Government equivocates on MPs’ call for ‘urgent’ change in electoral law

Non-committal response issued to select committee recommendation

Credit: PA

The government has issued a tepid response to MPs’ call for “urgent legislation… to bring electoral law in line with digital campaigning”.

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee this summer published its report on the government’s Online Harms White Paper, which was released earlier this year. Committee members criticised the white paper for its “scant focus on electoral interference and online political advertising”.

MPs made a number of recommendations, the most significant of which was that changes to electoral law to reflect the growing role of online campaigning “should be brought forward at once”. This, the committee said, could be done via a standalone bill “dealing with transparency in political advertising”.

In its response to the committee’s report, the government did not commit to making any imminent alterations to electoral law. 

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It said that “the government agrees that protecting electoral and democratic processes is a key priority”. But, while claiming that it “recognises the seriousness and urgency of the situation”, the government said any changes should be preceded by a full consultation process.

“It is important we consult properly, consider the views of others, and ultimately ensure the regulatory framework is as robust as possible,” the response said. “It is an important and long-standing convention that any changes to electoral law affecting political parties must also involve full and proper consultation with the parties themselves. We would note that the committee has not formally consulted or taken evidence from political parties when it drew up its recommendations. The government is also conscious that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is undertaking a review into electoral law.”

The response also indicated that any changes to electoral law ought to balance the desire for transparency with the need to ensure candidates for public office are able to safely maintain a private life.

“In May 2019 the Cabinet Office announced a commitment to implement a digital imprint regime on digital election material. It remains our intention to bring forward technical proposals for this regime by the end of this year,” the response said. “The imprints issue is complex in relation to the government’s broader work on intimidation in public life.”

It added: “An imprint requires the publisher of election material to provide an address. The new regulations potentially will apply to candidates and politicians who engage in public campaigning. A requirement to publish their home address may jar with the actions of the government… to avoid politicians having to publicise their home address.”

Regulation situation
The Online Harms White Paper proposed the creation of a “new regulator for online safety”. 

In response, DCMS committee members recommended that they be given the power to veto the appointment or dismissal of the regulator’s chief executive – in much the same way as, in 2016, the Treasury Committee was given power of veto for the leader of the Financial Conduct Authority. 

MPs also recommended that the regulator be equipped with tough sanctions – including custodial sentences, as well as financial penalties and the “the ability to disrupt the activities of businesses that are not complying”. 

“It is an important and long-standing convention that any changes to electoral law affecting political parties must also involve full and proper consultation with the parties themselves.”
 Government response to DCMS committee

The government response offered little comment on whether MPs would be given the right to oversee the appointment of the regulatory CEO – only that whoever took on the role “will be accountable to parliament”, and that further details will be released this year.

In response to the call for strong sanctions, the government said that, while full details of the new watchdog’s enforcement clout will be released later this year, it will be armed with powers beyond simple fines.

“We have… consulted on a range of further powers for the regulator for use in the most serious of circumstances,” the response said. “This includes being able to take action to disrupt business activities, ISP blocking – by which we mean the blocking by internet service providers of access to non-compliant websites or apps – and making senior managers personally liable. We welcome the select committee’s support for this approach.”


Sam Trendall

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