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MPs' Staff Say They Face Chronic Threats After Sir David Amess' Death Prompts Security Review

MPs' Staff Say They Face Chronic Threats After Sir David Amess' Death Prompts Security Review
7 min read

Staff working for MPs in Parliament and their constituency offices have told PoliticsHome they endure chronic threats, abuse and intimidation every day in their jobs.

MP for Southend West Sir David Amess was stabbed to death while holding a constituency surgery in Leigh-on-Sea on Friday. A 25-year-old man is being held under the terrorism act on suspicion of murder. 

Conversations about the safety and security of parliamentarians have since resurfaced. 

On Sunday home secretary Priti Patel suggested a range of new measures could be brought in to "close any gaps" around MPs' security. Private security guards at MPs’ surgeries have been promised as a remedy to ongoing security challenges.

Staffers PoliticsHome spoke to – working for MPs representing different political parties and belonging to varying demographics – have highlighted that they also feel a significant threat as a result of their jobs, and feel that like their employers, they could be targets of politically-motivated abuse.

All of them agreed that Amess’ tragic death served to remind them of the vulnerability and danger involved in their jobs.

Tom Hinchcliffe, who manages communications for the Labour MP Fabian Hamilton, told PoliticsHome that receiving threats and abuse sometimes feels part and parcel of his role.  

Hinchliffe, who works across Parliament and the constituency office, has found that whenever a contentious issue is being debated or voted on in Westminster, discontent with Hamilton’s views on the matter will also be levelled at him and his colleagues.  

“The main threat came over the issue of Israel-Palestine," he recalled. "Someone threatened to petrol bomb our constituency office while we were inside and made it clear that they knew when we were inside.”

“That was years ago, but I mean this has been going on for so long now. Even after Jo [Cox] died, it’s still commonplace.

“Because my boss is a man it tends not to happen that often, but you do get a few a week at least – threats that you’re reporting to the police.”

Elliot Keck, who manages communications for the Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell, told PoliticsHome that he too has experienced frightening encounters with the public the worst of which he has felt included a threat of violence. 

Keck recalls one particularly disturbing incident that took place last spring in the outdoor seating area of a  pub in Rosindell's constituency. Keck and Rosindell said they were having dinner when they were accosted by three men who had recognised the MP. The men seemed drunk and while their conversation was “relatively friendly” to begin with, it quickly felt threatening.

“Eventually they were shouting and swearing at us while we were sat there," Keck said.

"We got up to leave and then they tried squaring up to us and saying stuff like, ‘we'll knock you out’, ‘come on man’, all that sort of bombastic language.

“We walked straight past them and straight into the pub where we called the police and fortunately, they didn't follow us. It's entirely possible it was all hot air but nevertheless, it was still quite a scary experience.”Staffers told PoliticsHome that women and individuals belonging to ethnic minorities are often required to cope with additional layers of targeted intimidation and discriminatory abuse.

Charlotte, a 25-year-old female staffer whose name we have changed to protect her identity, told PoliticsHome that threats she received from one constituent became so severe that a restraining order needed to be put in place.

On her first day working in the constituency office of a Conservative MP, Charlotte was met with a notably nasty “barrage of abuse” during a phone call.

“The man on the call was swearing at me, saying all kinds of nasty stuff about me like that I was a woman who shouldn’t be in my position,” she said. 

“It wasn't just basic abuse, he was using derogatory language based on me being in a position of authority in an MP’s office given that I’m a woman,” she added.  

Charlotte said she gave the constituent multiple verbal warnings before proceeding to hang up the phone. Over the next four weeks she said she received more than 30 emails containing threats levelled directly at her.

When the office installed a landline, within 24 hours of the phone number being published online, the constituent rang multiple times, personally asking for Charlotte and even putting on a fake voice to try and reach her after initially being refused.

“He told me that as soon as the office address is made publicly available, he’ll come down to the office," Charlotte said. 

"[He said] ‘the things I'll do to you when you're there’, calling me all kinds of horrific, horrific names, so much so I actually put it on speaker for my MP to hear so at least he could be a witness to what was being said.”

Eventually the constituent was handed a prison sentence and a restraining order was enforced.

“This all stemmed from my first day working for an MP in an office manager position,” Charlotte said.As options are discussed for what new measures should be introduced to protect MPs, staffers are asking the same question for themselves.

Additional security for MPs by virtue of proximity should extend to safeguard their staff as well. But the two groups are nonetheless different and face unique challenges.

One female staffer working for a Conservative MP, who also asked to remain anonymous, told PoliticsHome: “On a personal level I would like to see my boss actually acknowledge that I have a non-western name and that I feel so uncomfortable and embarrassed and awkward when typing back to blatantly racist emails.

“I always think, if I was out on a constituency or surgery visit with this same constituent, what would their reaction be to me physically?

“Luckily I haven’t had any physical threats made to me, but I definitely feel very uncomfortable when I have to liaise with constituents who are overly racist or use inflammatory language about immigrants.”

Keck, Hinchcliffe and Charlotte agreed that as is the case for their bosses, meeting constituents face-to-face is an important part of their role and the democratic responsibility that comes with it.  

However, they acknowledged that further steps should be taken to increase their protection.

Keck suggested that perhaps exemptions should be made to allow MPs to carry pepper spray, which could be used to defend themselves and their staff from violent attacks, but is not currently legally available in the UK.

“It's not an ideal solution, you shouldn't have to give MPs defensive weapons… but there’s no way there can be an ideal solution to this,” he said.

“The only way that you can offer complete protection is through airport style security at constituency surgeries and that’s obviously not feasible.

“I don't think any MPs want that. But the alternative of having absolutely no security and absolutely no way for an MP to defend themselves… that's also clearly no longer tenable in light of the deaths of Jo Cox and Sir David.”

Charlotte would like to see the issue of staffer safety addressed at least in some part through raising awareness of their position and responsibilities.

“There needs to be more of an awareness of what MPs and their staff do,” Charlotte told PoliticsHome.

“Specifically what staff do because they aren’t paid for by a political party, they’re basically civil servants in all but name only. We’re essentially a frontline service and have been throughout the pandemic, where people have been able to contact and get all of this information.

“It's just a recognition and more public awareness about what the function of an MP’s office is.

"Then there’s going to be less expectation of a fast response, less expectation of what the staff can do and then, in turn, anger levels will reduce, I really do feel that way. Enough is enough.”

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