According to official figures, 342 crimes towards MPs and their staff were committed in 2018 and, just four months into 2019, that number was already at 152. Here, Abbey Petkar considers the security challenges faced by our political representatives and goes in search of some solutions.
Polarised opinions on current political and social issues have been blamed for the increase in criminal behaviour directed towards MPs and their staff, with women and minorities disproportionately targeted. The offences have occurred both online and offline. MPs and their staff are no stranger to vitriolic messages from Internet trolls, of course, but both the volume and violence of the messages has spiked since the run-up to the European Union Referendum with no sign of it slowing down ever since then.
While there have been some arrests, many MPs have said that they receive death threats daily with no repercussions. We can only hope that continued arrests of criminals hiding behind their keyboards will help to deter others from sending violent messages, but the sheer scale of the problem is currently beyond the police service’s control.
One of the greatest features of the UK’s political system is the access that we have to our politicians, with most MPs holding regular surgeries where constituents can meet them directly to raise their concerns. However, this degree of public access is undermined when MPs don’t feel like they can meet the public safely. Jo Cox was murdered on her way to a constituency surgery, while videos have emerged of MPs being heckled as “traitors” during their surgeries.
Being an MP is a public service and a position that we should all respect even when we don’t share a given politician’s views. If our direct access to MPs is reduced as a result of violent actions and language, democracy is then weakened to the detriment of us all.
We are at risk of not only losing our access to MPs, but also the diversity of MPs that represent us. It’s no mistake that harassment and abuse is disproportionately directed towards women and the minorities. The objective of such harassment is to intimidate them until such point that they vacate the political system. If we cannot guarantee the safety of MPs, candidates and their staff, our political system will become less democratic and less diverse.
Harassment and criminal behaviour
With Brexit being kicked further and further along, Parliament has to be prepared for the fact that MPs are going to continue to be the victims or harassment and other criminal behaviour.
There should be a dedicated budget which goes directly towards politicians’ security, including provisions to hire private security officers for their offices and for public appearances so as not to overstretch the local police force. If the only MPs and candidates who feel safe enough to appear in public are those who can afford private security, then we end up with another blow to our diversity of public representatives. For example, Nigel Farage has been known to spend over £15,000 of public money each day on his security team during tours of the country.
With expenses scandals and other issues contributing towards public trust of MPs now registering at an historic low, it’s unlikely there would be much public support for MPs being given a security budget to manage themselves, so the establishment of a separate organisation within Government needs serious consideration in order to take care of the security requirements and concerns of MPs.
Security solution providers could be paid directly by this organisation rather than by MPs themselves to prevent alleged misuse of expenses and to ensure that any security officers hired have been properly vetted and carry the necessary qualifications and training to realise effective security in the public realm.
Abbey Petkar is Managing Director of Magenta Security