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In a written statement on 9 March 2021, the Minister of State for the Constitution and Devolution, Chloe Smith MP, confirmed that the Government would legislate, when time allows, for a new electoral offence of intimidation of candidates and the expected update of the electoral offence of undue influence.

The new offence is expected to tackle intimidation that aims to shut down debate but is not intended to stifle free speech. The offence will add an electoral sanction to intimidatory behaviour already illegal by preventing those found guilty from standing for office for five years. It is not designed to infringe freedom of expression under of Article 10 of the Human Rights Act.

This briefing also examines ‘undue influence’, the electoral offence of intimidating voters. The Government has also committed to clarifying this offence and extending it to intimidation of voters outside polling stations.

The offence of intimidation of candidates is being created amid wider concerns about online abuse and misinformation. The Library briefing, Regulating online harms, looks at Government plans to regulate harmful content online more broadly.

Concern has grown in recent years that candidates and elected representatives are facing increasing threats, both on and offline. This is particularly the case for female and ethnic minority candidates. The murder of MP Jo Cox during the 2016 EU referendum campaign brought the issue into sharp focus.

During the 2017 General Election campaign, many candidates reported that the levels of abuse were the worst they had ever experienced. Concerns were expressed that the levels of abuse were putting people off standing for public office and it was damaging for democracy.

Following the 2017 election, the then Prime Minster, Theresa May, asked the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life (CPSL) to conduct a short review of the issue of intimidation experienced by Parliamentary candidates and public life more broadly. The CSPL report, published in December 2017, made over 30 recommendations. These were targeted at social media companies, political parties, the media and all those in public life.

One of the recommendations was that the Government should consult on a new crime in electoral law of intimidating candidates during an election period. The Committee noted that the existing criminal law was sufficient in punishing the sorts of intimidatory behaviour. However, it concluded that the threat of intimidation posed to the democratic process and the integrity of elections meant it would be appropriate to formulate a specific electoral offence. This would:

  • serve to highlight the seriousness of the threat of intimidation of Parliamentary candidates to the integrity of public life and of the electoral process, and will result in more appropriate sanctions. (Page 60-61)

In March 2018 the Cabinet Office responded to the CSPL report and committed to consulting on a new electoral offence of intimidation of candidates. The Government published its consultation document on 29 July 2018, Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence, and Information and the response to the consultation was published in May 2019.

In May 2019, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, told the Joint Committee on Human Rights that threats to MPs are at “unprecedented” levels and women and people from ethnic minorities were being disproportionately targeted.

In October 2019, the Joint Committee published a report, Democracy, freedom of expression and freedom of association: Threats to MPs. It drew attention to the ongoing threats to MPs and people standing for office. It highlighted some progress made since the CSPL report but noted that:

  • The level of abuse faced by elected representatives and others in public life is now so great it is undermining their engagement with constituents, how they express themselves on social media, and carry out their democratic duties. (Page 3)

The Joint Committee said it would comment on the new offence when legislation was published.


Documents to download

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