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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.

The Elections Bill 2021-22 [Bill 138 of 2021-22] was introduced in the House of Commons on 5 July 2021. The second reading has been scheduled for 7 September 2021. The Bill introduces a new electoral sanction for those guilty of intimidating a candidate or campaigner.

Intimidation

The new offence of intimidation of candidates 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.

The offence 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.

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.

Undue influence

This briefing also examines ‘undue influence’, the electoral offence of intimidating voters. It is one of the ‘classic’ electoral fraud crimes that date from the Victorian era, when much of the law around electoral processes was first drafted.

In 2016 the Law Commission recommended the law on undue influence should be modernised. It said it should be restated as an offence of intimidation, deception and improper pressure on voters.

In the consultation Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence, and Information  the Government agreed the offence should be retained. It stated that it needed clarifying, saying the offence as currently drafted was complex and “difficult to interpret and use”. Respondents to the consultation agreed.

Following the consultation, the Government committed to clarifying this offence and extending it to intimidation of voters outside polling stations. The Elections Bill 2021-22 includes the new provision for undue influence. It does not explicitly mention polling stations but the definition includes physical violence and any other designed to intimidate a person not specifically outlined in the new definition.


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