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Security Update

Volume 701: debated on Wednesday 20 October 2021

I have agreed to the request from the Government to make a statement, as I believe this is a subject that the House will want to be informed about at the earliest opportunity. It is a subject on which all colleagues will have strong views, especially in view of the death of our colleague Sir David Amess. However, I remind Members that it is the case that a police investigation is ongoing. It is therefore important that Members do not say anything that might impede that investigation or any court case that might follow. I therefore ask Members please not to speculate on the circumstances around our great friend and colleague, Sir David death.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about right hon. and hon. Members’ security.

Operation Bridger was established in response to the murder of our dear colleague Jo Cox as a nationwide police protection programme to provide security measures to all Members. Following the devastating and horrific attack on our dear friend Sir David last Friday, I asked each police force to review the security arrangements for all Members with immediate effect. I am assured that, since I commissioned that review, every Member has been contacted by their local police force to reassess their individual security arrangements in the wake of this tragedy. If any right hon. or hon. Member has not received contact, they should please speak to me after the statement.

In parallel with that review, the joint terrorism analysis centre has conducted an independent review on the risk facing Members of Parliament. While we do not see any information or intelligence that points to any credible, specific or imminent threat, I must update the House that the threat level facing Members of the House is now deemed to be substantial. That is the same level as the current national threat to the United Kingdom as a whole. I can assure the House that our world-class security and intelligence agencies and counter-terror police will now ensure that this change is properly reflected in their operational posture.

I will always ensure face-to-face contact, robust debate and the wider benefits of our democracy are defended and protected, but we must all take this change in risk seriously. I would like to urge all Members to access the range of security provisions and support available under Operation Bridger and through the parliamentary security department and the Metropolitan police’s parliamentary liaison and investigation team. As well as for our own sake, we have a duty of care to protect our staff and the general public.

I know that every single Member will take, register and act upon on the advice that is given to help our country be kept safe from terror, and, of course, to enable our own conduct when it comes to making sure that democracy is defended and protected. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Home Secretary for the advance briefing before the statement and for the time that I know she has taken to speak to many Members of the House on an individual basis.

We are brought together this evening in the most devastating circumstances. We were all shaken to the core by Sir David’s death. It has been impossible not to be moved this week by the powerful tributes across the House from his many, many friends. What made the pain even harder was that it came so quickly after the murder of our friend and dear colleague Jo Cox. Our thoughts are with their families and loved ones, whose lives will never be the same again, but who will no doubt take enormous pride in the remarkable contributions that Jo and David made to this country.

I know that in the face of such unspeakable hatred we stand united and unshakeable in this House that those who use violence in an attempt to divide us shall never win. We refuse to be intimidated by these dark forces. That also goes for the vile individual or individuals who erected a noose in Parliament Square today.

Yet in order to stand firm in the face of such threats, we must do everything possible to guard against these violent positions, not least as we hear, as the Home Secretary has set out, that the threat level to MPs has been raised to substantial. We accept the assessment made by the joint terrorism analysis centre that the threat has increased. We must now take the necessary steps not just for our own safety, but for that of our staff and constituents.

I would like to take a moment to thank the police; the security services; your offices, Mr Speaker; and Commons staff for the extraordinary work they do to protect us. I am grateful, too, to policing representatives for the briefings they have afforded me and I thank them for all they do.

May I ask a few questions of the Home Secretary? Is she confident that our police, security services and Members’ security will have the resources they need to guard against this increased threat? Can she say more to Members and their staff about the additional guidance and support that may now be required? Can the Home Secretary update the House on when the wider review she announced of Members’ security will be published? Can she also outline whether she will look more widely at the protection of all those in public life, including those serving in local government?

I welcome the swift action promised by the Prime Minister in that the online harms Bill will be delivered swiftly, and I was particularly glad to see mention of criminal sanctions for company executives—a much-needed reform that we have long argued for on the Opposition Benches. Opposition Members are committed to doing everything possible to address these challenges, as we know how appallingly high the stakes are. I know the whole House is committed to doing everything possible to address the awful events of last Friday. Hatred and division will never overcome us. In that spirit, we work together collectively to do all we can to make sure something like that cannot happen again.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments and, I must say, for the joint and collective recognition that we have a shared responsibility in how we conduct ourselves and how we act. If I may say so, that has been reflected in the way in which, organisationally, everyone across the House has come together—from the support given by you, Mr Speaker and your team, and of course the Lord Speaker at the other end of Parliament, to the parliamentary policing support and the teams that we all depend on for MPs’ security in our own constituencies.

There has been an incredible effort nationwide, and I want to pay tribute to all police operatives under Operation Bridger for the work they have been doing. As ever, my thanks go to the intelligence agencies, the security services, JTAC and counter-terrorism policing. The work has been quite remarkable—it really has.

The right hon. Gentleman made a number of points, and to be fair they are points that we touched on in the Chamber on Monday. It is very sombre that we are having this statement today after the terrible tragedy that took place on Friday. It is also a recognition of the fact that we want our democracy to be defended and, rightly so. We want to conduct our business in the open and transparent way that all Members have successfully done over so many generations.

On that note, that is exactly why, through the agencies and Government structures, we have stood up the wider work of the defending democracy team in the Cabinet Office, which will look at other elected representatives. The right hon. Gentleman touched on the issue of councillors and other elected representatives, as I did in the House on Monday. We all collectively acknowledge and know—many of us have been in some of these roles previously in public life—that there are public servants across society and our country who, day in, day out, do a great deal of work in representing their communities and, importantly, in delivering public services. They have been subject to abuse, for example, and that is part of the wider work taking place.

The wider review taking place on policing is all linked to Operation Bridger, and rightly so, because that is the structure that has been set up, and is effective. We are constantly working to enhance that. Our role is to close down any perceived gaps in security, or even risks for MPs and wider assessments that may materialise. Of course, again, that is a collective effort.

My next point—and I am sure that all hon. and right hon. Members will appreciate the context in which I make this remark—is that it is not for us to publicly and openly discuss our security measures. We protect ourselves by working with the agencies and police. We act in a responsible way on the basis of the advice and guidance we are given, and, I should add, the support that we are given, as Members of this House to enable us to function and do our jobs as elected representatives. I would just like to emphasise that point to all colleagues, and colleagues will understand the context in which I make that remark.

Finally, all Members should be aware that through your good offices, Mr Speaker, and the support teams you have, you and I will continue to keep all Members of this House updated. Of course, there are protective security measures and packages available to Members, which we will be sharing, and we will once again be reiterating the support that is available to all Members.

Before I call Dr Lewis, let me say that, with the Home Secretary, we will be sending a letter to all Members of the House with a further update and we will try to keep the House informed as much as possible. I reassure the House that meetings between each of our offices have been going forward continuously to ensure that we are doing the right thing by everybody. I would add this to what the Home Secretary said. You are being contacted about doing service. Please do not do this because that gives information we do not want to give. The other part of that is: what will happen to the data that you are giving? It puts not just you at risk, but others at risk.

May I draw particular attention to the wise words of the Home Secretary in what I think was her penultimate point about the discussion of security measures that MPs decide they will or will not take? Most right hon. and hon. Members have ideas about ways in which their security can be improved. It is very unwise—is it not, Mr Speaker?—for us to state what those ideas are in public. I am sure that, like me, every Member present in the Chamber was contacted by local and national media asking, “How are you going to proceed in future? Are you going to continue with face-to-face surgeries? What changes will you make to your arrangements?” Does the Home Secretary agree that it is quite inappropriate for the media to ask such questions, and it is quite counterproductive, and indeed self-endangering, for us to answer them?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his observation and comments, as well for as his question. This has been a sombre week for all of us in this House —it really has. We have lost colleagues through the most appalling attacks, first Jo Cox, and then Sir David Amess. It is not for us to be publicly discussing security measures at all. As the House has already heard me say, I urge all hon. Members, for the sake of protecting the public, our staff and our functioning democracy, to respect some of the parameters that we are speaking about now. We must also respect the fact that, to carry on in our roles as elected representatives, we have to take advice that should not be in the public domain—advice that we listen to and that will effectively shape our own behaviours. That will lead to greater public protection from safeguarding and security. We all have a responsibility to follow the words of my right hon. Friend and be very conscientious about what we say when it comes to security.

May I associate myself fully with the remarks of the Home Secretary and the shadow Home Secretary? I thank and pay tribute to all those involved in work to keep us safe. I thank the Home Secretary for her statement, particularly so quickly after Home Office questions on Monday. It is vital—our security and working practices are being debated—that we are kept abreast of the broad thrust of what is going on and I back the points that have already been made. Details of what is going on must be kept private.

We are also fully behind the Home Secretary remarks about making it our mission to protect democratically elected representatives, but also to protect a key part of that representative role, which is meeting and interacting with our constituents. It is imperative that we consider the implications for everybody, not only MPs but our staff and everyone who works in the House of Commons and beyond. As the shadow Home Secretary said, we must consider every level of democracy, including our hardworking councillors. We should always be careful that by adding extra protection to one group we do not make another group vulnerable. I am pleased with the Home Secretary’s reassurance in that regard.

These first urgent steps are welcome, and I join the Home Secretary in encouraging colleagues to take up the extra measures that have been offered to them. As she said, it is important not to lose sight of the broader cultural change that is required, and transforming a political culture in which harassing, intimidation and threatening politicians is seen as something that comes with the job. That is not something we can do overnight, but we should all work together to ensure that it happens.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I think we can judge by the tone of the House, in the light of the tragic events that have taken place and the reasons we are here having this discussion, that we are absolutely united in our determination to work together on this. This is also about the safety of our citizens and our country, and our ability to function and conduct our business as democratically elected Members of this House, while ensuring that other pillars and aspects of society where a great deal of great work takes place—good, important work by other elected representatives—are also safeguarded. Safeguarding the sanctity of our conduct around democracy and delivering the service to the British public is vital.

Alongside that, let me briefly touch on the point about the cruel environment, frankly, of the online space. I absolutely echo the words that were said earlier today, including by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, about working together. The online space has become far too permissive of too much cruelty and harm, and it is not just levelled and leveraged towards elected Members of Parliament. We see children, and people of different races and different religious groups, targeted and affected by some of the most awful, barbaric statements. That is what has to stop and change. That absolutely means that we have a lot of work to do in this space, but we will hold those responsible for hosting such cruel material on their platforms to account because we absolutely want to bring an end to this.

Many of us are very worried on behalf of our staff, so can the Home Secretary please make sure that there is good private reassurance, advice and additional support for them? They often face objectionable things too.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to speak about our staff, and with that acknowledge the incredible work that they do to support us, which enables us to go about our business as constituency MPs. On that point—I know that this has been touched on in the House already, today and earlier this week—our staff are subjected to some of the most appalling abuse. It comes to us, but they are the ones who receive it, see it, take the telephone calls and, sadly, receive the emails. Again, we will continue collectively to provide support to them. In the light of the substantial support that has been provided to MPs, I would like to restate that members of staff, working with their Members of Parliament, should feel free to come to speak to PLAIT and the parliamentary authorities about some of the measures that they can adopt, through what is on offer through the House and the wider work, to ensure that they feel assured about their own safety and security and ways of working outside the Palace of Westminster and while they are here.

I thank the Home Secretary for her statement and, through her, express my thanks for the huge amount of work being done by the police and the Security Service to keep us safe. She will know that some of the targeting online that undermines democracy is particularly aimed at black and minority ethnic MPs, and that there is increased targeting of women MPs too. Could she say something about her approach to that as part of the security assessment?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. First, the type of appalling abuse that we have seen online is abhorrent and unacceptable. I still find it incredible that—actually, through many anonymous platforms as well—the most cruel and appalling abuse comes towards elected Members of Parliament of all backgrounds, but female MPs have been subjected to the most appalling abuse, and there should be no tolerance of that whatsoever.

There is work taking place through Mr Speaker’s office and the wider parliamentary security teams around online profiling—I think that is probably the best phrase to use—linked to looking at MPs’ profiles online and giving all MPs support when they are subjected to abuse and harassment online. Many of those measures are already in place—the right hon. Lady, and hon. and right hon. colleagues, will be aware of that—but there will be further information coming to all colleagues about what more will be done on that basis, how they can be assured and how they engage with the teams in Parliament.

I thank the Home Secretary for her statement, but I will pick up with her, after the statement, a particular MP’s case in this regard. We are 650 individuals representing 650 constituencies covered by a number of police forces. To pick up on the comments by the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), there is a variety of support available to us. What I want to ask the Home Secretary is: what support will be in place for individual forces to help Members to make the right decisions about the support that is available to them? It is not for MPs to decide what is the best support; it is about taking those recommendations on the threat assessment, so we can take appropriate and proportionate support to protect ourselves and our staff.

The hon. Lady makes a very important point, but what I would say is that this is at a national level. All police forces, through Operation Bridger, are absolutely engaged. There is national policing leadership through Counter Terrorism Policing and the National Police Chiefs Council—she will be familiar with the structures around that, in particular. Part of this work—I would like to emphasise this to all colleagues—is ensuring consistency across the United Kingdom and across all police forces for all Members of Parliament. That is why I stood up this work over the weekend: to ensure that all hon. Members and right hon. Members had been contacted, particularly as we were in a weekend situation with Members out and about in their constituencies, plus looking ahead to this weekend and future weekends—consistency of communication, consistency of advice, consistency of support to all Members and docking in with the wider parliamentary security that is stood up through the Parliamentary Liaison and Investigation Team and through Mr Speaker’s office.

Finally, I emphasise to all MPs that, as ever, through the discussions and dialogues they have with their police leads and their police forces, particularly in constituencies, the support and resources are absolutely in place—they are there. However, in the light of the changing threat, the changing and evolving picture, resources and guidance will constantly change should we need to do anything else in terms of advice and support for Members of Parliament. This is an agile system. I hope all Members have seen that in the response and support they received in a very short and concentrated period of time post Friday. We will continue to update all Members and that will come not just from the parliamentary side here, but at a local level through their local police forces.

I am sure the whole House would like to thank you, Mr Speaker, for the leadership you have shown and for the absolutely palpable care that you have for us as Members of the House of Commons in your communications. Long may that continue. May I say to the Home Secretary that our staff will very much appreciate what she said a moment ago about the support that is available to them? On the subject of consistency, may I just ensure that Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority will be absolutely a part of the process? If we are going to have a consistent message about what is available and the funding being there to pay for things, it is no good if that consistency does not extend to the rules that IPSA applies. If I could encourage her to pick that point out—I am sure she is already doing so—we would all appreciate it.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In fact, it is through Mr Speaker’s offices and diligent work and support for all Members that that has absolutely been picked up and addressed. As I emphasised to all colleagues in the House today, we have to be agile and flexible. When it comes to providing support to MPs, that is clearly something IPSA will be engaged in. It will be working with all colleagues to make sure that that message is carried through.

I appreciate the tone that the Home Secretary has taken in going through this update this evening for us. I was interested in what she had to say about other elected representatives, such as councillors. In due course, it would be helpful to hear more about what that might look like. I am particularly interested in some reassurance in relation to staff members, as other hon. Members have said, not just here but in our constituencies. They are there when we are here. I wonder if she is able to say a little more about the ongoing support that she anticipates being available to them, so they too can feel reassured about their wellbeing.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the point about staff members not just here in the Palace of Westminster, where we have incredible support across the parliamentary estate—I think all right hon. and hon. Members would agree with that—but at a constituency level, and I should emphasise this, through engagement with local police forces. That equally applies to constituency offices, when it comes to local policing and engagement and through the policing work—through Op Bridger—post-today, in particular, with the threat-level change. That ongoing dialogue and support will absolutely be in place. But I would like to say to all colleagues that, while we are here, clearly, our constituency staff must be supported and protected, and they will have, through Operation Bridger, a contact point in the constituency for policing that they should absolutely engage with to cover not just MPs’ security, but their security and their place-of-work security, and to go through the diligence, checks and all the measures that we know that we need to follow.

I am grateful for the Home Secretary’s statement. I wonder, though, whether she shares my concern that there was no tangible evidence of a threat to David, there was no tangible evidence of a threat to Jo, and there was no tangible evidence of a threat to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). That must clearly inform both our deliberations and the thinking of all police forces as they engage with us as Members for our security, because I believe that, across the Chamber, the unknown quantity is the most concerning element for our safety and, critically, for our teams, who may be left behind.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct on this. This comes back to the agility across police forces to respond and to protect not just us, but members of the public who engage with us in our constituencies. Even while we are here, members of the public go into our constituency offices constantly, putting letters in, making appointments and doing things of that nature. That is why I absolutely urge all right hon. and hon. Members—obviously, I know that this is taking place right now—to continue to work proactively with their local police forces, stay in touch with them and engage with them, and that is both for right hon. and hon. Members and staff.