Democracy, freedom of expression and freedom of association: Threats to MPs Contents

2What is happening?

Sources used in the report

22.We have received 27 written submissions in response to the call for evidence that we issued in February 2019. We have also taken oral evidence from fellow MPs, the Parliamentary Security Department (PSD), the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Metropolitan Police, Facebook and Twitter, and free speech advocates and experts. Their evidence is published online, and has been immensely helpful. We are very grateful to all those who contributed to this inquiry.

23.In drawing up this report we have also been able to use a range of already published information to assess the scale of intimidation and abuse, and its effects on MPs, their staff, families and the public, including:

These have all been extremely valuable. However, as people may be reluctant to speak out publicly about the scale of the abuse they face, we gathered evidence from a number of MPs through face-to-face structured interviews, conducted by staff on behalf of the Committee.20 This has given us deeper insight into the challenges MPs face. It is clear that people in public life have been concerned not to appear weak, or not to appear as if they are indulging in special pleading. What they say about the scale of threat they face in public clearly understates the true situation.

24.Our interviews have been extremely informative. We offered a choice between full confidentiality, anonymity and going on the record. We have published the interview reports where MPs have said they are willing to be on the record. This alone reveals some of the problems; the material we have in confidence, or which appears in anonymised quotations in this report, tends to be still more shocking.

25.We have used the evidence gathered for this report21 together with already published evidence to assemble a picture of the way in which MPs, their staff and families are currently affected.

The role of an MP

26.There were some clear themes in the evidence. MPs are often the last resort for people whose problems have not been solved by other agencies, or who have mental health problems, or both. The MP becomes the focus for frustration, even though not the cause of the problem, simply because they are unable to resolve it.

Current threat level

27.Many respondents linked the increase in threat level to the current political uncertainty over Brexit, and the political uncertainty of the last few years. Others pointed out that attacks on MPs and their staff were not new, and that MPs had been murdered in the past, even within the precincts of Westminster.22 Nonetheless there was general agreement that abuse and intimidation had increased. Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, told us: “the current context, in our policing time at least, is unprecedented”.23 The CSPL has spoken of “a culture in which the intimidation of candidates and others in public life has become widespread, immediate and toxic.”24 Commander Neil Basu of the Metropolitan Police told us: “In 2017, 151 crimes were reported by Members of Parliament across the country, and in 2018 there was an increase of 126% to 342 crimes. Just in the first four months of this year, January to April, we had a 90% increase to 152 crimes compared to the same period in 2018.”25 This figure does not cover all such crimes, nor does it include all the 600 “incidents” Commander Basu said were notified to the police. Our interviews similarly make clear that although threats and crimes directed against politicians may not be new, they have dramatically increased.

28.While this may not be unique to the United Kingdom, it may have particularly pronounced ill effects on democracy in this country. MPs are answerable to their constituents, both at the ballot box and through more informal interactions. Constituents expect to be able to approach their MP about problems, or to see them at constituency events. This frequent interaction between MP and constituent is extremely precious. It contributes to the health of our democracy in many ways. It allows constituents to meet their representatives; it gives MPs deep understanding of the lives of their constituents, which is good in itself and also allows them to conduct their scrutiny work more effectively. It would be disastrous if we allowed a situation to develop in which those interactions were reduced because MPs feared for their own safety and that of their staff.

29.It is possible that, in future, threats to politicians will become rarer, and language calmer. It is important that we do not curtail people’s rights by overreaction to a temporary disturbance. Equally, it is important that effective democracy for everyone is not undermined by an all too easy acceptance that intimidation and abuse is an inevitable result of engaging in politics. It is not inevitable, and we need to make sure it does not become so. Further, if intimidation and abuse are normalised as part of political life, individuals who might otherwise have stood for election may choose not to do so and the public service will be poorer for it.

Threats and abuse

30.In May 2019, Jack Renshaw was jailed for life for plotting to murder an MP and threatening to murder a police officer; in July, two men were handed restraining orders because they had abused MPs; in August, another was jailed for 18 weeks for making death threats to six MPs.26 More recently, another was convicted of sending white powder, labelled “anthrax”, to 16 victims, most of whom were female MPs.27 More could be added to this list. As our interview project revealed, such cases are commonplace. Death threats are frequent. Sometimes these may have been made because the person making them on social media did not realise their impact, but often their impact was intended or represented a real-life threat. Nor was social media the only source of threats. We heard about threats by letter, and threats from a constituent at a public meeting.28 In several cases the police had taken action to protect the MP concerned.

Box 1: Threats to MPs

  • “I get death threats & threats of aggression online which we regularly report to the police. We get on average one a month, it depends [ … ].”
  • “The police found a note that an individual was planning to kill him and he had to stay away from his flat, until the police had apprehended the perpetrator.”
  • “One person contacted the office and said they were going to kill the MP for not fixing their leaky roof and police went to visit him [that person] and told him not to speak to [the]MP’s office.”
  • “Overall there are threats related to death, or violence or just extremely abusive comments. One person in 2017, who was prosecuted, send [sic] us a picture of hanging MPs as a message that this is what happens to traitors.”29

31.Rape threats are similarly commonplace. The Inter-Parliamentary Union’s study on sexism, harassment and violence against women in parliaments in Europe showed that nearly 50% of respondents reported receiving messages of death threats, threats of violence and rape threats made against them, their children and their families.30 Many of the female MPs we spoke to directly had also experienced threats of rape.

32.MPs who are threatened all deal with it differently. Some ignore it hoping it will go away. Some call the police—and depending on which police area they are in get widely differing responses. Some take out injunctions against the threatening individual—hoping that so doing will inflame them less than a police intervention or worried for the mental health of the person that threatened them.

Abuse

33.Leaving aside death or rape threats, or other threats of serious violence, MPs are increasingly the target for abuse.

Box 2: Social Media

“I think there’s a real problem with social media, there are genuinely people who say things they would never say face to face. But they feel that it’s okay to say online.”31

“I have been subjected to micro-targeted ads taken out against me, and specific ads misrepresenting my position have been put on Facebook, just in my own area, targeted at people who were known to be very firm leavers. That also resulted in threats in my inbox. The technology is a real issue.”32

34.Online intimidation is now a persistent characteristic of election campaigns for a large number of parliamentary candidates, who can be subject to intimidatory messages 24 hours a day. The CSPL report found that not a single female MP active on Twitter had been free from online intimidation.33 While BBC 5 Live survey of women MPs asking about their security showed:

35.It is equally clear that abuse is disproportionately directed against BAME individuals.35 Professor Kalina Bontcheva’s evidence showed that a wide range of subjects attracted abuse: it was not confined to obviously contentious topics such as Brexit.36

36.Abuse and intimidation happens offline as well.

Box 3: Abuse offline

“The worst one was probably in December 2018, when I was out in my constituency judging a shop window competition and somebody started yelling at me that I was a traitor, scum, mentioned things that we all know what happens to traitors. I was angry, but the people who I was with were really quite shocked.”37

Release of private information

37.It used to be the case that MPs’ home addresses were routinely published. That is no longer done for security reasons. Despite this, we heard of two cases in which MPs’ home addresses and plans of their houses had been published. This publication has occurred on social media and on traditional media.38 The risks to security are obvious. Given that we interviewed only a sample of MPs, it is likely that a significant proportion of MPs have had their security compromised in such a way.

Involvement of MPs’ families

38.While MPs are away from their home during the week their families, living at an address which is well-known locally and easily found on the internet, can feel vulnerable and can become targets of abuse. This applies to elderly relatives who might be living with them as well as spouses and children. We ourselves have heard of explicit and implicit threats to families, MPs being shouted at in the street when they were accompanied by their children, and condolence cards being sent to MPs and spouses. We were told that “some women colleagues have had their family threatened really seriously.”39 MPs were also concerned about the effect on their families of seeing online threats and abuse, or simply of being with an MP who may be a target themselves.

Box 4: Families and children

  • “I often carry a panic alarm with me wherever I go, including when I am not doing public duties—e.g. when I’m with my family.” [anonymous interview with MP]
  • “I will not wander down the beach with my grandkids because I will not expose them to that threat in case something happens.” Q1 [Julie Elliott MP]
  • “I have young children. When the police come to speak about these things, your whole family is involved and bears the impact of it. There is a mental health impact from that.” Q2 [Dr Lisa Cameron]

Harassment within political parties

39.The CSPL report made clear that parties had a responsibility to deal with intimidation in public life:

“Some of those engaging in intimidatory behaviour towards Parliamentary candidates and others are members of political parties and/or the fringe groups of political parties. Leaders across the political spectrum must be clear that they have no tolerance for this sort of behaviour in their party, wherever it occurs. They should not remain silent whenever and wherever intimidation takes place.

One important part of setting expectations for the appropriate behaviour is through a code of conduct for members. Codes of conduct should also be supported by training on the code, and backed-up with appropriate disciplinary processes and sanctions for inappropriate behaviour.”40

The CSPL report recommended that political parties improve codes of conduct and processes around them. Despite the series of recommendations the CSPL made in December 2017, some of our interviewees, from different parties, continued to feel that the parties were themselves sometimes responsible for intimidation and abuse.

Box 5: Political acceptance of abuse

“there now seems to be a general acceptance in public life (within political parties and not just in public debate) that if you disagree with someone and don’t share their world view then you are unprincipled. This makes people believe that they can speak or act as they do—it essentially legitimises bad behaviour such as threatening, bullying, cajoling language and actions.”41

Impact on MPs’ staff

40.Threats to MPs do not affect MPs alone. MPs and their staff work closely together. Even before the current increase in threats, MPs’ staff have paid the price for their public service: we remember Andrew Pennington, who died after being attacked at a constituency surgery, coming to the aid of Nigel Jones MP.

41.We were told staff often see the abuse first, and see more of it, than MPs do, and in our interviews, that was a major cause of concern. In many cases, it was clear that MPs and their staff support one another. Some staff refused to allow MPs to monitor their own social media and email, in other cases MPs themselves took this on. In both cases, the aim was to shield others from the impact of unpleasant material. Sometimes, the solution has been to avoid social media altogether, which we discuss further below.

42.MPs regularly expressed concern about the safety of their staff in constituency offices and in surgeries. Staff are also the target for abuse themselves, and we have heard about staff being stalked, identified on social media or asked to provide constituents with their personal details. MPs talked about the stress their staff and volunteers faced.

Box 6: Impact on staff

  • “I worry about their mental health, the social media guy. He has said it has affected him sometimes and I’ve said to him to come off it [social media] when it does “
  • “I don’t let my staff look at my social media feeds.”
  • “Staff get a bunch of abuse. They are not exposed to my emails […] but they get abusive phone calls and they have to think about surgery arrangements. [ … ] One guy phoned 75 times in a matter of minutes.”
  • “Staff can now only see people in the constituency office if there’s more than one person present.”
  • “I do feel a conscious sense of risk for my staff who are not trained security professionals.”

MPs’ expectations of public scrutiny

43.MPs are public figures. Every MP we spoke to accepted that they should be subject to scrutiny and challenge, and should engage with the public. Almost all considered that extremely robust challenge was part of the job, and that MPs should put up with challenges which would be unacceptable if directed against other people. These were not shrinking violets.

Box 7: The role of an MP

“We should be prepared to accept people expressing views to us and sometimes maybe doing that in a forceful way, whereas an ordinary member of the public might reasonably be a little frightened and taken aback if somebody came up to them in the street and started telling them what they thought about something. I guess that goes with our role, to a point.”42

“People can’t take up the role of an MP expecting it to be like any other job. When you are a candidate you are in the constituency seven days a week, but when you become an MP you are only there a few days a week. Constituents will take the opportunity to talk to you when they can; last week a constituent stopped him in the gym to discuss a matter on which they held different views.”43

44.Our witnesses made clear that there is currently a particularly high degree of free speech protection for what might be termed political speech:

“The general view is that it is part of accountability, especially of an elected politician, that they engage with the public and their actions are open to public scrutiny, which means receiving criticism that would not normally occur with, say, a private individual. The fact that criticism is about a public figure raises that free-speech concern and puts it into the general discussion of a matter of general interest. It means that you give people a certain latitude to criticise a politician.”44

45.We were told about a harassment case which failed partly because the expectation was that public figures should take criticism in their stride in a way that would not be expected of a private figure. We note that “the court said that the decision was not a blank cheque to say whatever you want and engage in campaigns of harassment. If someone repeatedly taunted a public figure and in such a way that was unrelated to any public events, that could cross the line.” And that “There is a higher threshold when dealing with a public figure, but there is still a line.”45

Box 8: Effect of abuse at constituency offices

“The public and the authorities perhaps have a higher threshold in their expectation of the abuse that MPs should tolerate. A particular individual has been coming to the surgery with a megaphone and shouting at me quite routinely. I know that if that had happened to me in a surgery when I was working as a doctor, it would have been dealt with quite quickly by the authorities. It is almost as though that is okay—“You’re an MP, so you should expect people coming to shout at you”. That is frightening not just for the MP—you feel very vulnerable in that situation—but for the other people in the surgery who are affected by that and who perhaps do not want to come back to see their MP because they have had a negative experience when they have been to see them. It has a much wider impact upon our constituents.”

Source: Q2 [Dr Lisa Cameron]

46.Richard Wingfield, of Global Partners Digital, distinguished between “political speech” and “speech directed towards politicians”, saying “ I do not think we want to go in the direction of saying that we expect [politicians] to receive a level of abuse that we would not expect the ordinary citizen to deal with”, although speech about policy or a politician’s record would require greater protection.46

Box 9: Debate vs bullying and abuse

“I have done quite a lot of tussling over politics. Looking back, I sometimes think that maybe at the time one accepted awful threatening behaviour and should have called it out earlier because it seems to have mushroomed and become bigger and if we had said something earlier it maybe it wouldn’t have become so vile.

We need to discuss more. Democracy is ultimately about discussion, debate, competition of ideas. That is exhausting. Some people can’t cope with that and want [a] strong figure. Others get that: that is about passions they are flying high, as long as there isn’t political violence, no bullying and abuse [ … ].”

Source: Interview with Wera Hobhouse MP

47.We agree there must be a high level of protection for political speech, and politicians should accept challenge. Politics is passionate. But the current assumption that it is legitimate to speak to and about politicians in a way which would not apply to “ordinary people” should be challenged. The toleration of abuse impacts not just on politicians and those close to them, but on everyone taking part in the democratic process. Speech or behaviour which would be considered intimidating or abusive if directed toward an ordinary member of the public should not be acceptable if directed toward an MP or his or her staff.

Effects of abuse on engagement and democracy

48.It is clear that despite MPs’ toughness, the scale of abuse is leading to significant changes in MPs’ behaviour.

Box 10: Impact on connection with the public

  • “We very rarely preannounce public events I’m speaking at, unless they are venues where there is a high level of security already.”
  • MP stopped carrying out gatherings in one village hall–as with only female staff members you can feel vulnerable especially with angry constituents. “If you have a physically strong angry man, you would not feel safe.”
  • MP does not publicise where he/she are [sic] going to be after instruction from the police.
  • “Unable to tweet where I will be in advance. Unable to hold drop in surgeries. Surgeries now by appointment only and information requested on visitors in advance.”
  • “I used to do open-door surgeries. Now I do appointments. The police will advise you: “Do not do your surgeries in libraries. Do not do them in community halls. Do them in an office where there is protection, where it is easy to get out, where you can have the police in attendance”. Q3 [John Cryer MP]
  • “Most MPs used to do surgeries around the patch with open invitation, not knowing who was going to turn up. I do not do that any more. I do as many surgeries, I see as many people, but they are all by appointment and they are all in my office where we have levels of security and protection, not just for me but for my staff, who are coming to work and doing a job … We do not advertise what we do any more. We advertise when we have done something. They are not getting away with what they are trying to do, which is to disrupt what we do, but we have to be creative all the time.”Q1 [Julie Elliott MP]

Source: Evidence from anonymous interviews with MPs, unless otherwise stated

Box 11: Voting

“I have tried to hold true [to] my beliefs and have not changed the way I vote, but I have had direct conversations with colleagues where I know the pressure being put on them through threats is potentially changing the way they vote.”47

Box 12: Intimidation of candidates

“In the 2017 election, a partially-sighted candidate who needs the assistance of a guide dog to canvass—she is that partially sighted—received death and rape threats on social media. It is putting off the candidate as well as the elected politician.”

Source: Q2 [Vicky Ford MP]

49.We cannot have a situation where MPs are keeping their head down, restricting their advice surgeries, reluctant to go on public transport on their own at night. We cannot tolerate a democracy where the scale of abuse directed against politicians, particularly against women and BAME politicians, narrows the electorate’s choice. Nor can we tolerate a democracy in which it is difficult for people to engage with their MPs online or face to face. Nor one where MPs fear to vote because a ‘wrong’ vote will lead to threats, abuse or intimidation outside of Parliament. 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. This is not about preventing robust, energetic debate. This is about ensuring everyone has the space to engage in that robust debate.

50.MPs should be able to get on with their work and with the job for which they were elected, vote without looking over their shoulder and freely engage with their constituents and the wider public. No MP should face a barrage of abuse for doing their work as a holder of public office. It is in no one’s interest, if to stay safe, MPs retreat and become far more remote for constituents.

51.It is clear that, if unchecked, the normalisation of abuse will change our politics: we need to tackle abuse, not to retreat. There is no single, easy, answer to this, because freedom of speech and freedom of association are also key to democracy. There is no right not to be offended. There are many different organisations and individuals involved. But we can identify key principles which should guide everyone tackling these matters:

52.Many different people and organisations need to be working to tackle the issue of threats against MPs and its impact on our democracy including the police, the CPS, the leader of the House, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and many more. We need a process to bring this together and consider the right of MPs to get on with the job for which they were elected. We need to make sure that MPs are not at risk. We encourage all those involved to consider convening a Speaker’s Conference on this matter.


16 Committee on Standards in Public Life, Intimidation in Public Life: A Review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Cm 9543, December 2017

17 Women abused on Twitter every 30 seconds – new study, Amnesty International press release,
18 December 2018

18 Inter-Parliamentary Union, Sexism, harassment and violence against women parliamentarians, October 2018

19 See Law Commission, Abusive and Offensive Online Communications, November 2018

20 Where evidence or quotations are not referenced, it is taken from these interviews.

21 Democracy, Freedom of Speech, and Freedom of Association – Publications

23 Q39 [Cressida Dick QPM, Commissioner, Metropolitan Police Service]

24 Committee on Standards in Public Life, Intimidation in Public Life: A Review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Cm 9543, December 2017, p 32

25 Q37 [Commander Neil Basu]

27 Anthrax hoaxer admits sending white powder to MPs – BBC online, 22 August 2019

28 Anonymous interview with Member

29 Quotations are taken from anonymous interviews with MPs unless otherwise indicated.

31 Anonymous interview with MP

32 Q2 [Vicky Ford MP]

33 Committee on Standards in Public Life, Intimidation in Public Life: A Review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Cm 9543, December 2017

34 Level of abuse faced by women MPs revealed in survey, BBC Radio Live 5 clip, January 2017

35 Q8 [Eric Hepburn, Parliamentary Security Director]; see also Amnesty International, Toxic Twitter: Violence and Abuse Against Women Online

36 University of Sheffield (DFF0025)

37 Anonymous interview with MP

38 Evidence from Members’ interviews

39 Anonymous interview with MP

40 Committee on Standards in Public Life, Intimidation in Public Life: A Review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Cm 9543, December 2017, p 15

41 Interview with Peter Kyle MP

42 Q1 [Sir Graham Brady MP]

43 Anonymous interview with MP

44 Q48 [Professor Jacob Rowbottom]

45 Q48 [Professor Jacob Rowbottom]

46 Q48 [Richard Wingfield]

47 Anonymous interview with MP

48 Committee on Standards in Public Life, Intimidation in Public Life: A Review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Cm 9543, December 2017, p 29




Published: 18 October 2019