Theresa May’s plan to silence criticism gets ripped to pieces by someone who actually understands law [TWEETS]

Theresa May and Adam Wagner intimidation in public life
Bex Sumner

Theresa May has used the 100th anniversary of some (not all) women winning the vote to announce her plan to crack down on political criticism. But a leading human rights barrister has exposed how her proposal is not just “chilling” – it’s also very flawed.

The plan

On 6 February, May gave a speech celebrating the centenary of the 1918 suffrage act. Responding to the rise in abuse against election candidates, particularly women, she said:

We will take action to make our electoral process more robust and offer greater protections for people taking part in elections. While intimidation is already a crime, we will consult on making it an offence in law to intimidate candidates.

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Enter the human rights lawyer

Enter Adam Wagner, a human rights barrister with the reputable Doughty Street Chambers. He posted a Twitter thread looking at the proposal. He began gently, with a bit of background:

Continue reading below...

Then he ripped the proposal apart…

‘The police don’t want it’

May’s proposal is based on a recommendation from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. But that same committee included comments from the police in its final report [pdf, p60]. And as it turns out, the police don’t think much of the plan to create a new offence. They don’t think it’s needed:

And Wagner explained why:

“Nonsense on stilts”

Despite this, the committee recommended creating a new offence:

But it argued [pdf, p61] that “no behaviour which is currently legal should be made illegal” under the new offence.

You read that right. The proposed new offence won’t cover any behaviours that aren’t already illegal. As Wagner puts it, this is “nonsense on stilts”:

So creating a new offence wouldn’t do much to ensure abusive people are prosecuted. But it would, Wagner argued, likely have a “chilling effect on free speech around elections”:

As David Allen Green, law and policy commentator at The Financial Times, summed up:

Abuse

Theresa May is right about one thing. Britain needs more women in public life. 100 years after suffrage was extended to some women, fewer than one third of all MPs are female. In the Conservative Party, the figure is around one in five. And no woman in public life – no person anywhere – should have to put up with death threats, rape threats or harassment.

But cast your mind back to the last election. Which woman received the most abuse? According to Amnesty International, it was Diane Abbott – who received almost half of all Twitter abuse aimed at women MPs. Almost half.

And who vilified her? Well, as the Labour Party made clear at the time, it was Theresa May’s Conservative Party:

The Conservatives ran a negative, nasty campaign, propagating personal attacks, smears and untruths, particularly aimed at one of the most prominent women MPs, and indeed the first black woman MP, Diane Abbott.

Such attacks on politicians, the consequent intimidating and abusive language and threats of violence towards them online, deter many people from entering politics… The Conservative Party has… promoted personal attacks as a core component of its national campaign.

Silencing dissent

There are so many ways Theresa May could have improved women’s access to and safety in public life. Amnesty International suggests several measures in its investigation into the abuse of women MPs. But May is pursuing a proposal that is at once pointless and dangerous.

This is not an attempt to end abuse or improve the lives of women. It’s politicking that aims to silence political criticism.

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Featured image via Jim Mattis/Flickr and screengrab

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