by Mark Hammond
Published: 12 Mar 2015
The date of the general election – 7 May 2015 – will have been circled in municipal calendars for months if not years. Logistically, it is one of the biggest events that local authorities are charged with organising and for all the focus on Westminster, it is in local schools, libraries and leisure centres that the make-up of the future government will be decided.
The political landscape is changing and many commentators think this election is likely to be very different from previous ones. More parties will be vying for our votes and political discourse is likely to get heated, with difficult and no doubt controversial issues taking centre stage.
It is against this backdrop that the Commission has just published new guidance for local authorities, political parties and candidates that outlines how equality and human rights law applies during an election period.
We wouldn’t encourage anyone to be racist, nor to express racist views, but the law doesn’t prevent politicians and others debating controversial issues candidly, even where offence might be caused. Freedom of expression receives a particularly high level of legal protection during election periods, and this is entirely proper at a time when political arguments need to stand up to rigorous scrutiny. However, this protection doesn’t extend to views that incite racial or religious hatred or other unlawful conduct. The right to freedom of expression cannot be at the expense of the rights and freedoms of others.
The guidance also deals with the practicalities of elections. Councils have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments so disabled people can exercise their vote. Great strides have been made in improving access to public buildings but there is more to consider. For example, people with visual impairments may require voting information in large print and candidate names read out to them if needed (however, when casting their vote the elector must be alone in the ballot booth).
The perception that local authorities are prevented from saying anything during the campaign also needs correcting. Councils are able to correct public statements during an election period that spread misinformation, subject to strict conditions.
Having worked in local government, I am well aware of the difficult judgement calls that will have to be made over the coming weeks. Passions will be high and the media spotlight will be focussed on town halls more than usual. However, I am confident that through mutual understanding and respect local authorities, candidates and political parties will work together to deliver the free and fair election we are fortunate to enjoy in this country. However, the result is anyone’s guess…..