New law needed to tackle intimidation of MPs, watchdog says

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Diane Abbott says she has been targeted by racist abuse

A new criminal offence of “intimidating parliamentary candidates and campaigners” should be created, a standards watchdog has said.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life says urgent action is needed to crack down on the rise in intimidation and abuse at elections.

It says social-media companies should tackle “persistent, vile and shocking abuse” directed at politicians.

But it also points the finger at the leaders of major political parties.

Leaders should “always call out intimidatory behaviour” even if it is perpetrated by those on the fringes of their party, the committee says in a new report.

Parties must also produce joint codes of conduct on abuse and intimidation during election campaigns by December 2018.

‘Hostile online environment’

And they should hold regular meetings with their rivals during election campaigns to make sure the code of conduct is being enforced, the committee says.

MPs from all parties have spoken about intimidation they were subjected to during the general election, with Labour’s Diane Abbott talking in graphic terms about the racist abuse directed at her.

The report, which was commissioned by Prime Minister Theresa May, urges the government to legislate to shift liability for illegal content on to social media and other internet companies to tackle an “intensely hostile online environment”.

It says Facebook, Twitter and Google “are not simply platforms for the content that others post” because they play a role in shaping what users see, and so “must take more responsibility for illegal material”.

But Brexit might provide an opportunity for the government take action – because social-media companies are not currently liable “largely” due to a European Union directive that treats them as “hosts” of online content.

‘Vigorous democracy’

Committee chairman Lord Bew said: “This level of vile and threatening behaviour, albeit by a minority of people, against those standing for public office is unacceptable in a healthy democracy.

“We cannot get to a point where people are put off standing, retreat from debate, and even fear for their lives as a result of their engagement in politics.

“This is not about protecting elites or stifling debate, it is about ensuring we have a vigorous democracy in which participants engage in a responsible way which recognises others’ rights to participate and to hold different points of view.”

A new criminal offence of intimidating candidates would “serve to highlight the seriousness of the issue” and act as a deterrent, the committee’s report says.

The committee says it is also concerned about the impact on the diversity of a British democracy and political parties have an “important responsibility” to support female, black and minority ethnic and gay candidates.

It also calls for legislation to remove the requirement for candidates standing as local councillors to have their home addresses published on ballot papers.

And it says traditional media outlets also have to think about how their coverage “might incite intimidation through delegitimising someone’s engagement in the political process, placing undue influence on their individual characteristics, or using threatening language”.

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