Sat, 15 June 2024

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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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Safe House? The dangers MPs and their staff face – and how to protect them

Metropolitan Police guarding the entrance to the Houses of Parliament (Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo)

8 min read

Since 2015, spending to keep MPs and their staff safe has gone from £160,000 to more than £4m. As abuse and threats spike again over the horrifying events in Gaza and Israel, Sophie Church explores the dangers MPs and their staff face, and what can be done to protect them

In 2018, Heidi Allen, then Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, stood in the Commons Chamber arguing for reform of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. She spoke powerfully about her own abortion: an “incredibly hard decision” she made after suffering daily seizures. “I wasn’t even able to control my own body, let alone care for a new life,” she said.

But a year later, after being subjected to “absolutely vile” abuse online for both her comments in the Chamber and her stance on Brexit, she found herself penning a letter explaining why she would be standing down. “My Twitter timeline… was just absolutely inundated with, ‘you murder babies’, and every description you can possibly imagine,” she explains to The House today. 

“It only takes one to turn up with a carving knife and that’s that,” says one senior Labour MP

While Twitter (now renamed X) algorithms may have exacerbated the trolling, Allen was also receiving death threats – not knowing whether the sender was miles away or in the house next door.

When Allen resigned, she said she would tell young people who were thinking about becoming MPs to “let this period of toxicity pass” before doing so. But the onslaught of abuse against MPs continues today – now spurred on by a different cause. 

In November, Labour MP for Slough Tan Dhesi received death threats after abstaining on a Scottish National Party motion that called for a ceasefire in Gaza. The constituency office of Labour MP for Cardiff Central Jo Stevens was branded with “murderer” in red paint, and posters saying she had “blood on her hands” were pasted onto the glass. Labour’s Bradford West MP Naz Shah, who quit her frontbench role to back a ceasefire, said she faced “threatening Islamophobic abuse” following the vote.

The amount of money being spent on the security of MPs has increased dramatically since 2016. In financial year 2015, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) reported that the security spend was just over £160,000. In 2021, it was £4.4m. 

The police have been offering guidance on security measures – issuing MPs with panic buttons, bomb proof letterboxes and toughened glass for constituency offices, and posting security officers outside surgeries. A representative from a security firm that offers its services to parliamentarians could not offer details of such provisions but confirmed to The House that there has been “more of a requirement for information and advice” from MPs recently. 

A parliamentary spokesperson did not reveal how many security incidents MPs had faced in the past year, but said the Parliamentary Security Department (PSD) continues to provide “dedicated resource, expertise and focus to Parliament and its unique requirements”. 

MPs are painfully aware of their vulnerability. “It only takes one to turn up with a carving knife and that’s that,” says one senior Labour MP, preferring to remain anonymous. “We all think someone is going to get hurt soon,” says another, who told The House they were planning to escort an anxious female MP home that evening.

Feryal Clark, shadow crime minister and Labour MP for Enfield North, whose constituency office was graffitied with antisemitic abuse, tells The House: “I carry my personal alarm with me, but what good is that if something happens?” 

It was Clark’s staff who were first confronted with the graffiti. They had already experienced someone with mental health issues breaking into her constituency office last year. “It’s really scary for people who are not very politically involved,” she says. “How many workplaces have panic rooms, emergency phones and cameras, and how many people have to go to work and go through safety protocols?” 

In the aftermath, chair of GMB branch for MPs’ staff Jenny Symmons wrote to all MPs giving advice on how to support employees. Her suggestions included ensuring all constituency staff have a lone worker device connecting directly to the police, and that staff can work from home if a protest is set to take place outside a constituency office.

“Staff are not keen to complain publicly because of the sensitivity around it,” Symmons says. They recognise that people have a right to protest and do not want to give the impression their bosses do not support the rights of these constituents.

“The next thing I’m going to get attacked for is having taken very expensive taxis home”

Several MPs declined to speak to The House about the increased threats, citing the risk that doing so could attract yet more abuse, while others would only speak strictly off the record. They “don’t want it to look like MPs are making it about themselves”, one explained.

“It’s predominantly women that have been attacked. And some of them are too scared to even say that they’ve been attacked or the office has been vandalised or targeted, just out of fear of attracting more people to attack them,” says Clark.

Clark has since been added to a WhatsApp group of Labour MPs worried about their safety. “I had no bloody idea how many there were,” she says. A cross-party WhatsApp support group also exists. 

While one Labour MP says “it’s different for the Tories, some are getting it but it’s not really an issue”, they acknowledge that some Conservative MPs in northern, more marginal, seats are “really suffering”. 

However, Mike Freer, Conservative MP for Finchley and Golders Green, in London, can count 15 different incidents in 13 years where he, his staff, or his office have been targeted. This month, police charged two people for arson with intent, over a fire at a shed at his constituency office in Finchley in December. In 2021, Freer, who now wears a stab vest at public events, was visited at his office by the man who went on to murder MP David Amess, but was absent. 

“I’ve had to change the way I travel to work,” Freer says. “My husband picks me up from the Tube; he doesn’t like me walking back. I notice now that if people stop me on the street, I immediately make sure I put distance between myself and them. And that does weigh heavily. But then you have to balance that off against the good we can do. This is the most amazing job in the world.”

While Freer says he is happy with the police’s response in the most recent incident, others feel let down. One senior Labour MP says that when a protest took place outside another MP’s house on 18 November, the police were “not responsive”, and took an hour to arrive. 

A Metropolitan Police spokesperson said there has been “close liaison and co-operation with the parliamentary authorities, local forces and the Cabinet Office” to address concerns from MPs and that they “continue to develop our collective response to this issue”.

MPs also say parliamentary protocol has enflamed the situation. One shadow minister points out that when British troops are sent into a conflict, the government brings Parliament together – briefing all parties openly and comprehensively. But because Britain is not directly involved in the conflict in Gaza, that has not happened. 

The Labour frontbencher argues that the government should have sat down with the Scottish National Party (SNP) before its controversial ceasefire amendment was tabled, as co-operation could have avoided such stark dividing lines being drawn. 

Another shadow minister says: “The problem is that amid a very nuanced debate, the SNP put down a binary question. And that’s Parliament. But this is not a binary issue.”

The Green Party was heavily criticised by Labour representatives after it published a list on social media of every MP who did not vote for a ceasefire in Gaza. Angela Eagle, Labour MP for Wallasey, remarked: “The Greens should be ashamed of themselves.” 

Although the Greens’ only MP Caroline Lucas apologised for the post, a spokesperson for the Green Party stood firm, saying: “It is the case that the voting records of MPs are published by Parliament and are in the public domain. Calling for support for a ceasefire in Gaza is urgent and necessary.”

Speakers of both Houses have sent letters detailing an increase in security measures around Parliament – including enhanced police patrols and easier access to taxis. One shadow minister welcomed the initiative, saying: “I’ve spent a fortune on cabs in my time here.” She added that since the Gaza conflict began she has not walked home alone.

But Clark points out it could lead to further problems. “The next thing I’m going to get attacked for is having taken very expensive taxis home,” she says.

Still, MPs have ideas of how current provisions can be improved. For instance, Clark says her office manager spent a whole day completing incident reports and managing risks – which should not be part of their job. “I wish there was someone in Parliament whose responsibility would be that I call them and they manage all of that,” she says.

In the longer term, Clark believes “there’s a need to detoxify the way that MPs are portrayed”. Vitriol aimed at MPs ebbs and flows, she says, and it is only a matter of time “until the next controversial topic”. 

Harsher sentencing for people threatening MPs may work, she suggests, but ultimately it requires a change in how MPs are perceived. 

“I don’t want the response or results of this to be even more security,” she says. “We’ve got to change the discourse. We’ve got to change the way that people feel that they can actually treat their representative.” 

Sienna Rodgers provided additional reporting

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