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Electoral Conduct (Discrimination)

Volume 580: debated on Wednesday 7 May 2014

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

I am delighted to have secured this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. The debate follows an all-party parliamentary inquiry into electoral conduct, which reported only a couple of months ago, and the inquiry itself came about following another inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group against anti-Semitism, which found that anti-Semitism and all other forms of discrimination were still quite alive and well during UK elections. We set up the all-party parliamentary inquiry, which includes not only all parties across this House, but also some Members from the other place, to investigate whether there actually was a problem. When we found that there was, we tried to consider some constructive ways of addressing the issues to ensure that elections in this country are as free and fair as possible and that there is a level playing field for all people who want to put their names forward as candidates.

On the whole, elections in the UK have always been free, just and fair. We live in a mature democracy that values fairness and understands the importance of democracy and elections. Tensions do exist in some areas, however, and they vary between areas and over time. We know exactly where they are and they may be few, but they are a serious problem. The tensions can be ethnic, religious, sectarian or based on gender or sexuality and exist in small pockets around the country, where things can flare up during local council or general elections or by-elections.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. On that point, does she recognise the debate’s importance given an incident just last week in which a candidate in a local election made seriously offensive remarks about Islam and subsequently stood down?

Absolutely. As we move towards a general election in precisely a year’s time, we increasingly have to deal with offensive comments. From the outset, the inquiry made it clear that we prize above all else freedom of speech and people’s ability to say even offensive things, but also that we wanted to identify the line between speaking freely and being not just offensive but discriminatory.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her fine chairmanship of the inquiry, on which I was proud to serve. On local elections, there is so much more to do. A candidate in Enfield made appalling racist comments, for example. He resigned, but things nevertheless got to that stage and appropriate action was taken. The strongest words in the report focused on the Equality and Human Rights Commission for dereliction of duty in preventing discrimination during election campaigns. What does the hon. Lady have to say about more needing to be done, particularly by the EHRC?

Order. I ask that interventions be brief. If hon. Members want to speak, there are opportunities, so they can rise if they want.

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will come on to discuss the role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which, as he said, featured greatly in the inquiry’s deliberations when writing the report. We are, however, keeping an eye on local elections.

Before my hon. Friend moves on to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, does she agree that political parties have a fundamental role to play and that, following the inquiry’s brilliant work, they should all sign up to what this cross-party group of MPs has wisely recommended?

Absolutely. At top and bottom of our recommendations was the role of political parties. In fact, my hon. Friend and I have been busy speaking to people within political parties to ensure that they sign up not only in principle but in practice to some kind of code of conduct that allows individuals, be they candidates, members of the public or political party workers, to know where to go when there is not just a complaint, but a serious concern. Even though we have some recommendations for different agencies, it is the political parties that really need to work together. Having said that, we had good representations from all political parties, especially the smaller parties that compete against the large, mainstream political machines. They really co-operated with the inquiry and were looking forward to being given help to do better, so we were impressed by them.

I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) present. One thing that came out strongly from the inquiry was that some of the examples that we heard, some of which we could not publish in our report, were very extreme. Even though they are few and far between, I was shocked by some of the things that happen. I wish that they did not, and hope that we can work towards making them less likely to happen. Although we would like to wipe the problem out, it will always occur, so we need to ensure that people are less likely to behave in a discriminatory way in order to gain an electoral advantage. Our inquiry found that people in some areas were not putting their names forward as candidates out of fear for their lives, which happened across the board. Whether the tensions were religious, ethnic or based on their sexuality or gender, we found that people who would have been good candidates for elected office at any level were not putting their names forward. Everyone on the inquiry felt that that was unacceptable. We were impressed by the hon. Member for Ilford North and the former Member for Gloucester, Parmjit Dhanda, and understood how brave it was for them to give oral evidence in public, for which we were grateful.

A problem that we highlight in the report and would like a wider discussion about is that the offence, which can be intimidating and secretive in nature, is difficult to combat. A racist sitting in their garage printing vile leaflets will not put their name and address in an imprint on the bottom to enable the police to knock on their door and say, “This is unacceptable.” By its nature, the offence can be difficult to trace. The often tight-knit communities where smearing propaganda is being put out are closed by their nature and it can be difficult to get hold of the evidence in order to prove anything. That does not mean, however, that we should not try, or should not try to ensure that people are educated properly to make it less likely that this vile rubbish goes out in the first place.

In our report, we quoted at great length the 11—we thought that there were 10—self-evident and basic principles outlined by Lord Lester in his pamphlet from the 1990s, “Political Speech and Race Relations in a Liberal Democracy”. They are basic principles, but excellent ones. I will not read all of them, but an important one is:

“The right to free and unfettered political speech and debate is fundamental to democracy.”

We tried to achieve balance in our report, because where does robust political campaigning end and discrimination begin? On the one hand, we were all clear that we knew where the line was. On the other hand, we did not want an environment in which no one can come out and say things, even if they are sometimes offensive. Let people be judged at the ballot box; if they make rude, hurtful or nasty remarks, they tend to stand down because of public pressure or pressure from within their political party—that is the best pressure—or they are voted down in elections.

I, for one, was therefore delighted to see the end of the British National party, pretty much, at the last election. That demonstrates my point: once BNP members got elected to office, people saw how they behaved, did not like it and voted them out. That is how things should be. What we are trying to tackle is behaviour on the extremes that is not only unacceptable but intimidating and threatening, putting people in fear and stopping them putting their names forward as candidates.

I will go through some of our recommendations. In our call for evidence, we received some 50 responses from different organisations, including not only political parties but the election agencies—there was also a lot of interest from international election agencies—the police, who were very engaged with the inquiry; a lot of academics; trade unions; local councils, which gave some excellent evidence; and non-governmental organisations and Government agencies. We held two oral evidence sessions, which were well attended and very interesting, and some surprising things came out of them. I thank all those who put in written evidence and who took the time to come along to our sessions. Our inquiry was very rich in evidence and, as a result, we could produce a strong report at the end of it.

The report focused on a number of policy concerns, primarily policing and the law. The police who attended were engaged with electoral conduct—they have special units to deal with it—but the people who really impressed us were former members of the Commission for Racial Equality. They gave some excellent evidence on past best practice that had worked well and was being developed. It involved going out into communities that had already been identified, working with them and their leaders and the local councils, keeping information and developing databases, and focusing on the positive educational side. One of our recommendations to the Equality and Human Rights Commission is to look at the toolkit that the CRE had produced, dust it down, update it and see whether we can use it in the run-up to the next general election.

Reflecting on where the EHRC finds itself, does my hon. Friend share the view of many members of the committee? We could not quite understand why there has been that stepping back from good activity by the leadership of the EHRC. Should that not be what an Equality and Human Rights Commission is for in a democracy?

Absolutely. All of us on the committee were surprised at the attitude of the EHRC, especially as their evidence was initially positive and constructive.

I hope that the Minister will make at least one point clear to us. The EHRC says that it wants an instruction from the Government, and the Government say that it is properly a matter for the EHRC. We need clarity to ensure that we do not drop the ball and that previous good work is carried forward. We must be able at least to sort that out today.

Yes. I am going to skip around a bit and get hopelessly lost, so I might end up not doing all the bits that I wanted to, but I want to clarify that point. After the publication of the report, we had meetings with each of the different agencies that had given evidence and that we felt could do something to help. We have already mentioned the political parties, which must be the driving force, but all the other agencies were keen to help and open to recognising that there was a problem—that things were not working as well as they might once have done and certainly could work in the future.

Our issue with the EHRC was that it is the only organisation out of all those that came to give evidence to have one of those overarching umbrella roles. Obviously, the Commission for Racial Equality morphed into the EHRC, and we were sad to see that a lot of the excellent work that had been done in the CRE had got lost, shelved or was not carried forward. Our meetings with the EHRC were all focused on its budget cuts, on how it could no longer be as proactive as it might like and on how it was far more focused on providing policy research or legal help for those bringing cases of discrimination; it did not see its role as being anything to do with ensuring that conduct during election time was free, fair and not discriminatory. That kind of umbrella organisation is needed to lead the way, and we felt that leadership was lacking. All the other organisations can do what they like, but they do it in silos; we need the EHRC to knit everything together, so that we can all work together harmoniously to ensure that elections are more fairly conducted. Both of the points made by my right hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman are enormously important.

We have a meeting with the Minister planned for June, and it would be enormously helpful if a senior member of the EHRC were present. We recognise what the EHRC was keen to point out—that it is independent of Government and it has a board that sets strategy and decides on what its budget is spent on; and, moreover, that the strategy has been set and the money allocated, and not for the work that we are doing—but if someone from the EHRC was present at our meeting in June and the problem is a lack of resourcing, we as parliamentarians might be able to help with that.

I was going to ask the Minister about this, but my understanding is that the EHRC has programme funding that is held back and can be bid for. Perhaps it could put in a bid for the very work that my hon. Friend is calling for.

That is a helpful intervention and we are discussing that. The issue, however, is one of attitude. What we were so surprised by was the “No” response, when everyone else was saying, “Yes, we really want to help, what can we do? How can we most constructively go about doing it?” The EHRC response was, instantly, “No.” It is a question of changing attitudes and seeing what each of us can do in our own capacity to make sure that the work can go ahead.

I have already mentioned the police; I should mention the Association of Chief Police Officers and specifically two people who have been enormously helpful and positive. Gary Cann and John Askew recognised that we can do a lot more and made constructive proposals about how we can go about doing so, as well as giving us the benefit of their experience, which was invaluable to our work.

The Electoral Commission was also extremely co-operative—we met with Jenny Watson after our report was published. The commission was willing to do anything within its remit and said that as long as political parties could agree on this step, it would be more than happy to be the signposting organisation. Lots of people already go to the Electoral Commission for advice and information, and it would be more than happy to signpost people—be they candidates or individuals with issues or complaints—to the available information. The Electoral Commission was keen to work not just with us but with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the police and ACPO.

The political parties are key. The next election will be even tighter than before, and tensions are often higher in the run-up to tight elections than they would otherwise be. It is therefore important that all the political parties are signed up. Those of us here today represent different political parties; we should all act from within to make sure that our own party does everything it can. One helpful suggestion was the idea of having a named and prominent person within each political party to whom a complaint can be referred.

It is important that complaints are referred quickly, but one issue came up again and again. Often when some appalling behaviour occurs, whoever is responsible can be identified, and although people are sometimes reluctant to name names, they want the situation resolved quickly, before it gets out of hand. Sometimes candidates in general election campaigns behave in ways that their own political parties are not necessarily aware of, and would be shocked by if they were. It is a question of speed and of making sure that people—candidates and the electorate—are confident that political parties are dealing with problems quickly and that there will be an outcome. We will need safety nets to make sure there are not a million malicious and mischievous complaints, but if we are all committed, we can find a way to identify a threshold for such a process. Political parties are absolutely key.

The big problem we identified was third parties or non-parties—we are back to our racist in the garage printing nasty leaflets, who will not necessarily belong to any organised grouping and could simply be acting as an individual. Dealing with those people is going to be a big problem. Although we identified education as key to everything, we need to find ways to clamp down on that sort of non-party, third party organisation.

In summary—I want to allow others to speak—we would like the Minister not to interfere with the independence of the Equality and Human Rights Commission but to encourage it to work far more proactively with us and to show leadership. That will be key. We made a lot of progress with all the other agencies, so we want to encourage the EHRC to work more proactively with us. I have already mentioned our meeting with the Minister in June to make sure that she can encourage somebody from the EHRC to attend.

We also identified the press as a key area, but feel that there are some legislative weaknesses. Although we know that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is not the Department dealing with the press code, we hope that in its work with the Press Complaints Commission, it can highlight that there is a problem. People complaining to the Press Complaints Commission have to do so on the grounds of inaccuracy—that is what they have to prove. We want the Press Complaints Commission specifically to look at discrimination and some of the appalling behaviour during elections. Inaccuracy to us means something completely different from discrimination.

Our final point is outside the Minister’s remit, but it would be useful if she passed it on to colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government. Local government has a massive role to play in how candidates behave during election campaigns. Much of the relevant training is conducted through local authorities, and democratic services and electoral services at local authority level have to deal with a lot of the complaints in the first place. A lot more training is needed; that training ended with the Commission for Racial Equality and we would like it to be picked up again, so there can be training in areas where there are local tensions. There is legal provision for local authorities to correct false or misleading information, but that is falling by the wayside a little at the moment, so will the Minister encourage her colleagues to highlight that with the Department to make sure that that provision is used properly?

Finally, I thank all the members of the committee, who gave long service to our inquiry—one of the oral evidence sessions lasted an entire day. Our members were the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew); Lord Alderdice; Lord Beecham; the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), who also acted as vice-chair and took on a lot of the chairman’s role; the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes); my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy); my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) and for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra); the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell); and the hon. Members for Belfast East (Naomi Long) and for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford). I thank each and every one of them for all their service.

Our debate today is timely. There is exactly a year to go until the next general election, so the clock is ticking. If all of us—the agencies, the political parties and ourselves as parliamentarians— work together, we can make a difference and make sure that the next general election is cleaner, fairer, better and more just than previous elections. I hope we can foster an atmosphere of fairness so that we fight elections on policy, not on personality or people’s sexual orientation or religious or ethnic background.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, in a debate that is very timely indeed. I thank the all-party group against anti-Semitism, which sponsored the inquiry, and the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who in many ways was the driving force in setting it up. I served on the inquiry; it was a useful process, and it brought to the attention of the House and others the fact that we have a problem, but that there are opportunities to tackle it.

The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) has set out the range of evidence that we took and the recommendations we brought forward. There has to be a balance. While British elections are seen to be fair and run by decent-minded people in a decent way, if we look through any century of our democratic procedures—the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th and, no doubt, 21st—we can see that our elections have been pretty bloodthirsty and robust. We are well aware that, in an open democratic society, there has to be robust debate that will sometimes be challenging and offensive. However, it must not descend to discrimination, violence, bullying, or a climate in which legitimate candidates are deterred from even participating because of the risks they could face if they did. I hope—indeed, I believe—that our recommendations will tackle that and provide the right balance. I hope that the Minister agrees.

It is good to have had excellent responses from the agencies that we have called on to take action—the police, via the Association of Chief Police Officers; the Equalities Office; the Electoral Commission; and political parties. I was pleased that the Deputy Prime Minister responded to the report, from the Front Bench, in an open and constructive way. I note that not all the political parties have yet found time to respond officially. Although it is customary to pose questions to Ministers, I hope that it is not completely out of place to pose a question to the shadow Minister: does the Labour party feel able to put forward a response? I know that the intention is there, but it would be good if we could say that there had been a full-hearted response from all the political parties.

When we produced our report, the so-called lobbying Bill was going through the House. There were some interesting side-discussions on what should be done about non-party and third-party campaigning. The Bill is now an Act, and we will see in due course how it works in practice. Personally, I think that it provides the right level of oversight and supervision of third-party campaigns. We took evidence that showed that some of the worst and most egregious examples of bad behaviour came from those sources—not, of course, from charities and mainstream campaigning groups, but from others who travel in their shadow.

That raises a point that came out clearly in the evidence that we took from all the political parties—we took evidence from a wide spectrum of them. All shared with us the ways in which they sought to tackle discriminatory behaviour in their parties; how they sought to ensure that their candidates were aware of their obligations as potential public representatives and servants; and their good intentions for the future. It is therefore unfortunate that we have to report that, since our recommendations were published, we have seen further examples of what might be characterised as bad behaviour. The front page of at least one Sunday newspaper had a whole string of examples, one of which was of a candidate from a political party seeking office in my constituency.

That clearly shows that the issue is not just about vision statements or good intentions, but about ensuring that the good intentions expressed to the inquiry reach down from party headquarters to the selection, training and preparation of candidates and their campaign organisers in the grass roots, where nomination forms are filled in, election leaflets are circulated and, in these days, stuff is put on Facebook and Twitter. We know that there is a way to go.

I want to focus the remainder of my remarks on the constructive role that I think the Equality and Human Rights Commission can play. I understand that the EHRC might struggle to deal with situations in the hurly-burly of an election campaign, after nominations have been submitted and once leaflets had been circulated. Perhaps it might reasonably say that the issue was a little bit out of its depth. However, what is not out of its depth is all the preparatory work that has to go on beforehand to ensure that candidates, political parties and civic society more generally are fully aware of the responsibilities someone takes on when they sign a nomination paper and put their name on a ballot paper. If the commission can play an active and constructive role in that—I believe that it can—then it is in by far the best position of all the bodies available to achieve that.

The chair of our inquiry told the House just a few minutes ago that the Commission for Racial Equality, the predecessor of the EHRC, has developed a toolkit. The CRE held discussions with local authorities, and there was a framework for action. There might be some discussion about how thorough that was and whether it went far enough, but one thing we can say about it is that we certainly did not want it switched off. It needs to be maintained and possibly enhanced, not cut back. It is unfortunate that the EHRC, having given positive evidence to the inquiry about its wishes and aspirations, has drawn back from that.

To pick up the point made in an intervention, the EHRC’s programme fund appears to be a suitable vehicle for promoting training and awareness in the way that I have sketched out. I hope that the Minister will agree to meet the EHRC and members of the inquiry to discuss how we can take the matter forward. Of course the EHRC is and should remain independent of Government —it should take its own decisions—but it is open both to members of the inquiry and the Government to point out to the EHRC that it has in its hands the capacity to take the matter forward. It has, in its charter and constitution, an obligation to ensure that discrimination is tackled in all its forms. Perhaps we can encourage it to move forward.

The commission seems to have come to the view that in an age of austerity, this is one thing it cannot afford. I would say that was a mistaken judgment. An age of austerity—when the potential for community tension is higher, not lower; when the world of politics is much more fluid than ever before; and when people who have previously been in the shadows are being attracted to put their names on ballot papers—is exactly the time when the EHRC should be invited to step forward, fulfil its role and play an active part in tackling the abuses and concerns that we have identified.

I can understand it if the Minister feels lukewarm or hesitant about my proposal. Having sat in her corner of the Chamber as a Minister with some responsibility for social cohesion in the Department for Communities and Local Government, I know that she will have some double-spaced typed sheets that tell her just what she can say and how far she can go. I would not want her to break free from those sheets of paper, but perhaps she can at least take away from this debate a clear understanding that with one year to go, there are real opportunities to get it right and real consequences of getting it wrong. She and her Department can do something to encourage good behaviour by the EHRC and other institutions in the public service to deliver results.

However, I do not want to focus only and entirely on the EHRC; I want to be right up-front and say it is a matter for the parties. Every responsible political party has to take that responsibility seriously when it comes to the training and selection of their candidates, and the training, selection and delivery of their campaigners and campaigns. They also have to create a climate inside their political parties that shows the wide respect that we all expect to see and all promote here in the House. I hope very much that the debate will be an opportunity to open a door, rather than leading to anybody shutting any doors to fair, strong, democratic election campaigning in the next 12 months.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) both on chairing the inquiry on electoral conduct and on securing today’s important debate, which, as a number of Members have pointed out, is happening precisely one year before the next general election; I am sure that all of us were very aware of that.

I only want to say a few words, because I know that other hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate—in particular, the hon. Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott), who will bring great insight to these proceedings. I was pleased to serve as a member of the inquiry and was heartened when the general secretary of the Labour party said that he welcomed the report’s publication, but I am speaking in a personal capacity today.

All hon. Members will know from their campaigning experience that there is a kernel of truth behind the report’s key conclusion that

“there are insufficient support networks or referral systems in place for candidates suffering discrimination.”

Indeed, there is worrying evidence that reporting of such incidents may have declined in recent years.

The report contains compelling evidence that the law and regulations governing elections do not provide adequate protection for some candidates. We should remember that, as the report states, we do not compare unfavourably with many European countries, but there is a strong case for a wider review, and I hope that the Minister will study the report’s recommendations carefully—I am sure she already has—and respond positively to them.

We must always be vigilant in protecting our freedom of speech, but we also need to make sure that all sections of society feel able to take part in the democratic process, and that protections are in place to ensure that candidates are not dissuaded from standing for election. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire said, some Members, former Members and candidates have been subject to truly dreadful incidents and/or experiences. Their bravery in speaking out about those experiences is both welcome and necessary, particularly as we would all share the view, I believe, that Parliament needs to be as diverse as the country that we live in and seek to represent. The report represents an important step towards achieving the balance between freedom of speech and protection of potential candidates.

I finish by putting on record my thanks to everyone who contributed to the report, and particularly to the director of the Parliamentary Committee Against Antisemitism Foundation, Danny Stone, for his outstanding work and for making publication of the report possible.

I start by thanking the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) and her committee for all the work they have done, and I thank her for securing today’s debate. Originally, I was not going to speak in this debate—I know that many people say in debates that it was not their intention to speak, but it genuinely was not. However, I would like briefly to touch on what happened, the consequences of that, and on what is still happening because of the events that took place before the 2010 general election.

At that election, I remember very clearly that on a Friday, I was walking back to my car when two gentlemen—I use the word “gentlemen” very loosely—approached me, called me a dirty Jew and said they were going to kill me. I thought that was a bit extreme—not voting for me would have sufficed, but killing me seemed a little extreme—and I did what I normally do when I am particularly scared, and that is to use humour. I said, “I will put you down as a possible. You haven’t decided how you’re voting, have you?” They were as shocked by that as I was, and we ran off in separate directions.

Consequently, a week later, somebody gave me a leaflet that had been distributed in the area saying that I was an enemy of Islam, with a picture of me wearing a skull cap—it could only have been taken in a synagogue, which I felt was a bit wrong—and had statements on there that were totally wrong. It put words into my mouth that I had never said; none the less, it was given out and as the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire said, there was no imprint on the bottom. I was quite surprised when some of the authorities asked me, “Was there an imprint on the bottom?” I said, “When people are threatening to kill you, they do not usually say who they are.” None the less, the leaflet went out with quite a wide circulation.

That was some four years ago, so you would have thought, Mrs Main, that that has all died down, that it is history, that I won at the election and it is finished, but sadly it is not. I still regularly get e-mails saying that I should be stoned to death. Again, I am not quite sure why; none the less, I get them. After speaking in January at the Holocaust memorial day debate that we had in the Chamber, I also received a letter—again, there was no address on it—calling me a dirty Jew and saying that I should be killed for speaking up against people killing Jews. I found the whole thing ironic and stupid and said to the police that I did not want it taken any further, because it would have wasted valuable time on somebody who is not worthy of wasting any time on.

However, the consequences of what is stirred up at a general election—whether, in my case, because I am Jewish, or in somebody else’s case, because of their sexuality, or maybe other religions, or the colour of their skin—goes on for years afterwards. Sadly, anyone can google my name and the names of other hon. Members of the House and see some of the vile things that are on the net today.

I agree totally with the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell) that political parties and the authorities have a responsibility, but I think it goes beyond that. At some stage, somebody, somewhere, needs to be prosecuted, found guilty and punished for it, because of the distress that they cause. I am talking not about hon. Members—I say openly that when we put ourselves up for election we have to have a pretty thick skin; I am not a shrinking violet—but about their families. My family should not have had to go through what they had to go through and have panic buttons, or come with me to meetings where I had two police officers with me, which made it look like I was out on bail, not attending hustings. It is ridiculous that it is allowed to happen.

With the rise of not only anti-Semitism but homophobia and any other thing we could mention, I fear that the problem is not going to go away or get better. We could see it get a lot worse. As the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire rightly said, we are told that the next election will be very close, which will mean that sometimes, people might get carried away. Going beyond the main parties—or even the smaller of the main parties—I saw a leaflet for the council elections in my borough in the past three weeks. I will not name who sent it; the name was on there, but I do not want to give them the publicity. It was disgraceful—absolutely vile and disgraceful. It included pictures—I am not saying for one second it is illegal, but it does incite hatred and contain lies. The consequences of that—we will find out; we will face them. In some cases, it may well be somebody in their back garage printing leaflets, but the leaflet that was put out about me was not printed in a back garage. It was printed professionally. It was glossy and it was handed out.

We have a lot of ongoing problems. The work of the committee, Danny Stone and everyone involved in highlighting those is tremendous. I commend all the political parties for taking it on board. I pay tribute to the leader of the Liberal Democrat party for engaging with what is said, and I know that other political parties will do likewise. The Minister—I am honoured to call her my hon. Friend, and we have been friends for quite a long while—knows those problems and will also take them on board.

I fear that this is going to go way beyond the present position, because some of the organisations that perpetrate such behaviour are vile: we can read their websites and find out what they are saying about each and every one of us. What is happening is just vile.

As I said, it was not my intention to speak today. I am not ashamed to say—I have said it publicly before—that on the evening of the last election, I went home and did something I had not done since the birth of my child, who is 25: I actually cried. I said, “What the hell am I doing this to myself for? Do I really want to do this, and do I want to be an MP? Is it worth it for my family?” As it happens, I believe that it is, because the good work of every Member of Parliament, irrespective of their party and where they are, who tries to help their constituents to the best of their ability, is worth the pain. However, it has gone on for five years and I have no expectation that it will stop; it will carry on through to the next general election and—forgive me—for the next five years as well, I hope. The electorate will decide that next year, of course. None the less, it is a horrible thing to go through; I say that for my family rather than myself.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) for securing this important debate and opening it so well. She and her colleagues should be congratulated for their stewardship of the inquiry on electoral conduct and the quality of the excellent report they produced, which we are discussing today. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who is not in his place at the moment, and who chairs the all-party group on anti-Semitism, for its tireless work in tackling discrimination at all levels.

The report has plugged a big gap in the study of the democratic process in the UK and I hope that it will become compulsory reading for everyone, from political parties and candidates to local authority officials, and particularly for the Electoral Commission and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It contains examples of the worst of human behaviour, some of which we heard about from the hon. Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott). He was brave to talk about it, and even braver to live with it day in, day out. I commend him for his determination to carry on doing so. It is all the more horrendous, reading the report, to realise that such things have been perpetrated against people we know and consider friends. For instance, there is discussion of the pig’s head left outside the family home of Parmjit Dhanda, a former Minister who was an excellent colleague. The report also highlights things written in his local newspaper. Colleagues yesterday reminded me of the anti-Semitic campaign waged against my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) by his Lib Dem opponent at the last election.

One of the issues I am looking at, at the moment, is how we can increase the representation of people from black and minority ethnic communities at all levels of the political system, not in a spirit of box-ticking or tokenism, but because our political system and the decisions that it makes are better if they more accurately reflect the country and the communities they affect. I am sure that for many candidates the threat of their skin colour, background or faith—not to mention their children’s or relatives’—being turned into smears or innuendo or leading to harassment or abuse such as we have heard about today is a real consideration. Of course, that applies to gender as well.

I am sure that the Minister and other hon. Members will be aware that the all-party group on women in Parliament is doing significant work on the issue, and I am pleased to be on the panel for that. I worry that the fear I have described will mean that many excellent candidates never seek their local party’s nomination or get the chance to be elected. None of us goes into politics without the fear of attack, and none of us is immune from attack on some level; but we should always expect any attacks on us to be based on choices or decisions that we have made, the things we have said, the way we have voted, or what we have done. We should never accept attacks based on the things we cannot change about ourselves, such as race, gender, sexual orientation or disabilities. Neither should we attack others, or allow them to be attacked by our supporters or others, in that vein.

Every talented and enthusiastic potential candidate who shrinks away from seeking office because of the fear, perceived or real, that they will be the victim of discrimination, is a loss to their community and the country. Those people are also a loss to the political party that they might have represented. Political parties owe their survival to the continual need to bring through new talent and come up with new ideas. They cannot afford to exclude people from that, and neither can they afford people excluding themselves because of a fear of discrimination.

If for no other reason than that, all the major political parties should pay close heed to the recommendations in the report—particularly on how they support candidates in withstanding such attacks. I am happy to discuss that with my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire in my role as Labour’s spokesperson on equalities. She and our colleagues will know that there are some support networks out there. For example, I am a mentor for the Fabian women’s network candidates programme, and have been paired with our prospective parliamentary candidate for Brighton, Kemptown. The party has its own future candidates programme, and I am sure that other parties do similar things. I am certainly keen to discuss with my hon. Friend what more we can do.

The debate is timely, in the sense that we are well into an electoral period in which there has rightly been a particular focus on the views of certain candidates—and particularly those of a certain party. However, as the report makes clear, the problems are not exclusive to an individual party or to far-right groups. Nor are they confined to a certain election or historical period. They are persistent, cyclical problems that will continue unless we do something meaningful about them.

One of the big problems we found was that the mainstream political parties feel that they already have processes in place; they do not want people to see them as not working as well as they should on the issue. Will my hon. Friend work within the Labour party to ensure that we are committed to signing up to something with all the other political parties, rather than working with them in a conflictual manner, so that we can achieve the greater aim? I just want to get her commitment to work within the Labour party so that we can do that from our side.

I can definitely give that commitment today to work with my hon. Friend to see what we can do within our party.

The central thing that I took from the report was the need for a statutory body to take a lead. There is much that political parties can do and agree on, especially at this time in the electoral cycle, but we should not be under any illusion: come 2015, all political parties will be primarily and almost myopically focused on the campaign and on winning every vote they can. It will simply not be possible for national or even regional officers to vet or review every single leaflet, YouTube clip or tweet from their candidates or their opponents, or anyone else who seeks to influence votes, as in the kind of non-party campaigning outlined in the report. Nor is it possible for political parties to issue guidance to public bodies on their duties to promote equality and good relations between communities.

We have an Electoral Commission and an Equality and Human Rights Commission; and we also have the police for when things really cross over into illegality, such as in the incident described by the hon. Member for Ilford North. The EHRC has had serious budget and staff cuts during this Parliament, but I cannot believe that it no longer has the capacity to play a role. After all, what could be more damaging to equality and good relations between communities than influential people such as local or national politicians using discriminatory language, producing discriminatory campaign literature, or being seen to condone such discrimination?

The hon. Lady is making an important point. One issue that we identified when compiling the report was that it is very difficult for any authority to take timely action, because often, by the time an investigation has taken place, the election is over and done with and in some cases there has been an impact on the outcome. That is one of the most serious and difficult issues for us to grapple with.

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. There was a case in which action was taken and a Member of Parliament was forced to step down because of something that had happened. However, the hon. Lady is right: the delay can sometimes mean that it is very difficult to follow things up.

I understand that the Government now hold a programme budget back from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, for which it has to bid in relation to specific pieces of work. I believe that a portion of that fund may have been allocated since the report was published, but that some remains. The Minister may be able to tell us whether the EHRC has bid, or is bidding, for some of the fund to do this work ahead of next year’s general election, or whether she would like to recommend that it do so following the report.

Police forces have also seen their budgets cut considerably, and understandably, electoral conduct is only a very small issue for them. Again, however, there is clearly merit, from a crime prevention point of view, in ensuring that they stamp out discrimination in electoral campaigns before it reaches the point described in the report, with police having to escort the hon. Member for Ilford North to hustings and stepping in in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005. Of course, the Electoral Commission has a responsibility to ensure that elections are conducted in an orderly way. It seems sensible for that to include an overarching responsibility to pull together the various strands of work to help to prevent discrimination.

We should not forget that the vast majority of political campaigning in this country, and certainly that done by the parties represented in the Commons, maintains very high standards. Yes, it is often negative in tone and it is sometimes, regrettably, personal in nature, but by and large it seeks to highlight facts and figures and policies and records, whereas discrimination in all its forms, whether it is born out of ignorance, irrational fear or plain old stupidity, is simply unacceptable in 21st-century Britain and should not go unchallenged. But even more than that, discriminatory behaviour, and the encouragement of such behaviour by others, that is born out of cynical calculation, a desire for self-promotion or simply cowardice is absolutely despicable and should have no place whatever in British politics.

It is our responsibility as people who serve our constituents—not just some of them, but all of them—not just to avoid discriminatory behaviour and language ourselves, but to challenge it wherever we find it. Doing and saying nothing is not being diplomatic; it is pandering to it and tacitly agreeing with it. I believe that, as elected representatives, we have a responsibility, a duty, to lead work aimed at strengthening the bonds that tie communities together, not to stoke the flames of suspicion, fear and illogical hatred, which rip them apart. That duty applies just as much when we are seeking the support of those communities in an election as when we are not.

I have already said that I am more than happy to speak further to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire about what we can do within the Labour party on these issues. I agree with her recommendation that each political party have a named person to take the lead on them. However, she and her colleagues are right to say that this is a cross-party issue, so although I am looking forward to hearing what the Minister intends to do to address some of the concerns raised by the report and by my hon. Friends and others during the debate, I for one would be happy for the debate to continue outside the Chamber and to see what action we can agree on a cross-party basis.

My hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire and her colleagues on the inquiry panel have set a great example, and it is important that their work now be taken forward and that we do everything we can to stamp out discrimination and the victimisation of others for political gain.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank all hon. Members for their passionate and sensitive speeches and many interventions about an issue that is certainly important to us all. Also, right at the beginning, I congratulate the all-party parliamentary inquiry into electoral conduct on its work. I was personally dismayed by the shocking examples of racism and discrimination during election campaigns featured in the detailed report that was produced.

The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who introduced the debate, already knows this, but for the benefit of the other people in the Chamber, I can confirm that a meeting has been set up for us in, I believe, June—I am not sure of the precise date. I look forward to meeting her. I am also very happy to meet members of the commission to discuss the inquiry’s findings. This is a very important issue to the Government and to me, as the Minister for Women and Equalities. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said when the inquiry published its report, we need to ensure that we keep this sort of horrible racism out of politics. That is exactly what some of the conduct and behaviour is.

As Minister for Women and Equalities, I recently took part in a debate on parliamentary representation. It was clear from the discussion that the Government, political parties and Parliament are making quite good progress, but it was recognised by everyone that we still have a very long way to go. I believe that tackling prejudice and ignorance is essential to the functioning of our democracy. Human rights principles provide a basis from which to build and maintain a safer, more prosperous, cohesive society, with care and consideration for the dignity and well-being of everyone at its heart.

Eleanor Roosevelt spoke about the importance of making the universal declaration of human rights

“a living document, something that is not just words on paper”;

something that is not just written down, but that we

“bring to the lives of all people”.

When the UN General Assembly agreed the Paris principles, Roosevelt’s vision started to become a reality. The Paris principles detail the role that national human rights institutions are expected to perform and make it very clear that such institutions must be independent of Government and that their independence must be guaranteed in legislation. The Equality Act 2006 established the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Britain’s first national human rights institution. The EHRC is independent of Government, and its remit is limited to equality and human rights issues. In 2009, the United Nations reviewed the EHRC’s work and structures and subsequently designated it an A-status national human rights institution, which means that it fully complies with the Paris principles.

The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire and many other hon. Members have raised genuine concerns about the EHRC and its response to the inquiry’s recommendations. I will respond to some of those concerns in as much detail as I can. I know it has been claimed that the commission should engage in certain work and that it should be taking responsibility and showing enthusiasm. However, if the Government failed to respect the independence of the EHRC by requiring it to do certain work, the EHRC could see its status downgraded or cease to be recognised as a national human rights institution by the United Nations. I understand what the hon. Lady is saying, but I think that it is for the all-party group against anti-Semitism, which has played an important role in getting us to the position that we are in today, or hon. Members with concerns or other relevant groups, to make the case to the EHRC’s board, which sets the work programme. I will come back later to the question of encouragement.

If the Government directed the EHRC to create an election toolkit, which was recommendation 1 in the inquiry’s report, we would be asking a regulator charged with ensuring people’s freedom of expression to seek to limit how people exercised that freedom of expression in relation to campaigning. That would create a degree of inconsistency. The Government believe that it is for individual political parties to decide what they want. If they feel that such a toolkit might be useful, it is for them to produce one.

Various political advertisements have been mentioned today, and it is worth noting that political advertising is exempt from the British codes on advertising and sales promotion. Consequently, even the bodies that could in principle regulate in this area are unable to do so. The best course of action—it is a practical one, which often works—for anyone with concerns about a political advert is to contact the party responsible and exercise their democratic right to tell that party exactly what they think. If it is felt that the advert amounts to discrimination or hate crime, that is a matter for the courts and the police. The police take hate crime and racism very seriously.

The guidelines made available by the CRE were used extensively by local authorities, returning officers and others who regulate the election process. Does the Minister not see a wider role than simply issuing guidelines to political parties?

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman has to say, and I know that he participated in the inquiry. However, the issues are electoral ones. The Electoral Commission publishes guidance and deals with misconduct. If the sin or the abuse is worse than misconduct, it is, of course, discrimination and it is dealt with by the courts. If it is worse than that—if it amounts to hate crime or racism—the police will take such matters seriously. If political parties feel that codes of practice are needed, it is for them to reach agreement and produce such codes.

I think the point that the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell) raised, which I would like to raise as well, is that there is a need for the EHRC to look at preventing discrimination. The Minister is talking about a process for dealing with discrimination when it is found, but we are saying that it would be much better if the EHRC were more proactive in going out and training, advising and using toolkits to prevent discrimination from happening in the first place.

I hear and understand the point that the hon. Lady is making. The EHRC is a highly respected, A-status established body. I know that she has concerns, but the EHRC does a huge amount of work to tackle unlawful discrimination and promote equality. Should it do more? That is something that we might discuss in our meeting in June, but I must emphasise that the EHRC is independent, and it must decide what it will do. It is important that lobbyists lobby appropriately, particularly when it comes to racism and discrimination. I will say a little more about the role and function of the EHRC as I progress.

If the EHRC’s remit was extended to cover electoral law, it might go beyond its powers as specified in the Equality Act 2010. Some of the ideas raised today might well result in such an outcome, so we must be careful. It would be inappropriate for the EHRC to draw up annual guidance on electoral conduct, as set out in recommendation 3 of the inquiry report—the Electoral Commission leads on that area—or on hate crime, which the police enforce through the courts. Instead, the Government believe that relevant groups, including all-party parliamentary groups, and hon. Members who have concerns must work with the Electoral Commission and the police to deliver recommendations aimed at electoral reform, criminal harassment and hate crime.

I agree with the all-party parliamentary inquiry that it is important that people know exactly where to go if a candidate’s campaign material contains false or misleading statements or breaches of electoral rules. However, the Electoral Commission already produces guidance for the police and the Association of Chief Police Officers, so it seems sensible for the police and the Electoral Commission to ensure that that guidance covers discrimination and hate crime rather than for the EHRC to create separate guidance. We are in agreement about what needs to be done; it is simply a question of the vehicle, the tool or the method by which we achieve it. I want to work with the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire on this.

Recommendation 19 suggests that the EHRC should produce a standardised framework for reporting discrimination during election campaigns. In practice, the Electoral Commission and the police have their own published guidance on how to report electoral misconduct and how to report a crime. Guidance on reporting unlawful discrimination is available from the Equality Advisory and Support Service, which is funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Let me pick up some of the other questions that I have been asked. I have touched on the question of encouraging the EHRC to work more proactively and to show leadership, and we can certainly discuss that when we meet in June. I will be happy to see the hon. Lady and members of the commission there. Of course, the EHRC will be invited, and I am hopeful that a very senior person will be able to attend. As I have said, it is for relevant groups, APPGs and concerned Members of the House to lobby and make the case to the EHRC’s board, which sets its work programme. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell) will be pleased, because I am moving right off the type of script that he described. The EHRC may be able to provide assistance, and when we meet, we can discuss that further.

The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire mentioned the press code and asked whether the Department for Culture, Media and Sport could raise with the Press Complaints Commission the issue of discrimination. The standards code is a matter for press self-regulation, not for Government, but I hope that there will be an opportunity for organisations to put forward their views on any revisions to the standards in the code.

What the hon. Lady had to say about the possibilities for local authorities was very interesting. I am happy to raise such issues with Ministers from the Department for Communities and Local Government, but I can tell her now that it is already an offence to make or publish false statements about the personal character or conduct of other candidates; it is also an offence to publish or distribute threatening, abusive or insulting material that is intended to stir up racial hatred. Of course, it is for the returning officer to investigate any claims of electoral malpractice, and they would refer the matter to the police for further investigation if necessary.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), asked a couple of times whether the EHRC could use the programme funding to help to fund the type of work we are discussing, if it felt that that was appropriate; my right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell) also raised that issue. I can tell them both that programme funding bids can be made, provided they do not overlap with the work of other Government Departments or agencies. It is a matter for the EHRC to make that application, not for the Government to tell it to do so, and it must decide what work it considers appropriate and wants to do. The shadow Minister asked whether any such bid had been made thus far; to my knowledge, no bid has been made in relation to this particular type of work.

The shadow Minister asked about the current role and functioning of the EHRC. It certainly does want to promote understanding and good practice, and it has indicated that it will use its powers under section 8 of the Equality Act 2006 to enable it to do so with any interested parties. However, as the hon. Lady knows, the EHRC no longer has a specific good relations mandate, and the Equality Acts do not apply specifically to electoral conduct.

Budget cuts were raised, but I am not going to dwell on that because I do not want us to be distracted from such an important debate, which focuses on the very important problems of discrimination and racism. Nevertheless, I can confirm that the EHRC was not established to deal with electoral issues; it was set up to deal with equality and human rights issues.

The parliamentary inquiry on electoral conduct was thorough and detailed and made recommendations to a number of bodies, including the Electoral Commission, the police and political parties. Building its findings into current work and guidance and working with the right organisations is the best way to ensure that political life becomes a battle of ideas, not of race hate and discrimination. The inquiry raised very important issues relating to racism and discrimination in elections that must be dealt with. The means to tackle those problems are in place, but it is important that all concerned work towards combating racism and discrimination. I will of course play my part where I can.

Order. I thank the Minister who is due to respond to the next debate for attending in such a timely fashion. He has agreed to the debate starting early, with the permission of the hon. Member who initiated the debate.