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House of Commons Hansard
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07 January 2019
Volume 652

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

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Exceptionally, I will take the hon. Gentleman’s point of order now because it relates to Brexit protests, and therefore there seems an apposite quality about hearing what he has to say at this point.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. If this place stands for anything, it is freedom of expression, and you are the greatest defender of that freedom, but that freedom must be accompanied by personal safety, in particular for hon. and right hon. Members. We have heard reports from the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) of the threatening behaviour of certain protesters towards my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry). Will you consult the Serjeant at Arms to see whether the Metropolitan police are doing everything they can to protect the public’s right to protest but also to ensure that Members are able to go about their business in total safety?

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, with which I entirely identify. I am happy to take other colleagues’ points of order in due course, but there is nothing that the hon. Gentleman has said to which I object in any way. I share both the sentiment he has expressed and his strength of feeling on behalf of colleagues about this matter. Naturally, I am grateful to him for giving me advance notice of his point of order.

I have indeed been made aware of recent incidents involving aggressive and threatening behaviour towards Members and others by assorted protesters who have donned the yellow vests used in France. When I refer to “recent incidents”, I am more specifically referring to reports I have had of incidents that have taken place today, in all likelihood when many of us, myself included, have been in this Chamber. The House authorities are not technically responsible for the safety of Members off the estate—that is and remains a matter for the Metropolitan police—but naturally, I take this issue very seriously and so, I am sure, do the police, who have been made well aware of our concerns.

Reflecting and reinforcing what the hon. Gentleman said about peaceful protest, let me say this. Peaceful protest is a vital democratic freedom, but so is the right of elected Members to go about their business without being threatened or abused, and that includes access to and from the media stands in Abingdon Green. I say no more than that I am concerned at this stage about what seems to be a pattern of protests targeted in particular—I do not say exclusively—at women. Female Members and, I am advised, in a number of cases, female journalists, have been subjected to aggressive protest and what many would regard as harassment.

I assure the House that I am keeping a close eye on events and will speak to those who advise me about these matters. I would like to thank the hon. Gentleman for doing a public service in raising the issue. I do not want to dwell on it for long, because we have other important business to which we must proceed, but if colleagues with relevant experiences want to come in at this point, they can.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to you for the statement that you have just made. I was at Abingdon Green earlier this afternoon and witnessed what happened. A completely unacceptable level of abuse was directed at the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and at the Sky News journalist Kay Burley. I completely agree with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) that peaceful protest in the vicinity of Parliament is a hugely important and valuable part of our democratic traditions, but intimidation and abuse are not peaceful protest. I therefore ask you to use your good offices to do everything possible to ensure that journalists and broadcasters can do their job and that Members of this House are free to speak their minds.

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I happily give the right hon. Gentleman that undertaking.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. This is not the first such incident that has taken place. There was an incident shortly before Christmas, after which a number of us wrote to the Chairman of Ways and Means. As a result, police officers are now stationed outside the Abingdon Green area, but they are not necessarily on the way in and out, which I think is where the latest incident took place. People do have the right to protest freely, but they also have a responsibility to conduct themselves appropriately. What we have seen once again, most regrettably directed at the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), has been really vile and misogynistic thuggery, abuse and harassment.

We in this place remember that our friend Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right neo-Nazi in 2016, that people have gone to prison for plotting to murder another Labour MP, and that many people have been jailed for the abuse that they have directed at other colleagues. As you have said, Mr Speaker, this abuse seems to be directed specifically at women and has a strong streak of misogyny, and it is now being streamed on Facebook Live in order to raise revenue for these far-right people so that they can fund their trolling activities online and in the real world. I therefore also ask that you write to Twitter and Facebook so that these individual sites, wherever they pop up and under whoever’s name they appear, can be shut down and these individuals do not profit from filming their abuse of MPs, who are rightly speaking out on the important national issues of the day. I offer all solidarity with the right hon. Member for Broxtowe.

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The last point that the hon. Lady raised—on live streaming—is new to me; I have heard it from her now for the first time. I will carefully reflect on it. I am perfectly open to taking the course of action that she has recommended, but I hope that she will forgive me if I say that I will want to consult on the best way to proceed. But I have no hesitation in saying that I share 100% the concerns that have been expressed, and it is necessary to state very publicly the difference between peaceful protest on the one hand and aggressive, intimidatory and threatening protest on the other. The idea that one cannot make a distinction between the two is not right; it is not always straightforward, but it can be made, and it must be.