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United Kingdom: Cabinet Office Details Government Actions to Tackle Public Intimidation Ahead of General Election

(Dec. 4, 2019) The Cabinet Office of the United Kingdom has issued an update detailing actions the government has taken to tackle public intimidation that candidates may face in the upcoming general election to be held on December 12, 2019. The experiences of many candidates during the 2017 general election resulted in the government commissioning a report into public intimidation of candidates in elections. The Cabinet Office has expressed concern that if intimidation and abuse are left unchecked, the way British democracy operates will change. A written statement from the Cabinet Office noted,

For those in public life, it has become harder and harder to conduct any political discussion, on any issue, without it descending into tribalism and rancour. Social media and digital communication – which in themselves can and should be forces for good in our democracy – are being exploited and abused, often anonymously.

The main emphasis of the update appears to be educating candidates about the existing laws that can be used to protect them from intimidation and how to report crimes of intimidation. The Cabinet Office has worked with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to produce guidance on how members of Parliament (MPs) should respond to threatening behavior and when such behavior should be reported to the police. This guidance also applies to candidates. The guidance covers the following offenses: criminal damage; different types of assault; harassment; stalking; hate crimes; threats to kill; public order offenses; and indecent, grossly offensive, and menacing communications.

The guidance explains how the police decide whether or not to charge a suspect with an offense, and how the CPS determines whether to prosecute an offense using its Code for Crown Prosecutors. The guidance includes information about the Code of Practice for Victims of Crimes, which contains standards on how victims of crimes should be treated and the information they should receive. It further explains how decisions by the police not to refer cases to the CPS, and by the CPS not to prosecute can be challenged.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council, the Electoral Commission, the College of Policing, and the CPS have issued joint guidance on the possibly criminal behaviors candidates may be subjected to during election campaigns. Other than specific electoral offenses, the criminal offenses detailed overlap with those contained in the CPS guidance.

The Cabinet Office recently conducted a public consultation to obtain feedback on proposals designed to protect the UK’s electoral process and candidates from undue influence and intimidation. As a result of the consultation, the government announced that it would introduce legislation to create a new electoral offense, clarify the law of unduly influencing voters, and introduce a program of digital imprints for political advertisements to enable viewers to see who is responsible for publishing it. As the upcoming election is a snap election, the government did not have time to enact legislation to implement these proposals, but the Cabinet Office has stated that it is committed to introducing such legislation in the future.

The government has also introduced a program called “Defending Democracy” that intends to help maintain the integrity of the electoral process. The program is designed to

protect and secure UK democratic processes, systems and institutions from interference, including from cyber, personnel and physical threats;

strengthen the integrity of UK elections;

encourage respect for open, fair and safe democratic participation; and

promote fact-based and open discourse, including online.

On May 5, 2019, the Cabinet Office introduced a series of new measures as a part of this program to help protect democratic procedures, including a ban on people found guilty of abusive or intimidating behavior from running for office; a new offense of intimidating a candidate or campaigner during the electoral period; imprints on digital election material; and a consultation to examine the laws regulating foreign donations. As with the other proposed measures detailed above, the government did not have time to enact legislation on these proposals prior to the election.

At the local level, the police have been briefed on their role for protecting candidates and have a dedicated point of contact whom candidates may contact if they have any concerns. The Cabinet Office has stated that the government has provided security advice and guidance to all MPs and that “there is a package of security measures available for homes and constituency offices,” but did not detail what these measures include. The Cabinet Office has further stated that online activity that crosses the threshold into illegal activity should be treated in the same manner as illegal activity offline and reported to the police. The Cabinet Office, Home Secretary, and Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have written to social media companies to advise them that they should provide advice to candidates in one place on their platforms on the type of content that breaches the platform’s terms and conditions, where to report breaches, and what to expect when they file a report.