Government reverses leafleting ban – but fears grow over ease of changing election rules

The Government recently issued "advice" saying that election campaign leaflets shouldn't be delivered by volunteers

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The Government recently issued “advice” saying that election campaign leaflets should currently only be delivered by commercial organisations and not by volunteers – and one Lord has highlighted the issues with this.

On February 26, Lord Chris Rennard shared his insights into a Conservative Minister “advising” that volunteers shouldn’t be leafleting despite businesses, such as takeaways, still being able to deliver leaflets to homes.

After Lord Rennard and others continually pressed for answers from the Tories on questions such as whether this change was the law and whether the advice was coming from health experts, the government eventually reversed its decision and have now said leafleting can take place from March 8.

However Lord Rennard has shared his thoughts on why this course of action from the Conservative government could be seen as worrying.

Writing in a Facebook post, Lord Rennard shared the following:

On January 22nd a Conservative Minister issued a letter “advising” that volunteers shouldn’t deliver campaign leaflets.

Most unusually, this new “advice” giving a “Government view” that campaign leaflets could only be delivered by commercial organisations did not come from any Health Minister, appear in any regulations approved by Parliament, or with any evidence from any health, medical or scientific source.

Ever since then, I have been asking in Parliament for the Government to say that, if it has such advice, for them to publish it, (as they have for other Covid related advice). It seems strange that delivering a campaign leaflet should be more dangerous than delivering a Pizza leaflet, even if the same or greater precautions are taken by the volunteer?

The Government has kept dodging questions about whether or not they had any appropriate advice from health, medical or scientific sources to support the Minister’s letter (which has been interpreted differently by different Police forces and has wasted Police time).

The Government would also not say if their law officers considered delivering campaign leaflets to be against the law. Nor would they answer questions about whether or not the request for such “advice” came from the Conservative Party (which has few volunteers to deliver campaign leaflets but enough money to pay for delivery by commercial organisations).

It is a serious issue to ask if the Government is trying to change election campaign rules in a way that favours the Conservative Party, when it cannot produce any evidence that this distinction between voluntary and paid delivery had any basis in assessing health risks.

I have made Freedom of Information requests to the Cabinet Office asking for what advice from the DHSC, NHS England or the Chief Scientific and Medical Officers was there to support this letter being issued by a Minister, and if was issued at the request of Conservative Campaign Headquarters.

The Government is still blocking this FoI request after 20 days.The Government is embarrassed by my questioning and that from others including “my noble friend” Paul Tyler.

They have got very bad tempered as we press for answers to these questions. But they have now seem to have given in and decided that they cannot sustain this attempt to ban activities such as delivering leaflets any longer.

A Government statement today confirms that election campaign activities such as delivering leaflets and knocking on doors can proceed (with obvious precautions) from March 8th.

It remains a serious problem if a party in power is seen to change election rules for its own advantage, and if it will not be honest about what is really based on health advice during the current pandemic.

Meanwhile, I was working also with Conservative Peer Lord Hayward (yes the Robert Hayward I helped to beat in the 1993 Christchurch by-election) and Labour Peer Baroness Hayter to persuade the Government that nomination papers for the council elections this year should only require 2 signatures, not 10 for a ward and 2 signatures per local authority area for other elections.

Unlock Democracy, the UK group campaigning for a vibrant, inclusive democracy that gives power to the people, has welcomed social distanced campaigning to start on 8 March but added that normal scrutiny rules must be “reinstated” when Covid is over.

A spokesperson said: “Unlock Democracy welcomes the Government u-turn on election rules. Socially distanced safe campaigning can start on the 8th. 

“With the elections just weeks away, swift government action was needed.  However, normalisation of an expedited process will not be acceptable. 

“Normal scrutiny rules must be reinstated, as soon as Covid has receded.”   

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