Harriet Harman: Members of Parliament must be protected. Our democracy is at stake

Posted On: 
5th March 2019

MPs should not have to look over their shoulders, or change the way they interact with constituents, to feel safe. For our democracy to work we must ensure our elected representatives are protected, writes Harriet Harman

Police officers outside Parliament last month
Credit: 
PA

Jo Cox was murdered less than three years ago doing her job as an MP seeing her constituents in an open advice surgery. Since then, there have been a steady stream of people being convicted for offences of threats and violence against MPs.

We notice them in a brief press report or on Twitter. But what we see is just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve got to start facing up to the rising tide of harassment and violence against MPs. And stop it.

What is at stake here is our democracy. Some might think that MPs are only willing to whinge about what’s happening to us. The opposite is the case. There is massive underreporting of threats to MPs. We are hard-wired to be champions of our constituents and rescue them from their problems. The last thing any MP wants is to be seen as a victim. Some don’t report threats worrying it will only increase the obsession of the “fixated individual” who’s stalking them. Some feel at the same time both fearful of their assailant and sorry for them – especially if they’ve got mental health problems. We see our task as helping the vulnerable, not calling down the police on their heads. And some don’t report because they think that it will be a waste of their time and nothing will be done about it.

In response to the rising tide of threat, there’s a steady and worrying trend of MPs changing the way they work. Constituents are less likely to see us going about our work as we are now less likely to tweet in advance of a meeting we’re going to, or identify an estate where we’re off for a walkabout. Many MPs have changed the way we do our advice surgeries – instead of open surgeries where any constituent could turn up, only seeing people if they’ve got an appointment. Or no longer doing surgeries in remote community halls on estates and instead holding them in the Town Hall.

MPs are less likely now to travel on public transport on their own. And that’s a shame as that’s when you get the chance to hear from random strangers. MPs who are driven off Twitter by abuse are being denied the important right to use social media to communicate.

And even when they are out and about with their families, MPs report that they get harassed. While many are resigned to enduring abuse it’s not fair for it to be inflicted on our family members. So MPs worry about the safety of their staff. Only last week Peter Kyle’s constituency office was attacked.

Those MPs who do ask for help report a big variation in the response. While some find the police concerned and helpful, others report the police showing more sympathy with the assailant than the MP victim. The police who stood by while Anna Soubry was being harassed as she tried to make her way back to Parliament no doubt thought that they were defending the rights of protestors.

No MP should face a barrage of abuse for doing their work as a holder of public office. It’s in no-one’s interest if, to stay safe, MPs retreat from and become more remote from our constituents. MPs should not, as they have to in many countries, have to live behind bars.

There are competing rights here. The rights of MPs to be able to speak their mind without fear or favour, as they are elected to do and the rights of the public to protest. The Joint Committee on Human Rights is holding an inquiry into the scale of the threat to MPs and how we draw a line to ensure that MPs remain safe to get on with our work while respecting the right to protest.

We’re going to interview a wide range of MPs to get a complete analysis of the origin, object and scale of these threats; the impact of social media, the regional “heat spots”, the correlation with racism and misogyny. We’ll be scrutinising the work of the House authorities, the police, and CPS.

We’ll be making recommendations which respect the rights of protesters and protect the safety of MPs. We are not an effective democracy if MPs have to look over their shoulder before they speak or vote.    

Harriet Harman is Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham and chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights