By David Wilcock, Press Association Political Correspondent
Online trolls should face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the most serious cases of intimidating politicians at elections and referendums under beefed up laws, the Electoral Commission has said.
The watchdog backed Government proposals to bar those those who target parliamentary candidates or their staff and supporters from standing for office for five years, but warned this would not deter those who have no direct political ambitions.
The Commission suggested longer jail terms should be considered along the lines of proposals from the Law Commission for those convicted of electoral fraud, in a response published on Monday to a Cabinet Office consultation launched in July.
It also called for greater powers to obtain information from online platforms, including the identity of campaigners, and a compulsory “imprint” on all non-printed election and referendum material showing who was behind it, to combat “fake news”.
Claire Bassett, chief executive of the Electoral Commission, said: “People must be able to stand for election and campaign without fear of abuse or intimidation and voters should never be intimidated to vote in a certain way or not at all.
“The UK’s Law Commissions have set out a comprehensive package of reforms that the UK Government should implement to help address many of the problems with the UK’s complex and out-of-date electoral laws.”
The consultation, unveiled by minister Chloe Smith in July, is looking at introducing a new offence of “intimidating Parliamentary candidates and party campaigners”.
It has asked whether those convicted should lose their right to vote as well as being barred from seeking or holding office.
In its reply, the commission said that would be “disproportionate”, but added “stopping someone from standing for election may not be a sufficient deterrent for people who do not want to become a candidate”.
It added: “Prison sentences could be a more effective deterrent.
“A person who has been found guilty of any offence and is detained in prison is not allowed to vote.
“The UK’s Law Commissions have recommended increasing the maximum sentence in cases of serious electoral fraud to 10 years.
“The Government should consider whether to apply this maximum sentence to intimidation offences … that are committed during election and referendum periods.”
It also called for protection under the law for candidates and those connected to them to start from the moment they announce an intention to stand.
The Government launched its consultation, Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence and Information, after a report on intimidation in public life which found that social media was “the most significant factor” driving harassment, abuse and intimidation of 2017 general election candidates, which included threats of violence and sexual violence, as well as damage to property.
The report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in December had urged ministers to consider a new electoral offence after identifying a gap in the legislation.
Currently, extreme cases of intimidation are considered a serious criminal offence, punishable with a custodial sentence where evidence of sustained, pressurising behaviour intended to cause distress and impact campaigning is found.