1.This Special Report informs the House of the failure of a witness, Mr Dominic Cummings, to comply with an Order by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee to attend the Committee to give oral evidence. The Committee will seek the support of the House in enforcing this Order.
2.In September 2017, the Committee re-launched an inquiry into ‘Fake News’ that had begun in the previous Parliament. Our purpose in considering the nature and extent of the phenomenon which has come to be known as Fake News is to establish its extent and nature, its implications for public policy and the operations of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport of its prevalence and impact; and to make recommendations as to the adequacy of law and regulation in controlling this phenomenon in the public interest in the context of, in particular, digital media.
3.A key concern raised about Fake News and the public interest is its potentially covert and malign influence on the operation of democratic decision making. This includes not just the deliberate spreading of disinformation based on lies, but also the targeting of voters through social media with hyper-partisan content, sometimes of unknown origin. During our inquiry we have heard evidence about digital advertising during elections, and in particular digital advertising during the EU Referendum campaign in 2016. In that particular context we heard evidence of links between the Leave campaigns and the company Cambridge Analytica, which is connected to the SCL Group. These companies have become of particular interest to our inquiry because of their use of data analytics and psychological profiling to target people with political content through social media.
4.The evidence we have received indicates that Cambridge Analytica either pitched for, or completed, work for Leave.EU between October 2015 and the start of the regulated period. It is also apparent that Vote Leave spent a substantial portion—40%—of its advertising budget via a company called Aggregate IQ. We have received evidence (oral and written) suggesting that AIQ had close connections to the SCL Group, including joint client work and shared data sets.
5.Accordingly, we invited the former leaders of both Leave.EU and Vote Leave, and representatives of the companies which have been the subject of these allegations, to give oral evidence on the nature of the data acquired and its use in their campaigns. We did this in order to shed light on the nature of political advertising and other kinds of influence through these means.
6.Leave.EU accepted our invitation. The campaign leads, Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore, will attend to give evidence on 12 June 2018.
7.Other witnesses concerned in these allegations, including Alexander Nix and Brittany Kaiser of Cambridge Analytica, have also appeared as witnesses.
8.On 28 March the Chair of the Committee wrote to invite Mr Dominic Cummings, campaign director for Vote Leave, to appear before the Committee on 1 May. He declined to do so, citing two reasons: that he was abroad on the date in question, and that because he was the subject of investigations by the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Electoral Commission he would be unable to answer our questions. The Chair responded on 9 April, declining to accept the reasons proffered by Mr Cummings and offering the date of 8 May as an alternative. Mr Cummings again refused to attend, and on 3 May the Chair wrote again offering the date of 22 May for a hearing. Mr Cummings again refused. The exchanges of correspondence are set out in full in the Annex to this report.
9.We considered carefully Mr Cummings’s reasons for declining to attend and his request for a deferral. The Information Commissioner told us that Mr Cummings was not personally subject to an information notice and that she had no objection to him appearing in front of the Committee. The Electoral Commission also told us that it had no objection to us taking evidence from Mr Cummings.
10.We also considered carefully the extent to which the evidence we sought from Mr Cummings was necessary to our inquiry. The facts or allegations which led us to draw the conclusion that it was are as follows. As the designated lead ‘Leave’ group, Vote Leave had a permitted expenditure limit of £7 million during the Referendum campaign. It spent more than one-third of this budget on services from Aggregate IQ. AIQ is a Canadian company providing data analytics services. AIQ had close connections to the SCL Group, including building advertising technologies for SCL and working together on numerous projects between 2013 and 2016. In fact, AIQ was still working for SCL when it was formally contracted to the Vote Leave Campaign.
11.Vote Leave also gave £675,315 to another campaign, BeLeave. This was registered with the Electoral Commission as a donation from Vote Leave to Darren Grimes, the founder of BeLeave. Some witnesses and outside commentators have raised questions about the extent to which it was a genuine donation. Further, evidence to the Committee from Facebook showed that BeLeave used AggregateIQ datasets covering the “exact same audiences”.
12.It is not within our remit to determine whether there was collusion between (technically separate) campaigns which would contravene Electoral Commission rules with respect to spending limits. These are matters for the Commission. Nor is it our role to determine whether data protection law has been breached. These are matters for the Information Commissioner and the police. We do not accept that these issues make it impossible for Mr Cummings to give evidence to the Committee relevant to its inquiry into the nature and extent of the influence of Fake News on the conduct of the Referendum campaign.
13.We also considered carefully whether the evidence we sought from Mr Cummings was necessary for us to be able to draw sound conclusions and make useful recommendations on the impact of Fake News on the democratic process, and the adequacy of existing laws and their associated regulatory mechanisms to address any malign effects we may identify. Our inquiry has raised serious questions about the use of personal data in communications and election campaigns. Abuses relating either to data or electoral rules in any Referendum are extremely serious, and absolutely a matter on which Parliament must be engaged. There is, therefore, a strong public interest in Dominic Cummings attending Parliament and putting on the public record the facts as he understands them about the use of data in the Referendum campaign in 2016 in these respects, which are highly relevant to our inquiry.
14.We concluded therefore that we did need to question Dominic Cummings. We were disappointed that his responses implied that the Committee’s view about his attendance was irrelevant, and that it was entirely a matter for him if he wished to attend.
15.Finally, we considered whether the request from Mr Cummings for a deferral was justified and offered in good faith. We concluded that it was not justified, in the light of our conversations with the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner. Dominic Cummings’s most recent response (24 May) stated that he would consider giving evidence to another committee providing it “behaves reasonably and I can give evidence without compromising various legal actions […]. Once these legal actions have finished, presumably this year, it will be easy to arrange if someone else wants to do it” [our emphasis]. This leads us to conclude that had a July date been agreed to, Mr Cummings’s excuses about legal proceedings may have continued until later in the year, and that the offer to attend in July was not made in good faith, and was no more than a tactic to obfuscate and delay.
16.Accordingly, on 10 May the Committee exercised the power delegated to it by the House in Standing Order No. 152 to send for persons, and issued an Order for Mr Cummings to attend and give evidence at 10am on 22 May. Mr Cummings failed to appear, placing himself in contempt of the House.
17.Following Dominic Cummings’s failure to comply with the Order of the Committee to attend on 22 May we offered him a final opportunity to agree a date on which he will present himself. He has failed to do so. In our view this constitutes a serious interference with the ability of this Committee to discharge the task assigned to it by the House and a flagrant contempt of the House.
18.We will therefore be seeking, as a matter of privilege, an Order of the House requiring Dominic Cummings to agree a date on which he will appear before the Committee. If Mr Cummings were to refuse to comply with that Order, the Committee will seek to invite the House to refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges for a recommendation on what next steps should be taken.
1 ; oral evidence from Brittany Kaiser:
3 and internal shared phone list between CA/SCL/AIQ, p.66 of
4 The Electoral Commission’s investigation is into Vote Leave Limited, Mr Darren Grimes and Veterans for Britain Limited. The Information Commissioner’s Office is investigating data analytics for political purposes. In his email of 10 May 2018 (see Annex), Dominic Cummings mentioned a third “investigation into possible criminal action.” He does not state the nature of the case but the fact that the criminal action is only “possible” means that the sub judice resolution would not be engaged at this point.
5 Vote Leave declared expenditure during the campaign of £6,773,063.047. This included expenditure of £2,697,020.91 on services from AIQ. Source: Electoral Commission, spending databases and
7 The named recipient was Darren Grimes.
8 For example,
10 For example, see Dominic Cummings’s email of 10 May, included in the Annex to this report.
Published: 5 June 2018