Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Electoral Conduct, and its various recommendations.
My Lords, as a result of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, we know that it will be five months until the next Westminster election. Those of us who observe the culture and feel of politics also know that this election will find immigration as one of the top priorities and concerns of the voters and therefore of the political parties. When there is this degree of polarisation in politics, not just in this country but much more widely, one cannot but be concerned that the conduct of the next election may not particularly distinguish politics in this country. That is because of the possibility that, in the conduct of the election, some of those involved—whether in newer or more traditional political parties—might expose many of our people to unseemly conduct, behaviour and remarks. It therefore seemed to me appropriate to ask Her Majesty’s Government what their response is to the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Electoral Conduct, which was chaired by Labour’s Natascha Engel MP, chair of the Backbench Business Committee in the other place.
It may be helpful to your Lordships’ House if I reprise the history of this report. Back in 2005, John Mann, the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism, commissioned a report on anti-Semitism in elections, because there had been a number of complaints. The report was produced in 2006. There were some 35 recommendations. In particular, the report suggested that the Electoral Commission should draw up a contract of acceptable behaviour outlining the duty of all election candidates to exercise due care when addressing issues such as racism, community relations and minorities during political campaigning. In the Government’s 2007 response to that inquiry, they advised that the matter was one for the Electoral Commission. However, in its submission to the inquiry, the Electoral Commission advised the panel that it believed that codes beyond the reach of the law were unenforceable. The committee essentially concurred with this.
As time went on, John Mann was increasingly frustrated by the lack of action on the basis of that report. It was clear that there was reason to be worried about racism, sexism, homophobia and discrimination against candidates on the basis of their mental health. He commissioned an inquiry that would go much more widely into all aspects of electoral conduct where these matters might arise. I declare an interest, as one of the Members of your Lordships’ House who took part in that inquiry. It had participation from across our parties in the two Houses. Its aim was to investigate electoral conduct with a focus on discriminatory behaviour, to assess current rules, to uncover models of good practice and to make recommendations for change. At all times, we were explicitly clear that we did not seek to inhibit freedom of speech. The report included 11 obvious and self-evident basic principles for free speech in campaigning, which drew heavily on the report of my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, Political Speech and Race Relations in a Liberal Democracy, produced in the early 1990s. Its principles still stand.
The response to our call for evidence was strong. We secured 50 responses from a wide range of concerned parties including, but not limited to, domestic and international elections agencies, the police, academics, trade unions, councils, elected officials, community groups and leading NGOs. We held two oral evidence sessions. At these we heard disturbing stories of racism from former Minister Parmjit Dhanda and the honourable Member for Ilford North, Lee Scott MP. We also heard from political parties including UKIP, the SDLP and the Liberal Democrats. In fact, all the political parties represented in Parliament, with the exception of Respect, submitted evidence.
When our report was published in October 2013, it received public praise from the Speaker, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the President of the Liberal Democrats, the Chairman of the Conservative Party, the General Secretary of the Labour Party and key stakeholders. So there was a good deal of encouragement, but it seems to me that it is now time to ask Her Majesty’s Government what their response is.
There were four main areas, the first of which was policing, regulation and the law. The response from the Association of Chief Police Officers was extremely positive. It already had a strong set of plans and a good programme and it wrote to advise that it would be implementing nearly all our recommendations. However, we found that, while in many ways there was sufficient legal provision to address incidents of racism and discrimination in UK elections, the law was underused or, perhaps in some situations, misunderstood. We recommended that some of the language of electoral law might be updated. We were advised by the Law Commission that it was undertaking a consultation on such a change. It wrote to tell us that our recommendations would help in the design of its consultation. It would be helpful if my noble friend the Minister could indicate whether the Law Commission has made any representations to the Government.
The Commission for Racial Equality had been very helpful in producing guidance and demystifying the law in the past, but the successor body, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, had perhaps been less impressive in that regard. However, at our urging a meeting was held between the Minister, Helen Grant, the EHRC and the committee chair Natascha Engel. The Minister said that an application for funding from the EHRC would be carefully considered, because the EHRC had said that it would have to access a project fund if it was to be able to take forward work on electoral conduct and on a guide for local authorities, as that was outside its core business plan. It would be helpful if my noble friend could update us on the progress of that bid and any consultations that there have been.
Press and advertising are another key element of the problem. We addressed concerns about discrimination in the media, having heard evidence of homophobia, racism and anti-Semitism. Under the former Press Complaints Commission code, if a group of, for example, Muslims was subject to alleged discrimination, an individual from that group would be required to complain under clause 1—accuracy—of the code and not under the relevant part on discrimination. The committee saw this as illogical and outdated. Since the inquiry, we have made representations to the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee. At the end of September, we were told that updating the code would be a key priority for the newly formed Independent Press Standards Organisation. We believe that attempts to secure a sensible balance between the defence of freedom of expression and the protection from discrimination should be possible. It would be helpful if my noble friend could reassure me that Ministers will reiterate these concerns to IPSO.
Another concern is the development of new communications media, which enables broadcasting on the internet, and, of course, the use of Facebook, Twitter and so on. This is a challenge for us all and the issue was raised by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I declare an interest as a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. In its 13th report, Command Paper 8208, on party funding, the committee expressed a concern about the impact of new media that went beyond the question of funding. Do the Government have any thoughts on this issue?
The key agents in elections are the political parties themselves. In order to ensure that there is appropriate behaviour, a draft framework has been put together for the parties. We will continue to seek cross-party agreement. This is something with a historic precedent. In the 1990s, the three major parties at that time agreed a compact on how they would behave, which was subsequently extended to the nationalist parties. Now, however, we are in a situation where there are even more parties which are significant in the electoral process and which may be considered significant in this matter. If my noble friend the Minister could take back the group’s shared, cross-party desire for a draft framework agreed by the various parties, and for the Government to encourage the parties to reach such an agreement, it would be most welcome.
Finally, we registered a concern, which was also mentioned by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in its report, that non-party campaigning groups may become an increasingly significant aspect of elections in this country, as they have in the United States of America. The Committee on Standards in Public Life was looking at this question particularly in terms of party funding, but we believe that the ability of parties to depend on third parties to behave in a way that would not direct opprobrium and guilt towards the official party but would nevertheless be inappropriate behaviour is a significant dilemma. We would welcome an indication from my noble friend the Minister as to whether this is an issue that the Government are also monitoring and addressing in the upcoming elections. It is timely for the Government, having had the report for about a year, to now give us a response. In view of the upcoming election, such a response would be very welcome.
My Lords, I can hardly conceive of circumstances in which I would find myself seriously at odds with my noble friend Lord Alderdice. No one has a fuller understanding than my noble friend of the situation in Northern Ireland and of how stability can be preserved there. I almost invariably agree with his views on the affairs of the Province, in which I take a particular interest, and I am largely at one with my noble friend again this evening.
The report before us is a formidable document, based on wide inquiry and careful research. It is all the more persuasive because it does not overstate the problems with which it is concerned. In paragraph 9, for example, the report makes it clear that,
“the UK is not out of step with international good practice. Taking a wider view, the UK is also performing well in a European and global context”.
The report’s introduction emphasises the overwhelming importance of preserving free speech. It endorses the fine description of free speech produced some years ago by my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, to which my noble friend Lord Alderdice referred. The report reminds us that,
“free speech must not be misused in the name of political freedom or prejudice and intolerance as a political weapon to instigate hatred”.
The report is a balanced and measured document, which keeps the issues of discrimination and racism in proportion but rightly recalls some truly dreadful incidents, to which my noble friend has already referred, that have occurred at recent elections. They remind us that everything possible must be done to diminish the possibility of similar occurrences in future. No one should be satisfied with anything other than the highest standards of electoral conduct in all parts of our country.
Of course, that expectation is a comparatively modern phenomenon in British electoral history. Until the late 19th century, rowdiness, riot and rudeness were the chief characteristics of British elections. Disraeli had to endure unbridled anti-Semitism in the 1830s and 1840s before he became the representative of the comparatively well behaved and courteous electors of Buckinghamshire, although he rather enjoyed answering back his would-be tormentors from the hustings.
The days of uncontrolled misconduct are firmly over and none mourn their passing. Nevertheless, elections are and will always remain highly charged occasions in which strong feelings will be vigorously expressed, often in indecorous language. The report fully accepts that. Its aim is to prevent the kind of crude, base insults and racial intolerance which have on some recent occasions inflicted appalling distress on candidates and their families, undermined good community relations and damaged the reputation of British democracy. Now the very rapid expansion of social media, particularly since the last election, creates new and formidable challenges, to which my noble friend Lord Alderdice also referred.
In those respects, the coming election—now just a few months away—will be a testing time. We need to consider strengthening our arrangements to guard against the extreme campaigning, to which the report refers in paragraph 38, which has the potential to “fracture communities”. The recommendations it makes to try to avoid such an eventuality require the most careful consideration by the Government and political parties.
It is more than a little disquieting to find in the report considerable disappointment with the Equality and Human Rights Commission. In the report’s summary, it is described as having,
“neglected its responsibilities and lost some of the good practices carried out under its former guise as the Commission for Racial Equality”.
There are more strong words of criticism in paragraph 23 of the report. The report’s first and most important recommendation is that,
“the EHRC produce a plan for engaging in work on electoral conduct and specifically that it continues to update and issue the election toolkit which embodied good practice, providing clarity in what can be complex legal and procedural matters”.
In other words, the all-party inquiry is very strongly of the view that the EHRC should do at the next election what its predecessor body did in the past.
Since the report was published, those involved with the all-party inquiry have continued to express concern about the approach of the EHRC. Critics give the impression that in the absence of the kind of EHRC initiative they believe to be necessary, standards of electoral conduct may be seriously impaired. But there are some who seem to take the view that the role of the EHRC has been largely superseded by the Electoral Commission. This is an issue that needs to be clarified and resolved.
Clear codes of conduct, such as that produced by the Electoral Commission and agreed with the Statutory Parliamentary Parties Panel, have in the past few years come to occupy a significant place in the arrangements designed to combat discrimination and racism. The political parties produce internal codes of their own. The report contains a number of proposals to secure more effective enforcement of those codes through training, disciplinary action and other means, such as a common framework accepted by all parties for reporting discrimination during elections.
The list of recommendations directed at the political parties is a long one and perhaps there is a danger of seeking an unduly elaborate set of requirements. It is hardly realistic, for example, to imagine that party officials would be able to vet every single leaflet before it is issued during the coming campaign. What is important and pressing, surely, is that the parties make their codes crystal clear as the election approaches, and explain how they will be enforced.
I have ceased to be involved with the central organisation of the Conservative Party—no longer known as Conservative Central Office but as Conservative Campaign Headquarters. In the tightly organised era of Mr Lynton Crosby, there is unlikely to be any lack of resources to ensure adequate training for candidates and agents or for the enforcement of a rigorous code of conduct. The Conservative Party makes no secret of its intention to mount a hard-fought, remorseless campaign at a time of heightened concern about race relations. That makes it more important to keep standards of conduct high and to bear down heavily on any breaches of them in a manner that commands public confidence. The same, of course, goes for the other parties.
We know that the Electoral Commission’s essential role in this area is much valued by the political parties. The commission is in the process of revising and updating its code of conduct for campaigners. It is a pity, perhaps, that the commission does not seem to have supplied a background briefing note for this debate. It would be hard to overestimate the advantages of having one single code of conduct to which all parties fully subscribe in place of the present plethora of individual party documents. Perhaps the time has now come to consider that. When the inquiry into electoral conduct was announced last year, Mr John Mann MP, the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Anti-Semitism, said that he hoped to see considered thought given to a transparent, workable and enforceable framework on electoral conduct which can be agreed by the political parties. Surely that is a goal worth striving to achieve.
My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Alderdice—who, as he said, was a member of the all-party inquiry into electoral misconduct—for bringing these issues to the attention of the House as we approach the next general election, as well as local elections in much of England next May. This is therefore a very timely debate.
I was pleased to be able to provide evidence informally to the inquiry, based on my experience of involvement in election campaigns over more than 40 years, since I first became an active member of the Liberal Party as a teenager in the 1970s. I believe that the inquiry raised important issues for debate and action. I also thank John Mann and his assistant Danny Stone, who I met, for their work in initiating this, and also for the earlier report by a cross-party group of MPs concerning anti-Semitism.
The inquiry chaired by Natascha Engel helped to illuminate continuing problems with prejudicial behaviour, such as discriminatory language, in the conduct of our elections. I believe that the most blatant use of discriminatory language by candidates from the major and most established parties in this country is fortunately now very rare. However, all the major parties had severe embarrassment in the past. I remember being personally very deeply unhappy and distressed about the use of the phrase “secure family background” in the Liberal Party leaflet for the Brecon and Radnor by-election of 1985, in which neither of the other two major candidates were married. My late noble friend Richard Livsey had to apologise immediately for a leaflet that he had had no involvement whatever in producing.
When I took overall responsibility for parliamentary by-elections for the Liberal Democrats a few years after this incident, I helped to ensure that we took great care in those campaigns to avoid even the kind of unconscious discriminatory language that could otherwise have slipped through. However, it is not possible for a national party to monitor every leaflet produced at local level. In 1993, I was enraged when some of the literature that my party produced for a council by-election in Tower Hamlets was clearly pandering to racism. It was also clear in that campaign that Labour literature had had the effect of boosting the BNP vote, enabling a BNP councillor to be elected. This controversy led Paddy Ashdown, who was then the leader of my party, to ask my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill to conduct an investigation and to produce a report. I believe that what he said in his report, Political Speech and Race Relations in a Liberal Democracy, was very pertinent to this inquiry. He wrote:
“The right to free and unfettered political speech and debate is fundamental to democracy”.
However, he added the important rider:
“Whilst essential to political speech and public debate, free speech is not an absolute right without limits. Other fundamental values must be of equal value, including the unequivocal commitment to the principles of religious and racial acceptance and cultural diversity in an atmosphere of tolerance and respect”.
This inquiry sought to address the problem of how to deal with people when they go beyond the tolerant norms of society and, often, beyond the scope of what the law can allow in a civilised society, because to do so unfairly demeans others and may incite hatred, or even violence.
One of the most shocking cases of such behaviour that I have come across in recent years was during a council by-election in the London borough of Waltham Forest. One of the sitting Liberal Democrat councillors was in an openly gay relationship, but the Labour candidate in that campaign put around false rumours that he was a paedophile. There were no leaflets, but the rumours were effectively spread by word of mouth. As a result the councillor was harassed, his property was attacked and he lost the election to the candidate who spread the vile rumours.
After the election, some of the truth came out when local residents who were aware of the real facts revealed what they had been told and identified the source of it. The new Labour councillor was prosecuted, convicted and forced to stand down. The Liberal Democrats won the by-election that followed, but by then our shattered ex-councillor had been forced to leave the area. Such legal action will always be rare, and it could not provide proper redress in this case.
I have described this particularly unpleasant incident in order to highlight my belief that the greatest responsibility must be on all the political parties to take sufficient care in their approval of candidates, so that none of them could behave as this particular Labour candidate did. All parties must make it plain to all concerned that such behaviour is not remotely acceptable, that candidates and those working for them should be governed by proper codes of conduct, and that they may also be subject to prosecution.
The point was well made in the inquiry that, while the major parties may have greatly improved their assessment, approval and training of parliamentary candidates, generally they lack the resources to do this sufficiently well at local level. The task of vetting local council candidates is generally done by volunteers. The inquiry report calls for funding from the Equality and Human Rights Commission to provide support, training and guidance to the parties about non-discriminatory campaigning. I believe that it could again undertake some of the useful work that was done by the Commission for Racial Equality, with which I have worked previously.
However, a significant problem is one of resources for the parties themselves. If we are to improve the quality and diversity of candidates standing for public office at all levels, and to ensure that they behave as they should, there is also a case for public funding to assist parties with the tasks of identifying, approving and training candidates at different levels to prevent such problems occurring.
When problems do occur, legal remedies may apply in the most serious cases. Candidates always have the protection of the law in relation to defamation, but legal routes are neither quick nor affordable for most people. Candidates and agents should in future be rather wary after the case brought by my friend Elwyn Watkins against Phil Woolas at the last general election. The election court that met in the Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency after the 2010 general election agreed that false statements had been made by Mr Woolas, who was thereby disqualified from Parliament and a parliamentary by-election took place. The court case revealed that the intention of the then Labour agent—now, I am told, a member of UKIP—had been to,
“make the white folk angry”.
The court was able to obtain and to see the chain of e-mails within the Labour campaign that revealed a blatant attempt to appeal to racism. As a result, an MP was disqualified from public office and the costs to him and the Labour Party may well have been in excess of £1 million.
Serious malpractice therefore still exists, but my own conclusion is that the major responsibility for dealing with it must lie with the political parties. They must make sure that their agents and organisers are fully aware of their responsibilities, both legally and according to appropriate codes of conduct, and that they are subject to party discipline.
As Natascha Engel concluded in the debate on the report in the other place:
“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”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/5/14; col. 102WH.]
The political parties have a responsibility to promote these values. I hope that government and all appropriate independent bodies will work with all the parties and help them to do just that.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, on putting down this Question for debate and thank those Members of the House who have taken part in the inquiry and have spoken today.
As we have all agreed, the report that they have produced is an excellent document, and its recommendations give all political parties and the Government issues to reflect on. The need to address the recommendations and conclusions of the inquiry is as urgent as other noble Lords have said, as we are coming up to the general election. As my honourable friend Sharon Hodgson said in the debate in May in the Commons, we support the report’s recommendations.
As noble Lords have said, the inquiry was chaired by my honourable friend Natascha Engel. In addition to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, it also included my noble friend Lord Beecham among its members. I was very struck, as were other noble Lords, by some of the things that are in the report. Natascha Engel said in that debate:
“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”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/5/14; col. 97WH.]
I think that we would agree that this is unacceptable in a modern UK and a modern, mature democracy.
We can all cite, as did the noble Lord, Lord Rennard—although I notice that he cited only Labour cases—examples of malpractice.
I referred also to the Liberal campaigns in the Brecon and Radnor by-election and in Tower Hamlets. I was not being one-sided. I cited examples of bad practice by both my party and the noble Baroness’s.
I accept that rebuke, although I have to say that the noble Lord went into some detail.
I remember being Harriet Harman’s “minder”—as they are called these days—during a by-election in 1982. She was pregnant with her first child, and the Liberal candidate, who is now a Member of your Lordships’ House, used the fact that she was pregnant all the way through the campaign as an argument for her not being fit to be an MP. As we all know, Simon Hughes has apologised for the campaign that was mounted against Peter Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner, during the by-election in Bermondsey. We all have issues that need to be addressed. Even today, none of us can cease to be vigilant as party politicians to ensure that every single word that we utter and every single word that is printed in our name is appropriate.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, that, as far as I can tell—and it was certainly what I was taught as a Labour activist and someone who has run lots of elections—that you have the responsibility to make sure that every single word that is published and every single leaflet that is put out in the name of your party is proper and correct, and does not contravene any rules. That is difficult, and people will make mistakes, but there is no doubt where the responsibility for those things lies. It is true that we have a proud history in the UK of fair and free elections with proportionate regulation, and broad agreement that discrimination and racism have no place in society in general, and certainly not in our democratic processes. However, as we all have agreed, we know that racist, homophobic and other discrimination takes place during election campaigns.
The committee produced a series of recommendations and we give our full support to those, tackling, as they do, discrimination as it affects our democratic process. Like other noble Lords, I am puzzled as to why the Equality and Human Rights Commission has to be urged in the way it is being in this report—and by noble Lords—to produce a plan for engaging with electoral conduct, which is clearly an excellent idea. It would pick up on the work carried out by the former CRE. This should be done as a matter of course. It makes sense that the EHRC, the Electoral Commission and the police should work together to make sure that the guidance produced for our elections and election procedures is clear; makes it easy for people who are running elections, particularly in local elections where it is being done by volunteers; makes it clear what our responsibilities are; but also tells everyone how to deal with issues of redress.
Since the political parties’ annual briefing from ACPO and the Electoral Commission focusing on voter fraud takes place, the report is right in asking: why not expand that sort of event to include discrimination? I think the Electoral Commission trialling an online briefing for candidates seems an excellent idea and, where possible, should be integrated into the work political parties are undertaking with their candidates. However, as the report rightly points out, it is new parties, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, mentioned, and independent candidates, who are the ones who may not know their responsibilities and what they should or should not say. Of course, parties from a racist background are the ones we need to be particularly wary of and which need to be watched most carefully.
All police forces appoint a single point of contact for matters concerning electoral fraud. This has proved invaluable. Expanding that role and appointing a second officer may be one way to deal with these issues. One of the other issues not referred to in quite the same way in the debate is the code for parties to work within concerning non-broadcast media. While it is the case that generally parties and candidates have behaved responsibly, surely there will be those who have pushed the boundaries. What does the Minister think should happen in those cases?
I turn to new media. We face an election where social media and online campaigning will be present in a way that it never previously has been in our general elections. I remember a few years ago being targeted by the online discussion in our local newspaper in Bradford—I think it was by UKIP, to be honest—in a vile and horrible way. The problem was that the newspaper was not mediating the online discussion properly. When eventually it was pointed out to the editor that they had a responsibility not to allow people to be vilified in this fashion on the website of their newspaper, they took action. Multiply that by hundreds and hundreds of other incidents and I think all noble Lords would agree that we potentially have some very serious problems.
It will take concentrated and co-ordinated action to deal with such issues. I believe the Government have a responsibility to make sure that those things are pulled together. Every single political party has a responsibility, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said, for the behaviour of its own candidates. Certainly in the Labour Party we take this extremely seriously: we have no hesitation in referring people to our disciplinary committee. We carry out the appropriate punishments, including expulsion from the party, and occasionally involve the police. We have no doubt that those are our responsibilities as a political party, but also that we all need to work together to ensure that our free and fair elections continue to be so.
My Lords, we are all aware of the difficulty of distinguishing between free speech, robust campaigning and incorrect and improper speech. I think all noble Lords in the debate have taken part in some fairly robust campaigns. The first campaign I took part in, in 1970, had National Front candidates. To say the least, they stretched the boundaries of acceptable campaigning in a whole range of ways. The Liberals in Huddersfield did our best to stand up to them. We were complimented by our Conservative and Labour counterparts for so doing. They were not quite so explicit but they captured more votes; that is always part of the delicacy of campaigning. We have to remember that the electorate do not solely consist of liberally, openly and tolerantly minded people, which means that the sort of robust campaigning we are talking about often has real appeal and gains great political dividends. When she presented this report in a Commons debate, Natascha Engel said:
“We tried to achieve balance in our report”—[Official Report, Commons, 7/5/14; col. 98WH]—
between “where … robust political campaigning” ends and discrimination begins. That is the problem we all have.
All parties have suffered embarrassing moments, usually from local election candidates and campaigns but sometimes also from parliamentary candidates and campaigns. As has been said in the debate, all parties have done their best to tighten up their procedures: to produce internal codes of conduct and to vet, assess and train their candidates and agents in advance. That does not always succeed and there are occasions when our local representatives slip beneath the standards that we would like. We are also aware that there are parties outside what one might call the consensus of established parties. We are going to have an election in which there will be a large number of candidates from a range of different parties, some of which will not want to accept the current consensus. They will decry what they will call political correctness and wish to be politically incorrect. We are going to have to cope with that when the next election comes along but it is much easier to cope with through the established procedures when conventional methods of campaigning take place, through leaflets and so on.
The new media, all the way from telephone canvassing through to the internet, with Twitter and so on, are much more difficult. In one of the seats where I was campaigning in the last election, I was very conscious that telephone canvassing appeared to be putting out messages that the Liberal Democrats were in favour of uncontrolled immigration into this country. That message was clearly coming back at us in the last week on the doorsteps; it clearly came, I suspect, from a script provided by one of the other parties for telephone canvassing. Of course, that is very difficult to get hold of and when you then move on to social media, we are all familiar with the internet trolls who exist and the dreadfully negative comments that are attached to so many of the media areas that we see. How you get hold of those politically minded internet trolls is, again, going to be very difficult for us all.
The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has done us a good favour by raising a range of questions. Let me try and answer the government questions because, of the 30 recommendations in this report, only five were really addressed directly to the Government. Some were directed to the parties themselves; others were to the Law Commission, the EHRC, the Electoral Commission and so on. On the question of issuing a voluntary code of advertising, the Government are certainly prepared actively to encourage political parties themselves to agree such a code. Recommendations 25 and 29 suggest that the requirement for an imprint for parties and non-party campaigners should be extended to incorporate online and other election communications. We are certainly willing to look at that. The Electoral Commission is of course directly responsible for looking at such issues but it will be very complex to devise workable rules that would extend to online materials, let alone in primary legislation. That is part of what we are all going to have to struggle with in this coming campaign.
Recommendation 27 suggests that non-party campaigners in local campaigns should register with the returning officer and submit spending returns. We went through the issue of non-party campaigns on the transparency of lobbying Act. I bear the scars of that Act, during the passage of which a number of non-governmental organisations refused to accept that there were real problems with non-party campaigning groups and that we needed to take a degree of action to limit them, as the Act has now done, in spending limits and in requiring them to retain receipts for expenditure, both nationally and within constituencies.
Recommendation 28 proposes that non-party campaigners be required to maintain a database of election campaign literature to assist the police when accusations of misconduct arise. That would be ideal, although I am not entirely sure that every established political party maintains a correct library of all the leaflets that they have put out.
I now address some of the other issues touched on. There are recommendations to parties on the diversity of candidates—women, the disabled, ethnic minorities. My party has had a particularly worthwhile scheme, led by my noble friend Lady Brinton, who I am happy to say has just been elected our party president, to encourage candidates from those groups. I have no doubt that the other two parties have been doing the same—indeed, the evidence is there in some of those elected last time. It is very important that all the parties—at least, all the three parties—now have clear internal codes and elements of training for candidates and agents.
I turn to the EHRC, which has been criticised. First, the EHRC is not the CRE; it has a more limited remit. Some of the areas where the CRE worked are now being managed by the Electoral Commission and a number of these are matters for the police. We are all aware that there have been concerns that the police, in past election campaigns, have not treated allegations of this sort with sufficient attention. I am very glad that this report has drawn attention to the need for ACPO to pay much more attention to problems of electoral fraud and campaigning of the sort which we have seen evidence of in parts of London and elsewhere in recent years. Certainly, from my limited experience of talking to police in Yorkshire and elsewhere, the police are now more aware of this as a problem, so we hope that there will be greater attention to this in the coming campaign.
The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, suggested that a single code of conduct would be better than a proliferation of different party codes. I have to say, speaking on behalf of the Government, that that is a matter for the parties to agree among themselves. The Government should not interfere too sharply in what parties do among themselves, but it is something we encourage the parties to talk further about. On the question of guidance for campaigners from the Electoral Commission, I say that the Electoral Commission will be publishing its guidance in time for the 2015 election, and the chair of the commission has written to Natascha Engel to say that it will engage with those parties which are not part of the statutory parliamentary parties panel on the form of this guidance. We are all conscious that five, six or seven significant parties will be fighting a wide range of constituencies in the coming election, so we need to engage with a wider number of participants.
The EHRC is now looking at how best to update its guidance on elections for local authorities and other organisations for use in 2015. That is thought to provide the sort of guidance that others have been asking for.
On the question of the role of IPSO, clause 12 of the editors’ code of practice, which is administered by IPSO, deals with discrimination. It is vital that editors adhere to the code at all times, not just in elections, and we look to IPSO to ensure that the code is obeyed by the media during the course of the campaign.
Lastly, I touch on the role of the Law Commission. The commission will be publishing a consultation setting out its proposals for electoral reform early this month, with a report to be published with recommendations in the summer of 2015, which thus will not be of use to us in this coming election but means that we are moving forward for the campaigns after that.
The Government are extremely grateful for this report because it raises a whole set of questions that all parties need to think through. I hope that this conversation will continue and that all those who are consulting on this, with the Electoral Commission and elsewhere, will ensure that the three parties we now refer to in some ways as the established parties, and indeed which UKIP loves to accuse of being the established parties, will draw in others as well—the regional parties, the other national parties—to ensure that we have a robust but clean campaign and do not stretch the boundaries of free speech too far.