Clause 26 - Disqualification orders

Elections Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 26th October 2021.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

With this it will be convenient to consider that schedule 8 be the Eighth schedule to the Bill.

Photo of Kemi Badenoch Kemi Badenoch Minister for Equalities, Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (jointly with Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Clause 26 creates a new disqualification order for offenders who intimidate those who contribute to our public life. Political intimidation and abuse have no place in our society; they risk reducing political participation and corroding our democracy. To tackle the problem, the Committee on Standards in Public Life suggested that it would be appropriate to have specific electoral sanctions that reflect the threat posed by the intimidation of candidates and their supporters.

Based on the protecting the debate consultation, the Government committed to applying electoral sanctions to existing offences of intimidatory behaviour. That is precisely what the new disqualification order achieves. It is a five-year ban on standing for, holding, and being elected to public office. It can be imposed on those convicted of intimidating a candidate, elected office holder or campaigner. After all, it is simply not right that those who try to damage political participation through intimidation are allowed to participate in the very same process that they tried to undermine.

The disqualification order can be applied to a wide range of intimidatory criminal offences such as, but not limited to, stalking, harassment, common assault and threats to kill. For the disqualification order to be imposed, the intimidatory offence must be aggravated by hostility related to, for example, a candidate. That ensures that the disqualification is imposed only in instances where political participation is genuinely at risk.

The court that determines conviction for the intimidatory offence will also impose the disqualification order. Where the court is satisfied that the offence is aggravated by hostility, then it must impose the disqualification order, except where the court considers that there are particular circumstances that would make it unjust to do so. This sentencing model strikes the right balance between ensuring a sufficient deterrent against political intimidation, while maintaining the crucial role of the judiciary in determining the most appropriate penalty commensurate with the seriousness of the individual offence and in light of the specific circumstances of the offender.

The clause also gives effect to schedule 8, which lists the offences that, when committed by an offender with the necessary hostility, can trigger the imposition of a five-year disqualification order. There is no single offence of intimidation in criminal law, so the schedule lists a wide range of offences of an intimidatory nature in respect of which the new disqualification order can be imposed.

The list is based on a core list of offences suggested by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, such as common assault, harassment, stalking or sending communications with intent to cause distress and anxiety. Following public consultation, and engagement with key stakeholders such as the Crown Prosecution Service and the Electoral Commission, we have broadened the list to include four intimidatory offences.

It is important to cast our net widely in selecting intimidatory offences for the schedule; that will help to avoid a situation where a person commits an offence against a candidate with the clear intention of intimidating them but, because the offence is not included in the schedule, the new disqualification order cannot apply. That is why the clause should stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I have agreed that the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood can make her remarks while seated.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement

Thank you, Mr Pritchard. I welcome not just clause 26, but the whole of part 5 of the legislation. As shadow democracy Minister, I have had the unfortunate pleasure of having to take part in many debates about intimidation of candidates; I am sure all Members will be aware of some of the accounts.

We know that many of our colleagues are intimidated, and many candidates of our party have experienced intimidation and threats. It is devastating that we should be debating this clause so soon after the murder of our colleague, Sir David Amess, who was on the Panel of Chairs and chaired many debates on issues like this. I must be honest: I did not expect when I stood for election in 2015 that I would lose two colleagues to murder in such a short space of time. An attack on an MP, and an attack on a candidate, is an attack on democracy. The Opposition therefore welcome part 5 of the Bill.

I am making remarks about clauses 26 to 34 so that I do not have to bother for future clauses. My only concern is that some of the legislation does not go far enough. Many of the people who might go on to intimidate candidates, agents or campaigners might not be put off by the idea of not being able to stand for elected office for five years, because many of the people who commit these crimes are not interested in participating in our democratic processes—they are, in fact, opposed to the democratic process in its entirety.

As the Minister finds her feet in this new role, I would be very happy to open a dialogue with her to explore ways in which there might be a consensus across the House to ensure that our democracy, which we all take part in and support, can be strengthened so that we do not see the acts of violence and intimidation that we have seen in recent years deter good people from entering public life.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 26 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 8 agreed to.