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Electing Without Prejudice: Free speech. Hard facts. Real debate.

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As news of the snap election on 8 June 2017 sinks in, Runnymede calls on politicians of all political persuasions to focus on issues-led debate and look away from the politics of prejudice and hate. With the ugly and divisive EU referendum rhetoric fresh in our minds, the below statement, originally by Race Equality Matters, is exactly what we want to say today.

Britain’s social fabric rests on a strong bedrock of democratic political discussion. The freedom to debate and argue the issues of the day, great and small, gives lasting strength to our elected institutions.

That bedrock is threatened by those who abuse open debate and stir up prejudice and fear. Such activities make individuals the targets of violence and abuse. They obscure the real issues at stake, sowing mistrust and misunderstanding instead of open, public debate in which all can take part. Such activities, and those who pursue them, should be rejected by all.

Every voter wants to know that an election campaign was a fair one, however hard and passionately it may have been fought. Every voter has the right to the facts upon which to base their decision on the rival solutions offered by different candidates. Every candidate has the right to have their proposals considered objectively. Everyone working for the public has the right to have their efforts judged on the basis of information that is as objective as possible, not on supposition.

All of us have a role to play in seeing that an election campaign gets to the heart of the issues. Candidates, political parties, local councils and other public bodies, voluntary, community, charitable and trade union organisations, can all contribute to an election campaign that gets to the heart of the issues and is conducted in a responsible manner.

Racism, racial hatred, prejudice and misunderstanding are serious dangers throughout Britain and wherever elections are being held. We call on all who have a role to play in ensuring that our elections are fair and truly free, to join us in supporting this call for an election campaign rid of the exploitation of prejudice.

To achieve: 

- vigorous debate during the coming election campaign around the issues facing the UK – and relevant local areas – today

- full participation by all involved - candidates, electors and the wider public

- a secure and open atmosphere during the election campaign so that all electors feel able take part in debating the issues, challenging candidates and gaining a proper understanding of their different approaches and proposed solutions

We call upon those: 

- putting themselves forward for election

- seeking to take part in election debates and discussions

- public authorities responsible for ensuring that the rights of electors, of candidates and of the public in general are properly fulfilled

To support the following principles:

Candidates standing for election should:

- work for a welcoming country and area which values all its people, celebrates its diversity and provides equality of opportunity for all

- commit that, if elected, they will seek to represent everyone, and not pitch one group against another for short-term political or personal gain

- ensure they do not take actions or use words likely to generate prejudice or hostility between different groups.

Leaders of political parties involved in the elections should:

- guarantee that their party, its candidate and campaigners abide by the above principles and that where complaints are made of activities that may be likely to stir up prejudice, these will be properly investigated, with appropriate action taken and publicised, if the complaint is upheld.

Those responsible for electoral arrangements should:

- join in actively encouraging the participation of electors in the electoral process.

Those responsible for public safety and security during election campaigns should

- ensure that all electors and candidates can take part in the campaign, and proceed to cast their votes, free of intimidation and fear.

Public bodies serving our communities should:

- prepare for the controversies that surround elections and consider in advance how to challenge misperceptions in the local community relevant to that authority’s particular responsibilities, its own work or the impact of that work on people locally

- refute any false or misleading information circulating in the area relevant to their responsibilities that could lead to racial hatred or damage relations between people from different racial groups. They should act on the basis of the objective information available to the authority.†

Voluntary, community, trade union and other interested bodies should:

- enable voters to have access to objective information on issues that concern the organisation and those it serves. Voters have a right to be able to learn from the diverse experiences of different bodies, their members and those they serve, who in some cases may be the best, if not the only, source of such information.

Further advice on the law, elections and political campaigning: 

Detailed advice on different aspects of electoral law as it affects candidates, campaigners, interested bodies and public authorities can be obtained from the Electoral Commission

The Charity Commission for England and Wales provides specific advice for registered charities.

The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator does not offer guidance of its own. The advice is designed for registered charities but is applicable to other voluntary and related bodies.

† Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity

A Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity was issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government on 31 March 2011with an Explanatory Memorandum

The relevant paragraphs of the Code state:

16: Local authorities should not use public funds to mount publicity campaigns whose primary purpose is to persuade the public to hold a particular view on a question of policy. It is acceptable for local authority publicity to correct erroneous material which has been published by other parties, despite the fact that the material being corrected may have been published with the intention of influencing the public’s opinions about the policies of the authority. Such publicity should seek to explain the facts in an objective manner.

19: Where local authority publicity addresses matters of political controversy it should seek to present the different positions in relation to the issue in question in a fair manner.

31: Publicity by local authorities may seek to influence (in accordance with the relevant law and in a way which they consider positive) the attitudes of local people or public behaviour in relation to matters of health, safety, crime prevention, race relations, equality, diversity and community issues.

32: Local authorities should consider how any publicity they issue can contribute to the promotion of any duties applicable to them in relation to the elimination of discrimination, the advancement of equality and the fostering of good relations.

Does the code permit local authorities to publish factual material by way of correction or rebuttal of inaccurate statements that promote discrimination or harassment, or promote or constitute other unlawful acts during an election period?

Following a debate in the House of Lords on the Local Audit and Accountability Bill, Baroness Hanham made it clear in a Ministerial Statement on 15 July 2014 that local authorities may correct false information:

‘...[T]he publicity code explicitly provides for a local authority to correct or rebut misinformation, making explicit provision in the sections about objectivity and careduring periods of heightened sensitivity. Moreover, it contains provisions about equality and diversity, specifically allowing local authority publicity to seek to influence the attitudes of local people or public behaviour in relation to matters including equality, diversity and community issues.

During an election period, for example, local authorities may publish factual material. A local authority should take care when issuing publicity and should not be issuing publicity that seeks to influence voters. However, this does not prevent an authority from fulfilling its role in seeking positively to influence people in terms of equality and diversity. Hence if there is disinformation in circulation promoting harassment, a local authority may take action to correct it at election time or indeed any other time...[Emphasis added]. Nothing in the publicity code prevents local authorities addressing issues of discrimination or harassment and tackling them head on.’

HL Deb 15 July 2013 col. 602 [Lords Chambers] The Local Government Information Unit provides practical guidance for local

authorities on the Publicity Code which is available at www.lgiu.org.uk. The Public Sector Equality Duty

Guidance on the public sector equality duty (PSED) can be obtained from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 imposes a duty on public authorities when exercising public functions to have due regard to the need to:

a) eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under the Act

b) advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it

c) foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it.

This duty applies to the protected characteristic of race (which includes colour, ethnic or national origins and nationality) as well as to sex, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief, gender reassignment, age and pregnancy and maternity.

Section 149(3) explains that having due regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity involves having due regard, in particular, to the need to –

a) remove or minimise disadvantages suffered by people who share a relevant protected characteristic that are connected to that characteristic,

b) take steps to meet the needs of people who share a relevant protected characteristic that are different from the needs of people who do not share it,

c) encourage people who share a relevant protected characteristic to participate in public life or in any other activity in which participation by such people is disproportionately low.

Section 149(5) explains that having due regard to the need to foster good relations between persons who share a protected characteristic and persons who do not share it, involves having due regard, in particular, to the need to

a) tackle prejudice, and b) promote understanding

Certain listed public authorities are also subject to additional specific duties relating to the publication of equality information and the setting of equality objectives, which are intended to enable the better performance of the s.149 duty.

Guidance in support of the PSED refers to participation in elections as included in the definition of "public life and other activities" in section 149(3)(c).

Originally produced by Race Equality Matters 

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