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Security of Elected Representatives

Volume 836: debated on Thursday 29 February 2024

Statement

My Lords, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the security of elected representatives. This House brings together our nation. People from every part of our United Kingdom, every background, are represented here to debate—to argue—the best course for our country to take. That is the way it should be, because this House does not belong to any one community or interest group. It belongs to every citizen from every part of our country.

The decisions we take do not just affect the lives of our friends, our neighbours and our community. They affect every community, and every community’s voice—even those we disagree with—must be properly represented. That principle is at the heart of who we are as a country, and as a democracy. Our democracy works only if those who elect us are free to choose the individual they want—and if the individual they choose has the freedom to say what they think.

In recent weeks, we have seen those principles waver and the strain of rising community tensions is beginning to show. Instead of debate and accountability, we have seen intimidation and threats. Members of this House have told me that they feel they have to vote a certain way, not because it is the right thing for their communities or even that the majority in their communities want it, but because a few—a violent few—have made them fear for their safety, and the safety of their families. Even this House, which has persevered through fire and through war, has been pressured into changing the way we debate.

We all understand why. The assassinations of our friends Jo Cox and Sir David Amess have marked us all. We know there are extremists out there, and the truth is clear—the danger is real. But we also know that bending to the threat of violence and intimidation is wrong. It does not just betray those who sent us; it encourages those who, through us, are bullying them. Last Wednesday, demonstrators threatened to force Parliament to ‘lock its doors’. What these thugs are actually asking us to do is to put our constituents second, and to bow to those who are shouting loudest. That is more than a threat to us. It is a threat to the democratic principles and values that define who we are as a country. They must fail. If we stumbled or succumbed to their pressures, we would not see just this House diminished, but communities across our country suffer.

These pressures always existed but, since the 7 October attacks on Israel, they have spiked, along with a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism. They have been accompanied by demonstrations, some of which have caused profound distress and fear in the Jewish community and beyond.

British Muslims also face threats. Islamist extremists claim that other Muslims are apostates unless they are willing to destroy the society that gave everyone—including the many expressions of Islam—the freedom to worship as they choose. Far-right extremists are trying to say that Islam has no place in Britain. Both are trying to say that Britain is a divided nation, not a United Kingdom—and both are wrong.

The Government reject that agenda of isolation and fear. We are working to ensure that all voices in our democracy are heard. We are ensuring that those who have been elected to serve their community are able to do so without fear. That is why we are committing an additional £31 million of funding to protect the democratic processes and our elected representatives. This funding will primarily support MPs, councillors, police and crime commissioners, and mayors.

The Operation Bridger network, which already provides police support to MPs, will be expanded so that all elected representatives and candidates have a dedicated, named, police officer to contact on security matters where needed. Forces around the country will be able to draw on a new fund to deliver additional patrols, so they will be better able to respond to heightened community tensions. Working closely with Parliament and the police, we will provide access to private security for Members who face the highest risk.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, the Policing Minister and I met senior policing leaders to discuss these issues. Together, the Home Office, the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, and the College of Policing have agreed a new Defending Democracy Policing Protocol. It contains seven key commitments to implement minimum standards of policing at democratic events, to prevent intimidatory protest at home addresses and to ensure that protests at party offices, town halls, Parliament or other democratic venues do not inhibit democratic processes, with an emphasis on local risk and threat monitoring. PCCs and chief constables have been asked to report back on the implementation of these measures by April.

Before I finish, I pay tribute to our law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which keep us safe. This additional funding will help them to support us in undertaking our democratic duty. The people we are privileged to represent deserve nothing less. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Does he agree that there is no place for anti-Semitism on Britain’s streets and that those who perpetrate that poison must face the full force of the law? As well as seeing a rise in hostility and threats towards MPs, we have also seen a rise in intimidation and threats directed at local councillors. Can the Minister set out what action is being taken to ensure that there is robust protection in place for councillors and elected mayors who represent their local communities?

The scenes that we saw play out in central London, near the Cenotaph, on Armistice weekend last year were unacceptable and wrong. Yet, instead of working with the police in the run-up to that highly charged weekend, the then Home Secretary chose to attack the police and inflame tensions. Does the Minister agree that that was an irresponsible way for a Home Secretary to behave and that it was right she was sacked?

The Government’s strategy on countering extremism is now eight years out of date and there are reports that work countering extremism has been dropped or fragmented across departments. What urgent action are the Government taking to address that gap, and when will they come forward with an updated strategy?

In June last year, the Home Office downgraded recording requirements for non-crime hate incidents, meaning that the personal details of people who perpetrate anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are currently not recorded by the police. This will limit the police’s ability to monitor and prevent escalation within communities and will potentially leave victims feeling less safe. Will the Government back the Labour Party’s plans to reinstate the full collection of personal data for people who engage in anti-Semitic or Islamophobic hate?

A week ago, a DLUHC Minister in the other place said that the Government are

“not intending to publish a hate crime strategy”.—[Official Report, 21/2/24; col. 599.]

This is despite the last strategy now being four years out of date. In the context of recording high levels of anti-Semitism and Islamophobic attacks, can the Minister explain why this work has been abandoned?

The theme of the Statement is preventive measures. We welcome it as far as it goes, but what about the causes of these increased tensions? As the Minister said when he quoted the Minister in the other place, Britain is a united kingdom, not a divided nation. We enjoy and have vigorous debate on many issues within Parliament as a whole; people look to Parliament to air the most difficult subjects in our country, both on these shores and beyond. What thought have the Government given to addressing the causes of the increased tensions that we are seeing on our streets while maintaining our traditions, democracy and free speech, not only in Parliament but beyond?

In conclusion, although the Statement focuses on elected representatives, we in this House are, of course, not elected. However, quite a number of colleagues in this House are high-profile. They have their own vulnerabilities because of the views that they express in this House and outside it. What can the Minister say about the enhanced protection measures for colleagues in this House?

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement to the House and note that this additional funding will be spent primarily in supporting MPs, councillors, police and crime commissioners, and mayors. I am particularly happy to hear that police forces around the country will be able to draw on a new fund to respond to heightened community tensions. However, we must not forget other front-line services staff who are also experiencing increased levels of violence and intimidation.

I was appalled to hear the Minister in the other place say that Members had told him that

“they feel they have to vote a certain way … because … a violent few … have made them fear for their safety, and the safety of their families”.

That elected MPs can be targeted in this way simply beggars belief. We also know that women, particularly women from ethnic minorities, are disproportionately targeted for abuse and intimidation. This has got to stop.

When I came into politics it was generally accepted that those who stood for election did it to help their communities and/or their country. The public are now much more sceptical about politicians of all parties, and the perception that politicians are “fair game” for abuse on social media has a pernicious and dangerous effect.

That a small but very vocal minority can get away with using online platforms to bully and intimidate is a matter not just for the Government but for the platforms themselves. Too often we hear them say that they will not tolerate this kind of thing, but they do little to stop it because their prime concern is to grow bigger than their rivals. This has a major effect not just on politicians but on their families.

I suspect that the Minister does not spend a lot of his time reading Liberal Democrat policy papers—

But I commend to him our paper from 2019, setting out proposals for the creation of a new online crime agency to effectively tackle online crimes such as personal fraud, and threats and incitement to violence on social media. We must work on a cross-party basis to tackle this scourge, and I know that we in this House, and all parties in the other place, will be united in this.

Politicians also need to be careful about the language they use. Talking about “no-go areas” in London or describing people exercising their democratic right to protest as “mob rule” is not helping anyone. Nor is the entry of Trump-style conspiracy theories into the mainstream of British politics—that should worry us all.

Politicians have been elected to do a job and should be able to do it without fear for their own or their family’s safety. It is also essential that they can continue to run face-to-face surgeries, which are an essential glue between the elected and the electors. We must all stick together to ensure that this contact does not disappear from our democracy, and that people from every background, gender and sexual identity can enter politics and represent people in safety.

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their questions. I will start by agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, about anti-Semitism—of course I agree, and he heard me make statements on that subject from the Dispatch Box last week. In terms of how this is a societal problem, and how anti-Semitism may start with Jews but does not finish there, I refer the noble Lord to the comments from Lord Sacks that I quoted last week.

I also highlight, because I think it is important, that the Prime Minister yesterday committed to four years of funding for the CST—Community Security Trust—at £18 million a year. This is a subject that the noble Lord, Lord Mann, asked me about in that debate, which I was unable to help him on. The Prime Minister announced that yesterday, and it is very welcome when it comes to combating, and protecting people against, anti-Semitism.

In terms of local communities, yes, Operation Bridger is the police network that introduces dedicated points of contact for all elected representatives. I stress the “all”. That can be “where needed”, which also applies to the noble Lord’s question about Members of this House—although I would also refer to parliamentary security, which is available. There is also a new local communities fund for the deployment of additional police patrols in England and Wales in response to increased community tensions. Local forces can draw down in response to potential flashpoints, which we think will bolster police visibility and help public confidence.

There is much on this in the defending democracy protocol announced by the Prime Minister yesterday. He explained, and it is outlined in the protocol—I will go into some detail on this—that:

“Protests at representatives’ parties’ offices, democratic venues (such as Parliament or Town Halls) or at political events (such as constituency fundraisers or meetings) should not be allowed to (i) prevent or inhibit the use of the venue, attendance at the event or access to and from it or (ii) cause alarm, harassment or distress to attendees through the use of threatening or abusive words or disorderly behaviour, in keeping with public order laws”.

So I would say that the answer is a strong “yes”; there is a lot in place to protect local councillors.

Where I have to say “no” is to the noble Lord’s invitation to me to comment on the previous Home Secretary’s comments. That seems to be asked of me in every single debate at the moment and, just for the record, I will never comment on previous Home Secretaries’ remarks.

In terms of the counterextremism strategy, the Security Minister in the other place said earlier today that work is ongoing on this. I cannot give a clear commitment beyond what he said there, in terms of timing and so on. In regard to non-crime hate incidents, that is of course kept under control. We will not be adopting the Labour Party’s proposals on this. The noble Lord will be aware that there were many difficult instances that were reported widely with regard to this in the past, and we will not go back to those at the moment.

Of course, I agree with him on the causes of the various incidents we have seen. I would expand that and say that it is not just government that needs to look at the causes; it is all of us. It is a societal problem, not just a political one.

I think I have answered all the noble Lord’s questions, so I will move on to the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey. Of course, I completely agree about social media. The Home Secretary was actually in California this week, and I know that he was talking to a number of the corporates the noble Baroness referred to. The Online Safety Act has been passed by Parliament; it has just come into force, but let us see if that does what it is intended to—one would certainly hope so. I can assure the noble Baroness that I do not read Liberal Democrat party policy papers; I doubt that she is all that surprised about that. But I would also say that she has a direct line that is not available to me to at least one of those major online corporates—so I would entirely agree with her that it is a cross-party issue to be resolved. Perhaps she could help.

It goes without saying that I agree that language and its use, and the care taken to express oneself, really does need to be very carefully observed by everybody who has any sort of platform.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating this important Statement. The protection that will be offered to our elected representatives is vital, because this is a period of time of immense concern. As has already been mentioned, the impact, particularly on women and women of UKME heritage, both in person and online, is deeply troubling, as is the abuse suffered by Muslim and Jewish colleagues. Anti-Semitism has been said to be a “light sleeper”, but it is very much wide awake at this time, and a lot of Islamophobia is built on immense ignorance and stereotyping of people.

Those on these Benches work hard at community cohesion across this nation, and we often work very closely with leaders of other faith communities, trying to live out that injunction of Jesus to love our neighbours as ourselves. As the Minister has rightly said, all parliamentarians need to be careful in the use of the words with which we describe issues and things, to be careful that we do not incite further trouble. We need to learn that art, which is seemingly fast being lost from our society, of disagreeing agreeably. So I ask how, in the work of government, that sense of mirroring and modelling disagreeing agreeably might be lived out all the more. Given the ignorance around many other faith communities, how might priority be given to religious literacy across education and within our public institutions?

I thank the right reverend Prelate for his comments; he makes some very interesting points. We have been very clear that anti-Muslim hatred has no place at all in our communities, and that it will be stamped out wherever it occurs. It is a growing concern, as I think the right reverend Prelate has highlighted, for all of our communities. To effectively respond to it, we must properly understand it in all its forms and manifestations. We have been seeking the views and perspectives of experts in this field, which I hope would include the right reverend Prelate, to explore how religious hatred is experienced across all British communities. But it seems self-evident that one of the ways to combat this sort of ill-advised and poorly informed hatred is to educate and improve general understanding of the issues under discussion.

I commend my noble friend the Minister for his wise words today. Yesterday in this Chamber, we spent some time talking about the importance of the freedom of the press. Against a background which we all accept as pretty serious and worrying, it is vital to maintain freedom of speech. People should be able to express their thoughts clearly. I speak as somebody who started on life at Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner in the 1960s, where I enjoyed tackling all sorts of issues and had feedback from all those who listened. Does the Minister not think that we ought to do everything possible, particularly in this year, to encourage people to come out and speak without fear of reprisal or of any effect they might or might not have?

If we look ahead to this year, there are two particular questions I would like to ask my noble friend the Minister. First, we are going to get a Dissolution of Parliament. If there is to be general election in May, it will come at the end of next month. What is going to happen so far as protecting candidates is concerned? As soon as there is a Dissolution, MPs are no longer Members of Parliament. What will be done to make sure that the protection will continue during what could potentially be a very testing period? Secondly, does this protection extend to the devolved nations? We must ensure that equal protection is given to all those who have elected office in whatever capacity in the devolved territories and that there are sufficient funds to make sure that they are adequately covered.

My noble friend raises some good points. I entirely agree that we should be encouraging debate around these subjects, that we should be tolerant of freedom and that we should encourage freedom. It seems to me self-evident that you can expose widely held fallacies only by, in effect, letting sunlight in as the perfect disinfectant. In terms of debate, the only sunlight you can let in comes via speeches, words and testing opinions and widely held fallacies. On that subject, we have to be careful around the taxonomy that we use when defining some of these hatreds because, again, we would not wish inadvertently to make certain discussions beyond the pale, shall we say.

As regards the devolved nations, defending democracy is a sovereign matter, but policing is devolved. We will work with the security services in those Administrations on the safety of their Governments. Any additional requirements on devolved policing will be funded in the appropriate way. I reassure my noble friend that the Government are looking at how to maintain security requirements during the Dissolution of Parliament when, as he rightly points out, MPs will no longer be MPs. However, Operation Bridger is very clear. A full-time, single point of contact in each police force will be introduced with responsibility for supporting all elected representatives where needed. Obviously, if an MP has stood down for that time, that does not mean that they are not still protected, where needed.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the other place is in a sense the vox populi that has an enormous influence on debate and on the tenor of how people feel in this country? The Whip system in both our major parties is extraordinarily effective in getting their adherents to vote along party lines, however much they might dislike it, demonstrating a commendable degree of discipline. It would be nice to see that discipline applied equally to those members of each party who choose to use inflammatory language, which is clearly unhelpful to them as individuals and certainly to their staff but also to all their colleagues.

My second point is that, in the event that a general election is called, the individuals running for office will no longer be MPs and the whipping system as such will therefore no longer be in effect. What role or responsibility will the central offices of the major parties have in trying to ensure a degree of discipline and coherence in what those who are running under their particular flags say during the election campaign? GB News is a good example of how a small flame can quite quickly create a gas explosion. I am worried about a lack of discipline unless, frankly, all the major parties are aware of this issue and are taking active steps to do something about it.

The noble Lord makes some good points. I would say that the other House is not the vox populi; it is elected to represent its constituents’ concerns, whatever those concerns might be. I take his points about the Whip system. I noticed that that system was enacted speedily and swiftly in circumstances that I suspect he was referring to earlier this week.

With regard to the general election, the ultimate decider of whether or not the messages being delivered on the doorstep are acceptable or appropriate is the electors in those constituencies. It is clear that parties—I would extend this to all parties—have clear rules about what is and is not acceptable, and I am sure they will be enforcing those rules as ruthlessly as necessary.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement, but I want to ask for some clarification. The Statement explains the support that the police are giving to ensure that the marchers and demonstrations do not have the appearance, to people going about their daily business, of being intimidatory. Could my noble friend explain more precisely what powers the police have to curtail marches in public places or where people are going about elected office, whether in town halls or in these Houses of Parliament, and whether they will use such powers to stop the very aggressive flag-waving and surrounding of buildings by marchers, which has the appearance to many people of being intimidatory? I note here that the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police did not think that flashing or having banners saying “From the river to the sea” was anti-Semitic or intimidatory when the subject was first raised with him some months ago. Do the police have any powers to stop such inflammatory and, to my mind, anti-Semitic slogans being posted publicly or advertised, which are taken as intimidatory? To clarify, I am asking about the very aggressive flag-waving on some occasions of Palestinian flags and the flashing or use of that slogan on public marches.

My noble friend asks some interesting and, if I may say so, slightly difficult questions, because there is an invitation in there to comment on operational policing matters, as she describes, around Parliament and indeed on protests in general. I think the police have sufficient powers. Obviously, those coalesce around intimidation, harassment and intent, but it is a matter for context-specific decisions to be made by the police at the time. They are accountable for those decisions after the facts, but at the time it is difficult to second-guess why or how they did what they did.

With regard to projecting things on buildings, the legality of slogans and so on, I am sure that is one of those matters where we all have our own opinions. The act of projecting light on to a building is not itself illegal in the UK and it is not obviously likely to engage public order offences, but it is possible in principle to do certain things about it. This is a debate that will continue, and I do not think I should go any further on it.