review. SMcN offered to arrange a meeting with the project team to discuss this if the parties were interested; AW asked if this could be extended to the rest of the PPP. 

Republishing of electoral registers – post-boundary review

TA asked whether local authorities would be encouraged to republish post-boundary changes updated registers sooner rather than later, noting concerns that many may not do so until a UK Parliamentary general election is called. GD supported this point, noting it also affected Royal Mail allocations.  

PD said DLUHC is talking to the AEA about this. CW said Commission guidance for administrators reflected the requirements for parties and candidates. He said the Commission would continue to raise awareness with electoral administrators.  

Update on spending limits

IH outlined the UK Government’s intention to make changes to spending limits, donations reporting thresholds and security-related expenses.  

KB expressed concern that as the parties could be in a regulated period already, they would need details on the spending limit figures as soon as possible. IH said the Government needed to pass legislation to set the figures; JH said they would seek to provide an indicative figure.  

IH confirmed the limits would all be increased from the point they were each respectively last uprated or set (if not uprated before).  

KB said most parties would be aiming to be ready for a UK Parliamentary general election by Christmas, and that they needed time to plan and train for any changes in the spending limits. AW agreed, suggesting it would be helpful to see the implementation timeline as the party was doing a lot of preparatory work.  

JH said they were hopeful that an increase in spending capacity would be helpful to manage spending. KB said it would not be helpful if they cannot prepare and train in time, and asked why the changes had not been introduced sooner given everyone knew there was likely to be a general election.  

IH gave an initial rough timeline for introducing the legislation: UK Parliamentary general and local election, and PCC candidate, spending limits by end of November or before Christmas; and  mayoral limits by the end of spring 2024. KB asked if this would be after the May elections; IH said it could be introduced before.  

BC explained DLUHC were dependent on finding parliamentary time, which was being discussed with Government whips. She reiterated that DLUHC would seek indicative numbers to share with the parties.  

AW asked if all limits would be uprated by CPI rate of inflation from when they were last set; IH confirmed this, giving the example that PCC limits were last set in 2012 and had not been changed since, therefore they would be uprated from that point. Other limits would be uprated according to when they were last set/updated. SM asked if the Government would also review listed items in spending categories; IH said this was not part of this exercise.  

Update on voter ID stats

CW gave an overview of the Commission’s publications, noting it had published an interim analysis of voter ID in June, and would publish post-poll reports next week. KB asked if the Commission would share the post-poll reports with the PPP; CW confirmed this.  

Elections Act 2022

BC said there had been no significant changes to the implementation timetable circulated following the previous meeting, and that the next measures to come into force were postal and proxy voting changes, and online absent vote applications, on 31 October.  

AW asked whether devolved governments would launch their own online absent voting application process. BC said this would not be possible for 31 October as it would need both primary and secondary legislation, and for each government to develop the digital function. She said this may be possible for the 2026 devolved elections, if a suitable legislative vehicle could be found for the necessary legislative change.  

JH noted the digital imprints statutory guidance was in Parliament for approval, and would be followed shortly by the non-party campaigner Code of Practice. AM said he wanted to congratulate those involved in developing the digital imprints guidance, which he said was useful.  

Electoral Commission Update Report – paper for information and any issues arising

KB asked for the 2024 dates of the Westminster PPP to be circulated.   

Any other business

KB asked when the Commission would republish guidance on the long campaign. CW agreed to find out and update the parties following the meeting.  

There was a brief further discussion on the December meeting; the parties agreed that the usual meeting should take place first, followed by the proposed meeting with senior representatives and Commissioners.  

The next meeting was agreed for Tuesday 5 December 2023.  


Commission actionsStatus
Put NPCC in touch with PPP so they can arrange meetingComplete
Offer meetings with Commission’s Political Finance Online project team  
Continue to raise awareness of party and candidate requirements around republished electoral registers amongst electoral administrators   
Update parties on when long campaign guidance will be published