HC Deb 27 April 1982 vol 22 cc734-5 4.10 pm
Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate the publication of public opinion polls to ensure a fair and balanced presentation. As participants in the democratic process going before the electorate, we in the House know particularly that the most important poll and the one that really matters is that which takes place through the secret ballot in a general election. However, since 1937, when British Gallup was founded, great attention has been paid to the findings of opinion polls, and considerable sums of money are spent by the media and others in sponsoring such polls. It is, of course, highly debatable whether such polls really influence public opinion and, as such, the electoral process. But, in a situation where there is a close—perhaps too close—connection between the media and the pollsters, there are strong grounds for being suspicious of the manipulation of polls, their findings and their presentation for a biased and partisan political purpose.

The pollsters' organisations are aware of this. They have recently drawn up an international code of practice for the publication of public opinion poll results. Article 4 of the code of practice states that the validity and value of public opinion polls depend on three main considerations: first, the nature of the research techniques used and the efficiency with which they are applied; secondly, the honesty and objectivity of the research organisations carrying out the study; and thirdly, the way in which the findings are presented and the uses to which they are put. Few would quarrel with those views. The Bill seeks to give a statutory framework and to aid the public's understanding and awareness of just what the poll results mean.

The Bill would seek, inter alia, to ensure the disclosure of the organisations that commissioned and conducted the polls, the statistical techniques used, the cost of the polls, the details of questions and the numbers questioned, and the dates on which the poll data were taken.

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, it would seek to require the media to give a fair and balanced presentation of the results and not, for example—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he is reading every word. He knows that that is not our custom. He must not read his speech to the House.

Mr. Douglas

I apologise, Mr. Speaker. I had thought that that would be the most expeditious way of proceeding.

My Bill is designed to ensure that the media give a fair and balanced presentation of the poll results and not the snapshot presentation given, for instance, this morning by the BBC, which quoted a poll in today's Daily Star in pursuit of certain conversations and interviews. I do not think that the BBC can be proud of its method of approach in this instance. It should have disclosed that the sample size for this poll was a mere 600 adults from 100 constituencies. If that type of information had been given through the media, the general public would perhaps have had a more sanguine and objective view of the presentation.

An organisation is needed to oversee the polls, and particularly the pollsters, in a general election atmosphere. It may be possible for an organisation to be set up to liaise, for instance, with the Press Council and other such organisations to vet the poll findings and to ensure their objectivity.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Dick Douglas, Mr. John Maxton, Mr. George Foulkes, Mr. Martin J. O'Neill, Mr. William Hamilton, Mr. Phillip Whitehead and Mr. Barry Sheerman.