Police probe whether electoral laws were broken on behalf of Tories in general election
Police are currently investigating possible Tory breaches of electoral law relating to the June general election uncovered by a Channel 4 News investigation.
Labour MP for Caerphilly Wayne David announced that the Electoral Commission had written to him confirming that police were “formally considering the allegations”.
Wales Online confirmed that South Wales Police are looking into claims that “the Conservative Party broke the law in the run up to the General Election by using a Neath call centre to canvas voters.”
According to an undercover Channel 4 News investigation, Blue Telecoms, a call centre in Neath was carrying out all kinds of dodgy practices on behalf of the Conservative Party ahead of the June 8 election.
Staff at the centre appeared to say that they were paid to carry out canvassing, which is illegal under electoral law, as well as promoting key Tory messages targeted at undecided voters under the guise of conducting polling.
A Channel 4 News reporter applied for a job with a secretive call centre in Neath, South Wales, run by a failed Tory council candidate and discovered marketing calls to marginal constituencies implying a vote for Theresa May was a vote for an orderly Brexit.
Workers were given a script to to say that they were from an ‘independent market research company’ of which there appears to be no record. Prohibited numbers were rung, which also is a potential breach of data protection laws. And on the day of the election the call centre workers were told to say that they were calling from the Conservative Party and urge people to vote Tory. Paying people to canvass is against election rules and could result in seats having to be fought again.
Channel 4 News reported compiling evidence that at least ten key marginal seats were targeted by the call centre on election day. Calls were placed to voters in Caerphilly, Camarthen East, Ceredigion, Pontypridd, Torfaen, Newport West, Bridgend, Gower, Clywd South and Wrexham.
Channel 4 News broke the Tory Party election expenses fraud story after the 2015 election, and it has been only a few weeks since the CPS decided to prosecute only one of the incidents reported to them by police forces around the country. Tory MP for Thanet South Craig Mackinlay, his agent Nathan Gray, and Marion Little – a former Conservative Party strategist and organiser – have been charged with offences under the Representation of the People Act 1983.
The Canary website was approached by whistleblowers who revealed secret and underhand use of call centre staff for what is called “push polling” for the Conservatives before the 2015 election.
“Push polling” means influencing voters under the guise of carrying out a poll by suggesting smears and political propaganda.
The Channel 4 investigative team also investigated the underhand use of push polling by call centres influencing the EU referendum vote last year, stating Leave campaign lies such as the £350 million whopper as facts in phone calls masquerading as poll questions.
Before Theresa May’s snap election the month, information commissioner Elizabeth Denham wrote to the main political parties warning that phoning potential voters promoting a particular party is “direct marketing” and governed by strict rules.
But the evidence that the Channel 4 News report uncovered shows staff appearing to flout both election and data protection rules, misleading the people they called.
A Conservative spokesman told Channel 4 News: ‘Political parties of all colours pay for market research and direct marketing calls. All the scripts supplied by the party for these calls are compliant with data protection and information law.’
But a whistleblower at the Neath centre told the investigating reporter that their calls were potentially unlawful.
Undecided voters were given Conservative campaign propaganda on Brexit, the dangers of coalition and hung parliament and immigration under the cover of taking a survey. For instance the script read: “It was reported in the Daily Mirror in September last year that Jeremy Corbyn is not concerned about the numbers of people coming to live in the UK and it was reported on Sky News this year that Theresa May has restated her pledge to reduce net Migration.
‘“Just thinking about these reports in the media and the reports that you live in a marginal constituency that may determine who is prime minister… Does that make you more likely to back Theresa May or more likely to vote for Jeremy Corbyn?”
The head of the firm that hired the undercover reporter, Blue Telecoms, is a former Conservative Welsh council candidate Sascha Lopez who insisted: “All scripts supplied made it clear during the call, either at the beginning or the end, that the calls were being made on behalf of the Conservative Party. Respondents have the right for their responses to be deleted if they so wished. No data from the market research calls to TPS numbers (which regulations allow) were recorded against individual records. We followed the regulations given by the TPS, ICO and Ofcom in regards to indentifying who was calling, the reason for calling, as well as operating an opt-out list.”
Importantly Sascha Lopez admitted: “the scripts and lists of who to call and when to call were given to us by CCHQ (Conservative Campaign Headquarters) in London and were not influenced by my team. However I can advise we were engaged to conduct market research and polling for the Conservative party, and at no time were we engaged to conduct any form of marketing or canvassing by the party or its candidates.”
At one stage staff were told to say that they were calling from a company called Axe Research, which has no records and does not appear to exist on the Internet. Under the Data Protection Act, callers must disclose who they are and for what use data is being collected.
On election day, call staff were told “say you are in the Conservative Office, Cardiff, and don’t mention Blue Telecoms.”
Electoral rules prohibit paying canvassers, yet on June 8, the call centre staff rang back identified floating voters with a script saying: ‘Does knowing that you live in a marginal constituency that will determine who is Prime Minister for the Brexit negotiations, does that make you a lot more likely to vote for Theresa May’s Conservative candidate or a little more likely to vote for Theresa May’s Conservative candidate, or are you still unsure, or does it not make a difference?’ While those who said they were definitely voting Tory were badgered to head to vote as “time is running out”.
The call centre was visited by a senior Conservative Channel 4 News has identified as Richard Minshull, Director of the Welsh Conservatives.
The Tories have worked with Blue Telecoms before, declaring paying the firm £265,205 in the 2015 election campaign and £83,500 in 2016 Welsh Assembly elections.
A Conservative spokesman previously said all the calls were compliant with the law.
A spokesman said: “Political parties of all colours pay for market research and direct marketing calls.
“All the scripts supplied by the party for these calls are compliant with data protection and information law.”