The government says it will legislate to introduce a new electoral offence of intimidating a candidate or campaigner, both online and offline, during the run up to an election. However, it has rejected calls to extend the protection to returning officers and their staff.
The Cabinet Office revealed its intentions in a response last week to a consultation, Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence and Information.
The government claims the new rules are needed “to provide for specific electoral sanctions to deter and punish behaviour” and “thoroughly address the growing problem of intimidation in public life”.
The government will apply an electoral sanction to those who intimidate candidates or campaigners, which bans them from standing for election for five years, in addition to appropriate criminal sanctions.
The consultation received 41 responses, including from four regional and local councils.
Three-quarters of the respondents were in favour of the government’s plans, and they included the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats. But the Labour Party came out against it, saying it would duplicate existing offences, and another respondent raised concerns that it could hamper debate “by creating a chilling effect around political speech”.
The Association of Electoral Administrators and some councils suggested that returning officers and their staff should also be protected under the new electoral offence, but in its response, the government said it had not received evidence to support this, so will not extend the offence to electoral administrators.
Peter Stanyon, chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators said that although his organisation was pleased to see the government taking steps to protect those participating in democracy, they were “disappointed” that “provisions around intimidation will not be extended to those delivering democracy -including returning officers and staff in polling stations”. “Intimidation doesn’t just happen to candidates and campaigners, there is the potential for electoral teams to be in similar positions - I am aware of some instances anecdotally myself.”
The legislation will be brought forward “when parliamentary time allows” and will apply to UK parliamentary elections and other non-devolved elections, covering the period of notice of elections (25 working days before polling day) until seven calendar days after the close of the poll.