[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered intimidation in public life.
I start by declaring an interest as a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which has expressed some views on this topic, to which I will refer. On 12 July 2017 I brought this subject to the House’s attention. At that stage, most of us had just returned from what we thought was an especially toxic and divisive general election campaign, in which abuse, intimidation and criminal damage appeared to be commonplace. In that debate, colleagues gave numerous examples of their experiences during that election campaign; no doubt, we will hear a few more today. At the time, we said that they were not just examples of the rough and tumble of a lively general election campaign, which we should encourage and welcome. Death threats, rape threats, misogyny, antisemitism, racism, homophobia and criminal damage all featured somewhere in colleagues’ recollections after the 2017 campaign.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. In addition to events during the election, my constituency office was very recently vandalised with graffiti, stickers and threatening messages. That was concerning for me because the office is meant to be a secure place that my constituents can visit. We must ensure that staff work in a safe, abuse-free environment. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is wholly unacceptable in a democracy for some people to resort to violence, aggression, intimidation and vandalising the property of democratically elected officials?
I am sure that the Minister will have some thoughts on that, but from my point of view, the answer must be yes. It is worth reminding anyone who might think that such a course of action has some purpose, it is generally self-defeating. If we learn anything at all from such events it is how it stiffens our resolve to make sure that democracy is not damaged as a consequence of the thuggery that we have come to see as a fairly regular feature of our lives.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend. He is right to refer to the 2017 election. I spoke in the last debate about what happened in that election; my staff were spat at, and there were threats and damage to property. Perhaps the most sinister thing was damage to the properties of my constituents who simply put up a poster in their gardens and windows in support of me as a candidate. It is their democratic right to do that, but their properties were damaged, attacked and vandalised for daring to express their democratic will. That is not acceptable in a democracy. It happens to all parties—let us not pretend that it happens only to one party—so we must all work together to ensure that people are free to express who it is they wish to support in an election, without thinking that their garden, windows or property will be damaged.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I will come back to it in a little more detail in a minute. I restress the point I just made: in the end, such action is self-defeating, although it might not feel like that at the time.
The accusation quite frequently levelled at us is that, really, we deserve everything that we get as MPs and we are quite thick-skinned so we need to grow a pair.
I thank the hon. Gentleman sincerely for bringing this important debate. A lot of the abuse goes under the radar. I was slightly hesitant even to stand up and talk in the debate, because it will bring a new torrent of abuse. Somebody left swastikas at my offices on a number of occasions, and no action was taken, despite the person responsible being found. On occasions, I have received more than 500 abusive messages a week. It is important that we are not scared to come forward and talk about what is happening.
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. I have been told by colleagues only in the last few days that they do not want to draw attention to their plight in this debate for exactly those reasons. At home I have a shed full of election boards with swastikas and various other semi-artistic contributions that people put on them. The hon. Lady and I may be able to stomach that kind of thing, but it is about the effect on our staff, families, volunteers and voters.
When MPs are accused of being thin-skinned, it sometimes strikes me that Parliament would be a terrible place if it consisted only of the thick-skinned, because with thick skin comes occasionally the temptation to dismiss or be somehow unsympathetic to the causes that are brought to our attention. I commend thin-skinned Members of Parliament. Although none of us will ever admit to being thin-skinned, there should be no harm in privately admitting it to ourselves.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) said, it undermines the fundamentals of democracy that people who want simply to exercise their democratic right in public by expressing a voting preference, making a donation that might appear on a register or engaging in some other quite modest and discreet way, should not be allowed to do so free from prejudice and discrimination. If nothing else, we owe it not to Members of Parliament but to all those who make the democratic wheels turn to make them feel that they can do so free of that risk.
Going back to 2017 when we lasted debated this issue, everybody in the room, including the Minister, agreed that something must done. The Minister commented:
“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.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2017; Vol. 627, c. 168WH.]
That was in July 2017. Are we in a kinder and gentler place than we were then? Is politics a more refined profession? There will be many views on that. We may expect another electoral event coming down the tracks some time in the next few months or years. There could be another referendum, God forbid. There could be another general election. We may have thought that 2017 was bad, but unless we do something by the next wave of electoral events, this time it could be really bad.
The Government will no doubt explain their position, and they have made a lot of progress, but not much has changed since 2017. If things do not change by the next opportunity that people have to engage in a campaign of one sort or another, we will have only ourselves to blame. The reason for that is simple. In the past 12 months alone, reports of threats of this nature have doubled. The head of UK counter-terrorism policing said that 152 crimes had been reported by MPs between January and April this year. That is a 90% increase on the same period last year. The number of offences reported by MPs in 2018 increased by 126% on the previous year.
Despite the best of intentions by us all and the Government and other agencies in 2017, the facts speak for themselves: we are in a worse position than when all this last bubbled to the surface. In the last year we have seen Members pilloried as Nazis as they make their way to Millbank for media commitments, and journalists subjected to precisely the same abuse, to the extent that the media operation, which used to be a regular feature down the road in the open spaces between here and Millbank, has been driven slowly but surely into the more secure confines of this building. I suspect that that is not a forward step for democracy. Crown Prosecution Service guidelines have been rewritten to account for the current situation. The Deputy Speaker has had to write to MPs about security arrangements in their constituency offices and in their own homes.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way. Given that my experience is very recent, hon. Members will forgive me if I am not entirely accurate about the current rules. Last year, there was an attempted break-in at my office, and I asked the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority whether it would cover CCTV. It refused to do so. When the same office was vandalised with threatening messages, I asked for guidance from the police and counter-terrorism officers, who both said there should be CCTV. However, IPSA continues to refuse to cover it. What does my hon. Friend think about that?
It is a tragedy that we even have to raise the fact that the taxpayer should be asked to fund security measures of the sort my hon. Friend outlines. However, we have a duty to ensure that everyone—not just MPs but our staff and families—is protected. It is important that IPSA acknowledges that. What is more important is that we crack down on the reasons why intimidation happens in the first place. It depends which end of this problem we want to tackle it from.
I apologise for arriving a little late, Sir Gary; there is a debate in the main Chamber relating to similar areas of interest.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I agree with the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) about CCTV. My offices were attacked this weekend, with “traitor” painted all over them. That word is a common feature of the debate at the moment. Does the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) agree that there are no traitors in this House? Every single Member of Parliament is a full patriot; we just disagree about where that patriotism takes us. Being able to disagree openly, honestly and fairly, and to exercise freedom of speech, is a fundamental aspect of being a Member of Parliament in a free democracy. If that means that the House authorities have to step in to ensure that there is CCTV on Members’ offices, where our staff are often far more vulnerable than we are, that is what they should do.
The hon. Gentleman makes an unarguable point. It is tragic that those fundamental beliefs are in jeopardy and that so few people in society are prepared to tackle intimidation, for fear, ironically, of retribution. There are numerous ways in which we can approach this problem, and proper security is one of them. However, I regret that constituency offices, from which people could previously come and go freely without fear of consequence, have been converted almost into high street banks in terms of the security around them, making us more inaccessible and remote than we have ever been, at a time when the opposite should be the case.
The point is not that any of us is intimidated by this behaviour. None of us is going to shy away from our full beliefs just because somebody paints something on a door or shouts something at us in the street or says something stupid on Facebook. We simply want to ensure that our staff and families are safe—and, for that matter, that constituents who come to see us are safe in the exercise of their democratic rights.
As I said, this behaviour strengthens people’s resolve as much as anything. On the hon. Gentleman’s earlier point, the accusation that is bandied around that people are traitors is the most ridiculous and absurd accusation that can be made. Whether people like it or not, democracy is being played out, in a rather old-fashioned and very visible way, in exactly the place it should be played out.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue forward for debate, and I acknowledge his consistent work on it over the years. I think we all agree fully with what he says, the propositions he puts forward and the context in which he places them. This is not just criminality against individuals; even more importantly than that, it is a fundamental attack on our democracy.
How does the hon. Gentleman think we should address this issue? Obviously, there are actions the Government need to take, and we know they are concerned, but in a way the issue is wider than that. It is an issue for all the parties and for the House as a whole, not just for the Government. What does he think about the mechanisms for taking action? One of the things I have considered—I do not know whether he thinks this is a good idea or whether he has an alternative proposal—is that we should have a Speaker’s conference on this issue. That would need the Government’s support. It would bring together the CPS, the police, the political parties—
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for her intervention; I hope she is given a chance to finish off her comments. If she will forgive me, I will come to some of the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and how those might go some way towards finding solutions.
I am going to press on for two seconds and address the question of the Deputy Speaker’s role in this respect, which is relevant to the interventions of both the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).
Some of this clearly has a cost implication. IPSA has not necessarily been overly helpful with that over the years, although arguably its job is to scrutinise these things with great care. Any colleague who read the Deputy Speaker’s comments should be perturbed by the fact that, for probably the first time in living memory for everybody here, a Deputy Speaker was obliged to take that action at all. He has made it very clear that this issue is as much about the welfare and wellbeing of staff and volunteers as it is about us.
I want to raise the international picture. Last year, the Inter-Parliamentary Union conducted a study of the impact of the abuse of women parliamentarians in 45 European countries. It found that more than eight out of 10 women have suffered psychological violence, and nearly half have been threatened with death, rape or beatings. There is serious evidence that that puts women off standing for Parliament, thus directly impacting our democracy. Does he agree that this is an area in which the UK needs to lead the rest of the world? This is a problem not only for our democracy but for democracies across the world.
I agree, as does the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which would go a bit further and mention the negative impact on diversity as a whole, in this Parliament and others. That point is well made, and it has been acknowledged by relevant Committees here. We will hear from the Minister in due course whether that will translate into immediate action.
In the last few days alone, one person has been jailed for life for making a death threat against one of our colleagues, and the hon. Member for Rhondda and numerous others have had their own experiences. A number of other cases are currently live and therefore sub judice, so we probably should not mention them. There are quite a lot of ongoing incidents at various stages of the legal process. Only yesterday, somebody of the name of Ruth Townsley, who is unknown to me, casually tweeted about the recent incident involving Nigel Farage that she would
“prefer acid but milkshakes will do for now”.
I am not here as an apologist for Nigel Farage, but he is as entitled as anybody to be out on the campaign trail. Although he may easily be able to deal with milkshake attacks, it must be the height of irresponsibility, if not criminal, for people casually to take to social media and bandy around such suggestions as if they were some kind of joke.
This matter has been looked at by a number of parliamentary Committees. I mentioned the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It has also been looked at by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. The Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has looked at it, but mainly in the context of online abuse, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights has touched on it in various capacities.
With the next wave of electoral events possibly heading our way, what can be done? In answer to the question from the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham, there are the party codes, which started slowly and have proceeded at a reasonably gentle pace. Perhaps this is the time to put our foot on the accelerator a bit. Whether those codes are joint or individual, whether they are visibly enforceable and whether they involve parties not currently represented in Westminster are matters that may be resolved in the coming days or weeks. However, the idea that the political parties are free from responsibility is unsustainable. Parties have a responsibility to deal with their members and supporters robustly and visibly, sending a positive message to others who may be tempted to go down that route.
I am therefore pleased it was announced today that the Jo Cox Foundation will work with the Committee on Standards in Public Life and political parties to draw up a common statement of principle on intimidatory behaviour to encourage cross-party consensus to recognise and address this issue. That is the first point. Secondly, the Committee’s recommendations should be adopted as quickly as possible, including the three actions outlined in the recent “Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence and Information” report. The first is to develop a new electoral offence of intimidation of candidates and campaigners, which is already a crime.
I agree that it is important that we reflect on the internal processes we have in this place to deal with such abuse, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to see a much more consistent approach from our police forces, the CPS and other justice agencies? I have spoken to many colleagues and it appears that currently the police response in particular is disparate and patchy.
The hon. Lady is right. That is on my list of actions. I should say that we have probably all witnessed closer engagement and greater recognition of the dangers of such activity from the police and the CPS. My police force has been faultless in its attention to detail as far as I am concerned, and I know that the Met has been doing its best as a central co-ordinator. However, the reality is that, particularly during an intense, short election campaign, some of the issues in 2017 that might have had an impact on the outcome for individual colleagues were not addressed in that four or five-week period. It was too complicated, they were crimes that rarely come up and police officers did not necessarily have an immediate knowledge of them.
I had one case in the 2015 election where electoral offences were being committed. I went to the police and was told that it had to be referred to the serious crime unit in York. I asked how long that would take and was told, “It will take six weeks.” I said, “That’s not a lot of use to me, because there is an election in two,” so they said, “Okay, we will book him for a traffic offence, then. That should sort it out.” I think that is what the police did. The hon. Lady makes a good point, and rapid action is vital.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I am ever mindful that when we in Northern Ireland take on the job of an MP, we take on the transparency of that job in meeting the general public and what comes with that. Many of us in Northern Ireland, including my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and me, have had direct threats on our lives because of the stand we take politically on issues, but—this is always at the back of my mind—public life does not mean signing up your spouses or children to be intimidated or bullied or threatened or murdered, whatever the case may be. Does the hon. Gentleman feel we need to raise the level to zero tolerance? Privacy for our families is important.
The hon. Gentleman has more experience in this field than most, and I agree with him. We are ultimately attempting to avoid a situation where the gene pool from which our political representatives is drawn gets smaller and smaller. Whether that is for local authorities, a devolved Parliament or this Parliament, if we do not address this intimidation soon, for the reasons he points out, we will attract fewer and fewer people, and arguably the standard we expect of our politicians will go down and down, and the frustration of our electorate will go up and up. We therefore must deal with it now. It is not one for the slow burner, because whether we like it or not we could face a very angry electorate within months. I mentioned the Jo Cox Foundation, and I do not need to remind the House why it was created. We do not want to find ourselves in a position that gets anywhere close to the reason why that was set up.
The Government are taking a welcome step in the form of the “Online Harms” White Paper. I do not want to get into the detail of the relevance of that; we are all aware of it, and there is a huge responsibility on social media companies to play their part in ensuring that democratic engagement can continue without people feeling they are driven off social media or off the political stage altogether. The White Paper is a welcome step forward, and we hope it will be converted into legislation sooner rather than later. I heard a rumour—it must have been inaccurate—the other day that part of the reason we have not moved faster is down to insufficient parliamentary time. I do not know whether hon. Members agree, but I think we could possibly squeeze it in somewhere over the next few weeks.
We simply cannot allow this thuggish behaviour to intimidate the democratic rights of our voters, and we cannot allow the culture of fear to deter good people from stepping on to any political stage, whatever it might be. I leave the last words to the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Lord Evans, who is the former head of the security services and therefore some expert on the corrosive impact of such behaviour on democracy. He said:
“If the decisions MPs make start to be altered as a result of threats and intimidation, that amounts to subversion of the democratic system and would be a dark day for our country.”
I agree with him implicitly.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. Some of the testimony we have heard from the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), whom I congratulate on bringing the debate to Westminster Hall, and others, has been truly shocking. I applaud colleagues who have stood up to this behaviour for their bravery.
The issue I wish to raise is not at all comparable, but it is pervasive and insidious: the bullying, harassment and intimidation of women MPs, often from within their own parties. It feeds into a culture of contempt for women that we see online and in other areas of our lives. At best, a blind eye is often turned to it. At worst, they are accused of provoking it, somehow, by being there. I have put up with this for my 22 years in Parliament and have never spoken about it until now. My mind has been changed by seeing some of my younger sisters going through the same thing. If someone like me, who has been here for a long time, does not call it out, who will? If not now, when?
Our problem is not in Parliament—I have had sterling support from both male and female colleagues over the years—but while we have changed the culture of this place and brought in more women, particularly in 1997 with that landmark election of 101 women MPs, we did not sufficiently tackle the culture in our own parties, where there are still people who believe that women do not belong in the public sphere and, if they are to be there at all, they are there to do as they are told.
That is the problem; I have seen it since I was selected. There were people in my constituency who did not want a woman MP. They considered the seat the rightful property of some favoured son. I have never come across a favoured daughter, by the way; it is always favoured sons. It started immediately. A man I had never met went on “Election Call” to denounce me. Untrue stories were fed to the press and I was labelled a militant, which at least gave my union colleagues a laugh because their nickname for me was “the hammer of the Trots”. I was accused of gaining the seat by some carefully unspecified chicanery, despite the fact I won on the first ballot and the count was supervised by the regional director of the party. One semi-literate bully even said that he was thinking of taking legal action; I responded that legal action cannot be taken simply because someone has more votes than their favoured candidate.
However, what did my party do? It invited these people in and recounted the ballot in front of them. You do not treat bullies in that way; if you keep paying the Danegeld, the Danes keep coming back.
After I was elected, I found that council officers had been given an instruction not to bother too much responding to my letters, because I would be a one-term-only candidate. That instruction could have come from only the leader or deputy leader of the council. Even worse, the officers accepted it, rather than saying it was an improper instruction, which it was. I found that my next-door neighbour was frequently invited to council events in my constituency, but I was not. Each time they apologised, and said it was a terrible mistake, but they kept doing it.
I discovered that there was a little clique in Warrington of the self-appointed great and good, who decided most things between them—usually with little reference to the people I represented—and if they were challenged they would react. I started doing mobile surgeries and found that people had been told not to contact me about their problem, because I was not any good. Through the years, I realised that there were more untrue stories leaked to the press—printed without checking, as in most local newspapers—from our friend, the senior source. A “wanted: dead or alive” poster with my picture on it was put through my door and I received a number of pretty vile anonymous letters, which were sent to me and to senior Ministers in the Government.
When I was shadow Minister with responsibility for local government finance, a particularly vile poison-pen letter was sent to leaders of local authorities. I am grateful for the support I received at the time from my colleagues in the shadow local government team. A similar thing was sent to anyone who had the temerity to come and do a fundraiser in my constituency.
By themselves, these events may seem slight; it is their cumulative effect that is the problem. They are not unique. If we are honest, there seems to be a problem with some male councillors who are used to being big fish in a little pond, and do not like having a woman MP. I know of several council leaders who deal with the male MPs in their borough, but not the woman. I know of one council leader who would not speak to a female MP in his borough, even if he were sitting in the station waiting room with her, waiting to go down to London.
In fact, I had a council leader who would not speak to me. Once, when I dragged him to a meeting, he sat in his chair tapping on the arm and refusing to engage. I know of one colleague who was shouted at for writing too many letters, which is known to the rest of us as doing our job on behalf of constituents. I know one colleague who was yelled at because she dared to suggest that the local MPs might convene a meeting on a particular local issue; apparently that was a threat to a councillor. I know of one woman who has been bullied almost beyond endurance by the men in her constituency; she has been shouted down at meetings, her campaigning has been sabotaged, and a group would not contribute funds to her general election campaign.
I know of instances where MPs’ relatives have been sacked by the council, under some spurious pretext. Each time one MP meets a certain councillor she is asked, “How’s your auntie?”, because he sacked her. I know of another MP who held a mobile surgery in a place where there had been very little work done in the past, only to have the councillor for the area ring up and say to her staff, without preamble, “Tell that effing bitch to keep out of my ward.” Was anything done to him? No; no action was taken against him at all.
I have an ex-parliamentary candidate in my area—not in my constituency—called Nick Bent. He is the outwardly respectable chief executive officer of a charity called the Tutor Trust and a trustee of the Oasis Academy. He has sent me so many abusive texts and emails that I have a thick file of them. Among his little gems—there are a lot—were calling me “poisonous and useless” and
“not fit to tie my bootlaces”,
not that I would want to. He usually says that I am going to be deselected:
“You should step down and make way. There are plenty of good candidates. After the election you will almost certainly be deselected, so it might be the only way to preserve a bit of dignity. Just some friendly advice.”
It does not seem very friendly to me, I have to say.
This man has not only abused me: he has abused my staff, my family and my constituency chair, who is well-respected in the area and has done a lot locally. Women councillors in his constituency have been on the receiving end of abusive emails and messages from him. He reduced a young woman organiser to tears during a general election. In 2016, I submitted a bullying and harassment complaint; I had been pretty patient for six years. What happened? It was mysteriously lost. I resubmitted it, but I am still waiting.
Last week, I learned that a whole cache of emails and letters, which are stolen data, have been selectively leaked to the local press. The leak is selective: they have put in the complaints that were made, but not the fact that they were dismissed. People like this constantly make complaints about women MPs; they are spurious, but they do it to try to grind them down. There are letters that I sent in reply, but not the original correspondence. I do not know who has done this, but I know why: it is payback, because I have been supporting constituents trying to defend the last green space in north Warrington from development, and because I have said that the local council was wrong to buy a business park through an offshore trust that meant it avoided paying tax. All these things are clear. They are meant to silence women MPs and to ensure that our voices are not heard in the public sphere at all. They are meant to prevent us from speaking, not for ourselves but for our constituents.
Why do we carry on doing it? In my view, we do it because my constituents deserve it—they deserve my standing up for them. They have returned me at six general elections, so I think I must be doing something right. We should never, ever accept this behaviour as normal, in the same way that we should never accept threats of violence as normal. It is part of a continuum aimed at women MPs. It is time it stopped and it is time political parties made sure it is stopped.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on bringing this debate to the Chamber. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), who made some important comments.
A lot of people have raised the subject of intimidation in connection with the UK, but I would like to raise it from an international perspective. It is absolutely essential that MPs have a role in foreign affairs; it is essential that we play that role. I have taken a stand against Russia, for example, that has not led to any intimidation yet, but I have also taken a stand in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has led to intimidation and a series of more than 30 emails threatening me with death. The conversations that generated them started with a UK boy, who was clearly pro-Palestinian, asking me what I made of the Israeli bombs falling on Palestine. I replied, “What do you make of the Palestinian bombs falling on Israel?” For that I was put on a death list and my name was not taken off it. When I told the Serjeant at Arms, I was told to queue up with the 180 other MPs who had received death threats, which goes to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire made about our needing to make sure that our own system here for dealing with such issues takes them seriously and provides a good service for MPs.
In contrast was the reaction of my own chief constable, who told me that she would give the case to a chief inspector who normally dealt with these things, and if he saw something there, he would take further action. I said no more about it to my family. I went away, forgot it and got on with my work, but at 2 o’clock in the morning my house had a panic alarm installed by the police and I was given a telephone number that I could ring from my mobile or my home address that would scramble a helicopter from the local base and set in train a response unit from the Thames Valley headquarters in Kidlington. If I dialled it now, of course, it would take two days for the response unit to reach us, which would probably be too late, so I suppose there is a small mercy in that.
The death threat was supposed to intimidate me into taking a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on which I had actually taken a very even view throughout. It made me want to go out to the region to see what was happening. I have now been out to the region 10 times in the past seven years to see for myself what is happening, and I have had discussions on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides to be able to take the matter forward.
The really frightening thing has been mentioned by others. I run my office in a large and long constituency on the basis that it does not have a physical location. It has a PO box, an email address and a telephone number, and that immediately put at risk my staff who work there. In fact, it is somebody’s house and it is possible to find out from the PO box address where the house is. To find that my staff were equally threatened was a stage too far.
The intimidation did not work and there is a very good reason why it did not work, apart from my own attitude to it. I do not think that such intimidation should ever work. We all have to stand up and make sure that our voices are heard. We need to stand up to bullies wherever they come from and make sure that we are true to ourselves and to our own intelligence and logic in assessing such situations.
On standing up to people, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that in the wider discourse we make it clear that, whatever our views are on somewhat controversial issues, we can express them clearly, directly and even vehemently, but there is a line that Members of Parliament, other elected representatives or people outside must never cross: violence—the threat of violence, the use of violence or the endorsing of violence? If everybody understands that, we can have a much more measured debate in future.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. I agree with every word. The problem is that not everyone outside understands what that line is. That is the difficulty. We in this room can understand exactly where that line is, but there are those outside who do not understand it, and that is a source of great regret to me, as I am sure it is for him and for all others in this room.
We need to stand up to bullies wherever they are. We need to be true to our own views, however we have come to them and however different they might be from other people’s. I certainly was not going to be intimidated by the group, and I have not been, regardless of my views, ever since.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Streeter. I thank the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing this debate. His constituency has a beautiful name. I would definitely like to visit. I thank him for setting the scene so well and for all his work in this area, in which he has been assiduous.
I want to start by thinking about where I was at in July 2017 when this debate last came to the Chamber and about whether things have improved. In many ways things have got worse. I will mention briefly, because the case is ongoing, Councillor Graeme Campbell in my constituency. Yesterday we heard on the news that his garage and house had been petrol-bombed, which he believes, and has said in public on the news, was linked to a planning case in which he was discharging his duties as a councillor. Our thoughts are definitely with him and his family. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] We stand with him across parties. We have to make sure that councillors are also protected.
In my own recent case, a man pleaded guilty to sending me abusive messages. He had previously come to my surgery and asked for help. I had tried to help him by writing to the Government on his behalf, but unfortunately they said they could not take his case any further, and, following that, I appeared to become a target. He has now been given a four-year non-harassment order after quite a lengthy court procedure. Two other cases are ongoing. In one, my office was attacked and in another, I had death threats cut out from newspaper words, put together and sent to me. When I worked as a doctor, I could not have believed this would happen to anyone in public life. It certainly does not in any other form of public life that I am aware of, but it is becoming the norm nowadays in our society in respect of political discourse and actions towards politicians.
I contributed to Lord Bew’s report in 2017. What is happening with the recommendations? Some good things have been done. The issue of social media has been taken forward by the Government and by the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries, who really gets it and gets that it is very difficult. If someone thinks they are anonymous, it is almost as if they have carte blanche to say and do what they want, and then they are emboldened to abuse, but that work is going well.
Some of the recommendations were specifically for political parties:
“Political parties must...work together to tackle the issue of intimidation in public life.”
That recommendation was meant to be taken up immediately. What has happened? Have political parties worked or come together to discuss the issue? I have not heard anything. The report also stated:
“Political parties should set clear expectations”
about Members’ conduct.
They should be,
“consistently and appropriately disciplined in a timely manner.”
In my experience, that has never been the case. I am on the appeals committee for my own party and have not heard a single appeal all year since being elected, so I am not sure how things are processed, but they certainly never get to appeal. How is that being followed up? There is to be a joint code of conduct for elections. What has happened to it, and how will it be brought forward? It must be done quickly.
With respect to Lord Bew’s report, I notice that parties provided an overview of their codes of conduct, but there was not one for my party. I am not sure whether that is because Lord Bew did not contact them, or whether he did not have a response. I shall be following that up with the party, to try to find out.
In 2017, there were instances when I had to attend meetings as a candidate in the election and I knew I would face verbal abuse, but I did not get a response from the party. When someone thinks there is a high risk, and highlights that, they should get support and guidance. I attended those meetings with my children at times, because they were local meetings, with party members. No advice or support came in 2017, and there is still none in 2019. It is disappointing, and it emboldens individuals to carry on as they have been doing.
There has been no disciplinary follow-up since I complained. I want to make the point that that emboldens people, and I know it led to other incidents that I experienced. Individuals tried to prevent me from attending a Remembrance Day service last year, for instance. I was the only MP to have a campaign meeting called at exactly the time when the service was due to take place. It was to try to stop me going. When I complained, the meeting went ahead and those involved said they did not know 11 November was Remembrance Day. That seemed to be accepted, although I do not know how it could possibly be the case. It was the centenary of the end of the first world war, and was all over the media.
In 2015, way before that incident, the same individuals called me to a meeting to ask me to explain why someone had said online that I was an agent of Israel and was among
“shameless British parliamentarians willing to sacrifice freedom of expression to please their paymasters”.
The message went on:
“British politics must cleanse itself of this corrosive influence…Zionist corruption which has implanted its roots in pretty much every British Parliamentary party.”
I was asked to explain that. I was not asked how I or my family felt about it, or whether I was okay and whether we were coping. I was asked why the individual had said it. Obviously, I have a Jewish family background, which gives a link to why I was targeted; but I experienced no support.
I am describing these things not out of pity for myself, but because we need to look at democracy and to think about women in politics and people from ethnic minority and religious minority backgrounds who want to come into politics and represent people to the best of their abilities. We must work together. We must come together on a cross-party basis, show leadership, and ensure that such things are dealt with appropriately and that people coming into politics get support rather than abuse in the future.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). I have travelled with her on a trip about antisemitism and I know some of the things that she has gone through. It was a brave speech, and I hope she will not now be called in to explain that; such treatment is unacceptable. I also want to praise my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing the debate. The most important point, I thought, was that MPs are not asking to be treated differently from anyone else. It is not a meeting of the national union of MPs. It is simply Members of Parliament asking to be treated in the same way as other professionals in their jobs.
I did not come into politics or this House with any soft view of what the job would involve. I cut my political teeth in Humberside politics. I was one of two Tories on Hull City Council and to be called “Tory scum” was fairly usual for me in my 10 years there. We all, to an extent, probably grow a thick skin as a result of such things, and I am not asking for special treatment. However, when I was elected in 2010 I did not expect a situation in which, because of death threats and various other incidents, including some public incidents, I would have restraining orders against people, my house would have panic alarms, and court cases would be brought against people who had done things to me. The police have generally been very good, but the sole reason for the collapse of the case against two people who were twice involved in incidents against me in the street, in Doncaster and Scunthorpe, was the failings of Humberside police, and I have not yet received a satisfactory response on that. Despite their racist and antisemitic abuse, those two individuals continue to walk around scot-free.
I never expected any of that to happen, and we must do something to try to address it, within parties but also more broadly. We need to consider whether the offences in place are acceptable, to protect not just ourselves as parliamentary candidates but those around us, including our families—my dad has been subjected to threats in the pub—our staff and, of course, our constituents who want to share their political views. As many colleagues have said, the issue is getting worse, not better. It almost does not matter what the subject is. I have a few examples of comments I received after speaking in debates. After a Holocaust Memorial Day debate I received the message:
“What a piece of utter Scum you are. Keep on lying and living a Lie”.
It was not just an email. It was followed up with telephone calls to both my constituency offices and my Westminster office, saying exactly the same thing: “Tell Andrew Percy he’s a piece of scum and he’s perpetuating a lie.”
I had another comment following the appearance of an article. A particularly insidious source of a lot of the abuse is the sites that purport to be news sites and that are effectively partisan fake news sites. Some have been set up to support particular political leaders and people spend much of their time abusing Members of Parliament of a particular party. An article went up on one of them. I do not read those things, and cannot remember which one it was. The immediate response came in, beginning “Double chinned hypocritical tosser”. It went on:
“Why the problem eating your own words? It’s not like your gormless flabby face can’t fit them.”
I look in the mirror and see a perfectly proportioned, good looking, handsome young man, but that does seem to be a theme.
Another message came as a result of a campaign when my local Labour party retweeted something about me. The first message that came in said:
“Wow nice to see a fat slop Tory twat voting to”—
blah, blah, blah. Now, I can look at that and laugh about it, but actually it is personal abuse based on someone’s personal appearance.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we can laugh, but in a way that is normalising the abuse, which we should not do? One of my colleagues was called an agent of Mossad, to which I said, “Don’t deny it—let them think you’re Mossad,” but we should not do that.
That is absolutely right. While I say I can laugh at it, and I do so because I will not allow those people to get to me, the fact is that that sort of highly personalised abuse would not be tolerated in any other working environment. It would not have been tolerated when I was a school teacher. I certainly would not tolerate it from the pupils, and they would not get it from me. Nor would it be tolerated among other staff or professionals. So, yes, we can laugh about it in one respect, but all that that does is desensitise us to the stuff.
Social media and fake news websites are of course part of the problem. Some of the fake stuff goes on Facebook, and social media are a particularly insidious source. The reason I left Twitter was that after a visit to Israel I was accused of being an agent of Mossad, being paid in shekels, wanting to murder Palestinian children, and all the rest of it. So I decided to leave Twitter, and it was the best thing I ever did for my mental health. The serious point is that with social media we invite this stuff into our home. Reading it sitting at home on a Friday or Saturday night, having had something to eat and a glass of wine or some beer, it starts to have an effect. I realised it was affecting me, and I was obsessing over what was being said. I decided to leave Twitter and social media altogether at that point, and have been happier as a result.
The downside of that, of course, relates to the good I was able to use Twitter for. We have a lot of flooding in my area, and we could use it to get messages out quickly. I lost that direct contact with some of my constituents. That relates to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire made, that the unintended consequence of continued abuse is its potential to distance Members of Parliament from their constituents and the public even more.
Brexit is, of course, a particular source of such abuse, and one tweet that I received recently contained a very rude word. Following an appearance about Brexit on “Brexitcast”, one of the first responses I received was:
“Utter, utter cunts the lot of you, even more stupid than a cunt.”
That is the sort of abuse we are receiving, and it is happening in both directions on this issue. I do not agree with Nigel Farage about many things, but I do not agree with him being abused. Today, however, Chorlton Brewery tweeted to say that, quite apart from throwing a milkshake,
“Hit them over the head with a brick”
instead. That is not acceptable. Whatever we think of people such as Mr Farage, or anybody else in politics, encouraging people to commit acts of violence, and hoping to trend on Twitter—that might be the result if anybody is watching this—is not acceptable. We must toughen up the law, but the parties have to act as well. We have all failed to deal with some of our own party members who have been involved in some of this behaviour, and we must get tougher and quicker at addressing that.
I thank the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing this debate, which is ultimately about the nature of our democracy. When disagreement is expressed in a hateful, vile manner that is intended to intimidate, it is a threat to the very foundations on which democracy is built. There can be no doubt that the poison, hatred and abuse faced by almost every serving elected representative in the House must give anyone who might be considering entering public life pause for thought. The sad fact is that I genuinely hesitated before participating in this debate, since there is a view out there—I do not suggest it is universal, but it does exist—that serving elected representatives should not be debating this issue. We should just suck it up, because that is politics.
For some, engaging in politics in an abusive and intimidatory way is the new normal, and if someone does not like it, they should go and do something else. Sadly, even the value of democracy has become open to question in some quarters. All hon. Members understand that the mere fact of participating in this debate may open us up to more abuse being heaped on us, and for that reason my colleague, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), withdrew her name from those due to speak in the debate. With the exception of Scotland’s First Minister, she is the most abused female politician—if not the most abused politician—in Scottish politics.
Much online abuse—perhaps not all—is facilitated by the mere fact of anonymity. Online someone can pour abuse and intimidation on to whoever they decide they do not like. They can send abusive Facebook messages and retain their anonymity, or they can hide their identity behind a Twitter handle. If someone’s identity is not revealed, the theory goes that they can say whatever they like. They can move on from disagreeing with the views of an elected representative in a vile and hateful manner, and slip easily into threats that are designed to intimidate. They can comment in any way they like—after all, elected representatives are fair game, are they not?
If we do not agree with a political party or politician, democracy demands that we take them on through argument in a constructive and respectful manner. I have absolutely no time for Nigel Farage, but like many others, I do not think for one second that what happened to him yesterday was acceptable. If we cannot challenge our opponents with arguments, respectfully, we have already lost. I am deeply concerned by the examples of abuse that we have heard about today. Sadly, however, for too many the poison, abuse, and attempts to intimidate are what pass for political discourse in some quarters.
Where does all this hatred and poisonous bile come from? It comes from a variety of sources—we could probably have an entire debate on that—but there is no doubt that, as I found out to my cost, it can be stirred up by some sections of the tabloid press. Recently, a freeze frame photo of me in the Chamber, which lasted about one second, was published in a way to suggest that I was asleep on the job. I am sure that when the journalist printed that story it seemed like a jolly good wheeze, but as a direct result of that story—it was categorically untrue, and if someone had watched the film for another 30 seconds they would have seen it was untrue—I encountered, entirely predictably, the most horrific abuse, which was designed to intimidate me for having seemed to do something I had not done. Given the toxic nature of our politics, that shamefully bad and dangerous piece of so-called journalism was not worthy of the name. Over time, however, such pieces diminish, denigrate and belittle all elected representatives, and corrode the basis of democracy itself.
No one should be abused and intimidated simply for doing their job, yet it is now unusual to come across an MP who has not received a death threat. Some of my colleagues have suffered the most appalling abuse, as have others across the House. We could say that that is because politics has become polarised, toxic and so on, but it is also because we who serve in public life have become fair game. Apparently, tolerating intimidation and abuse has become part of our job description.
It has been said that we in public life have a duty to uphold the standards that we wish to see, which is correct, and we must also be careful with our language. Disagreement—including robust disagreement—is absolutely fine and the lifeblood of political discourse, but when it turns into personal abuse or hate-filled rants, it has become something else entirely. Studies have been carried out into abuse in public life and much has been written about it. We know that the police take it seriously, but in reality it is not just respect for elected representatives that has declined; it is respect for the democratic process itself.
Somehow—I do not pretend to have the answers—we need to help the public rediscover and rebuild their respect for the political process and those who serve in public life. If we fail to do that—I appreciate that it is a huge task—I fear that more elected representatives will come to harm in the course of doing their job. Even more than that, I fear that the very essence and value of democracy will continue to decline in the long term. The press also has a part to play. Of course those serving in public life should be held accountable, but let us make that about the arguments, not about tittle-tattle and gossip.
My own fear—I hope I am wrong—is that the Rubicon has been crossed and there is now a subculture in which someone can say what they want, and threaten whoever they want if they are standing for public office. Someone does not even need to be elected—just putting oneself forward for election is enough, apparently, to merit the most intimidatory behaviour. A culture of abuse and intimidation of elected representatives has been carefully cultivated in some quarters. It has gone unchecked and continues to be so. We can pass as many laws as we like, but the culture has to change. Where we are today is the culmination of that cultivation, aided and assisted by the apparent courage that anonymous postings on social media create, and whipped up by some sections of the tabloid press. This issue is bigger than any one individual; it is about the survival of our democratic system.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing this debate. He posed the question of whether the levels of intimidation in public life that we all face have got better or worse since the last time we debated this issue. I reflected that since we last discussed this matter, I took some time away from this place because I had a baby. I was shocked that the abuse that is received not just by politicians but by their family members extended even to a baby who was just a few days old, because somebody on social media decided that it was okay to wish that my baby would die. I felt that was very shocking. I had got used to the idea that, because I stood for public office and was a Member of this House, such abuse was almost part of the job and sort of expected. I did not, however, expect a tiny baby to be on the receiving end of such abuse, so I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate today. I know he will continue to champion this issue until we rid ourselves of this scourge and the way that political debate has gone in this country.
Intimidation, including death threats, criminal damage, sexism, racism, homophobia and antisemitism, has no place in our democracy, but all those kinds of abuse have been raised in our debate. On behalf of the Opposition, I condemn any action that undermines the integrity of our electoral process and our wider democratic values. It is clear that no Member of the House, and certainly no Member taking part in the debate, will be intimidated by these people; regardless of the abuse scrawled on our offices, written on social media or screamed at us in the street, we will continue to do our job as parliamentarians and stand up for the values that we believe in and that the vast majority of our constituents obviously elect us for.
Unfortunately, violence against politicians is not particularly new. In 2010, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) was stabbed at an advice surgery, and the phenomenon was certainly brought home for us in 2016 with the tragic murder of our friend Jo Cox. In recent days, we have seen the conviction of a man for a credible plot to murder my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper). These cases are probably quite prominent in the public mind, but Members who have taken part in the debate, and many Members who were too afraid to take part, have experienced many more.
Candidates are often targeted because of their gender, sexuality or ethnicity, which reflects the wider context of discrimination that targets individuals on the basis of their identity. Particularly concerning is the scale of abuse experienced by women MPs and the emergence of an organised far-right presence on the streets of British cities and across Europe.
The exponential growth of social media has caused the level of abuse to rise in recent years, with online platforms creating unprecedented levels of transparency in political discourse but reducing the perceived barrier between the electorate and politicians. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) really brought that home to us when explaining how he has come off social media, which in many ways disadvantages him as a local politician as he is not able to have direct contact with his constituents. There is no easy, single solution to address this problem, and the Opposition welcome the package of recommendations outlined by the Committee on Standards in Public Life for the Government, social media companies, political parties, the police, broadcast and print media, MPs and parliamentary candidates.
Turning to potential cross-party actions, it is worth prefixing that with the recognition that many abusers, particularly anonymous trolls on the internet, may not be members of a political party. This complex issue requires those across public life to work together, and the Opposition welcome the cross-party action taking place in response to the committee’s inquiry. On 27 March, representatives of the Labour party, the Green party, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party attended the second meeting held by the committee, during which Labour put forward our initial proposal for a joint code of conduct, providing a suggested framework that could be adopted by political parties. That was one of the committee’s recommendations, and we await feedback from other parties.
In response, the committee’s chair, Lord Evans, said:
“It is clear that political parties have done a great deal of work internally to address intimidatory behaviour and improve their own processes to call out and address unacceptable behaviour where they can. Building on that, there is goodwill and commitment from those political parties who attended our meeting on 27 March to make further joint progress.”
Although representatives of the Conservative party and Plaid Cymru were not able to attend that meeting, we are pleased that those parties have confirmed their commitment to making further joint progress. I thank the Minister for that. I am sure that Members across the House welcome the Jo Cox Foundation agreeing to act as independent support for that cross-party work.
The Labour party’s rules make it clear that abuse, bullying or intimidation of any kind are considered grossly detrimental or prejudicial to the Labour party, and that members engaging in such behaviour can expect to be subject to our disciplinary procedures. In September 2016, our national executive committee agreed a members’ pledge and a new social media code of conduct to further address concerns about bullying and harassment. We are considering ways in which our existing codes of conduct can be strengthened in response to the committee’s inquiry, and we are reviewing the ways in which we use digital media and communications to clearly communicate to both existing and new members our party’s rules and expectations about the standard of behaviour that we expect to be upheld.
The Cabinet Office has a key role in ensuring that sufficient safeguards are in place to protect parliamentary candidates and party campaigners from intimidation. I thank the Minister for making moves to ensure that, for the very first time, home addresses were not on ballot papers for local election candidates this May. I know he looked into doing that for candidates in the European parliamentary elections, but unfortunately it was not possible due to the very tight timeframe. This is a good step in the right direction. I am sorry that it has come to this, but it is right that local election candidates have the same protections as those who stand for this House.
That is all very well and good, but there are obviously particular problems on the hon. Lady’s side at the moment, which have led to members of her party leaving. From her position, which is important to the debate, will she condemn absolutely—as we all should—people who address rallies at which people call for Members to be lynched or hold signs of a decapitated Prime Minister?
The hon. Gentleman is right that parliamentarians should expect to be held to a higher standard than ordinary party members. That is why I am planning to follow up with my party the issues raised in the debate—particularly those raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones). I am happy to look into cases raised by any Member who takes part in the debate.
On the electoral consequences, I look forward to hearing from the Minister about his recent announcement about barring people from running for office if they have been found guilty of intimidating or abusive behaviour. The Government moved away from their initial proposal to create a new, specific offence in either the general criminal law or electoral law, which we and various legal commentators would support. Instead, as set out in the recent consultation paper, “Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence and Information”, the Cabinet Office indicated that a conviction for the prescribed offence of violence or intimidation committed in the context of an election would be treated as a “corrupt practice” for the purpose of imposing penalties such as disqualification from seeking elected office.
The Opposition agree that electoral law should deal with the consequences of this kind of serious misconduct. However, it is widely accepted that comprehensive reform of electoral law is needed, and that grafting these new provisions on to the existing outdated, inadequate and inconsistent body of law on electoral misconduct would simply compound the problems associated with the law as its stands; an hon. Member raised the complexity of electoral law and how difficult it is for the police to take action during tight election periods. I am sure the Minister agrees that the very fact that the Government propose to treat intimidation as a form of “corrupt practice” underlines the archaic nature of the terminology used in current electoral law.
It is a matter of concern that the Government have still not responded to the Law Commission’s 2016 joint interim report, which calls for the introduction of a single legal framework for UK elections. Will the Minister inform the House when his Department intends to respond to that important report? The Law Commission recommended that all electoral offences, including “undue influence”, should be reviewed, redrafted and set out in a single set of provisions applying to all elections. Labour supports that proposal, as simpler and more modern provisions would secure greater compliance among campaigners, the public, the police and prosecution services. Appropriate electoral sanctions for violent, threatening and intimidatory conduct in the course of election activity should be addressed as part of that wider package of reforms.
It is important that the police have the resources to make sure that the law is upheld. Many parliamentarians have told me that investigations have been cut short because of a lack of police resources; indeed, I have CCTV footage of people vandalising my office, and I can identify one of them, but the police are not pursuing it. What actions does the Minister think the Government should take to make sure that the police have the resources to ensure that the law is upheld?
Thank you, Sir Gary; it is a particular pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing this important debate and thank him for his work on this issue, particularly as a member of the Committee on Standards and Public Life and the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I also note the presence of Lord Bew, a former chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, who has played a pivotal part in work in this area.
Unsurprisingly, this debate, in which we have heard about the personal experiences of many Members of Parliament, has been very powerful. I welcome the fact that, although we may disagree on many other issues, the main parties—the Government, the Opposition and the Scottish National party—have spoken as one in making it clear that argument, not intimidation, should determine what happens in our country and that we cannot allow our democracy to be undermined by those who wish to use practices that are actually criminal offences and are totally unacceptable in order to skew debate.
It was certainly interesting to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who outlined some of the issues that he has had with fake news sites. I think that, also, some of us need to reflect on how we react when things are put online. Do we react immediately? There is a culture of putting out a quote when actually it might be better to allow proper investigations to take place. We also need to think about how we upskill people to identify what is fake and what has some credibility to it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) pointed out that we should not be silenced because we wish to take a position on an international issue, just for fear that someone may send abusive mail.
The two speeches that particularly stood out for me were those by the hon. Members for Warrington North (Helen Jones) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). Both of them bravely shared very personal stories of what they have experienced just for wanting to stand up and be present. I make it clear that standing up, getting involved, wanting to be part of debate and being passionate about the issues that we believe in is not a provocation; it is what democracy is inherently about. It is right that when people decide, for reasons of jealousy or whatever else—misogyny is sadly all too common still—that they cannot accept a democratic result, they cannot then behave in a manner that goes totally against the spirit of democracy and living in a free society.
This debate is a timely review following another debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire previously led in this Chamber almost two years ago, when, sadly, Members from both sides of the House also recounted some truly appalling abuse that they and their colleagues had been subjected to. As my hon. Friend rightly said in a recent article, this is not about “brittle political egos”, but about dealing with crime—dealing with behaviour that we and society believe should be criminal.
My hon. Friend’s previous debate came on the same day as our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that she had asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life to carry out a review of the intimidation experienced by parliamentary candidates. I shall focus my remarks on what the Government have been doing in response to that review to play our part in building a democracy in which every voice can be heard.
Recently, we have witnessed a worrying rise in the levels of violence and abuse in our public life and across political debate. That risks not only putting voters off politics but putting talented people from all backgrounds off wanting to stand for public office. As a couple of hon. Members have said, a thick skin cannot become the most important prerequisite for taking up a role in public life or standing for election, particularly if we want the most diverse range of people to be represented in our politics and if we want representatives to be able to be open about who they are and not feel that they have to hide away or keep things in a closet for fear of abuse and intimidation.
An atmosphere in which threats of violence and abuse are normalised also risks lives. We saw the worst manifestation of that when our dear friend and colleague Jo Cox was tragically murdered in 2016. She rightly said that we have
“more in common than that which divides us.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 675.]
I was therefore pleased to read the letter and joint statement that have gone out today from the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Jo Cox Foundation about the work that they will be looking to do together to continue her legacy.
As hon. Members mentioned, we also saw this type of behaviour more recently, with a neo-Nazi plot to murder the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper), for which a man was sentenced and imprisoned for life just last week.
Those, though, are the headline and most serious cases. As today’s debate has shown, there are too many examples of abuse and intimidation that Members of this place have been subjected to. Freedom of speech is a human right, but it is not an excuse for people to break the law by threatening or abusing a candidate or campaigner whose views they do not agree with. Let me say clearly and with no equivocation that such abuse is wrong and unacceptable and must be addressed.
We must also think beyond this place. The toxicity extends beyond Westminster to the lives of hard-working teachers, nurses, doctors, judges and police officers, who are also too often victims and targets of toxicity, intimidation and violence. All those in public life have a responsibility to challenge and report intimidating behaviour wherever it occurs. We must all seek to uphold the highest standards of conduct and we must set a tone in our own discourse that is neither dehumanising nor derogatory.
[Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]
In 2017, the Committee on Standards in Public Life considered this issue, as well as the broader implications for other candidates for public office and public office holders. I thank the members of the Committee, including my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, for their thorough consideration of this topic. The committee subsequently published its report, “Intimidation in Public Life”, in December 2017, and concluded that intimidation in public life presented a threat to the very nature of representative democracy and that electoral law needed to be updated better to reflect the challenges that we now face.
In the Government response to the Committee’s report, we committed to a series of actions based on the Committee’s recommendations. In March of this year, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), issued a written statement updating Parliament on the work that the Government had done in response to the report. It may be useful if I briefly update the House on that.
The recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life included two that fall within the remit of the Cabinet Office. I am pleased to say that the recommendation on removing the requirement for local government candidates to publish their home address has already been implemented, and the recommended consultation on the introduction of a new offence in electoral law of intimidating candidates and campaigners has also been completed. I can confirm that we will move to do the same for the elections due to be held in May of next year for the Greater London Assembly and police and crime commissioners.
Will my hon. Friend the Minister look again at this matter? It is absolutely right to remove the addresses of local government candidates, but some candidates said to me that there was a bit of a political risk in that. The ballot paper just showing the address as, in my case, in the East Riding of Yorkshire could be, given that some people have a local address on, a bit of a disadvantage.
It could be by the ward rather than by the district. It will always be a debate and a decision for candidates to make, but this is a step that we have taken. The alternative was to be compelled to put one’s home address on the ballot paper. But of course the Government will be interested to hear further feedback about how we can improve and refine the system.
We have also committed to legislating on the introduction of a new electoral offence of intimidating a candidate or campaigner during the run-up to an election, either in person or online. Under the new measure, people who intimidate candidates or campaigners in the run-up to an election will be banned from running for public office for up to five years. To be clear, that will not extend the offence as such, but it will give the courts a new deterrent to such behaviour in relation to those in the political world. In response to a point made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), I should say that this is about being clear that we are not in any special category. The law will apply the same. It is about how the penalty could be applied in relation to the political world.
We will also legislate to clarify the electoral offence of undue influence of a voter. That offence, which includes acts or threats of violence to manipulate someone’s vote, will cover intimidation inside and outside the polling station. Clarifying the offence in electoral law will enable enforcement agencies to enact sanctions more effectively, to protect voters from undue influence.
The Government have consulted on our “Internet Safety Strategy” Green Paper and published a White Paper on online harms. In addition, we have held discussions with social media companies and the Electoral Commission about how a pop-up social media team for elections could provide support for users who report inappropriate behaviour online.
Over and above the recommendation in the Committee’s report, the Government are considering what further steps are necessary to ensure the safety of parliamentarians and their staff. Crucially, that will apply not only to the vicinity of the parliamentary estate but to our constituencies and online. There are already opportunities through the parliamentary liaison and investigation team. This is about being clear that we must ensure that arrangements are proportionate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire said, our offices should be places where we welcome the majority of those we represent and should not become like a mini fortress.
I hope that I have been able to reassure not only my hon. Friend but other hon. Members present that the Government are taking this matter seriously and wish to act on it. Ensuring that we tackle intimidation is about making sure that our democracy is the vibrant one that we all wish it to be.
I thank colleagues and particularly the Minister and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), for their contributions. Obviously, numerous people are interested in this topic. Perhaps we can look at devising a mechanism by which all the disparate views and proposals can be tied together. It has been suggested to me that a Speaker’s Conference would be one way forward, but the Government would need to sanction that. Finally, on the question of leadership, party political leadership is absolutely crucial. Codes of practice are all very well, but they have to be enforced and seen to be enforced, and that is just as applicable to senior Members, such as the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, as it is to anybody else.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered intimidation in public life.