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Following the 2017 General Election, the then Prime Minster, Theresa May, was asked about intimidation in the recent election campaign. At the first Prime Minister’s Questions session of the 2017 Parliament she was asked “what can be done to stop such intimidation, which may well put off good people from serving” in Parliament.

The Prime Minister subsequently requested that the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) should conduct an inquiry into abuse and intimidation experienced by Parliamentary candidates.

The terms of reference for the Committee’s inquiry were formally set out in the Prime Minister’s letter of 17 July 2017:

  • To review the intimidation experienced by Parliamentary candidates, including those who stood in the 2017 General Election. The committee may also consider the broader implications for other candidates to public office and public office holders.
  • The review should:
    1. Examine the nature of the problem and consider whether measures already in place to address such behaviour are satisfactory to protect the integrity of public service; and whether such measures are (a) effective, especially given the rise of social media, and (b) enforceable;
    2. Produce a report for the Prime Minister, including recommendations for action focused on what could be done in the short- and long-term and identifying examples of good practice

The Committee’s final report was published on 13 December 2017.

One of its recommendations was that the government should consult on the introduction of a new offence in electoral law of intimidating Parliamentary candidates and party campaigners. 

Other recommendations were aimed at social media companies and included that they must take responsibility for developing technology and the necessary options for users to tackle the issue of intimidation and abuse on their platforms.

Proposed new offence of intimidation of candidates

The Government proposed to create the new offence on the basis of intimidatory behaviours that are already illegal. Intimidatory behaviour would be subject to existing criminal law and corresponding sentence. the new electoral offence should only be applicable in cases where a candidate or campaigner is intimidated because they are a candidate or campaigner.

In addition, the Government is proposing an extra electoral element to act as a deterrent to intimidatory behaviour from taking place during the election period. The Government proposed that the new electoral offence should be labelled a ‘corrupt’ practice. This would prohibit offenders from standing for elective office for five years.

The Government was clear that this new offence would not be a ‘catch all’ to stifle debate and disagreement. The proposed offence would be compatible with freedom of expression protected by European Convention on Human Rights. Existing evidential standards and thresholds to meet existing offences of intimidation would apply. A communication would need to be ‘more than simply offensive, shocking or disturbing.’

The Government consulted on the new offence in July 2018, Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence, and Information.

The Government’s response to the consultation was published in May 2019. 75% of respondents broadly agreed with the approach set out in the consultation of applying an electoral sanction to existing offences of intimidatory behaviour, although concerns were expressed by some about the interaction of the new offence with the right to freedom of expression.

The Government confirmed it would move forward with the proposed new offence as set out in the original consultation document when Parliamentary time allows.

There is more detail on the background to the proposed new offence in the Library briefing, Intimidation of candidates and voters.

Online harms

The online abuse of elected representatives is one of the harms that the Government intends to address through an Online Safety Bill.  The Bill would introduce a new duty of care for companies whose services:

  • host user-generated content which can be accessed by users in the UK; and/or
  • facilitate public or private online interaction between service users, one or more of whom is in the UK.

The duty of care would also apply to search engines.

Harmful content and activity would be defined in the Bill as that which “gives rise to a reasonably foreseeable risk of a significant adverse physical or psychological impact on individuals”.

The duty of care would require companies to take proportionate steps to address relevant illegal content and activity. The largest tech companies would additionally be required to act in respect of content or activity on their services that is legal but harmful to adults. Ofcom would oversee and enforce the framework. The Government has said that the Bill will be ready “this year”.

The Government has published a factsheet (December 2020) summarising its plans.

For further background and discussion, see the Library Paper, Regulating Online Harms (22 January 2021).

Law Commission review

The Law Commission has reviewed the legal framework relating to abusive and offensive communications online and has consulted on provisional reforms. Final recommendations are expected to be issued by summer 2021.[3] For further detail see:

Harmful Online Communications: The Criminal Offences – A Consultation paper

Harmful Online Communications: The Criminal Offences – Summary of the Consultation Paper

Further Reading

Crown Prosecution Service, Responding to intimidating behaviour Information for Parliamentarians, March 2019

CSPL, Intimidation in Public Life: A Review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, 13 December 2017

CSPL, Intimidation in Public Life: progress report on recommendations, December 2020

Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, Online Harms White Paper: Full government response to the consultation, 15 December 2020

Equality and Human Rights Commission, Equality and Human Rights Law during an Election Period Guidance for local authorities, candidates and political parties, April 2017 

Joint Guidance for Candidates in Elections, produced by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), College

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