Oct 29 2013
An equalities watchdog has been accused by politicians of a "dereliction of duty" over a lack of action to prevent discrimination during election campaigns.
A cross-party inquiry by MPs and peers said the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) had "neglected its responsibilities" in the area.
But it also lashed out at political parties for failing to deal with a "culture of silence" that prevented victims speaking out and a lack of training to deal with the "ruthless nature" of campaigning.
And it called for cross-party agreement on a system for reporting discrimination claims to be investigated by named officials to a set timetable with the findings published.
Among cases examined by the inquiry - chaired by Labour MP Natascha Engel - were death threats made against Tory MP Lee Scott which left him seeking police escorts during the 2010 campaign and a pig's head found by the children of former Labour minister Parmjit Dhanda outside his home.
It concluded that while the law needed modernising and data collection strengthening, "the biggest gap in the system is a statutory body willing to lead the charge against discrimination".
The panel said it was "very disppointed" the issue was not considered a priority by the EHRC, which it said had allowed efforts by its predecessor body the Commission for Race Equality to lapse.
"We were very disappointed with the contribution from the Equality and Human Rights Commission and whilst understanding their narrowing of focus, consider these matters an important and not overly cumbersome part of its work," the report said.
"Failure to actively participate in this area, particularly in light of the commission's statutory responsibilities under the public sector equality duty and its role in ensuring it is upheld by others, is a dereliction of duty."
The report said a lack of support networks within parties for candidates who were victims of discrimination was "compounded by a culture of silence which requires a brave few to put their head above the parapet".
It found there was a "major gap in appropriate training procedures around racism and discrimination" and said parties must do more "to prepare candidates for the ruthless nature of campaigning" including efforts such as "personal safety sessions" and publishing lists of helplines and counsellors.
Action was also needed to fill a "gaping hole in the regulation of political advertising" during campaigns, it said, calling on the Cabinet Office to seek cross-party agreement on a voluntary code of practice.
Ms Engel said: "Our country has much to be proud of in the way we conduct elections but there are still incidents of discriminatory campaigning.
"In publishing our report, we are seeking to provide frameworks for exposing and stamping out such racism when it occurs. I look forward to working with parliamentary colleagues and Government to take forward the recommendations in the report."
John Mann MP, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism which commissioned the inquiry, said: "I welcome the timely publication of this report, which sets an international standard for parliamentary action on electoral misconduct. I commit to working with others to seek the implementation of its recommendations without delay".