Belfast Telegraph

Election trolls face being banned from public office in change of law

By David Wilcock

Online trolls convicted of a new crime of intimidating election candidates would be barred from public office themselves under plans being considered by the Government.

A new law would target those convicted of "threatening or abusive behaviour, either in person or online" towards those standing for Parliament or campaigners working for them, closing a loophole in legislation.

The measure follows a report on intimidation in public life which found that social media was "the most significant factor" driving harassment, abuse and intimidation of 2017 general election candidates, which included threats of violence and sexual violence, as well as damage to property.

The changes would also see a beefing up of measures to tackle "fake news" by extending the requirement for "imprints" showing who is responsible for election material in digital communications.

Minister are also seeking views on "clarifying" the electoral offence of having undue influence on voters, which is when people are threatened in an attempt to influence how they cast their ballot.

Constitution Minister Chloe Smith said: "This Government recognises that rising intimidation in public life is stopping talented people from standing for election and putting voters off politics and we want to tackle this extremely serious issue.

"We are consulting on three new measures that will protect voters, candidates and campaigners, so they can make their choice at the ballot box or stand for public service without fear of being victims of misinformation or abuse.

"We can't let intimidation of our candidates, campaigners, the public and those that serve us continue unchecked and I would encourage everyone to take part in this consultation."

Currently, extreme cases of intimidation are considered a serious criminal offence, punishable with a custodial sentence where evidence of sustained, pressurising behaviour intended to cause distress and impact campaigning is found.

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said the length of the ban on standing or holding public office would be one of the subjects consulted on.

The report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, published in December, had urged ministers to consider such a new offence.

It also said the Government should set up a "trusted flagger" social media reporting team during general elections so abuse and intimidation could be dealt with more quickly.

Northern Ireland peer Lord Bew, the committee's chairman, said: "Intimidation presents a real threat to the integrity, diversity, and vibrancy of our public life.

"People of all backgrounds should not be put off from standing for public office as a result of intimidatory behaviour.

"We warmly welcome that the Government are implementing our recommendation to consult on a new electoral offence of intimidating parliamentary candidates and introducing digital imprints.

"The Electoral Commission identified these gaps in electoral law in evidence to our review, and these measures would play an important part in protecting candidates and voters at election time."

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