I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the abuse and intimidation of candidates and the public during the General Election campaign.
I am sure that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and—I hope—Members from all parties will agree that it is essential for our democracy that people are able to stand for office and to become a Member of Parliament without fearing that they will experience abuse. It is equally essential that MPs are able to represent their constituents without being abused or intimidated. Indeed, that applies to anyone serving in public office, be that a democratically elected candidate or the people serving in our vital public services. We should all be able to go about our work and live our lives without fear of abuse or intimidation. The Government absolutely recognise that this is a very serious issue that affects not only MPs and parliamentary candidates from all parties, but the wider public. I know that many Members will talk this afternoon about how they, their families and their communities have been personally affected.
Fear of abuse or intimidation can have far-reaching consequences. It has the potential to affect people’s desire to stand for office or public service in the first place. In turn, that can have a negative impact for us all and for our democracy. That is why in July the Prime Minister asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life to carry out a review of the intimidation experienced by parliamentary candidates. The review sought to gather evidence of harassment and to consider what action is needed to ensure the integrity of the democratic process. The consultation closed last week and the findings are now being analysed. I am sure that the Committee will make good progress with its work and act as quickly as possible. The Government look forward to reading its recommendations.
Although it is really important that we look at what more we can do, I want to reassure all Members that arrangements are in place to ensure their safety. The police and the Parliamentary Security Department continue to work to ensure that appropriate security measures are in place. Personal security advice and guidance has been provided to all Members, and a package of security measures is available for homes and constituency offices. Support and advice regarding security and any concerns around personal safety are available from the Members’ security support service and the Parliamentary Liaison and Investigation Team, and all measures are kept under review.
The Minister may not be aware of this but when we were leaving the House in the wee small hours of Tuesday morning, a television camera was outside the gates of the House of Commons filming MPs as they were leaving. That means that people watching television would know who leaves at what time, who leaves together and in which direction they are heading. Can she raise those kinds of things with broadcasters?
The hon. Lady raises a very serious issue. I encourage her to contact the House security team, but, as she has raised those issues today, they will be looked at by the police and the House security service to see what more can be done. That may include having conversations with the media if it is felt that its actions are increasing the risk to ourselves and our staff. There would have been many staff working in Parliament that evening, supporting our democratic process, and they, too, might have been under threat.
I think that we can all agree that freedom of speech and expression are fundamental human rights. However, there is a responsibility that comes with those rights. When a person’s views cross a boundary into criminal acts, action must be taken. The Public Order Act 1986 includes a number of offences that tackle such behaviour, including offences of fear, provocation of violence, intentional harassment, alarm or distress. I know that there have been some shocking instances of abuse directed towards MPs, and equally shocking examples of hate crime. We wholly condemn any personal attacks or abuse towards MPs. When MPs receive racial abuse, or abuse on the grounds of religion, sexual orientation, disability or transgender identity, they should report it to the police so that it is treated as a hate crime.
I do not have the latest figures on hate crime prosecutions to hand, but I can absolutely assure my right hon. Friend that the number of people reporting hate crime has significantly increased, as have the prosecutions and convictions. Thanks to the bravery of two of our female colleagues from these Benches who were subjected to appalling hate crime and stalking, prosecutions were secured and the perpetrators are now in prison where they so richly deserve to be. I hope that that sends out a very strong message that this type of intimidation will simply not be tolerated.
The Prime Minister made her views very clear when she said that
“hate crime of any kind is completely unacceptable. It divides communities, destroys lives and makes us weaker. Britain is thriving precisely because we welcome people from all backgrounds, faiths and ethnicities, and that is something we must strive to protect.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 627, c. 168WH.]
One of the first actions of the Home Secretary was to launch the hate crime action plan, which sets out steps that we are taking to prevent these crimes, boost the reporting of offences and support victims. It focuses on five key areas: preventing hate crime by challenging beliefs and behaviours; responding to hate crime in our communities with the aim of reducing the number of incidents; increasing reporting; improving support for victims; and building up our understanding of the motivation of hate crime.
We already have a strong legislative framework in place to tackle these crimes. The action plan lists new actions to ensure that the legislation is used effectively to support victims and deal with perpetrators. We recognise the importance of ensuring that the police response to hate crime is as good as it can possibly be, which is why the Home Secretary has asked Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to carry out an inspection into how the police deal with all five strands of hate crimes, including online abuse. That inspection will take place during this financial year. We are very keen to see what HMIC finds and how the issues are addressed.
I know that, for many Members, the issue of online abuse is one of particular concern. The Government are absolutely clear that abusive and threatening behaviour online is totally unacceptable—whoever the target.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point. Hate crime is totally unacceptable. No one—whether they are a journalist, police officer, nurse, or anyone else in our country—should be subjected to hate crime.
It gets worse than that—it goes to children. All my four children have been hassled by other kids in their local schools because of the job of their father. There is little that can be done about that, because they are children. My kids are robust enough to withstand it, but such behaviour is taken to a new level when, during the last general election, a teacher tells the class of my 13-year-old boy that nobody should talk to him because he is the son of a Conservative MP. [Hon. Members: “Shame!”]
I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend for sharing with the House such a personal and deeply upsetting and troubling incident that has happened to his son. That is simply unacceptable. It is a noble thing to stand for election; and it is a noble thing to want to represent your community, whether as a councillor or as an MP in this place. People such as teachers who are in a position of authority and influence should be supporting and upholding the shared values of our country. It is most disappointing to hear of somebody in such a powerful and influential position letting themselves and their profession down.
The Government are absolutely clear that this abusive and threatening behaviour that we are increasingly seeing online is totally unacceptable—whoever the target.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we should be particularly concerned about those who are vulnerable? I have in mind the case of one of my Conservative colleagues who stood in the east of England. She was threatened with rape online. Then the threat was, “Shoot her, then pull her teeth out of her jaw while she fades away.” The said candidate is partially sighted and was going around the constituency every day with her dog. It is exactly those sorts of people whom we should encourage to be in this House, which is why those of us who are here must stand up and defend them.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for sharing that experience. She is absolutely right: it is essential that people from every sort of background and from every part of our country feel that they can represent their communities. The Conservative party has put in a lot of effort over a number of years to break down the barriers so that people with disabilities can serve their communities locally or nationally. I was very proud of our party for setting up a new fund in the Cabinet Office, which provides funding to people who need to make reasonable adjustments to stand for office and to serve their community. I hope that my hon. Friend will pass on to that candidate our sincere gratitude for her perseverance—not being bullied or intimidated, but carrying on and taking a message of hope to her community. I encourage her to report that incident to the police. She has clear online evidence of hate crime perpetrated against her, and I would fully expect her local constabulary to take that seriously and go after the appalling person who wrote such things.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the social media platforms have a role to play? So many people get fed up with reporting abuse and nothing seems to happen to the individual who perpetrates it. If social media companies are serious about upholding their house rules, is it not vital that they issue a system of yellow cards and, if necessary, red cards to stop people having the platform they need to perpetrate this vile abuse?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. When social media companies are notified of this type of abuse, harassment and bullying, we expect them to take that material down. The police have the power to request that such material is taken down. It is important that people report instances of hate crime, and that those reports are followed up and prosecuted.
The law does not differentiate between criminal offences committed on social media and those committed anywhere else. It is the action that is illegal. Robust legislation is in place to deal with internet trolls, cyber-stalking, harassment, and perpetrators of grossly offensive, obscene or menacing behaviour. A number of criminal offences may be committed by those abusing others on social media. These include credible threats of violence; damage to property; sending grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing messages; harassment; and stalking.
The Crown Prosecution Service recently revised its guidelines on social media to help to ensure a robust criminal justice system response. The updated guidelines incorporate new and emerging crimes that are being committed online, and provide clear advice to help with the prosecution of cyber-enabled crime. On
My hon. Friend is aware that the law moves exceedingly slowly on occasion. Would it be possible to encourage Facebook and other social media platforms themselves to have a system—not a criminal system, but perhaps a red-card one, as my hon. Friend Alex Chalk suggested—to enable accounts to be taken down when abuse routinely appears on the accounts of armchair warriors?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We absolutely recognise that this is not just about the law, although the CPS has moved swiftly and done a thoroughly good job in this instance. The number of prosecutions is increasing. As if by magic, I now have the figure for successful prosecutions; it is now running at more than 15,000 a year. That is significant progress with the tools and guidance available.
Social media companies have a vital role to play. The recently enacted Digital Economy Act 2017 requires the establishment of a code of practice for social media providers. The code will set out guidance about what social media providers should do in relation to conduct on their platforms, including bullying or insulting an individual or other behaviour likely to intimidate or humiliate them. The Government are considering how to take forward the social media code of practice as part of the digital charter. We will shortly provide more details about the consultation and what should happen.
The social media platforms seem to achieve the red, amber and green cards when it comes to copyright and they are at risk of financial consequences. But they do not seem to be able to achieve that with bullying and harassment.
I absolutely agree that these companies need to do a lot more. They need to act with vigour, determination and speed in addressing the abuse that their platforms are enabling. I am sure that they will listen to the contributions made today by colleagues across the House, and we hope that they will respond, just as we very much hope that they will respond swiftly and thoroughly to any recommendations that come out of the review.
I have just returned from a tour of the BBC studios, where I was delighted to see the emphasis placed on fact-checking, which plays a vital part in our democracy. I fear that social media has a reach above and beyond any form of impartiality. I am sure that I speak for colleagues on both sides of the House when I say that, as an individual parliamentary candidate—even with the resources of a political party—it is impossible to rebut fake news, wherever it comes from. The vast reach of some of these platforms, with no respect whatever of the truth or any kind of facts, completely overwhelms us all.
I am pleased to hear that my hon. Friend has recently visited the BBC. Its fact-checking work is invaluable during elections and all year round. A number of extremely good programmes on the radio and television look at statistics and provide really good rebuttals to some of the myths we hear peddled. Social media companies need to do more. They have a responsibility to act when there is clear evidence of information being put out and leading to the sort of harm we are seeing.
I will just finish my point, but then I will definitely take more interventions.
The work we are doing in schools is incredibly important so that young people are taught to be critical thinkers, are robust and are able to ask themselves some straightforward questions about the motivation of the person putting information before them. They will then become more resilient and questioning, coming to their own conclusions and accessing the very good resources that give the facts of the matter.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the duties of social media companies have to go beyond simply deleting an offensive post? They have to ensure that there are consequences for the perpetrator by suspending or even deleting their account. The companies show themselves to be incredibly reluctant to do so, no doubt for financial reasons, and they need to reassess. Does she agree?
There must be consequences for perpetrators of hate crime and the list of crimes that I have outlined. It is essential that people report so that the police can take the appropriate action and people feel that there are consequences for the crimes they commit.
I just want to go back to the case I mentioned earlier of the partially sighted candidate who was threatened with rape, among other threats. My hon. Friend suggested that the candidate should ensure that the police were aware of the situation. One of the advantages of today’s media is that I have since been in contact with her. She said that the police were notified but, when asked again, they said that they had not received a notification of the crime being reported. I understand that it was an intense period for the police, but does my hon. Friend think we may need better guidelines for how they should react?
I thank my hon. Friend for that further intervention, and I am disappointed to hear that that was her constituent’s experience. As part of the hate crime action plan, further guidance was given. My colleagues in the Home Office work closely with law enforcement and the College of Policing to make sure frontline police officers have the tools and skills necessary. We hope that the HMIC inspection of the police response to hate crime will highlight good practice, which I am sure does exist around the country, but if there are areas for improvement, that will also be highlighted, and we will review the findings of that inspection with our colleagues in law enforcement to see whether there is anything further we need to do.
Sadly, it is not only MPs and candidates who are experiencing intimidation. The intimidation of voters during election campaigns is unacceptable and must also be addressed. Sir Eric Pickles’s review of electoral fraud made a range of recommendations for tightening up on the integrity of our electoral system, including by addressing the intimidation of voters. The review identified a number of areas in which the existing rules at elections could be tightened. In particular, it recommended that greater powers should be given to returning officers and the police to take action to address unwanted and inappropriate behaviour in and around polling stations—for example, by setting up cordons sanitaires.
In the Government’s response to Sir Eric’s report, we indicated that we are supportive of those proposed changes. Some will require primary legislation, and we look forward to bringing the provisions forward as soon as the opportunity arises. We will also consider with the Electoral Commission how existing guidance to returning officers and their staff must be strengthened.
In conclusion, I want to make it absolutely clear that the targeting of abusive, intimidating or harassing behaviours at any individual—whether an MP, a candidate, a member of their staff or family, or a member of the public—is utterly unacceptable. There is simply no place in our democracy for these behaviours.
I have listened with keen interest to all that the Minister has said, and I cannot disagree with it, but I do want to make the point that a lot of female MPs on both sides of the House have been treated abominably in hundreds of thousands of texts and on that Facebook thing—I do not do it myself, but the Minister knows what I mean. It is just not acceptable to say that an MP can get thousands of these texts—be it from political opponents or, God help us, political friends. We need to take stronger action. We cannot have MPs feeling threatened when they have children and families—we heard from my hon. Friend Bob Stewart, the former colonel, about what happened in his son’s school. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Action has to be required in law; it cannot be voluntary. Does the Minister not agree?
I absolutely agree. We take this issue very seriously, and that is why the independent review was set up. I am sure Members on both sides of the House will contribute evidence to it. The Select Committees have also done some good work on this issue, and they have submitted reviews. I hope that no Members of Parliament feel intimidated or pressured not to come forward. It is essential that they share their personal experiences, which are often harrowing, as we have already heard, and, sadly, as I am sure we will hear further in the debate.
We cannot tolerate this behaviour. There should be no fear in this House. There should be no fear in our democracy. We will do absolutely everything we can to ensure that anybody who wants to serve their community and their country can stand for office without fear.
Today’s timely debate focuses on the important issue of the abuse and intimidation of candidates and the public in UK elections, but I would like to begin with a note of thanks to Mr Deputy Speaker for his support in ensuring my personal safety and that on colleagues on both sides of the House as we go about our business. I know that many of my colleagues will share my thanks and put them on record.
Let me clear: abusive behaviour has no place in our democracy. I must stress that Opposition Members condemn any action that seeks to undermine our tradition of free and fair elections. We welcome the Government’s decision to conduct an independent inquiry, and we look forward to working with them to tackle this issue, which affects candidates from all political parties. In that spirit, my hon. Friend Ian Lavery is giving evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life this afternoon on behalf of the Labour party.
Sadly, many colleagues on both sides of the House have experienced some form of abuse and intimidation as candidates or MPs, and many can talk about the experiences their party campaigners and volunteers have also had. Unfortunately, candidates and public office holders are vulnerable to abuse. The tragic murder of our parliamentary colleague and friend Jo Cox last year and the stabbing of my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms in 2010 remind us of the serious threats we face and of the longevity of this issue.
We would be doing a disservice to the democracy we all believe in if we did not recognise that this is an issue for all political parties. If we are going to have the honest and constructive debate we need to have on this subject, we must recognise that individuals claiming to be supporters of every political party represented in this Chamber have, either online or offline, abused candidates from other political parties. That is wrong and it will always be wrong, no matter which party the abuser claims to support.
Unfortunately, abuse and intimidation have taken place during previous elections too. Those who claim that this is a recent development are perhaps inadvertently covering up the real issue. This topic is not new to scrutiny. In 2013, the all-party parliamentary group against antisemitism, of which I am a member, published the findings of its inquiry into electoral conduct. The inquiry had a particular focus on racism and discrimination in campaigning, and it marked the first time that such matters had been analysed in a systematic way by Members of the House. The APPG published its final update in July, which showed that electoral misconduct was a challenge for all parties during elections.
The hon. Lady is making an important speech, but does she not acknowledge that the tempo and tone of what happened in the 2017 election was of a different order of magnitude from what had gone before? I am quite prepared to accept that what happened was cross-party and affected people on both sides of the House, but it was at a level that was particularly concerning.
I will answer some of those points in my speech. I suspect that what happened was partly due to the increased use of social media sites, which have more users than at previous elections, but I will come to that.
The same inquiry and the Law Commission argue that the current legal system is not fit for purpose. They urged the Government to redraft electoral offences in a more simple and modern way so that they can be readily understood and enforced by campaigners, the public and the police, and the Opposition would support that.
We must see some action on this issue. The Government’s domestic policy agenda cannot stop because of the Brexit negotiations. In response to a written parliamentary question last week, the Minister stated that the Government will respond to the Law Commission’s 2016 interim report in due course. Can he be a little more specific on the timeframe for this? The Institute for Jewish Policy Research findings published this week showed that one quarter of British people hold an anti-Semitic belief. Those findings make for sobering reading.
Given the high prevalence of this, it would be foolish and wrong for any party in this House to assume that it did not have members or activists who hold such beliefs. Labour Members recognise that political parties have a responsibility to stamp out any form of abusive behaviour. To ensure that Labour Members comply with the high standards expected by our party, our internal procedures for dealing with abuse and intimidation were reviewed and improved following the Chakrabarti report on anti-Semitism. We have a detailed and publicly available social media policy, and we have employed more staff in our governance and legal unit to make sure that our members’ conduct is up to scratch.
However, social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook must take their share of the responsibility for this issue and act faster to prevent and remove abusive behaviour online. As my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq pointed out in the Westminster Hall debate on this topic before the summer recess, Facebook was very quick to remove pictures of a woman breastfeeding, but when my hon. Friend reported a fake account that was set up in her name sending out intimidating messages, it took Facebook two weeks to respond.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing up such an important and relevant topic as the racism and anti-Semitism that are going on. I would like to highlight the unacceptable level of vitriol and aggression directed towards female candidates, in particular, during the election. Does she agree that the Government need to do more to ensure that women are not unjustly dissuaded from campaigning, joining in, and putting themselves forward as candidates?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Only this week, there were reports in the press regarding some rape threats I reported to Facebook which I was told at first did not breach its community standards. It does appear that women MPs face a particular kind of intimidation—threats of rape. Those comments have now been taken down, but I sometimes wonder whether that would have been the case had I not been a Member of Parliament and received some of the press coverage that I did, which has now seen this issue resolved.
Women MPs have been speaking out about these problems with social media for years. MPs and campaigners involved with the women on banknotes campaign were subject to sustained campaigns of harassment in which some members of the public were arrested and charged. Can the Minister assure us that he is working with social media platforms to combat this issue?
There is also a need for better collection and analysis of election-related racism and discrimination data. In March, the Home Office confirmed in an answer to a question that the Government do not hold specific data relating to hate crimes during election campaigns. If the Government are committed to tackling this very important issue, when will they recognise that data on it must be collected and scrutinised? As a consequence of this failing, the monitoring and reporting of racism during elections has fallen to the third sector. New research by Amnesty International found that my right hon. Friend Ms Abbott, who joins me on the Front Bench this afternoon, and who was the first black woman MP in this House, received half of all the threatening tweets sent to women MPs between January and June this year. In fact, black and Asian women MPs received 35% more abusive tweets than white women MPs. As evidenced by the recent report, unacceptable behaviour towards candidates from all parties is disproportionately faced by women and those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.
It is not just online that abuse is happening, and not just on the Labour side. The Conservative candidate in Ealing reported that two Asian activists on her side received much abuse to their faces. They were spat at, told that they should have their throats slit, threatened by being told they should die, and told that their mothers should never have given birth to them. Their cars were also targeted. It is not just online and on social media—there are many face-to-face examples as well.
The hon. Lady makes an important and correct point. This abuse is indeed faced by activists and volunteers from all political parties, and candidates and activists from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are indeed disproportionately more likely to face it, both online and offline. I will come to some of the offline comments in a moment.
I heard the point that was made about Ealing. I am not sure whether it concerned the election in Ealing Central and Acton, where I was the winner, but I want to dissociate myself from those stories because they were nothing to do with the Labour party.
I was a candidate in Ealing Central and Acton in the 2015 general election, and there are pictures and footage of the fracas that ensued when I crossed paths with the Conservative canvass team, which included the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. It was reported on “Newsnight”, and the newspapers called what happened to me “manhandling”; I think a lawyer would call it assault. There are documented examples of such things, and I reject the accusation that this is anything to do with the Labour party.
My hon. Friend raises an alarming example to add to the debate, and I thank her for her contribution.
We cannot allow abuse to act as a barrier to participation in public life. A recent survey revealed that the majority of women MPs have received online and verbal abuse from the public, and a third have considered quitting as a result. The 2017 general election delivered the most diverse House of Commons in history, but a failure to tackle abuse and intimidation risks reversing that and rolling back the progress we have made in making our politics more representative.
I want to clarify that in my earlier intervention I did not accuse Labour activists of being responsible for actions against Conservative activists. My point was that Conservative activists, especially women and those from ethnic minorities, were also seriously targeted, face to face, on the streets of London in the 2017 general election.
The point has been made again that activists and campaigners from all political parties receive abuse. I think that there is consensus on that in the House.
Although the debate is about the general election that has just passed, stalkers and trolls continue to blight the lives of candidates in local elections. Unlike parliamentary candidates, those who stand for local elections are required to have their home address printed on the ballot papers, some of which are sent to the homes of postal voters way ahead of the election. My hon. Friend Jo Platt is unable to take part in today’s debate, but she particularly wanted to raise this issue. When she was a councillor, she had her home address published on ballot papers and she was forced, in the end, to get CCTV there after receiving abuse and harassment. That is not an isolated case: I am aware of a councillor in Lancashire who, having previously been a victim of stalking, is incredibly uncomfortable with putting her address on the ballot paper. When will the Government review the inconsistency in the publishing of home addresses on ballot papers for candidates in local elections?
I fully support the point that the hon. Lady is making. One of my colleagues found it quite frustrating that although they, as a parliamentary candidate, were able to exempt their address from publication, their partner, who happens to be a local government councillor, had to publish their address—thereby negating the whole point.
The hon. Lady raises an alarming and pertinent point. It may leave many of us considering whether to encourage our partners to take part in democratic life, given the threats of abuse that we sometimes face.
We cannot ignore the funding pressures that local authorities are under, because they have an impact on the matter. According to a study by the University of East Anglia, electoral services were running 129% over budget in 2015-16. The Association of Electoral Administrators described the industry as
“Pushed to the absolute limit” and highlighted significant challenges that electoral officials face, as well as the rising number of administrators leaving the profession. How can we expect electoral officials to identify and deal with abusive behaviour during elections without the necessary resources?
I have been approached by Members of the House who reported online abuse to their local police but found that investigations were cut short because of a lack of police resources. We cannot ignore the growing crisis, which has been alluded to, in police resources for the investigation of these crimes. The Government have cut more than 20,000 police officers, and we have to say that cuts have consequences. The police forces are overstretched, and that leads to pressure to downgrade crimes or to investigate them less than fully. If we really want to tackle this abuse, we need to resource our police budgets properly and give the police the resources that they need to investigate this serious issue.
The bullying and intimidation that we see on social media and on the streets of this country do not happen in a vacuum. The decisions taken by the press and media outlets, and even by political parties, to target some politicians over others can lead trolls to see that as permission to take their racist and sexist abuse offline and, sadly, in some cases to act it out. Only this week, the former Chancellor told colleagues at the Evening Standard that he would not rest until the Prime Minister is
“chopped up in bags in my freezer”.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Opposition spokesman to make unfounded allegations against a former Member of this House, who is not here, without any warning and—to underscore what we are debating—to repeat unfounded allegations that she may or may not have read online or as reported in another paper?
I clarify that I am referring to the press reports that I read in The Times this morning.
I raise that issue because violence against women is a huge problem in this country. Two women a week are killed by their partner or former partner, and rape continues to be a crime that is under-reported and for which it is very hard to achieve a successful prosecution. We as a House need to acknowledge that the problem we have in this country with violence against women is not helped when senior journalists, commentators or politicians use language such as that I have mentioned when referring to female Members of this House.
As well as the press, political parties and politicians have a responsibility to set an example by treating others with dignity and respect, including those with whom we strongly disagree. If we are to have a useful debate, we must be very honest in looking at the campaigns that our national parties run. I am referring to some of the social media advertising that ends up on voters’ Facebook timelines, often without their permission, highlighting and singling out particular Members of the House. I am referring specifically to the advertisements by the Conservative party that singled out my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.
I associate myself with the remarks of my party leader, who has been very clear—indeed, he sent out such advice to Labour party candidates during the last election—that we should fight elections on the basis of policies, politics and the record of the Government, not play it personal. With that approach, we can have a debate in public that may influence the debate taking place on social media, and we may see a downturn in the levels of abuse highlighted by Members on both sides of the House.
This abuse does not take place in a vacuum. We must look at the campaign spearheaded by Lynton Crosby in the London mayoral election, which was even described by Baroness Warsi as “appalling”. That was because of the attacks on Sadiq Khan, which are widely understood to have been racist in nature.
I do not want to inflame this discussion, because the hon. Lady is making some fair points, but does she not agree that there is a duty on all of us to moderate our language in the public sphere? For example, it does not help to use language like the word “murderers” in the context of the Grenfell Tower atrocity, because it revs people up. Is there not a duty on all of us to be careful about what we say in the public domain?
I agree that there is a duty on all Members of this House to be very considered in the language they use in all matters, and to talk about policies and politics rather than personalities. Politics has been drifting towards a focus on personalities, and I think that is damaging.
The politics of hope will always win out over the politics of fear, and it played a role in the general election. It was positive that 2.5 million people voted who did not cast a vote in the previous general election, and that gives us a great sense of hope. If we want politics to be more representative, and if we want to encourage a diverse selection of candidates from all political parties to stand, we need to conduct our politics in the spirit of hope.
I will in a moment.
The Leader of the Labour party has always said that he does not do personal, and he insisted that all Labour candidates ran positive campaigns based on our policies and the Government’s record, rather than peddling attacks on individuals. He tweeted about that in 2016 and reiterated it in the “Question Time” debate during the general election.
As I said earlier, the Committee on Standards in Public Life is taking evidence this afternoon from three of the major political parties. As part of that inquiry, the Labour party submitted written evidence in which we outlined our support for the idea that political parties and their leaders should agree to a joint code of conduct with a framework for reporting, assessing and disciplining discrimination, racism and any other form of abuse. I hope the Conservative party will work with us to ensure election campaigns are run with dignity and respect for all candidates, and do not depend on highly personal attacks on opponents.
We must see some action on this issue. Abuse and the intimidation of candidates and the public have no place in our elections. I look forward to working with all parties to build a democracy that works for the many, not the few.
That was an interesting contribution by Cat Smith; I will refer to it during my remarks. I recently came back from Rwanda, where there was a presidential election. There was less intimidation, abuse and violence there than we had in this country, which is pretty shocking, because many African countries—not Rwanda, I have to say—suffer from a lot of abuse.
I want raise the issue of intimidation and abuse during the election on behalf of someone who no longer has a voice in this place because she was defeated in that election. I have followed parliamentary protocol and notified Chris Williamson yesterday that I would mention him today in the Chamber. The Opposition spokesman should listen very carefully to what I have to say about him. It is pretty ironic that only last month the new Member for Derby North spoke out against such smears in an article in The Guardian:
“But I feel people have stopped listening to the smears and lies and dirty tricks…Jeremy’s overwhelming landslide victories in the leadership elections and the general election”—
I am not sure where the landslide victory comes in as regards the general election—
“mean people have stopped listening to the smears”.
Well, no, they have not.
Some weeks before the election, a Facebook page calling itself “Unauthorised Amanda Solloway” appeared, giving all sorts of misinformation about her. The previous year, her husband’s business went bankrupt. He was one of, I think, three directors. As the wife of one of the directors, our former colleague was singled out for abuse on Facebook. The wives of the other directors were never mentioned, and neither were the other directors. She had no connection to her husband’s business, and bringing up her name in association was just a way to tarnish her reputation for no reason. Nobody in this House would expect to be deemed responsible for a relative’s business, but Amanda Solloway was—just because she ruffled feathers by winning a parliamentary seat two years earlier. We are all entitled to a family life outside this place and politics in general. Bringing family into any political debate is unreasonable, and the hon. Member for Derby North would not like it if I were to refer to his private life in this Chamber or anywhere else.
Of course, the Facebook page has now been removed, but we have screenshots of it. It included video statements made by Amanda Solloway’s opponent, the new Member for Derby North, about the unfair link to her husband’s business. That would suggest that the hon. Gentleman had direct involvement in the page’s overall strategy. If he did not, how were the videos made available?
This Facebook page not only said that Amanda Solloway must have been involved in her husband’s business and so was culpable for the number of people who lost money as a result of the bankruptcy, but showed pictures of her with her husband on a social occasion a long time ago, wearing evening dress to go to a dinner, implying they were wealthy. They are not. It also showed a photo of one of her daughters’ wedding day. That year, both their daughters were married; the page suggested that this was done on the proceeds gained from the unfortunate people who lost their money when the company went bankrupt. That was totally false. This was a targeted, personal and unfair campaign against our former colleague. In fact, I would say it was bullying.
I remember the hon. Lady’s former colleague. We did an interview together when the election was announced, and I am sorry to hear of these tragic things. Before I was elected in 2015, a fake Twitter account called “Dr Huq” was set up, which said I lied about the NHS and put out all sorts of vile messages. It was shut down only after I was elected. I wonder if the hon. Lady has had the same experience as me, in that social media platforms take these matters seriously from MPs, but the general public, former MPs or unsuccessful candidates are unable to do anything. There are double standards.
It is a very difficult situation. The Facebook page received many hits, because many people were searching for Amanda Solloway. Many people could have been influenced by this vile abuse on social media.
The final straw was when the current Member of Parliament asked people who had been affected by the bankruptcy to join him at a meeting to discuss how he would return their money. He said he would pay their expenses to attend the meeting, and the money was raised from donations through a YouCaring compassionate crowdfunding page. All this was done on the page by video. The new Member for Derby North asked for donations, so that he could meet at a venue in Derby those who had lost money—most of them were not from Derby—and presumably promise that he, and he alone, would stand up for them, and probably ask them to help his campaign. In fact, at the first business questions following the election, he tried to trick the Leader of the House into condemning Amanda and her husband’s company. He knows the ropes, because of course he had been an MP before Amanda Solloway won in 2015—something he has never come to terms with.
Amanda faced other problems. She was campaigning outside a very large mosque in Derby on a Friday following prayers; in the area, leaflets with the title “Operation Muslim Vote” had been delivered by the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK. Amanda’s photo was on the leaflet. Next to a headline saying, “Their voting record” it stated:
“Voted against ending rough sleeping and causes of rising homelessness. Voted against accepting 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children. Visited Israel with Conservative Friends of Israel as a Tory candidate”.
Finally, in large capitals, it read:
“Voted for UK to support Saudis’ bombing of Yemen. Do you want this Tory MP to represent you…? You decide on June 8th”.
Obviously, this group is entitled to try to influence the election, but the leaflet in my view was bullying and intimidatory, and it was not even truthful. Amanda Solloway is a respected figure among Derby’s immigrant communities. Since leaving Parliament, she has been setting up a charity for those with mental health issues, and is involved in projects for the homeless. The swastika and abuse drawn on my posters, and the theft of dozens of them, are not in the same league as the campaign against Amanda. In my case, the police caught on camera a person who looked at the poster during the evening, and returned at 3 am to deface it. He now has a caution, which will affect his ability to change jobs. I hope he has learned a lesson.
I fully expect, after I have exposed what happened to Amanda, to receive threats for speaking out on these issues, but they must be aired so that the public understand what we have to put up with. The behaviour of the Member for Derby North was the worst I have ever seen. I hope the sensible wing of the Labour party, not the extreme left-wingers who are clearly just like Militant used to be, will win the day and stop this kind of personalised campaigning. As the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood said, politics should be about the policies, not the people.
A political campaign should never be personal—as I have said, it should be about policies—but the Member for Derby North clearly overstepped the boundaries. Neil Kinnock, a former Member and leader of the Labour party, tried to remove this sort of extremism when he was party leader, and was successful for a time, but unfortunately we seem to have gone backwards. I appeal to the sensible Labour Members to show their colleague that his behaviour is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated by them or anyone in the future.
I warmly welcome the opportunity for this debate, which builds on the heavily subscribed debate in Westminster Hall on
Like Members and parties across the House, the Scottish National party is clear that abuse faced by political candidates, particularly women and those from black and minority ethnic and other minority groups, is intolerable, and that serious action must be taken to ensure that democratic participation is widened, not narrowed. Many candidates and aspiring candidates also face significant barriers to entering politics. Some of that was covered in yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate on women’s participation in politics. We have to take action now to stamp out hate and abuse, otherwise we risk dissuading or further disfranchising many who have been historically under-represented.
I pay tribute to Members who have already spoken out or will speak out about their experiences, and to unsuccessful candidates and non-returning Members who have had to endure unacceptable abuse. The first and perhaps most important lesson for us all is that abuse must be identified and called out as such. I want to look at some of the recent challenges, some of which we have heard about before, make some reflections on behalf of the SNP in Scotland, and set out some of the steps that we can take to remedy and improve the situation.
We live in turbulent times. Across the world, we are seeing a rise in extremism—particularly on the right, with the emergence of the so-called alt right—and indeed outright fascism. We have seen rising electoral support for the National Front in France, for Golden Dawn in Greece and for Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, and there is a risk that hate language and a policy of division are becoming normalised. That must be countered, not encouraged, by strong and determined political leadership. We must work together to build a better public discourse that allows robust debate while remaining respectful.
Does my hon. Friend agree that not only do politicians need to take responsibility in this area, but the tabloid and other forms of media, which call people traitors and use other inflammatory language, need to be challenged?
Yes, absolutely. We might even say that what is happening online is being replicated in some offline publications, or perhaps vice versa. The whole thing has to be toned down. As politicians, we have a role to play.
The sad reality is that the President of the United States won his election after a campaign built on playing to the worst side of people, playing up to Islamophobia, insulting the nation’s ethnic minorities and making totally unacceptable misogynistic comments, starting with but not limited to his opponent, the first woman ever to stand for President on a major-party ticket. Our first duty has to be to set an example for others, and that challenge is undoubtedly all the harder when the man supposed to be at the pinnacle of western democracy is acting as if he is at the nadir.
We have our own particular experiences in Scotland. In the 20 years since the devolution referendum, many of us have prided ourselves on being ahead of the curve, in terms of what the Scottish Parliament has achieved. It was a new Parliament with family-friendly hours, procedures far less impenetrable than we have in this place, innovations—at the time anyway—such as the public petitions committee, and of course election by proportional representation. All that helped to reinvigorate democracy and take it back to the people. The Scottish independence referendum, too, was an incredible exercise in popular political engagement. There were packed meeting halls, outdoor rallies and, yes, online debate. Some of that has been seen all over the world in recent years, and perhaps Scotland was part of it and helped to catalyse and inspire engagement elsewhere.
We have to accept, however, that there has been a downside. There has been abuse and harassment—particularly, but not limited to, online—of spokespeople, party leaders and high-profile campaigners. Many of the campaigners in the independence referendum were not traditional politicians, but were becoming politically active for the first time, and some of them have ended up Members of this House—and as of June, not all of them are on the SNP Benches. Many of them found the abuse and intimidation hurtful and difficult to deal with. Those who made it here are the ones who persevered, but undoubtedly many other campaigners did not, and that is a loss to our democracy.
While the debate that precedes a referendum is to a certain extent generalised, the debate that takes place during an election campaign focuses much more on individuals, leaders and candidates. It involves a level of personalisation, which means that policies and issues are sometimes obscured by the people and the personalities involved. It is a case of playing the man and not the ball, as the saying goes, although, of course, it is far too often a case of playing the woman and not the ball. The evidence we have heard so far today makes that very clear. During the general election campaign, I noticed snarky anonymous comments about me online, based largely on my political affiliation but occasionally on my lack of hair follicles, but that was nothing in comparison with what female candidates have had to go through; some have not been anywhere near as fortunate as me.
I pay particular tribute to my former colleague Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, who was my predecessor as the SNP board member of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. She is a significant loss to the House, although I have no doubt that we shall see her again in some shape or form. Amnesty International produced a briefing for the debate containing testimonies that are incredibly powerful; I recommend it to all Members and, indeed, anyone who is watching the debate. In a contribution to that briefing, Tasmina spoke of her experiences. She said:
“When I was elected in 2015 and even during my election campaign, I found myself at the other end of horrific levels of abuse. And the question is: why might that be? Is everyone receiving the same levels of abuse? Is it women? Is it because I’m Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME)?”
She cited examples of people tweeting her home address and postcode—we heard about home addresses earlier—which led to the police having to patrol outside her house. She was advised to set up a safe room in her house. Surely all our houses should be safe from abuse and intimidation.
I echo the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, what she did about this issue, and the horrific abuse that she had to put up with. I have experienced it myself, as a candidate and as a woman in the House of Commons. I also vividly recall going on television at the time of the EU referendum and disagreeing with Nigel Farage’s comments about whether voting for Brexit would mean women were more likely to be raped. Suddenly, on my Twitter timeline, I gained a horrifying insight into the Islamophobic abuse that other people receive. I sometimes thank my lucky stars that I receive the misogyny but am generally spared the racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism that I know other Members have to deal with. Is not part of the difficulty the fact that abuse is so often targeted, and therefore invisible to the groups who are not receiving it?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. That is why it is important to call out abuse in such circumstances, and to have debates of this kind. I congratulate the Government again on making available the time for it.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the targeting of the homes of Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh and others. I think I am right in saying that the addresses of candidates in elections to the Scottish Parliament do not appear on postal votes or on the ballot paper, and I wonder whether we should consider introducing the same arrangement for elections to this place.
I think a consensus is emerging on that. My hon. Friend Alison Thewliss drew attention to the anomaly whereby, although one of our colleagues was able to anonymise their address on the ballot, their partner was standing for the council and therefore had to publish the address, which completely negated the arrangement.
I just wanted to say something about anonymising addresses, or not making them public. When I stood for election, I did not make my address public, partly because of threats that I had received during my time working on international gun laws—threats from people who have guns. The difficulty was, however, that those who make themselves anonymous can be accused, politically, of trying to be anonymous when others are not. I suggest to the Minister that there should be one rule for all, so that the council and the election officers know where people are, but need not make the information public.
As I have said, I think a degree of consensus is emerging on that point. Perhaps the Minister will address it when he sums up the debate.
I want to stress what Tasmina had to go through. She was subjected to language that I will not repeat in the Chamber because it would be unparliamentary, although it is not unparliamentary when it comes from the President of the United States; let us put it like that. It is simply unacceptable. Tasmina and others in this House have stood their ground and called out the abuse, and continue to fight for what they believe in. That is an example of courageous leadership for others to follow, but it still takes that leap of faith—that act of courage. For someone in the early stages of considering a political career, who is unsure, the possibility of that abuse and intimidation might prove one hurdle too high.
What can be done? We welcome the review being conducted by the Committee on Standards in Public Life; I am pretty certain we are making a contribution to it, and we look forward to its report. We have to, as others have said, make sure that the police and the regulatory bodies have the powers and resources they need properly to investigate abuse and bring those responsible for criminal wrongdoing to justice. I echo the calls for the social media companies to up their game; they must get better at monitoring and acting on reports, and weeding out abusers early on, as several Members have pointed out. I also echo the Minister’s points about education, especially in schools, and making sure that good habits are formed early, and that there is an understanding of active citizenship and positive engagement with democracy, so that a new generation can come forward.
We have touched on some of the practical issues to do with keeping people’s personal circumstances secure, and addresses on the ballot paper. Finally, I want to emphasise that we have to lead by example. We have to win the debate. We have to make sure that our conduct—in this place, in our constituencies, and especially online—is exemplary. Of course we should engage in robust debate, but we should do so with good humour, and with respect for the opinions held by our opponents, no matter how much we might disagree with them.
That any of us are standing here today, no matter what party we are from, is in some way a victory for democratic values and the principles of freedom of speech, but we must use that victory, whatever side we are from, carefully and responsibly. We are all passing through this Chamber; one day, all of us will lose or retire, and someone else will take our place. If we want to make sure we are replaced by the brightest and the best—by people who truly represent the full spectrum of diversity in our society, and who will continue to champion democracy and freedom of speech—we must live up to the highest standards ourselves. Hopefully, by these actions, we can ensure that democracy endures, and that the haters and abusers are not allowed to win.
I am delighted that we have secured this important debate in this House. I pay tribute to both Front Benchers. Cat Smith made a very interesting comment about local councillors, but did not elaborate on it. We are able to have some recourse against the people we are talking about, but our local councillors have no recourse at all, regardless of whether they represent a unitary or district authority, or whatever—there is no recourse for them. I know it is right at the cusp of what our debate is about, but I want to discuss intimidation of our councillors and what they put up with in our name. They have no staff and no ability to come back at anybody, other than perhaps through their local newspapers. It is important that we cover this, so I am grateful to the hon. Lady for bringing it up.
It is important to say that this is all about how people are dealt with. I understand why people get very cross when they are put upon by others who know little about what is going on.
My focus today is not personal. I am not going to express any views about MPs or anyone else. I am old enough—and, I would say, probably ugly enough—to look after myself. Instead I want to concentrate on the intimidation that is being directed at voters and, in particular, councillors.
Intimidation is not always the work of musclebound thugs or brutal bigots, nor does it always mean threats and violence. There is another, much more subtle, way of spreading fear. The perpetrators might look like respectable people, but they deliver demands in a sinister style. They say their way is the only way. They smile coldly and promise the impossible. They want people to do exactly what they are told.
This has been happening in West Somerset ever since my neighbouring borough of Taunton Deane dreamed up a greedy plan to merge my little district council into a new municipal area. This is, in fact, nothing less than an intimidatory land grab. Taunton wants to reap the benefits of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which is being built in the West Somerset area. There will understandably be rich rewards when the reactors eventually start running, and Taunton will stop at nothing to twist the electorate and badger the Government, along with my councillors, on this.
I will say openly that Taunton has been telling monstrous lies about its motives, its methods and its money. If we listen to the Taunton Deane team, it is all going to be absolutely fabulous, but it never tells us about the debts and the huge borrowing. It never points out that my constituents would end up with a tiny handful of councillors—only about 10 or 12 of them—who would be vastly outnumbered by those representing Taunton Deane. The people I am talking about in Taunton Deane are loan sharks. They never talk about the fact that their predictions on efficiencies and savings are based on sloppy arithmetic and pathetic guesswork. The plan is the stuff of bad dreams, and nightmares can sometimes be as intimidating as a mindless brute with an iron bar. Democracy is in real danger from a smooth-talking rotten borough.
Members might think that we have got rid of rotten boroughs. We should have got rid of them in 1832—perhaps only Sir Peter Tapsell would remember that time. I shall give the House an example. In those days, Minehead had two MPs, both well-heeled aristocrats. Neither had to undergo the indignity of elections—perish the thought! John Luttrell lived in a beautiful place called Dunster Castle and his forebears represented Minehead for 200 years. That is intimidation if ever there was any. The other MP was George Augustus Frederick Child Villiers, the sixth Earl of Jersey. He was given the job purely because of family connections. Students of politics will know that the Villiers family produced no fewer than 16 British Prime Ministers down the years, including the last one, a Mr D. Cameron Esq. You cannot get much more rotten than that, I guess—or can you?
Today, Taunton is rotten to the core. The council is led by a megalomaniac who believes that getting his own way is an absolute birthright. The man is a bully, a builder and a brigand. His friends in the bricks and mortar trade have done very nicely under his leadership, and I say that openly.
I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman’s opening comments about the effect on local councillors of having their address published. Does he agree that this is a really important issue for them, as it is for national politicians, and that it could have the effect of putting off women, in particular, from standing for local councils? I know of excellent would-be candidates who are afraid to put their names forward for fear of attack, of criticism and of people calling at their house. Does he agree that it is important for us to address that problem in the debate today and to bring forward proposals on it?
I thank the hon. Lady for her thoughtful intervention. The Front Benchers made the views of the two main parties clear, and I am sure that the Scottish National party agrees that the intimidation of councillors on any level absolutely cannot be right. I agree with what she says. One problem in rural areas—possibly not so much in urban ones—is that a lot of the people who want to stand for local councils are retired. I think that that puts an added pressure on women in rural areas. I am desperately trying to think of the breakdown of my two district councils, but I suspect that we are under-represented. She is absolutely right that her very good point needs to be considered in this debate, and the Front Benchers have done us proud in that regard. I am sure that the Minister who winds up for the Government will also deal with this point clearly. I would, however, like to continue to talk about rotten boroughs, because this is quite exciting.
The rotten borough that I have been talking about is already packed with new estates and urban extensions, with many more to follow. Most of them are pushed through with reckless disregard for local people. Let us take as an example the plans for a lovely area called Staplegrove, a comfortable, leafy corner of the rotten borough that is soon to be bulldozed to make way for 1,700 brand new brick boxes. The residents are rightly furious, and I am not surprised—that is the way it is. When the planning committee meets next week, it will hear directly from the developers, but anyone with an objection will be locked out. That is intimidation. As Mr Spock would probably have said, “It’s democracy, Jim, but not as we know it!”
Left to his own devices, the leader—let us call him Mr Rotten—would much prefer to concrete over most of the wide-open spaces and watch his pals get rich quick. Come to think of it, his own building firm seems to be thriving. I have alarming evidence of highly profitable land deals and the relaxation of planning rules—shoddy! Some senior officials were so concerned about the leader’s direct involvement in one application that they took legal advice to cover their own backs. I have said it before and I will say it again: this is a rotten borough.
The council has secretly squirrelled away large sums of money from the housing revenue account, which is meant to be ring-fenced for vital maintenance, in order to buy new computer equipment. That is immoral and, I suspect, illegal. It has been reported to the fraud squad by one of its own for miscalculating council tax. It is squandering £11 million to do up its HQ, and I am sure that Mr Summerfield and Mr Haldon, the tame stool pigeons, are getting excited. I wonder where the sub-contracts will go—a local building company, no doubt. It is a mad, vain project, with money meant for the electorate that the town, district and county councils should be looking after going down the drain. The building will never be worth more than what has been spent to tart it up. It is the action of a council that has totally lost the plot.
I fear that there is worse to come. The plan to annex West Somerset Council should have been properly placed before the people—35,000 people. All they actually got was a cheapskate online survey organised by the rotten borough. People saw it for what it was: a pathetic excuse for a public consultation. Most of those who took part disagreed with the idea anyway, but the subtle game of intimidation never mentioned that fact. When the rotten borough presented the survey to Ministers, it did not even bother to break it down. Instead, endless pages of raw material without any explanation at all were submitted. It is no wonder that the civil servants did not read it; it was deliberately designed to mislead the Government.
Last week, “Johnny Rotten’s” chief executive—let us call her Cruella de Vil—gave an extraordinary interview to a specialist local government magazine called The Municipal Journal, a good publication that many here will know about. She said that she was trying to turn the screw on the Secretary of State—I am sure that he is frightfully excited—and threatened that if the rotten borough did not get the green light to take over West Somerset, she would sail away and let my district council drown. Intimidation! What is going on here?
I am not entirely sure of the ins and outs of the particular issue with the district council or, indeed, its relevance to this debate, but does the hon. Gentleman think it appropriate to use the “Cruella de Vil” reference about a female civil servant in a debate about the intimidation of candidates?
I thank the hon. Lady. I realise that she does not understand the issue, but if she appreciated the civil servant involved, she would probably join me. We have a major problem in our area.
There is no way that West Somerset is doomed—that is a complete and utter lie—and it is a disgrace that a jumped-up chief executive should ever use blackmail. I have seen the intimidation from the rotten borough of Taunton in action. If one reads the County Gazette, the extremely good local Taunton paper, one will see that it is certainly not just me speaking. The good people of un-precepted Taunton are being lead over a cliff, and that must be stopped before the intimidation gets worse.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate; it is a privilege to follow the previous speech. I want to put on record my appreciation for the comments made earlier about the House’s security services and the police in our constituencies who do an excellent and often difficult job in ensuring that candidates and, probably more importantly, their staff are safe.
Democracy and society demand that intimidation and abuse have no part in the process. Coupled with individual responsibility, it is well beyond time that social media platforms look to their responsibilities. The growing use of social media is well documented, as is the effect of its use as a tool of intimidation and abuse. Research into why it is used as a tool of intimidation is increasing. A Demos report from May 2017 states:
“What is clear though, is that the anonymous and ‘safe distance’ nature of social media platforms allows such abuse to be handed out far less respectfully than it would usually be if delivered face-to-face.”
That highlights the conflict between the platform and the democratic and societal function we require of it, and indeed what social media platforms offer.
It is the removed nature of social media that creates an environment that is so conducive to abuse and intimidation —it is made so easy. In their November 2016 report, Lowry and Zhang said:
“Heavy social media use combined with anonymity facilitates the social learning process of cyber bullying in social media in a way that fosters cyber bullying.”
In other words, the very tool of intimidation and bullying facilitates and promotes the learning of that bullying. The addictive nature of such communication, which is so important to society, is now being corrupted as an addictive tool of abuse.
If anonymity were removed, an individual or group would need to think, “I will be held to account for what I am about to say.” Tommy Sheppard was kind enough to allow me to make a short intervention in the
I agree that the anonymity of a dissident’s public-facing social media account is essential. However, I do not accept a user’s anonymity to the facilitator of their account. It is unacceptable for someone to intimidate and abuse an individual for whatever reason. Disagree and argue about the idea, but not about the individual characteristics of the advocate. Platforms should have a responsibility to react much quicker to such comments.
I fully accept that my experience after that debate is but a mere toe in the water compared with the vile abuse received by other hon. and right hon. Members, especially women. It must also be borne in mind that the intimidation and abuse of those who unsuccessfully stand for elected office, and of those who offer assistance—both paid and as volunteers—will surely make people question their future participation.
I raise that example because of the damage any such personalised abuse and intimidation does to the younger generation who watch on. As a teacher, I know the damage that social media abuse does to our young people when that abuse is started and spread by other young people. When such abuse is highlighted, society rightly points to it and says how wrong it is. When children share inappropriate photographs with each other, we highlight the damage to the victim, the danger and the criminality, but we also seek to educate and to point out why such sharing is wrong.
But the generation that follows us witnesses our actions, our behaviour and our choices, and those actions, behaviours and choices have as great an impact on their behaviour and choices as any face-to-face discussion after the event. Our younger generation—our future politicians, activists and leaders—witnessed appalling behaviour by adults during the general election. I speak beyond those who are a member of a political party, and beyond the staff and friends of independent candidates. I speak of the responsibility of those who affiliate, sympathise or associate with candidates, or who just use a candidate’s name. There is a duty to act respectfully and responsibly.
“We owe it to our democracy to make clear that intimidation and abuse have no part in our society, not only for candidates who stood at the recent general election but for future generations of men and women who are considering entering public life and standing for election.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 627, c. 168-69WH.]
I completely agree with those sentiments. Our future generations demand of us more respect for each other.
In summing up, I wish to make reference to principles for the protection and promotion of human rights. This has been quoted frequently before, but it can stand another quote:
“Impunity arises from a failure by States to meet their obligations to investigate violations;
to take appropriate measures in respect of the perpetrators...ensuring that those suspected of criminal responsibility are prosecuted, tried and duly punished;
to provide victims with the effective remedies...and to take other necessary steps to prevent a recurrence of violations”.
Perhaps it is time for those who seek to act like states—the great social media platforms—to look to their responsibility not merely as a tool, but as a publisher, and a major participant and facilitator of the modern-day social demos. We, as adults, need to look to the responsibility we have to future generations not only to take no part in intimidation and abuse, but not to stay silent when that occurs. Now is the time to end online tribalism—
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and some powerful points. When these debates occur online, there needs to be some clarity, as there is a difference between free speech and abuse. The point he is alluding to is that abuse is often dressed up as free speech, but when there is such an intervention, we have to say that abuse is not free speech.
Absolutely. I am extremely grateful for that intervention, which clarifies a point on which I think there is agreement across the Chamber.
Abuse of an individual for being an individual or because of their characteristics is wrong. The argument lies in the debate, the opinion and the party policy; it should not be against the individual. I therefore call for an end to this online tribalism and abuse from across the whole political spectrum.
I thank Martin Whitfield for his valuable contribution to this debate. I am particularly pleased to be speaking in it, having missed the opportunity to do so prior to the recess when it was postponed. It is crucial to bring such issues to the Floor of the Chamber and not simply sweep them under the carpet. We all know that parliamentary candidates face tough questions when we make our case to our constituents and that is part of what makes our democracy robust: the willingness of parliamentarians to make their case on the doorstep. Equally, we all know that sometimes the robust debates about the future of our country go beyond what is right and proper. All too often, a minority of small-minded cowards lash out at those whom they disagree with, doing so not with reasoned argument, but with abuse, intimidation and threats. In Scotland, that has become a disappointingly familiar part of political life, a regrettable legacy of that divisive independence referendum in 2014. We must now work together with the common aim of eradicating this behaviour from British politics, because, frankly, enough is enough.
No one, of course, is suggesting that we should duck the big questions or fail to stand up to make our case, but I am increasingly concerned that the bitterness that attaches itself to our political discourse is putting off the new faces that we all wish to welcome into politics. Yesterday, I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate about the barriers facing women standing for Parliament, and the fact that we need to have today’s debate is one such barrier. That is not to say that it is just the abuse of candidates that puts women off standing for office, but we should also recognise that the especially vile abuse targeted at women will undoubtedly have an impact. From my own personal experience of speaking to females of a similar age to me during the recess, I can say that it was always the females who stated time and time again, “I do not know how you do the job you do. Forgive me for making a brushing statement, but I doubt they are avid viewers of Parliament TV, nor do they come to my surgeries; they are making these presumptions because they can see the scrutiny we are under through the media—press, broadcast and social. Can we really be surprised that women are not always willing to throw themselves into such an environment?
I welcome the fact that the Committee on Standards in Public Life will review the intimidation of candidates, and I look forward to seeing its conclusions. Of course, changes to the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 will allow for tougher sentences that will contribute to driving out such unacceptable behaviour from public life. I wish to take this opportunity to thank my local constabulary for acting so promptly when a constituent entered our local office and intimidated my staff. I cannot praise them enough for the support they gave me and the swift action they took.
Even in my relatively short time in the public eye, what I have found most disturbing is the anonymity that seems to give permission for inexcusable abuse. I, along with many colleagues, enjoy taking advantage of the unprecedented levels of engagement that social media allows us to have with our constituents, but we have to acknowledge and tackle the dark side of technological advance. I hope that the establishment of a social media code of practice, brought in by the recent Digital Economy Act 2017, will go some way towards reducing the negatives of what should be tools to make being a candidate a better experience, not an avenue for abuse and intimidation.
I am especially privileged, because I not only represent my home constituency of Angus but have been elected to the Women and Equalities Committee. I hope during my time on the Committee to work on ways to ensure that women in particular are not put off from putting themselves forward for public office, because, quite simply, Parliament needs them.
The vast majority of people in this country engage positively in the democratic process and have thought-provoking discussions with their representatives. The disruptive minority who seek to block out alternative views offer nothing and conceal themselves behind anonymous screen names on Twitter and Facebook. We will lose nothing, and only gain better candidates and representatives, when we succeed in demonstrating that there is no place for such unacceptable behaviour in our society.
I thank Kirstene Hair for her speech.
I am particularly pleased that this debate is taking place, and to be able to take part in it, because for me it has a very personal resonance. During the most recent general election, I was one of the many who discovered just how easily an online platform can be used to spread hurtful or personally abusive untruths. My experience, which is far from the worst example—I did not face the racism or sexist abuse that some have faced—started as something I originally put down to a genuine mistake or misunderstanding, before I quickly realised that it was actually an attempt to gain political advantage, with no respect whatsoever for the personal impact or the truth.
During the break in campaigning that we had as a mark of respect following the Manchester attack, I was accused on social media, by a known activist from an opposing party, of ignoring the break and going out campaigning on one of those days. It was, in fact, the day that I had been at my husband’s funeral. I was surprised: my husband’s death had been widely reported—not least by the newspaper for which he had worked—but the abuse was retweeted and explanations were demanded, and there were more abusive comments. That, too, was a surprise, as I had had many supportive messages from people from all political parties.
Partly to avoid embarrassment for my accuser when he realised his mistake, I replied and explained. From then, though, the abuse did not stop but actually escalated. That was when I realised that for many of those now ploughing in with comments, all that mattered was the opportunity to appear clever with sarcastic comments, to put someone else down or, sadly, in this case, to use intimidation to gain political advantage. What they had was a public forum where they could say whatever they liked with impunity. As a politician, I accept that I put myself in the firing line. Criticism, political disagreement and the public spotlight are all part of the job. But not intimidation, and not abuse—often not of ourselves but of our family. On a day when I was coping with not just my own grief but that of my daughter, I had to put up with a mindless, vindictive attack. I raise this now not for sympathy—I had much of that at the time—but to illustrate a problem that we have faced not just in this general election, but in the referendum in Scotland before it. The most important thing I took from that experience was the extent to which the current online free-for-all leaves those who are far more vulnerable than I open to the sort of mindless bullying that can have devastating consequences.
Although I am concerned that it might discourage politically active women from becoming more involved, there is another issue that we must address. Mental health charities tell us that social media is often the only contact that some people have with the outside world; that for someone coping with depression an online communication may be their only relief from solitude; that in an otherwise isolated existence, it is their doorway to an outside world that they may not feel they have the strength to enter in any other way. It is somewhere they can express themselves and feel comfortable doing so; somewhere they can find acceptance and understanding for what they are going through; and somewhere they can begin to heal.
Those of us who have experience of mental health issues—whether ourselves or someone we love—know just how all-consuming, life-changing and exhausting it is. Let us imagine now what happens when that lifeline turns into tormenter, throw online abuse into the mix of suffering, and replace comfort with the perpetual fear of what fresh abuse our phone or computer screen could bring—it could prompt anxiety, a panic attack or so much worse. The potential consequences are why it is time that those of us in this place who have the support network and the strength to resist that intimidation do something to protect those who do not. It is time that we acted; time that we came up with a regulatory framework that does not restrict freedom of speech, but does destroy the ability to abuse. We need some way of telling those abusers that they cannot exploit social media to indulge their own viciousness, either anonymously or with impunity. We need a framework—as we have for every other form of media in this country—which insists on respectful, non-abusive and non-defamatory publication. It is time to take responsibility not just for our own practices and our own safety, but for those who have put their faith in us to do it for them.
Something is rotten in the state of Britain. I underline that opening remark by highlighting and referring to what Christine Jardine has just said in a remarkably concise and powerful speech, in which I found nothing to disagree with.
I stand here this afternoon as one who has fought six parliamentary elections, the first being in 1997—in that watershed year for the Scottish Tories—in Greenock and Inverclyde and then, more luckily, in East Devon, which I have represented since 2001. Although I know that some Members believe that the changed way of politics—this growing bullying, harassment and intimidation that we see on social media—has been growing over a period, I do not actually believe that. I think that there is absolutely no question at all that 2015 and, worse, 2017 saw the highest levels of personal abuse that we have seen.
We need to put this into some form of context. As elected representatives, we are not above the law. We should be held to the highest standards, and we should not put ourselves on a pedestal. We are open to criticism. Some of our constituents like to criticise us on a regular basis. It gives some of them enormous pleasure to berate us when they see us in our constituencies and tell us that we have not answered an email or a letter. If that gives them pleasure, that is part and parcel of the job as far as I see it. However, what we and our families should not be subject to is anonymous attacks. Granted, when I said that we should put this into context—I do not believe that we should be precious—we should look back at elections fought by our predecessors in the 17th and 18th centuries. Look at the cartoons around this House by Gillray, Rowlandson and Hogarth. They were much more physically intimidatory. Street fights and candidates getting beaten up were a regular occasion. I am not suggesting for a minute that we should return to that rather uncivilised way of going about our business. What I am saying is that there is a history of holding politicians to account during election campaigns.
I do not know what has happened. I look forward to the forthcoming review because that will better inform us. Perhaps it is the result of new people coming into politics for elections. The referendum in Scotland and the referendum over Europe were both very divisive; maybe that has engendered some rage that we had not hitherto been aware of or tapped into. Maybe it is because people no longer accept the democratic will of elections and feel that they have been cheated in some way.
My constituency is normally a very civilised place in which to go about one’s electoral business, but we have seen an increase in such activity. Our political opponents historically were the Liberal Democrats. We used to say that the Liberal Democrats were ripping down our posters and so forth but, amazingly, the Liberal Democrats lost their deposit in the last election. They were replaced by an independent candidate who hoovered up all the anti-Conservative vote. Regrettably, this candidate—either advertently or inadvertently—attracted a huge amount of people online who were very abusive towards me. That did not matter so much, but they were often abusive to those canvassing on my behalf. The candidate was backed up by independent councillors and a website that I will not dignify by naming. It is all part and parcel of a group of disaffected people who believe that personal abuse is the best way of attacking the sitting Member of Parliament. They are people for whom the glass is always half empty. If one target fails, they move on to another. That is not particularly healthy.
Earlier, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Sarah Newton, how many people had been prosecuted for such abuse and intimidation, and the answer was 15,000. I now ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend Chris Skidmore, who in his place, how many people have actually been sentenced for this vile behaviour? How many people have been given a custodial sentence? You see, I can take it; I do not mind this level of attack. I did point it out on election night—that did not go down particularly well with some of the propagators or with a local newspaper that supported them—but I can take it. However, the levels of racist abuse that some Members and candidates have had to put up with, and the levels of attack on women, are unfair and completely unacceptable.
We were talking only yesterday in Prime Minister’s questions about how many women there are in Parliament. It is something we can all celebrate. The Conservative party is enormously proud that we were the first party in the country to have a female Prime Minister. We now have a second female Conservative Prime Minister. I have daughters who may one day want to come into this House. Indeed, I very much hope that they will consider it, but why should they if they know they are going to be subjected to these vile, anonymous goings-on on the internet?
We need to look carefully at the existing legislation and protections, and at how the police handle these things. It is almost tempting to say that the police have a lack of resources, but I think it goes much wider than that. During the recent general election campaign, a large number of my posters were regularly vandalised and disappeared. We reported that to the police but, frankly, they did not seem particularly interested—although, in all fairness, there is not much they can do if the poster has disappeared.
We want to attract people into this place. It should be full of short people, fat people, white people, black people, gay people and straight people—it does not matter. It is meant to be representative of the country. But people look at this place and see the levels of abuse to which we are subjected. They must think to themselves, “Do I really want to subject myself to that level of abuse? If I want to represent my community, is it worth subjecting me and my family to those levels of abuse?” The answer must be no. We should be able to go about our business without fear or favour and without being hounded by anonymous bloggers or other people online. So we need the defamation and libel legislation that follows the newspapers to be mirrored online, and we need the sanctions to be the same.
As Graham P. Jones said earlier, there is a very, very narrow balance. On the one side, there is the freedom of speech, and I think all of us in this House would fight to preserve people’s right to criticise us in good faith and with reason, because we should be held to account—we are the people’s representatives here at Westminster. However, on the other side of the divide is something that is not about the freedom of speech, but about people who seek to undermine others by slander, libel, bullying and intimidation. That is where the line is—it is a very clear line—and it is about time we took it a little more seriously.
I am listening intently to the points the right hon. Gentleman is making, and he refers to the point I made earlier, but does he not accept that we are in danger of losing a degree of freedom of speech because of bullying online? It is simply not possible to engage in a broad-minded and open debate when a volume of people insist on handing out personal abuse.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I do not want to be party political at this point, but I would just say this: it is also incumbent on us to say the right things and to behave in the right way, and it is regrettable when we have people such as Len McCluskey and the shadow Chancellor seeking to cherry-pick which laws of the country should be obeyed, and encouraging, at times, civil disturbance if they do not get their way. That, in turn, engenders a feeling that the people have been cheated of the electoral result that was their due and, again, creates a whirlwind of abuse online.
This is not really a political point, but I also feel tremendous sympathy for my friends on the Opposition Benches—and I do have friends of long standing on the Opposition Benches—who have come under horrendous criticism from the Momentum movement in their own party. Some of that has been absolutely vile, and I feel extremely sorry for them, having to operate with that going on as well.
Whether it is Momentum or people on the right criticising, let us try not to be parti pris over this. Let us get some regulations, and let us get some convictions of people who are making it extremely difficult, particularly for women and people from ethnic minorities, to come into this Chamber and to operate in this environment, because if they do not, Parliament and the country will be weaker.
First, let me congratulate the Members who brought this debate to the House. I was keen to take part, because I bring a specific perspective, having been a councillor for 13 years before arriving here and being a parliamentarian. I came in in a by-election, when Parliament was in a quite interesting place. We were obviously going through the referendum period, and I think that had a particular impact on how strongly people felt about voicing their concerns about politics.
We probably ought to be a bit careful not to present Parliament as a house of innocents who are somehow misunderstood by the public and who therefore get unfair criticism. Part of our democracy is that people can make contact and hold us to account, and sometimes that is robust. I would also say that I have heard the same things in this building that I have heard outside.
However, there is a line, and I cannot understand why it seems to be blurred in the eyes of organisations such as Facebook and Twitter. If people are inciting violence and racial hatred, or if they are being overtly sexist and calling for women to be raped, I cannot understand how anybody reviewing their posts would believe that they met the standard of fair and open speech. We need to be careful not to say that politics is the way it is and that it is uncomfortable at times, and not to allow that somehow to blur into something that is firmly over the line and that ought to be taken on by the organisations that are making a lot of money from these activities.
When they were established, Facebook and Twitter were meant to be, yes, social media but also publishing platforms. They were meant to be a way for everyday people to publish their views and thoughts, to interact and to share their ideas. It is fair to say that more often than not Facebook and Twitter are not publishing platforms—they are mind dumps where people just put stuff, and I am not entirely sure that they always think twice about what they put. Although I have experienced abuse, and perhaps I am slightly thin-skinned about some of it, it is in no way comparable to the level, in volume and tone, experienced by female Members of this place, and particularly BAME Members. There is a noticeable increase in the volume and tone of the vitriol that comes with that. We need to be honest about this, because if we are not honest about the problem, we cannot hope to find a solution.
When I was a local councillor, I had some interesting experiences that I want to relay, because they put into perspective how the public stray over the line, and how, as a politician, it can be difficult to navigate that situation and to know what is the best thing to do. Are we being too thin-skinned and there is a degree of challenge that we ought to accept, or should we be robust in defending our position all the time, because that is the way to clamp down on it? I do not think there is a book that tells us how to do this; if there is, I would like to see it. It is about judgment. I am very risk-averse with regard to challenging constituents in return. I am not comfortable with doing that. If a constituent is making threats of violence, I would expect the publishing platform to take action against that. If a constituent is setting up fake profiles in my name purporting to be me, I expect Twitter or Facebook to take action, not to ignore it and turn a blind eye.
Even worse in terms of trying to navigate the situation is the fact that when we send an email or press a button to report a racist or sexist tweet, or a tweet that is threatening violence, quite often we do not even get a response. We get absolutely no feedback unless we are the named victim. If somebody is saying, “Let’s rape all Labour women MPs”, who is the victim there? I report it because I have seen it, but I have no idea what action has been taken about it by Twitter in order to make a judgment on that.
Quite often in public life, we become the place where people lay their grievances. It is not fair. We have not done anything personally to deserve it, but we are in positions of power and authority, and people want to lay responsibility at the door of power and authority. As council leader I had a number of issues—in particular, a website that was designed to do nothing more than attack and try to damage people’s characters and reputations. It was very difficult to know what to do about some of that.
On the police response—I am being honest about this; I am a defender of the police force—I think that it goes deeper than resources and that there is a cultural problem. There is a view that says, “”Well, that’s politics, isn’t it?” and people do not quite understand that there is a line of acceptable behaviour that crosses private and public life. Abuse is no more acceptable just because someone is a politician. At times, the police think it is something over there that is not for them to get involved in. I have seen candidates being followed and intimidated. I personally could not go to my local shopping precinct with my children on a Saturday without being harassed and abused by a political opponent. The police advice at that time was “Find somewhere else to shop.” There is a deeper cultural problem with regard to some of these issues.
Because we publish our addresses as local authority members, we have been the victims of direct action at our house. We had somebody who was clinically diagnosed as mentally ill waiting outside my son’s school and waiting outside the house—somebody who had made threats to take my children. I think people sometimes do not understand that behind the politician—the face, and the person on the ballot paper—is a network of family and friends, and that we have a personal relationship with our family and friends and a duty of care to them. Because I am fearful about the impact on them, I am always very protective of my family and careful of what I say about some of the things I see and hear. I should say that on the most serious occasion, the police and the council were very good.
To put my personal experience into perspective, the most shocking thing that I have come across was the experience of an Asian woman councillor in Oldham. She dared to be in her 30s and not married, and her political opponents used that against her in an election campaign. She was campaigned against by the opposition but also, I have to say, by some registered members of the Labour party, even though she was a Labour candidate. The police, the authorities and political parties have a responsibility to set the bar high, and to make sure that complaints are dealt with quickly in a way that is fair on the victims and fair on those who have been complained about. Allowing complaints to drag out for years on end is to nobody’s benefit.
The candidate I have just mentioned lost her seat as a result of that direct targeting. The worst part of the campaign against her were the people who came down the street outside the polling station in cars and shouted through megaphones, “It’s time to vote for a real man.” If her opponents believed that the candidate was weak and easily intimidated, they massively underestimated the person they were up against. She is one of the strongest people I know in politics. That situation still has not been resolved, and the people responsible have still not been held to account. I found that example the most shocking.
We need to look, in our politics—in this place as well as outside it—at the tone of our debates and what we say to each other, because people take their cue from that to some extent. Equally, we should be absolutely clear that there is a line that is continually crossed, and that the response from organisations such as, but not limited to, Twitter and Facebook is unacceptable on too many occasions.
Finally, I have heard a few times the comment, “People are different on social media, aren’t they? If you met them walking down the street, they would not dare to act in the way they act online.” I do not believe that for a second. I think that what we get on social media, from someone who is at their keyboard in their bedroom, is the real person. We see them without the veneer that they maintain outside because they are worried about being seen for who they are.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Does he not agree that a lot of these people are intrinsically cowardly, and that they would not do to our faces what they think they can get away with when they are sitting in their little attic room typing out abuse in the middle of the night, knowing that we do not know who they are?
I am not sure that I would take entirely what the right hon. Gentleman says, because there is a danger, if we follow that train of thought, of assuming that the person who is committing that kind of abuse cannot be dangerous. My concern is that people who continually harass and obsess about public figures do have the capacity to take it further—we have seen that, of course, with the loss of one of our friends from this place—so I would be careful not to jump to that conclusion. But the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that, at heart, those people are cowards.
Some of my colleagues have gone through abuse at a level that I cannot comprehend. Regardless of colleagues’ political beliefs, regardless of how they have voted in this place and regardless of what they have said in the printed media, they have my absolute support and back-up. Whatever the House of Commons needs to do to tackle this, I guarantee my support for it.
“Where’s my shotgun?” Those were the words I heard from the receptionist at a venue where I held a surgery a year to the day after the murder of Jo Cox. I should confess that my reaction was to think of it as just another example of the casual contempt with which many members of the public treat politicians in this day and age. Wrongly, I rather brushed off the comment, which in any other context would be treated as pretty obscene. I say that that was wrong partly because of the upset it caused to my staff, who were helping me with the surgery. They are by no means thin-skinned, and I do not think that I am either, but they see a continuum, as Jim McMahon has said, from the contempt—particularly online and very often in person—that starts as casual abuse but somewhere crosses a line and can become some form or other of very real abuse and pose a threat to people in real life.
In my judgment, I have never experienced any serious abuse on the scale of some of the extraordinary and quite moving examples we have heard today, and I do not want to pretend that I have experienced anything that equates to any of those examples. However, I want to talk about the continuing contempt with which the public—in small numbers, but often at great volume—treat politicians. I want to pose questions, to which I do not necessarily have any answers, about whether everyday contempt and abuse are to some extent the building blocks or enablers of greater levels of much more extreme abuse, as well as about the extent to which we can tackle it or should put up with it.
Several Members have talked about the role of social media companies, particularly Twitter and Facebook. It seems to me that, as has been mentioned a couple of times by Graham P. Jones, we need to tread a very careful line between reining in free speech and setting the right parameters for debates that are rightly robust, given the gravity of the decisions we as politicians have all signed up to take.
Some Members have suggested that the way in which Facebook or Twitter deal with complaints of abuse are inadequate, and in some cases the evidence we have heard shows that that is clearly true. However, it strikes me that I do not want to live in a country where those who set the parameters of free speech are Facebook or Twitter. Whether or not we like it, it is down to us to set the parameters of free speech. I would like the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary to set out what constitutes free speech, not Mark Zuckerberg or the founders of Twitter, although I mean no disrespect to their remarkable achievements.
I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. Does he share my view that free speech arises where a debate is able to reach a conclusion without being interrupted or stopped by abuse, and where such a democratic debate is based on discourse and an exchange of views?
Absolutely. Although we would never seek to end the debate on Facebook, if the hon. Gentleman sees what I mean, we must acknowledge that some of those debates will ultimately end with a vote in this Chamber. That is the case that we as politicians must continually make.
I do not pretend for a moment that we will ever convince everyone to be nice or to agree with us on the internet—nor should we seek to do so—but we should realise that part of tackling the smaller building blocks enabling larger problems of abuse is relentless political engagement, whether that is in the form of the Education Centre a few hundred yards from the this Chamber or all of us continuing to hold our regular surgeries whatever a receptionist may say. We should not blame Facebook or Twitter for the abuse we face. Ultimately, we have to acknowledge, as the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton said, that we are sometimes experiencing the unpalatable real face of views that are sincerely held by members of the public. If we find those views unpalatable, it is surely our role to have the debate we just talked about and try to change some of those minds, but that is harder than ever in the social media age. Whatever the size of a constituency, there will always be more constituents than Members of Parliament, so we cannot engage with every single individual, much as we wish we could.
As a number of speakers said, politics should be a debate about policy, but the fact is that in every election campaign we all make politics personal. We talk about our own characters and about why people should vote in a representative democracy for one representative rather than another. We should be careful about having our cake and eating it, and saying, “We should talk only about policy, but here on my leaflet is a picture of me and my family.” To tackle all of those things, we have to say that politicians ultimately set the boundaries of free speech, and that by working with social media companies we will ensure that free speech is properly experienced in the real world.
Ultimately, we should acknowledge that there are hugely passionate debates online and in person, which we should protect, because of the gravity of the decisions we take in this place. We should be clear about where we draw the line between abuse and free speech. In recent years, thanks to social media, the line has become a lot blurrier and the area has become a lot greyer than we might wish it to be. If politicians are to tackle the small building blocks of abuse, we have to address that issue much more clearly—I do not for a moment suggest that it is of the same order of magnitude as the extreme forms of abuse that we have heard about today, but if we are to tackle the social media side of the problem, which so many people have spoken about, we have to acknowledge that we hold the solution in our hands, and we cannot pass the buck to others.
I want to make a few points. We have to be defenders of free speech, and debates that do not end with a conclusion from both sides or are curtailed for whatever reason cannot be described as free speech. Debates are often curtailed because of abuse, and I believe that free speech is diminishing in this country because of the amount of abuse that is handed out—on social media, by and large. I will come to that point in a second.
There are extreme cases. Some people have mental health issues and pose a threat, but they are in a different category from the people who carry out volume abuse. During the general election, one of my constituents, who had problems, decided to post online that he was going to stab me in the chest multiple times. Of course, I reported it to the police. I did not personally feel under any threat, and it transpired that the person had a lot of issues and needed help. I was just the person they were targeting at the time; they could have targeted anybody.
Then there are people who just hand out abuse. We had a great MP in my constituency; the last MP was good, but I am talking about the MP before him, a Conservative, Ken Hargreaves. I had a lot of time for him, and I spoke to him about being an MP many times before he passed away. He used to say to me, “I would get a few letters on a Friday. I had a part-time member of staff, and I would answer three or four letters.” MPs today live in a completely different world from the one Ken lived in as MP for Hyndburn between 1983 and 1992. This House must address those issues and the different world we live in.
I come to the point that my hon. Friend Jim McMahon made about people who carry out volume abuse at a very low level. My concern is that a lot of these people—I know them in my constituency—are handing out abuse to other people, too. They are doing it on the street. It is their nature and their character. I say to them, “You’re giving me abuse as though it is transactional—as though you would do this just to an MP—but it is not. It is a display of your character and of what you do to other people, not just me.” It is incumbent on us as Members to challenge these people, because they go on to do unpleasant things to other people. Members of Parliament are not the issue here. The real issue is those who are handing out abuse and how they conduct themselves in general, because some of them go on to do dreadful things to other people. We should reflect on the fact that if someone is handing out abuse, generally they have a problem, and generally that problem affects other people in society.
During the election campaign, I called out abuse, as an LGBT candidate. I spoke to many young LGBT people in Plymouth who are scared of calling out abuse themselves, but to whom the example of calling it out gave strength. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is incumbent on us to call it out, even though it might be hard and difficult?
I think we are sometimes hesitant to call out abuse. Sometimes the volume can be so great that we walk away. I hope that the Government review will look into the cumulative impact of low-volume abuse, how we manage free speech, and how people, as my hon. Friend suggests, sometimes recoil from engaging. As he says, when Members who feel abused come together and make a strong point, it offers a deterrent to those who are being abusive. As a society, we must tackle the issue. On a small point, it would be nice if social media had “dislikes” as well as “likes”. Let us have a disapproval rating for some of these abusers—that would be very helpful.
Finally, the nadir of this issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton said, we have families. I would like to say for the first time something that I never say—I never put my family on leaflets; I keep them out of it—which is that I have an eight-year-old daughter at school. The abuse directed at me from my own side when the airstrikes vote took place affected my family. I look at that eight-year-old. She did not deserve the comments from some disgraceful people who call themselves Labour party members. They should be thrown out. We have families and they are affected. It is about time some people woke up to the fact that we are not robots and are not there to be abused. Also, there are people who are not on the ballot paper who are victims of this abuse.
It is a real pleasure to speak in a debate in which there is so much to agree with on both sides of the House. Members are not always good enough at standing up for themselves and the importance of being a Member of Parliament. I have suffered my fair share of electoral abuse, not so much in my current seat but when I was churlish enough to be a Conservative candidate in Islington North. On a daily basis, my team were chased down the street, were accused of being paedophiles and had things thrown at them. I know that many other Members across the House have had similar experiences. This is not the sort of environment in which we wish to pursue our politics.
I would like to make three brief points. The first relates largely to social media and how we can do more to call out the abuse that some of us suffer. When abuse on Twitter takes place, our instinctive reaction is normally to report it, block it and move on. I suggest that we all take the time to capture the abuse before we block it and report it. We should retweet it and share it to name and shame, and to let our followers, colleagues and opponents know the Twitter identity of the people who are putting the stuff around.
We have heard very good contributions from my hon. Friend Alex Chalk and Martin Whitfield about how social media companies could do more, but I think we could do more as well. We could do more in a collegiate sense. If I saw a colleague or an opponent being abused online, I would want to block the abuser, too. We could even get together and draw up banned lists of people on Twitter who are abusing MPs. I do not mean abuse in the sense of, “X party has got its figures wrong” or “Y party doesn’t know what it’s talking about”; I mean physical threats, racism, sexism, homophobia—things that we all agree are totally unacceptable in modern political discourse. We could easily have a system whereby we report Twitter users making abusive threats to the head of the 1922 committee on the Conservative side and the head of the parliamentary Labour party and swap notes weekly.
My third point is about the language that we MPs use. This is a place where language is important. The House does not need reminding that the word “parliament” comes from the French word “parler”—“to speak”; we are perhaps one of the great talking shops in history. The language we use, therefore, is absolutely essential, so when we fail to condemn the language of other Members, even Members on our own side, we let the House down. I am not making a political point against the Labour party or its traditions, but I do want to make a point about one MP who happens to sit on its Benches. When somebody comes out of a meeting in which another Member has suggested that a female Conservative MP should be lynched, the correct response is not, “I didn’t say that myself”, but “I condemn what they said, I’ve reported them to the authorities and I hope that disciplinary action is taken against them.”
Similarly, in being careful about the language we use, we have to stay away from phrases such as “day of rage”. Rage is the language of uncontrolled emotion. Perhaps I am being oversensitive—perhaps it is the language of the barricade and of romantic revolution, or perhaps just a little political Viagra to some doddery old militants—but it is also the language of the flick-knife, of the boot in the face, of the garrotte; it is the language of violence, and it does not belong in the mouths of hon. Members of this Chamber.
This has been a reasoned, somewhat sombre and, with a couple of notable exceptions, non-partisan debate in which Members from across the House have discussed the unacceptable abuse that candidates and the public experience during election campaigns. Kirstene Hair also emphasised the abuse suffered by our staff, to whom we are all always grateful. Members have shared their experiences, very distressingly in some cases, and the contribution from Christine Jardine, in particular, highlighted that as well as politicians we are human beings. My hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones) and for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) also made those points.
I echo the words of many colleagues: abuse and intimidation have no place in our democracy or our party. This kind of behaviour must never be viewed as the price to be paid for political involvement. It is our duty as public office holders to protect the integrity of electoral processes and the safety of candidates standing in future elections. It is clear from listening to colleagues from across the House that this is an issue for all political parties. Although it is difficult to listen to so many horrific examples of abuse, this debate presents an opportunity for us to work together to find effective solutions, so will the Government commit to working with the Opposition, and with other political parties, to agree a joint code of conduct with a framework for reporting and assessing discrimination, racism and other forms of electoral abuse, and for disciplining those responsible?
Mr Liddell-Grainger approved of the idea of removing addresses from ballot papers for council candidates, while the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, who opened the debate, suggested that there should be greater powers for returning officers and the police, as well as strengthened guidance.
We all know that candidates are often targeted because of their gender, sexuality, class and/or ethnicity. Labour Members condemn all acts of intimidation, including the death threats, rape threats, criminal damage, sexism, racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism of which we have heard today. The gendered nature of abuse directed at candidates is a reflection of wider sexism in our society. Women and girls face abuse and harassment every day. That is not unique to British society or politics. A survey carried out by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2016 found that 82% of women parliamentarians in 39 countries had experienced some form of psychological violence, and 44% had received threats of death, rape, beating or abduction.
I am afraid not. I am sorry, but we have very little time. However, I am sure the hon. Lady agrees with me that the safety of women is far too important for anyone to turn a blind eye. Will the Minister tell me what progress the Government have made on achieving the aims set out in their policy paper, “Strategy to end violence against women and girls: 2016 to 2020”, and whether, as part of that strategy, they will agree to review the abuse that women candidates face?
Abuse not only causes physical, psychological and emotional harm to its victims, but poses a significant barrier to participation in public life. One in six women MPs surveyed said that they would not have stood for Parliament in the first place if they had known what was to come. We cannot allow abuse to prevent women and ethnic minorities from entering politics. This Parliament is the most diverse in history: a record number of women, LGBT and ethnic minority MPs were elected this year. Although there is much more work to be done, that is a positive step. However, we cannot allow ourselves to move backwards, and failure to act risks reversing the progress made.
As has been observed, we as politicians are responsible for setting the tone of the national debate, not just at election times but in politics and discourse generally. When a politician is seen to legitimise hate speech or intolerance of any group in society, that politician must take ultimate responsibility for his or her words. Sir Hugo Swire posed the question whether we were a more divided nation following the two recent referendums. I hope he will accept that while we may disagree with each other, it is part of our role to help bring the country together, and I hope the Government will accept that political parties have a responsibility to treat others with dignity and respect, including those with whom we strongly disagree.
Those who reject the idea that women and ethnic minorities are especially targeted should consider the level of abuse received by my right hon. Friend Ms Abbott, which, as was stated earlier, amounts to half of all online abuse received by MPs. They should also consider a study conducted by The Guardian that found that black, female and gay journalists were the most likely to be criticised.
The abuse that I have detailed, and of which we have heard today, would not be possible on this scale were it not for the growing use of social media platforms. That point has been made by many Members today. Twitter, for instance, states that it does not
“tolerate behavior…that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another user’s voice.”
However, this is exactly what is happening on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms.
Alison Thewliss rightly raised the role of the press in setting an example. My hon. Friends the Members for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) and for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) emphasised the importance of social media, and that point was also made by Alex Burghart. Social media platforms have a responsibility to respect our human rights and ability to express ourselves freely and without fear, particularly as the rise of bots and networks allows others on social media to industrialise the abuse that politicians are experiencing. Will the Minister reassure us that he is working with social media platforms to combat these issues, especially the industrialisation of the abuse of target figures?
As Patrick Grady emphasised, the toxic political culture surrounding President Trump has done little for British politics, with far-right US websites helping to drive abuse against Members of Parliament. Labour Members immediately condemned the President’s reckless and irresponsible rhetoric, while the Prime Minister was somewhat slower to do so. Does the Minister agree that we have a responsibility to oppose sexism, racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism in the strongest terms, both at home and abroad?
Many Members who report abuse to their local police find that investigations are cut short due to a lack of police resources. If we really want the police to tackle abuse, they need to be properly resourced. Will the Minister tell us how he will ensure that they have the resources they need? Jo Cox paid the ultimate price as an MP, and it is always an honour to stand in front of her memorial in the Chamber. As Matt Warman said, we are not facing that kind of sacrifice, but we must see action on this issue, because the two things are related. The abuse and intimidation of candidates and the public have no place in our elections.
I want to end with some of my own experience, albeit slightly reluctantly because when I have raised the abuse of politicians in the past, I have been told, without irony, that I need to “grow a pair”. Last week, I wrote an article about the reprehensible crimes uncovered by Operation Sanctuary in my constituency. As a consequence, I have received thousands of abusive tweets threatening me and accusing me of unspeakable crimes. As well as being unpleasant in themselves, those tweets prevented me from seeing what my constituents had to say about the issue, and that is what concerns me most. The abuse that politicians and candidates often attract not only prevents the interaction between constituents and MPs, but puts constituents off becoming MPs. Everyone here has a duty to promote the House as being representative and as somewhere all can come to to represent their views, their cities and their constituencies. However, it is hard to see this place becoming more representative while Members of Parliament are subjected to such abuse, which is putting many people off aspiring to what is nevertheless the best job in the world.
I thank all Members from both sides of the House who have participated in this important debate: my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham), for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) and for Angus (Kirstene Hair), my right hon. Friend Sir Hugo Swire, and the hon. Members for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones) and for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah). I thank all of them for their considered and measured tones. This is one of those occasions when we come together as a House. We are, of course, members of separate political parties, but we are first and foremost Members of Parliament and we have a collective duty to future Members and to those who wish to stand as candidates for the best job in the world, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central put it. We have a duty to safeguard our democracy and to ensure that such abuse has no place in it.
Once again, we have heard about the disturbing instances of abuse and intimidation suffered by Members on both sides of the House—they were similar to what was described in a vivid Westminster Hall debate on
“Robust debate is a vital part of our democracy, but there can be no place for the shocking threats and abuse we have seen in recent months.”
No one in our open and tolerant society should have to suffer this vile treatment directed towards themselves, their staff, or their friends and family. The Government condemn such behaviour in the strongest terms.
Turning to the review being undertaken by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Government believe that it is fundamental to our democratic process that no individual should feel unwilling to stand for office due to a fear of suffering abuse and intimidation. That would be a victory for the perpetrators of this heinous behaviour, which we cannot allow. That was why the Prime Minister asked the committee to conduct a review into the intimidation experienced by parliamentary candidates. The independent committee—it is vital that it is independent—is looking at the nature of the problem of intimidation and considering the current protections and measures in place for candidates. It aims to report back to the Prime Minister by the end of the year with recommendations to tackle the issue further.
The committee has already issued a call for written evidence—the consultation ended on
In tackling online abuse, internet trolls, cyber-stalking and harassment, and the perpetrators of grossly offensive, obscene or menacing behaviour, the Government are determined to take forward measures to ensure that effective legislation is in place. That has included modifying relevant offences through the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 to ensure that people who commit them are prosecuted and properly punished, including with sentences of up to two years.
The law is clear that what is illegal offline is also illegal online. Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 creates an offence of sending, or causing to be sent
“by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.
Revised guidance on social media was published by the Crown Prosecution Service in August 2016 to incorporate new and emerging crimes that are being committed online, providing clear advice to help the prosecution of cyber-enabled crime. When launching the CPS’s hate crime awareness campaign in August 2017, I was pleased to hear the Director of Public Prosecutions commit the CPS to treating online hate crime as seriously as crimes committed face to face, which is an important step forward.
Social media, like all forms of public communication, comes with risks, and the Government are aware of concerns about content and inappropriate or upsetting behaviour on social media. The law does not differentiate between criminal offences committed on social media or anywhere else—it is the action that is illegal. Again, what is illegal offline is illegal online.
I was coming to that point. The figures mentioned earlier were for prosecutions for hate crime. There were 15,442 prosecutions in 2015-16, of which 12,846 were successful. I hope that deals with my right hon. Friend’s point.
The recent Digital Economy Act 2017 will help to ensure that online abuse is tackled by requiring a code of practice to be established. The code will set out guidance on what social media providers should do in relation to conduct on their platforms that involves the bullying or insulting of an individual, or other behaviour likely to intimidate or humiliate. That work will be part of the ongoing work on the digital charter, which was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech.
Additionally, an internet safety strategy Green Paper will be published shortly and will include a consultation, which we expect to be published in the autumn, on a variety of issues related to countering online harm and internet safety. In answer to the hon. Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) and for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, there will be, and have been, regular meetings with social media platforms as part of the internet safety strategy consultation.
The Government are determined that hate crime of any form will have no place in our society, and last summer the Home Secretary set out the steps the Government will take to prevent all forms of hate crime, to increase the reporting of offences, and to support victims through the hate crime action plan. The plan focuses on five key strands, including preventing hate crime by challenging beliefs and behaviours, and by building on the understanding of hate crime.
The Home Secretary has also commissioned Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to carry out an inspection on all five monitored hate crime strands—race, religion, sexual orientation, disability and transgender identity—including for online hate crime, to build a national picture of how effectively and efficiently police forces deal with hate crime. The Government will consider the findings of that review and how best to take them forward.
The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood asked about specific figures over the general election period. I note her concern that we do not have the reported figures for that period. I assure her that I will raise the issue in a meeting with the Electoral Commission and the National Police Chiefs Council. She is right that we can only go forward if we have increased transparency on the level of crimes committed during the election period.
As I have said, what is illegal offline is also illegal online. No one should ever be the victim of threatening or intimidating behaviour. Although the consultation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life has now closed, it should not preclude any Member with an example of abuse from going to their local police and, importantly, to the Metropolitan police parliamentary liaison investigations team. I am sure many Members will have seen the recent figures showing that the team has already dealt with 71 complaints of malicious communication. It is important that Members know that the Metropolitan police has this investigations unit and that it is used.
Members on both sides of the House have mentioned the imprint and the current inconsistency between parliamentary elections and local elections, with councillors having to reveal their address. I entirely sympathise with those concerns. The Cabinet Office has begun to review and to look again at the imprint, and particularly at the issue of candidates’ addresses being put on ballot papers. My officials are already engaging with the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators, and I assure the House that we are looking closely at how we can take action to sort that inconsistency.
Everyone in society should feel that they can participate in the democratic process. As our democracy is built on the foundation of inclusion and tolerance, no one should be deterred from standing for office. As the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Sarah Newton said, this is a noble profession.
I thank Members for contributing to the debate. Although, as my hon. Friend said, the consultation is closed, as Members of Parliament we must stand up for ourselves and for anyone who stands in our democratic elections wherever we spot abuse and intimidation. We need to ensure that we safeguard our democratic processes.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the abuse and intimidation of candidates and the public during the General Election campaign.