UK Elections: Abuse and Intimidation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered abuse and intimidation of candidates and the public in UK elections.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I should start by saying that since the election the Conservative Whips Office has been dealing with at least three credible threats to colleagues every week, including death threats, criminal damage, sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and general thuggishness around and after the election. For all I know, other parties’ Whips Offices may be having similar experiences, and I look forward to hearing cross-party contributions on that score. It is for that reason, and a few others, that I thought it was appropriate to call this debate now.
When I first entered the House seven years ago, it never crossed my mind for one minute that I would end up making a speech like this. As far as I was concerned, elections were four or five weeks of robust banter followed by a shake of the hand and a pint in the pub, yet now it all seems so different, with swastikas on election boards and offensive slogans and language on posters.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. I have been an MP for just over two years, and I cannot remember a single day that has gone by without me receiving some sort of abuse, whether that is death threats or a picture of me mocked up as a used sanitary towel and various other things. The last election was the most brutal I can imagine. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we have to look at this issue with a non-partisan view and accept that in all our parties, as much as it hurts us, there are people who do not represent our values? For some to suggest that it is only one party doing it is wrong.
I absolutely recognise that point, and I will come to it later in my speech. There will be individual contributions from Members who might have had particular experiences that defy that challenge, but I agree with the hon. Lady, and I am grateful to her for making that point so early in proceedings.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way so early in his speech, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. While I understand why he has brought forward a debate with particular regard to general elections, does he not agree with me that the recent research done by BBC Radio 5 Live—it found that half of British female MPs have been threatened with physical abuse, nine out of 10 have been abused online and 80% have been verbally abused—shows that the issue is not restricted to election time?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her timely contribution. One thing that has struck me—I know it has struck people in our Whips Office, too—is that when I started uncovering this topic, I found out about stuff that I simply did not think existed. I have been astonished by the quantity of evidence I have received from all sides. As she said, I had assumed that the issue might just be around election times, when we are perhaps a higher profile community, but it is not. Actually, it seems to be going on all the time, and a number of colleagues are suffering in silence. I hope that they do not have to suffer in silence.
I mentioned swastikas on election boards, offensive slogans and language on posters, but there have also been scratched cars, broken windows and posters of the bleeding heads of some of our political leaders on stakes at marches and demos. There has even been the occasional police officer or teacher joining the overall fray. That is not the rule, but it is occasionally the exception.
Retailers and hoteliers have felt that they cannot support a candidate publicly or make a donation to the party or candidate of their choice, because they are worried that they might be attacked on online review sites or, even worse, in person. There are elderly voters who will not put up a sign in their windows. There are volunteers who worry about handing out leaflets and having abuse hurled at them. There are colleagues whose sexuality or religion has resulted in them being spat at—not once, but regularly. We will hear more on that later in the debate. These people form the core of democracy and our election effort, yet they are being steadily put off getting involved in politics at a time when their contribution has never been more important.
Of course, the abuse is online, too, and we will probably spend quite a bit of the debate talking about that. For Government Members—I am sure it is similar for colleagues in other parties— #toryscum is a regular feature of our lives, and that is just the bit I can repeat in the Chamber. I chose my words carefully. I do not know how many colleagues have read the report from BCS—the Chartered Institute for IT—and Demos. It contained a survey showing that over a three-month period MPs received 188,000 abusive tweets. That is one in 20 tweets received by MPs.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that legislation already exists to protect those who are abused online, but that legislation is often ignored or not enforced. Will he join me in putting pressure on the Government to launch a review to see why that is the case?
The hon. Lady is psychic, among many other things. What she said was going to be my next comment. I absolutely agree with her. There is another element with the existing laws, which is how few people know that they exist. Indeed, some law enforcement agencies do not know that they exist. The questions I will be putting to the Minister in a few minutes are partly intended to get a greater understanding of what legislation is there, where the gaps are and what we can do to fill them.
My hon. Friend might be aware of the Home Affairs Committee’s report from last year that looked at the online abuse MPs have to suffer. There was an issue about the threshold we have to endure as Members of Parliament, which is different from that of members of the public. If abuse is persistent and falls over into real-life activities, surely social media companies have to be held accountable, too.
I am sure that a number of colleagues would agree with that contribution; I certainly do. I will be coming to some proposals and thoughts on social media in just a moment.
I want to take a moment to describe the example of our former colleague Byron Davies, who until recently was the MP for Gower. During the election campaign he was subjected to a sustained attack on Twitter that contained absolutely unfounded allegations about a criminal investigation for electoral fraud. That was not an embellishment or exaggeration of a story; it was simply made up. Whether Members supported him or not, he was a colleague defending a majority of 27, and he had to do that against a constant drip-feed on social media of people simply making things up as they went along. Could it have contributed to the loss of his seat? I do not know. It was certainly blatant defamation—that much we do know. The Electoral Commission could not help, social media platforms would not help, and the police investigation, like all police investigations, will take time. It is grinding slowly on, but our former colleague Mr Davies is having to do all that himself, and he is bearing the cost. When that inquiry eventually reaches its conclusion, what remedy will he really have?
I could mention my hon. Friends the Members for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and the many others who have suffered similar or vaguely intimidatory experiences during the election campaign. Almost more worrying than that is the number of colleagues I have spoken to in the past few days who do not even want to come to this Chamber to make a contribution, lest it compound the intimidation and abuse they have been receiving in recent weeks. I hope that we are all in a sense making our contributions not to ease our bruised egos, but on behalf of colleagues who have put up with a lot of this nonsense over quite a long time, and are looking, as the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) said, for a lead from the Government.
Having said all that, I want to make the point that this debate is not about thin-skinned politicians having had a bit of a bruising time and feeling rather sorry for ourselves. Nor is it, as the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) mentioned, about left versus right or right versus left, or whatever it might be—the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) made an interesting contribution on that particular score in her speech to the Fabian Society at the weekend. It is actually about families, staff, helpers and volunteers. For those of us who have teenage children who might follow us on Twitter and Facebook, it is about being able to say to them, “Don’t worry about the death threat; don’t worry about the abuse and the false accusations.” It is also for them that we speak.
I have had death threats for a number of years—I now have panic buttons and a restraining order against somebody. What is different about what happened at this election—in which I was subjected to anti-Semitic abuse, my staff were spat at and my boards and property were attacked—is that the abuse has been politically motivated. The elephant in the room is that it has been motivated by the language of some of our political leaders, when they accuse people of one political side of murder, and when they dehumanise them in the way that is happening at the moment. There is something more sinister to this. Yes, it affects left and right, but we have to deal with the issue of what is happening on our side of politics.
One of my most important recommendations is about the role of political leadership and what political leaders need to do, rather than what they need to say.
I wanted to mention the example of our former colleague Charlotte Leslie in Bristol, whose parents became victims of abuse. Their entire oil heating supply was drained into their garden by somebody who had an objection to Charlotte’s position on fracking—a slightly ironic way of dealing with an environmental consideration, but none the less one that caused enormous distress, as did the scratching of “Tory scum” into her elderly parents’ car. That is not something that anybody in this House should condone. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) has just pointed out, when it comes to leadership, it is exactly such an example that should trigger a robust response from everybody who has the benefit of a high profile in politics.
It is about religion, sexuality, social background—it is about people who might have been to public school and sound a bit posh. It is about anybody who might have a political leaning one way or the other, and who might be thinking of becoming a local councillor, or of a career at some future stage in some branch of politics, not even necessarily as an MP, an Assembly Member or a Member of the Scottish Parliament—whatever it might be. We have to ask ourselves: why would they want to take that step when they see what Members of this House have to put up with and, worse still, what Members’ families, friends, relations, campaigners and donors also have to subject themselves to?
To the social media platforms, to the left, to the right, and to groups such as Momentum, which has been mentioned, rather than taking the lazy way out and saying that they are responsible for this, I say, “Help us. If you are on the left, help us. If you are on the right, help us. If you are a social media platform, help us. Help us identify what has triggered the increase in abuse, the smear campaigns, the intimidation, the harassment, the thuggish behaviour on and offline, and the general criticism of people simply because of an inability to match or contest their arguments.”
The hon. Gentleman is quite right: this behaviour is reprehensible. He is right to identify social media. Does he also think that the traditional print media, particularly newspapers such as The Sun, has had a role in creating a climate in which it is okay to abuse politicians? Perhaps we need to look at the traditional print media as well.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Of course, print media is governed by a rather different and more visible level of regulation. There is a line between robust challenge, the cut and thrust of politics and the sort of stuff that we know we are letting ourselves in for when we take on this job—some papers would argue that they are on the right side of that line—which is a mile away from the stuff we are talking about. People being made to feel a little shamefaced or guilty because they have cocked up—if I can use that expression—their particular contribution to politics is one thing. If there is an example of a newspaper inciting racial hatred, anti-Semitism and that sort of thing, the regulators ought to be looking at that, without impinging on the free press.
My hon. Friend is making a strong case. I am a little concerned that this debate might blur the lines between criticism of the performance of a Member of Parliament or a stance they take and actual abuse. My concern is that the abuse particularly stops women entering politics. I will give the example of a candidate who stood in Ealing and was unfortunately not elected. Candidates have to declare their addresses when they stand for Parliament. She said that she started becoming nervous during the election campaign when opponents started standing outside her door, spitting in her face and following her. That is the threatening behaviour that she wants to highlight. This is not about criticism in the press.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that contribution. Legislation of course already exists to deal with such incidents but, as we touched on before, it is not always easily accessible. It is not always entirely advantageous to be distracted by that during an election campaign.
The hon. Gentleman and I have been sparring partners on many occasions, but on this one I congratulate him on raising this issue. I agree that all it takes for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing. On the other hand, it is very easy for us in this place to make the case and put the arguments down—we are protected by privilege and have the means of putting our views on the record—but there are councillors and ordinary people out there volunteering for political parties and charities up and down the country who are not protected in anything like the same way as we are in Parliament.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that contribution, which touches on the reason we are here: the degree of collateral impact from which we may fairly visibly suffer, and the knock-on effect on people who want to do good things for their community, charity or cause, but who are beginning to ask themselves whether it is worth the effort. What plans do the Government have to assess the extent of the issue, because I do not think that any of us here know what it is?
It almost seems that the age of reasoned argument in elections is under threat. All of us, in our own particular way, have experienced situations in which we mention immigration and are instantly labelled a racist, or we mention welfare and are instantly labelled as having some extraordinary dislike of the disabled, or we want to talk about complicated and sensitive issues around the economy, which is interpreted as simply wanting to starve the poor. Absurd, extreme, ridiculous, lazy and trite comments are assigned to Members who simply want to tackle a complicated social problem in the way we were sent here to do. The fact that there is no room for reasoned argument any more is a cause of this debate. It seems that it is not really about winning votes or arguments anymore.
The manner in which some of those campaigns are conducted—I am obviously trying to steer a careful, non-partisan line here—is about driving people out of politics altogether. It is not about votes and arguments; it is about the single-minded determination to do away with anybody who happens to hold a contrary view. That is a big difference between 2015 and 2017, and it is an unattractive development that will simply reduce the gene pool from which we recruit our politicians and volunteers. I cannot believe that any member of the public, however vociferous they might be online, actually thinks that reducing the number of people from which we choose our representatives is a good thing.
What is all this doing to society? How is it impacting on candidate recruitment? What is it doing to the retention of good people in the House? Have we reviewed the recommendations that the Law Commission made 18 months ago? I am hopeful that the Minister has views on that. Are we doing enough to bring the existing provisions to the knowledge of the enforcement agencies and, indeed, to candidates? I hope that when the Minister gets to his feet in a few minutes he will be able to give us some indication of the Government’s view on an independent assessment of the extent of the problem—what is going on out there, what is the cause and what is the remedy.
Four years ago the all-party parliamentary group against anti-Semitism produced a detailed set of recommendations on an all-party basis about conduct in elections and asked every political leader to endorse it. To date, none has. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the political leaders themselves drew up a code of conduct and a way of addressing behaviour during elections, that would go a considerable way towards dealing with the most difficult period? If there is a transgression by a candidate or their supporters, they face the issue of votes at that time, and therefore there is a tendency to try to dampen it down or ignore it during elections. That is precisely why we produced that report.
I could not have put it better myself. In fact, I would expand it to outside election times, too. As we have heard today, this problem is not limited to that four or five-week period every three or four years.
My second question to the Minister is about reviewing existing laws and seeing which work and which should work but are not being enforced. Where there are gaps, we should recommend how to fill them. Then, as the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) said, we should ensure that there is cross-party support for legislation to achieve that aim.
We need to look at the responsibilities of the social media platforms, which, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and I discovered not long ago, all too often wring their hands and say, “It’s all too difficult.” Actually, it is not all too difficult. It is all too important that they now adopt the same responsible attitude to what they publish in their name— although they deny they are publishers—which is, on occasion, the sort of material that is completely unacceptable. Earlier I raised the example of Byron Davies and the Gower, who asked a social media platform—I think it was Twitter—to remove an outright lie that was possibly going to affect the outcome of the election. It refused and said that what was going on was within the guidelines. It cannot be with the guidelines simply to sit back and allow people to publish utter nonsense with the aim of artificially disrupting the outcome of an election. I suspect that everybody in this Chamber is of that view.
When the then Minister responded to a debate on online bullying last year, he said:
“There needs to be partnership, and I do not rule out regulation…We need to work with the companies, and we need clear guidelines on, and definitions of, online abuse. Even more importantly, we need very quick reactions, so that all of us as constituency MPs do not have to sit in surgeries with people who are clearly utterly distressed because of online material”.—[Official Report, 7 July 2016; Vol. 612, c. 1107.]
That applies just as much to electoral behaviour as to behaviour outside that time.
Finally—thank you for your patience, Mr Hanson—we need a political lead, as other colleagues have said. That means that the leaders of all parties and groups need to stand up and not just send out warmly worded tweets about bad behaviour or transmit mealy-mouthed messages of condemnation, but take a “not in my name” approach. All of the groups we have talked about overtly and by insinuation need to say, “Not in my name. Nobody who is a member of this party or this group should engage in online or offline abuse, either during an election or at any other time.” The leadership of those organisations have the opportunity today to stand up and say that they will deal with this robustly. If they do not, they are complicit in the problem. That is why there have been rumours and this whole thing has gathered momentum—with a small “m”—over the past few months and years.
Thirteen months ago our colleague Jo Cox paid the ultimate price for this kind of stuff. It shook the nation and sent a message that I hoped people would listen to, whether they are in a position of political leadership or just able to vote at elections. One year on, the problem seems every bit as bad as it was back then. Unless we have joined-up, co-operative leadership from the Government—I hope we will hear about that now—and from all the Opposition parties and the groups that support them, all of the extraordinary work that has been done in Jo Cox’s memory will have been wasted.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesperson for the Scottish National party at 5.10 pm, so there is very limited time for right hon. and hon. Members’ contributions. I hope that Members bear in mind that I will not be able to get everybody in.
This is a very important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing it. We have to be clear that we are talking not about robust debate, however robust it is, but about mindless abuse. In my case, the mindless abuse has been characteristically racist and sexist. I have had death threats, and people tweeting that I should be hanged
“if they could find a tree big enough to take the fat bitch’s weight”.
There was an English Defence League-affiliated Twitter account—#burnDianeAbbot. I have had rape threats, and been described as a
“Pathetic useless fat black piece of shit”,
an “ugly, fat black bitch”, and a “nigger”—over and over again. One of my members of staff said that the most surprising thing about coming to work for me is how often she has to read the word “nigger”. It comes in through emails, Twitter and Facebook.
Where I disagree with the hon. Gentleman is that he seems to suggest that this is all a relatively recent occurrence in this election. That is not my experience. It is certainly true that the online abuse that I and others experience has got worse in recent years, and that it gets worse at election time, but I do not put it down to a particular election. I think the rise in the use of online media has turbocharged abuse. Thirty years ago, when I first became an MP, if someone wanted to attack an MP, they had to write a letter—usually in green ink—put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and walk to the post box. Now, they press a button and we read vile abuse that, 30 years ago, people would have been frightened even to write down.
I accept that male politicians get abuse, too, but I hope the one thing we can agree on in this Chamber is that it is much worse for women. As well as the rise of online media, it is helped by anonymity. People would not come up to me and attack me for being a nigger in public, but they do it online. It is not once a week or during an election; it is every day. My staff switch on the computer and go on to Facebook and Twitter, and they see this stuff.
I agree with everything the right hon. Lady is saying, but I do not think my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) was saying that this is a new thing. We have all had it for years on social media, and the right hon. Lady has had it in a particularly terrible way. What is different now is that some of this is being driven by political leaders’ language. When someone addresses a rally where there are posters of the severed head of the Prime Minister and they do not do anything about it, and when leaders say “ditch the bitch” in relation to the Prime Minister, that is the problem we have at the moment: it is the dehumanisation of each other in politics.
We will have to agree to disagree.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
I am afraid I cannot give way, because I am mindful of the time.
The type of racist and sexist abuse I get is not tied to any events in this particular election campaign. This is not about just politicians or even women politicians. Any woman who goes into the public space can expect that type of abuse. People will remember how Mary Beard, the historian, received horrible abuse online because she was on “Question Time”.
Order. The right hon. Lady is making a powerful speech, but I am conscious that we have only 11 minutes to get other Members in, so I hope she will draw her remarks to a conclusion.
In closing, I want to make a couple of points, the first of which is that there is a relationship between online abuse and mainstream media commentary; in my office, we always see, at the very least, a spike in abuse after there has been a lot of negative stuff in the media. Online abuse and abuse generally are not the preserve of any one party or any one party faction, and to pretend that is to devalue a very important argument. I am glad we have had the debate—it gives me no pleasure to talk about my experience not only in the last election, but for years—but let us get this debate straight: it is not about a particular party or a particular faction, but about the degradation of public discourse online.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing this debate.
I have stood in six general elections and I can say that, frankly, this was by a long chalk the most unpleasant one in which I have ever participated. I have no doubt at all that much of the behaviour that my hon. Friend outlined was co-ordinated, because the patterns of behaviour that I witnessed in my constituency have been repeated across the country and have been reported to me by a number of colleagues.
One issue that I want to raise, to echo what the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said, is that of social media. Frankly, if ever there were a misnomer, “social media” is it; it is deeply antisocial media. Twitter, in particular, has a lot to answer for. The anonymity in which a lot of participants on Twitter clothe themselves encourages the sort of behaviour that we have heard about today. Logging on to Twitter nowadays is much like wading through sewage; it is a deeply unpleasant experience. The sort of commentary, abuse and language that one sees on it, which is regularly used against everyone but in particular candidates for election, is the sort of thing that no one would dream of saying to another person face to face.
That is the nub of the issue. We now have this new phenomenon of social media and it has not been adequately addressed. It is certainly not being addressed by the social media companies. My hon. Friend is right: someone who makes a complaint to Twitter gets completely ignored. Twitter, in fact, has a huge amount to answer for, so in the brief time available to me I ask the Minister whether he will please give consideration to the impact that social media have had on the behaviour of many people during the election campaign. What proposals do the Government have to address that, because at the moment anarchic media are causing misery to untold numbers of people, not least colleagues here in this House?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing this extremely important debate.
I am very sorry that we are having to have the debate, but it is necessary, and I have been appalled at the severity and scale of the abuse experienced by hon. Members and that has been described today. In our democracy, to be able to stand for Parliament free from abuse, threats, degradation and defamatory remarks is essential. I have always thought that we should encourage non-career politicians into politics—career politicians are also good, but we need the diversity—but it is difficult to encourage them into a world of negativity, put-downs, vilification and abuse, so Parliament will lose good people. All parties have such issues, and I reiterate that it is incumbent on party leaders to act where abuse occurs. We cannot ignore it, because ignoring abuse ultimately condones it.
In my own experience, I have had very personal attacks, including anti-Semitic comments because I have friends and family who are Jewish. I have also met constituents who have been told that I was not a real doctor, but masquerading as a doctor; that I did not live with my husband; and all sorts of false allegations, such as ones about business contracts that I was supposed to have with the NHS, but which I have never had. That was all aimed at undermining my personal and professional credibility.
I will end now to give others the opportunity to contribute. Where abuse occurs, it is incumbent on candidates, parties and party leaders to act; such abuse does not benefit politics, society or diversity. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I hope that we have cross-party consensus on the issue.
I will try to be brief, and I have already made a couple of interventions.
I am a Tory in Humberside, which is not an easy place to be a Tory. I was a councillor for 10 years—one of two Tories on Hull City Council—and have been through four council elections and four general elections. I am not afraid of abuse and insults, something I am pretty used to, but what is happening now is on a different scale.
I have been called “Tory scum” for years and had insults in the streets, and I am pretty used to that. It is part of the process, and although we might say that it should not happen, it does. What happened at this election, however, was different. I never thought that in my own constituency someone would come up to me and shout the name of the Leader of the Opposition, then describe me as, “Israeli and Zionist scum.” I never thought that my posters would be ripped down and posted on social media under the phrase, “Fuck the Tories #CorbynIn”. I never thought that my staff would be spat at in the street by activists, by people naming the Leader of the Opposition as their motivation for calling my staff “Tory fucking scum.” That is what is happening in our democracy.
It is true that there is abuse on all sides, on the left and on the right. I condemn it absolutely. What is different about what is happening now is that there is an assault on our democracy and on one particular political party. This dehumanisation of my side of politics is being motivated and encouraged by the language of some of the leaders of the Labour party. There are very decent Labour members—the vast mass of them—and Members of Parliament, but the abuse has been happening to some of them as well.
To have leaders addressing rallies where there were images of the severed head of the Prime Minister, but that not being called out, and to have leaders accusing people of murder or saying, “Ditch the bitch!”, but that not being called out, is an assault on our democratic values and our processes. It has to stop. It is the worst I have encountered in any election and it is not acceptable. In this particular regard, it is coming from one particular faction. We should be honest about that.
Luke Pollard and Rehman Chishti have literally three minutes between them. Luke Pollard, you have a minute and a half, maximum.
Abuse aimed at candidates and volunteers is not endured by only one party; it is endured by all parties. There are people right across our political spectrum, from left to right and in the middle, who suffer needless abuse for trying to make the world a better place. Politics is our way of doing that. It is a difficult and contested environment, and at elections we want our debates to be robust but, speaking as a gay man and as a proud Janner from Plymouth, I want to speak up not only for Members of Parliament, but for the volunteers and for those cautious about getting involved in politics for the first time.
During the election, I spoke to a young LGBT person who said, “I get abuse online; I am scared to go online. If Members of Parliament aren’t getting justice for the abuse they get, what chance do I have?” The message that this House and the Government must send to young people from the LGBT community and every community who want to make the world a better place is that abuse will be taken seriously, wherever it comes from, whoever says it and whatever form it is done in, whether that is in the mainstream print media, slipped into broadcast, on social media or as abuse on posters, or—this happened to Jemima, one of the people I represent in Plymouth—in an anonymous note put through her door simply because she had put up a Labour poster. We have to send the message that abuse, wherever it comes from, is not acceptable.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing the debate.
I have colleagues in all parts of the House. In my seven years here, I have built some wonderful friendships with them and gone on some wonderful trips abroad on delegations and on work we have carried out together. However, I will never accept something that is unacceptable to happen to any Member of Parliament from any political party. Let me give two examples.
When I stood up to make my acceptance speech and to thank all the electorate after a very difficult election—the culture in the election campaign was one of the most difficult that I have experienced—I had an activist say in public, “Fuck off back to country X”. The matter has been referred to the Kent police. They are investigating it under public order and racism, so let them do their job. But a Labour party activist, who happens to be a former assistant to the Medway Labour group, said that in public as I made my acceptance speech. I ask each and every Member here: if you experienced that, how would you feel?
Two days before the election, a video went online of a conversation between a third party and a Labour councillor, who happens to be the former chairman of the Gillingham and Rainham association. Malicious, grossly offensive remarks and a threat to me were made—
Order. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I have to call the Front Benchers, so will he resume his seat? I call Tommy Sheppard.
I appreciate that we are short of time and I know that we will discuss this issue again in the main Chamber next week, so I will try to keep my remarks brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing this important debate, and I associate my party with the sentiments that he expressed.
I and many of my colleagues have been subjected to exactly the type of activity that the hon. Gentleman described. Indeed, someone was recently convicted for making a threat against me. Like others, I am extremely concerned that it seems that the majority of the perpetrators of such abuse are male and the majority of the targets are female Members—or at least the greatest intensity of threats is directed towards them. That should be a cause for extreme concern for everyone.
We should be absolutely clear that we are not talking about a bit of political banter. We are not talking about the rough and tumble of political debate, or even about satirising or caricaturing another person’s point of view; we are talking about vile abuse—dehumanising people and sometimes inciting violence against them. That sort of activity should not be deemed acceptable in any democratic society.
We are also, I hope, not suggesting that there is anything special that needs to be protected about Members of Parliament; we are arguing about abuse that should be tackled no matter who in society suffers from it. In that sense, I agree with the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). This issue cannot be taken in isolation from general debates in society, or from the general portrayals in the media of certain people in society. I will not say exactly what the link is, but to say that there is not an association or a link would be extremely problematic.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
We are very short of time, but I will if the hon. Gentleman is quick.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with a senior Scottish National party politician that now is the time for people to sign up to a code of conduct, and now is the time to ban anonymous social media accounts?
Yes. I think the hon. Gentleman is talking about my colleague Alyn Smith MEP—a member of the SNP national executive—who called for that. I was going to deal with that point at the end of my remarks.
We need to consider the wider political factors at play and whether there is anything we can do to try to change the political discourse in our country through the way we operate politics. As elected Members of Parliament, we have a special responsibility to take a lead on that. There are undoubtedly a lot of people with a legitimate sense of grievance about the lot that they have received in society, for one reason or another. They feel alienated from the political process and unable to express their point of view.
Of course, that has always been the case; the difference is that, whereas those people had to go to extreme lengths to vent their anger before, it is now remarkably easy. All they need to do is switch on their phone and they can instantly and anonymously direct the most vile abuse to whomever they want. But that does not mean that we should not look at the underlying reasons for that alienation and disaffection and see whether there is stuff that we can do, through our education system or by improving political discourse generally, to try to minimise that. I do not say that to excuse people’s behaviour in any way; I am simply trying to find some explanation for it, so that we might begin the long-term process of trying to prevent it.
I caution colleagues very much against trying to make this a party political matter. Every Member of this House—albeit some much more than others—has been subjected to some sort of abuse. It crosses all political parties, and it is not a matter that one political party experiences more than any other. I understand that sometimes, people who offer such abuse identify themselves as a political opponent, or a supporter of a political opponent, of the person to whom the abuse is directed, but that does not mean that the abuse is sanctioned by a political party or that such people speak for a political party. Therefore, if we are to tackle this issue properly, we must do so on a cross-party basis, and we certainly could agree a voluntary code of conduct among the political parties that states what is acceptable and what is not.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for bringing this important debate to the House. It is clearly one in which every Member has some interest, because I doubt that any Member or anyone who stood for election to the House has not faced some level of abuse. I also thank the other Members who took part in the debate. I am keen to hear more detail about the examples they raised of abuse that was done in the name of my party, and I am happy to take up those cases.
I am aware that many Members did not take part in the debate because they do not want to give oxygen or attention to the people who abuse them. For the same reason, I do not want to go into the details of the abuse that I have received while I have been in the public eye over the past couple of years, but I stress that such abuse has no place in our democracy. If we are truly to be a country with free and fair elections, everyone must feel able to stand as a candidate, or to support a candidate or a political party, without fear.
A lot has been said about us as politicians, but I stress that this issue is also about people who purport to support a political party. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) told me that supporters of his who put “Vote Labour” posters in their windows were subjected to hate mail, which, owing to its content, is currently being investigated seriously by the police. That is alarming.
This is of course not just an issue for one political party; it happens across the political spectrum. I think that this issue was first brought before the House at the first Prime Minister’s Question Time of this Session, when the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) spoke about the abuse that she had received during the election. That, too, is abhorrent. This is an issue for all political parties.
Abuse is also an issue both during and outside election campaigns. While we serve as Members in this House, we are afforded some level of security. Since the murder of Jo Cox, the importance of that security has been brought very much to our attention. That incident reminds us how serious this issue can be. Online abuse does not happen in a vacuum; when someone can go online and tweet abuse or put up a Facebook message saying that they want to “put a bullet between his ears”—that is a comment that I reported to Facebook, which said it did not breach its terms and conditions—and get away with it, it gives them the confidence to do so offline, on the streets.
I am obviously very hurt when I am the victim of abuse, but I am hurt far more when members of my staff are abused in the street. Occasionally, they are even mistaken for me, which makes me feel terribly guilty. This issue is about the protection not just of politicians but of their families and colleagues.
I am sorry for interrupting the hon. Lady, but does she not think that the leadership of our parties must set the right tone? If they do not, people will follow that example. Surely she agrees.
The right hon. Lady pre-empts the movement of my speech towards exactly that point. It is important that political parties and political leaders have a way in which they can address this issue. The Labour party has a social media policy and a code of conduct, which we expect our members to abide by. Where we find examples of members not doing so, we do not hesitate to remove them as members. When they join the party, our members pledge that they will not use any form of abuse; if they do, they risk losing their membership. In fact, in 2016, the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), tweeted to say that such abuse was not acceptable, and he reiterated that in the “Question Time” debates during the general election campaign.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I cannot—I am really short of time.
I want to stress the responsibility for social media as well. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) said on “Daily Politics” yesterday, it is not right that Facebook can remove a picture of a woman breastfeeding within minutes, but it takes it two weeks to remove a fake social media profile.
I see you urging me to draw my remarks to a close, Mr Hanson.
I therefore urge the Minister to work on a cross-party basis. We would like to see a code of conduct by way of which we can work together to ensure that this abuse is not accepted.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) will get a chance to wind up at the end for one minute.
I’m already wound up! [Laughter.]
I call Chris Skidmore.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing this important debate. I welcome the opportunity to address some of the issues that he and other hon. Members from both sides of the House have raised. My hon. Friend put his points across in powerful terms, as have others today, and this is clearly an extremely serious matter that Members feel strongly about. As he said in his opening remarks, this is not just about ourselves as Members as Parliament; it is about all those close to us—our family, our friends and our supporters.
The Prime Minister has been very clear that there is no place in our democracy for the harassment of parliamentary candidates and that abuse will not be tolerated. That is why today she has asked the non-partisan Committee on Standards in Public Life to carry out a review of the intimidation experienced by parliamentary candidates, including those who stood to become Members of Parliament at the 2017 general election. The review will gather evidence of harassment and consider what action needs to be taken to ensure the integrity of the future of our democratic process.
This is clearly an issue that has the potential to impact on people’s wish to stand for office and therefore has a negative impact on standards in public life more broadly. It is also about protecting the integrity of public service itself and that of the offices that we hold. The independent, non-partisan Committee on Standards in Public Life is well respected and, I believe, well placed to lead that work. It has conducted many detailed reviews on conduct and ethics and operates independently from Government, regulators and politicians.
The Minister refers to responsibility in relation to conduct. Does he therefore agree with my earlier point that if a third party makes to someone in office a threat of violence directed towards another person running for office—myself in this case—and makes points that are grossly offensive, anti-Semitic and homophobic, the individual to whom that is reported has a responsibility to notify the authorities? To do nothing, as the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) said, is completely unacceptable.
I entirely agree that we, like all legislators, cannot be silent on this issue. I hope that, as the committee begins to set up its review, all Members will wish to partake some of the evidence they have given today and do so confidentially, without risk of somehow glorifying the perpetrators. It will be for the committee to determine the exact parameters of the review, but we anticipate that it will want to examine the nature of the problem and the protections and measures currently in place, and whether those need to change.
The committee may also consider the broader implication of other office holders—the role of councillors was mentioned. Foremost, the review will look at intimidation experienced by anyone who has stood as a parliamentary candidate. I am sure the committee will want to progress that work as quickly as possible. It will produce a report for the Prime Minister with specific recommendations for actions, and we look forward to its findings.
On the issue of abuse and the current parameters of legislation, as was pointed out legislation is in place to deal with internet trolls, cyber-stalking and harassment and with perpetrators of grossly offensive, obscene or menacing behaviour. As a Government, we are making changes where necessary to ensure that the legislation we have is as effective as possible. For example, in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 we made changes to relevant offences to help ensure that people who commit them are prosecuted and properly punished.
The 2015 Act amended section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988, which makes it an offence to send certain articles with intent to cause distress or anxiety. The amendment allows prosecutions to be dealt with in either the magistrates court or the Crown court, with the maximum penalty in the magistrates court for the offence being 12 months’ imprisonment and two years in the Crown court. The amendment also removed the previous requirement that prosecution be brought within six months, extending the time within which prosecutions for offences under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 can be made to up to three years after the offence. As has been said, the key point is that legislation is in place; it is a question of communicating the fact that our legislation now needs to be used by the police when offences are committed and claims and accusations about those offences are brought to them.
The law is clear that what is illegal offline is also illegal online. Robust legislation is in place to deal with internet trolls, cyber-stalking and harassment and the perpetrators of grossly offensive, obscene or menacing behaviour. Section 127 of the 2003 Act created an offence of sending or causing to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network
“a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.
The Crown Prosecution Service also recently revised its guidelines on social media to incorporate new and emerging crimes being committed online and to provide clear advice, to help the prosecution of cyber-enabled crime.
The recently enacted Digital Economy Act 2017 will also help to ensure that online abuse is more effectively tackled by requiring a code of practice to be established. The code will set out guidance about what social media providers should do in relation to conduct on their platforms that involves bullying or insulting an individual or other behaviour likely to intimidate or humiliate them. The Government are considering how to take forward the social media code of practice as part of the newly established digital charter, and we will provide more details shortly about when the consultation with social media will take place.
Hate crime of any kind, directed against any community or any person, has absolutely no place in our society; I am sure we all agree on that. As a Government, we are utterly committed to tackling hate crime. The Prime Minister has made it very clear that hate crime of any kind is completely unacceptable. It divides communities, destroys lives and makes us weaker. Britain is thriving precisely because we welcome people from all backgrounds, faiths and ethnicities, and that is something we must strive to protect.
The fact that one of the first actions the Home Secretary took in her new role last summer was to launch the hate crime action plan shows how important tackling hate crime is for the Government. The Home Secretary has also asked Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to carry out an inspection of all five monitored strands of hate crime, to build up a national picture of how effectively and efficiently police forces are dealing with it. The inspection will take place during 2017-18, and the Government will be keen to see the findings and then consider how they should be taken forward.
The Government are determined that no candidate—regardless of their party, background, race, ethnicity or sexuality—should be forced to tolerate abuse, online or offline, whether it is physical abuse or the threat of violence or intimidation. It is utterly unacceptable in our modern democracy, which we believe is an inclusive and tolerant one, for the incidents of abuse discussed today to be allowed to go on unchallenged. I met the Law Commission this week and the Electoral Commission last week to raise the issue of candidate abuse. I look forward to the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review of intimidation experienced by parliamentary candidates and the eventual conclusions of its report.
We, as Members of Parliament and as a Government, cannot be silent on this matter. The law exists to protect candidates, and I urge anyone who has evidence of abuse to present it to the committee as part of its review, to the Electoral Commission as part of its review of the general election and, above all, to their local police force, which must take this issue very seriously.
I thank Members on both sides for contributing to this important debate, which I hope will mark a turning point, not only assisting increased detection of intolerance and abuse in all forms, but marking a cultural shift, whereby we, across all parties, work together to stamp out these vile forms of abuse and tackle the fundamental point that this is not acceptable or permissible. We owe it to our democracy to make clear that intimidation and abuse have no part in our society, not only for candidates who stood at the recent general election but for future generations of men and women who are considering entering public life and standing for election. No one must be deterred from playing their part in our democracy, which is why we must seek to end the corrosive effect that abuse and intimidation has of actively discouraging future generations from standing as our representatives.
Thank you very much, Mr Hanson, for your role this afternoon. I also thank colleagues from both sides of the House for such useful contributions and the Government for taking such immediate action on this. We even got a letter from the Prime Minister before the Minister had got to his feet, so things are working well.
I apologise for going on too long at the beginning, particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), who was making a really moving speech. I hope he will have an opportunity to complete those comments, perhaps in the other Chamber. If I had had a chance to intervene on the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), I would have asked how many people the Labour party has already sanctioned for offences in this area. Perhaps she could write to me with that information.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered abuse and intimidation of candidates and the public in UK elections.
[David Hanson in the Chair]