Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence, and Information – an Update

Comments joking about raping MP Jess Phillips by a newly selected UKIP candidate for the upcoming European Election have sparked discussion about the online abuse those in public life face. The current gap in legislation means police are still deciding whether an offence has been committed, and what sort of harm it represents.

Scottish politicians have also recently highlighted the growing problem of online abuse in politics .

6 months ago, in collaboration with the Centenary Action Group, Glitch responded to the Cabinet Office consultation “Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence and Information”.

We were pleased to see the UK government recognising the need for stronger legislation to address hate and abuse in politics as well as the ways in which digital technology is used to target women in public life.

We expressed support for the proposed new offence in electoral law of intimidating Parliamentary candidates and party campaigners. However, any new offence created must recognise the gendered and intersectional nature of abuse women suffer in political life. Threatening and harassing those in public life is not acceptable; it is toxic for politics, a threat to democratic engagement and silences healthy debate.

This consultation must introduce robust measures to address intimidation of parliamentary candidates and party campaigners, including potentially criminalising intimidation of party candidates online and offline. We also called for broader measures to be taken to tackle intimidation, harassment and abuse of those in public life.

Why is this so important?

If unchallenged, abuse and harassment of candidates and campaigners will undermine representation and inclusiveness in politics. As the consultation recognised, Amnesty International’s research found Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic (BAME) women Members of Parliament are targeted far more than their white colleagues. Ultimately, hate can seriously damage people’s wellbeing and fuel violence in real life, as we saw in the tragic murder of Jo Cox MP in 2016.

Everyone across society should feel safe and able to access their right to stand for public office; these issues must be addressed directly and fully to protect democracy from new threats. Making the intimidation of those in public life an electoral offence is not only a vital first step, it sends a message that such behaviour will not be tolerated.

What is Glitch calling for?

  • The government response to this consultation, and any new offence created, should pay more heed to specific, gendered and intersectional abuse women suffer in political life
  • Individuals found guilty of a specified offence should be prohibited from standing or holding any elected office for a period of 5 years. This would ensure consistency with other electoral offences and serve as a deterrent
  • The new electoral law should also cover people who have publicly stated they are going to stand for election even when their candidacy has not officially commenced
  • Digital citizenship needs to be central to education, taught universally and from a young age. This is now recognised around the world from UNESCO to the UK House of Lords

What was the consultation’s outcome?

From July to October last year, 41 formal responses were submitted. The government has published a report summarising outcomes this month.

The proposal to introduce a new offence was generally welcomed; most responses agreed that intervention is needed to protect political debate.

What happens next?

The Government has taken some initial steps including;

  • Provision of a Crown Prosecution Service information pack for MPs to help recognise and report intimidating behaviour
  • Discussions with social media companies about a ‘pop up’ social media team to provide support during elections
  • Steps to implement the recommendation that “the Government should bring forward legislation to remove the requirement for candidates standing as local councillors to have their home addresses published on the ballot paper”

However, as the European elections approach, candidates are still at risk.

What can I do?

The Fawcett Society has created a petition calling for the Government to take this more seriously as a matter of urgency. You can read more and add your voice to the call for a more respectful, kind, hate-free politics here.

Reform takes time. We cannot wait for new legislation, whether from this consultation or from the Online Harms White Paper, we need action now.  By committing to ring-fencing at least 1% of the new digital services tax, announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2018, the Government could commit £4m annually to ending online abuse.

Through no negative deficit, we can lay foundations to ensure we are world-leading in the digital arena and that everyone can participate online safely. Now is the time for this Government to invest in ending online abuse and in creating a safer web for tomorrow.

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