Skip to main content

Fears that threats and abuse becoming “normalised”

18 October 2019

The right to freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate and to protest are essential to a democracy. And the protection of democracy from attack and assault is essential to protecting those rights. Attacks on, and abuse of, MPs cannot be justified as the exercise of free speech. They undermine the vital democratic role of MPs.

  • Calls for a Speaker's Conference on threats to MPs: we must halt the escalating threat to MPs to protect our democracy.
  • “Tip of the iceberg”: MPs reluctance to report and lack of coherent collection of data about threats and attacks on MPs means that the true nature and scale is not recognised.
  • There must be robust and consistent enforcement of the law by the police and cps, and sentences need to recognise that this offending, as well as an attack on individuals, is also an attack on democracy.
  • In making decisions about policing demonstrations around Parliament, or activities on Parliament Square, the MPS and the GLA should consult with Parliament and should give greater emphasis to the importance of ensuring access to Parliament.
  • Social media companies should devote significantly increased resources to ensuring their platforms are not being used to undermine democracy; the scale of their current activity is insignificant compared to the scale of the threat

Drawing on evidence from confidential interviews with MPs as well as oral and written evidence, the JCHR reports that many MPs are restricting advice surgeries with constituents and many are increasingly reluctant to use public transport alone in worrying signs that the normal functioning of the UK's representative democracy is under threat, says Parliament's Human Rights Committee in a report published today, as it calls for a Speaker's Conference – a parliamentary commission convened by the Speaker – to tackle this escalating problem.

UK MPs are increasingly being forced to change their work practices, transport and living arrangements in response to threats and abuse, often on advice from the police, while some are also being forced to restrict the communication channels that would normally form part of the way MPs engage with their constituents, undertaking casework and advocacy on their behalf. The rights associated with freedom of speech and freedom of association do not include actions that harass, intimate and threaten others.
Though there has been widespread reporting of some of the most shocking and violent threats and abuse, as the Committee Chair has noted “we don't know the half of it”. MPs do not report for whole range of reasons: they feel they need to present themselves as champions of others, not victims; they do not want to make the assailant worse; or be seen to use scarce police resources.

The Committee concludes social media companies should devote significantly more resources to ensuring their platforms are safe. Responsibility for preventing and taking down harmful content must lie more squarely with those who profit from it. Social media companies need to respect the laws of the countries in which they operate. Moreover, threats, intimidation and harassment online should be treated as seriously as such behaviour offline: the internet should not be a place where there is effective impunity for all but the most serious breaches of the law.
The report also catalogues mounting incidents of violent instances of “real life” threats and abuse in recent years against MPs, their families and their staff: MP Jo Cox and PC Keith Palmer both lost their lives in the course of serving our democracy, Andrew Pennington, who died after being attacked at a constituency surgery as he came to the aide of Nigel Jones MP.

The complex interaction between threats and abuse online, and the threats offline have led the Committee to call for a concerted approach between the various agencies involved, on and offline. Although there is recognition that MPs have long had to endure threats, harassment and attempts at intimidation, police authorities have described the “current context” as “unprecedented”, and the Committee on Standards in Public Life has described a "a culture in which the intimidation of candidates and others in public life has become widespread, immediate and toxic.”

Committee's comments

The Committee says:

  • Self-regulation of internet companies and content cannot continue: it is not “satisfactory to have a system for moderating social media which relies to a great extent on users to identify and flag objectionable posts for takedown.” Nor is it “reasonable to expect those who face high volumes of abuse to invest time and resources in managing their accounts in ways others do not have to.”
  • The Committee also questions the role of artificial intelligence or machine learning: “Much depends on context… there will always have to be a significant human input into these systems. … The scale of social media companies' current activity in relation to dealing with these problems is insubstantial compared to the scale of the problem. Bearing in mind the scale of their profits, an increase in resources should not be impractical”.
  • Government should make a statutory duty on the police to protect the UK's democratic institutions and the protect the right of access to the Parliamentary estate for all those with business there: be they MPs, constituents, journalists, lobbyists or school groups learning about their Parliament.
  • The Committee calls for a formal process bringing together the many different agents that must be involved in tackling threats against MPs and their impact on our democracy; including the police, the CPS, the leader of the House, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and many more. It calls for all those involved to convene a Speaker's Conference that would consider the right of MPs to get on with the job for which they are elected, and to make sure they are not at risk as they do so.
  • A joint group convened by the Metropolitan police, including the House authorities and with representation from all authorities responsible, including from central government, should consider and report on the framework for control of the area around the precincts by June 2020. All those responsible should adopt a zero tolerance approach to obstruction and intimidation around Westminster.
  • IPSA policy in this area must be aimed at ensuring that MPs and their staff can continue to engage with the public. This means making sure constituency surgeries can be conducted in a way which is safe for all concerned, and that constituency premises are adequately monitored. IPSA must be prepared to be flexible about provision of security at Members' homes and constituencies.
  • The Committee will scrutinise Government's proposals for new electoral offences and digital imprints when the legislation is prepared. The prospect of electoral disqualification may deter those who are active in politics from abuse and intimidation. 
  • All political parties have a responsibility to make clear they do not endorse intimidation or abuse, and all the parties “must create a climate which makes it clear that abuse is not tolerated, and failure to abide by a party's code of conduct is dealt with robustly and speedily”.

Chair's comments

The Commons Chair of the Committee, Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP, said:

“We cannot have a situation where many MPs are looking over their shoulder, are keeping their head down, restricting their advice surgeries and reluctant to go on public transport on their own at night.

“Parliament is keen to get on with tackling other people's problems but notoriously slow to address our own, fearing accusations that we're feathering our own nest.

“And we're rightly even more wary if it could be alleged that what we're doing is against the public right to demonstrate, their freedom of expression and protest.

“There needs to be a zero tolerance of threats to MPs. That is not free speech. It's a threat to our democracy”.

Further information

Image: PC