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We need a Speaker's Conference to address issues over MPs’ safety

We need a Speaker's Conference to address issues over MPs’ safety
4 min read

We were all shocked by the dreadful killing of Sir David Amess, especially only five years after the murder of Jo Cox. There have been two different views from MPs on what we should do in the face of Sir David’s death.

The most immediate and public response was from colleagues who have asserted that we must carry on with business as usual, because to do otherwise would be to allow terrorism to succeed in its aim of undermining democracy.

But there has been a strikingly different response from MPs talking to each other privately. MPs’ WhatsApp groups tell of colleagues who are worried and even afraid. They share their fear that what happened to David could happen to any of us. They shared concern about the anxiety caused to their teenage children. They worry about whether to prohibit their children from opening their own front door at home. They discuss what to do to about their responsibility for young staff who work in the constituency office when the MP is away in Westminster.

How we respond to the death of Sir David Amess should involve a proper deliberation with all MPs – those who share private fears as well as those who demonstrate public defiance. The way to do so is to address this collectively, as Parliament, through a Speaker’s Conference.

We can’t have MPs’ security becoming a party competition of political machismo

The reality is that the killing of two MPs in five years undermines our democracy and we must consider how we can prevent this from happening again.

The Home Secretary has established a number of reviews, but the relationship between us and our constituents cannot be left to the government. The government and the police need to be prepared to do what is asked of them by Parliament and it must be MPs who decide what that is.

A Speaker's Conference is the only way to achieve a collaborative approach, involving all political parties. This should not be a party-political issue. MPs must be able to stand up for their safety without the fear of being labelled as afraid of voters. We can’t have MPs’ security becoming a party competition of political machismo.

Parliament is the only body that can engender the changes needed to enable us to carry out our work safely. Whether it be by security support through IPSA, backing from the police, deterring aggressive abuse in the chamber, or by MPs online. The proposals of a Speaker’s Conference would help us make the right decisions on how we go about our work.

A Speaker’s Conference will hear from MPs who – though willing to share privately their very real fears for their safety – are unwilling to speak up about it publicly.

One of the issues that has been raised, once again, in the aftermath of Sir David Amess’ death is how we conduct ourselves as parliamentarians and if how we speak about and to each other creates a climate which legitimises violence against us. This is an issue which requires intelligent consideration and consistent action both in the Commons and by political parties. Again, only a Speaker’s Conference has the authority to address and enforce, if it so decides, the issue of how we speak about and to each other.

Much has been done since the murder of Jo Cox to improve MPs safety at home and in the House. This is welcome, but we have not addressed the issues of balancing safety with the imperative for constituency engagements.

We have had a number of welcome suggestions to improve the safety of MPs, but these should be fed into a well-considered and inclusive review and set of proposals. If we don’t take collective action, a gap will emerge between the “no change” voices and everyone else.  

The Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair, called for a Speaker’s Conference on MPs’ safety back in 2019. The government acknowledged that the decision to establish a Speaker’s Conference is a matter for the Speaker – not the government.

That’s why, after the tragic killing of Sir David Amess last month, I've asked the Speaker to do just that.

 

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

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