In July 2017 the Committee on Standards in Public Life was asked by the Prime Minister to conduct a review of intimidation experienced by parliamentary candidates, including those who stood at the 2017 General Election. The Committee also considered the broader implications for other candidates for public office and public office holders. Its report, Intimidation in Public Life, was published in December 2017.
In March 2018 the Government published its response to the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s report. We thank the Committee for their work on the report which makes sobering reading. In that response, we committed to a series of actions based on the Committee’s recommendations, and today, I wish to update Parliament on the work the Government has taken since March 2018 to play our part in building a democracy in which every voice can be heard. The Committee also made recommendations to a range of organisations including social media companies, political parties, Parliament, the police, and broadcast and print media. In our response we committed to encouraging and supporting those organisations to implement a number of the recommendations.
- Undertaken a public consultation entitled ‘Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence and Information’. The consultation sought views on a proposed new electoral offence of intimidation of candidates and campaigners, recasting the offence of undue influence, and on extending the imprints regime to cover digital electoral materials. The consultation closed in October 2018 and the Government’s response will be published in due course. As was said in the consultation, intimidatory behaviour during election campaigns harms everyone - including all voters - by putting people off taking part in elections and public service.
- Consulted stakeholders on changes to deliver, and to go beyond, the recommendation for removing the requirement for the addresses of candidates at local council elections to appear on the ballot paper. The four statutory instruments to make these changes for local government, parish council, combined authority mayoral and local mayoral elections in England have been approved by Parliament, and are now in place for the local elections in May.
- Consulted on our Internet Safety Strategy Green paper, and we will publish a joint DCMS-Home Office White Paper. The White Paper will set out a range of legislative and non-legislative measures detailing how we will tackle online harms and set clear responsibilities for tech companies to keep UK citizens safe. It will establish a government-wide approach to online safety, delivering the Digital Charter’s ambitions of making the UK the safest place in the world to be online, whilst also leading the world in innovation-friendly regulation that supports the growth of the tech sector. It will also include ambitious measures to support continued education and awareness for all users and to promote the development and adoption of new safety technologies.
- Led contact with other Five Eyes Countries (Australia; New Zealand; Canada; USA) to establish a network of learning regarding our approaches to identifying and tackling online hate crime and intimidation. This aims to identify synergies or gaps in approaches, promote consensus, and gather best practice that can be shared for the benefit of all countries.
- Written to Local Authority Chief Executives, to raise awareness about the sensitive interest provisions in the Localism Act 2011 which protect the personal addresses of councillors in England, ensuring that monitoring officers are aware of the guidance published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. This has been made public on GOV.UK.
- Held discussions with the social media companies and the Electoral Commission about how a ‘pop up’ social media team for elections could provide support for users that report inappropriate behaviour work and we will continue to collaborate as we explore potential next steps.
- Over and above the recommendation in the Committee’s report, the Government will be considering what further steps are necessary to ensure the safety of Parliamentarians and their staff, in the vicinity of Parliament, in their constituencies and online, and Ministers are open to representations from Hon. Members across the House on this matter.
Alongside the work by the Government, other public bodies have been delivering on the recommendations from the Committee:
- The Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons and the Director of Security for Parliament have written to all MPs reminding them of the security advice and services offered by Police and the Parliamentary Security Department’s Members’ Security Support Service. There has been a significant improvement in the take up by MPs of recommended security measures.
- In the area around Parliament, the Metropolitan Police has maintained an ongoing policing operation. Its role is to facilitate peaceful protest and balance the needs and rights of all those present, including protestors, MPs and members of the public. The Police will deal robustly with incidents of harassment and abuse against anyone where that harassment or abuse constitutes a criminal offence. Officers in the area have been briefed to intervene appropriately where they hear or see breaches of the law.
- The Metropolitan Police, through their Parliamentary Liaison and Investigative Team (PLAIT), provide support to all local forces on all issues relating to parliamentary candidates. Each force has a single point of contact in place, who has contact with the PLAIT through regular updates and meetings as required. In regard to social media training, the College of Policing has developed a new digital policing curriculum which includes communication offences (which social media is a part of). This is now incorporated into the Policing Education Qualifications Framework for all new starters and the College are currently developing the learning products for all existing staff to be upskilled across the digital policing landscape including social media.
- The College of Policing, in collaboration with the Electoral Commission, have been working to update the Policing Elections Authorised Professional Practice on stalking and harassment, which will be available in Spring 2019. The College of Policing also have a new digital policing curriculum which includes communication offences.
- A working group led by the National Police Chiefs’ Council has been convened to develop new guidance for parliamentary candidates in line with the Committee’s recommendations. The revised guidance will feature two complementary documents, with the intention that both guides are read in conjunction. The first signposts a rapid pathway to achieve a resolution for both criminal and non-criminal unwanted behaviour and conduct and provides advice based on the experiences of prospective candidates. This is complemented by a longer piece of guidance, which provides details of what might constitute a breach of a number of criminal laws, in order to inform and assist candidates on any contact they may have with police and the wider criminal justice system. The working group will consult with the appropriate stakeholders, including the Parliamentary Parties Panel, with a view to publishing the full set of guidance in April 2019.
We cannot allow intimidation to threaten the vibrancy and diversity of our public life. Intimidatory behaviour impacts on the quality of our democracy and the lives of those who play an active role in it. It is incumbent on all of us in public life to combat this issue and the Government will continue to work with others including public bodies, social media companies, policing and prosecution authorities, and political parties.