With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s plan to tackle threats against MPs and harassment in public life.
I echo the Prime Minister’s view that threats of violence and intimidation are completely unacceptable and have no place in our politics. Everybody should be treated with tolerance, decency and respect. Which party an MP stands for, and how they choose to vote, campaign or present themselves, should not be met with vitriolic and disgusting messages suggesting they should be “hung in public”, “get what’s coming” to them or, perhaps most unacceptably of all, that their unborn child should “die”. Across this Chamber, we have much to disagree on, but I know we are agreed on this matter. Everyone in this House condemns particularly the abuse and harassment received by Ms Abbott; she has our entire support as we do so.
We cannot reach a situation in which people are put off from expressing their views, and engaging in debate or politics in the first place, because of fears of being targeted. Indeed, people being able to freely express their views is essential for our democracy. And it is not just those in politics who are being abused and threatened. Celebrities and other public figures often find themselves at the receiving end of the most horrific abuse. Even those who end up inadvertently in the public eye are being targeted. For instance, online trolls aimed vile and upsetting abuse at the victims of the London and Manchester terror attacks.
Although intimidation, abuse and harassment are nothing new, social media has provided those who wish to abuse others with greater opportunities to do so. The internet is more often than not a force for good, but it can also be a frightening and toxic place, and we know that abuse, misogyny and racism are found on social media platforms. Online abuse can cause stress, anxiety and even panic attacks.
I welcome the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on intimidation in public life, and I thank the committee for its thorough consideration. It was asked to undertake the review in the light of abuse experienced by parliamentary candidates—including those who stood in the 2017 general election campaign—that was highlighted by those across the political spectrum. The report provides a body of evidence showing the extent and nature of the problem, as well as the risks to freedom of speech and to diversity in public life if action is not taken. The report demonstrates that a significant proportion of candidates in the 2017 general election experienced harassment, abuse and intimidation, and that the widespread use of social media platforms is the most significant factor driving the behaviour that we are seeing. Worryingly, this is already affecting the ways in which MPs are relating to their constituents, and has put off candidates who would otherwise want to stand for public office.
The report makes recommendations for Government, political parties, social media companies, the media, law enforcement and everyone in public life. This reflects the fact that tackling abuse is a joint responsibility. We will consider the recommendations in detail, and we will respond to them in due course, but I would like to take the opportunity today to set out what the Government are already doing to address harassment in public life.
Online abusers, or trolls as they are sometimes known, believe that they can act with impunity and that there are no consequences for their actions. I am clear that that is not the case. The law does not differentiate between criminal offences committed on social media or committed anywhere else.
We already have robust legislation in place to deal with internet trolls, cyber-stalking, harassment and perpetrators of grossly offensive, obscene or menacing behaviour. Effective laws need effective enforcement, and that is why we are also working to strengthen the criminal justice response to these issues to ensure that those who break the law online are brought to justice. The Crown Prosecution Service recently revised its guidelines on social media to incorporate new and emerging crimes that are being committed online. It also reiterates and clarifies that offences committed online invite the same consequences as those committed offline.
We are working to improve the response from law enforcement agencies. We know that local forces need to get better at investigating digital crimes, and we are investing nearly £17 million through the police transformation fund to meet the challenges we face in the digital era. That includes providing the police with better capabilities to investigate online crimes.
We have provided funding for a new national hub to tackle the emerging threat of online hate crime. The hub, run by police officers, will work to ensure that online cases are managed more effectively and efficiently, providing better support for victims and streamlining the process for frontline police officers.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life particularly highlighted the role that social media has had in the proliferation of abuse and harassment in public life, and we are taking clear action to make the UK the safest place to go online. In October, we published the internet safety strategy Green Paper, which sets out a high level of ambition for how everyone must play a role in tackling online harms.
One of the things we have consulted on is the introduction of transparency reporting for social media companies. This means that social media companies will be expected to publish information about what reports they are receiving on harmful content and to set out how they have responded. This will provide us with the information we need to better understand who is being targeted and what the nature of the behaviour is so that we might better respond to this growing problem. We have also committed to establishing a code of practice for social media companies, which will set out what they should do about harmful or inappropriate conduct taking place on their platforms.
I know that it can be a frightening thing to be on the receiving end of a threat, but I want to reassure Members of the House that arrangements are in place to ensure their safety. MPs’ security is the responsibility of the Parliamentary Security Department, which works closely with the police to ensure that appropriate security measures are in place. They provide personal security advice and guidance, and there is a package of security measures available for homes and constituency offices.
It is completely unacceptable that torrents of abuse and threats are directed at public figures. People being abused for their views, their work or simply who they are will never be allowed to become the new normal. Each gruesome threat is a reminder that there is a dark, unpleasant underbelly of our society—that there is a small minority who bully and demean for entertainment and out of malice. We must make clear at every opportunity that this sort of behaviour is not acceptable and that it is the responsibility of everyone to call it out and to work together to protect our democracy and to ensure that we retain healthy public debate on the issues that matter to us.
Harassment and abuse are problems that reach beyond political divides, beyond organisational boundaries and beyond the public sector, and the recommendations by the Committee on Standards in Public Life reflect that. One of the key recommendations is for public leaders to call out and condemn this behaviour where it occurs, and my statement here today demonstrates this Government’s commitment to do just that. I commend the statement to the House.
Does the Home Secretary agree that vigorous debate and insults have been a feature of political life in this country for centuries? It was the distinguished Conservative politician Benjamin Disraeli who described the smile of his opponent Robert Peel as resembling
“the silver fittings on a coffin.”
But does she also agree that the abuse and harassment of recent years is qualitatively different? It is partly the sheer volume, which is facilitated by social media. Nobody who has sat at home and seen literally hundreds of abusive tweets flood their timeline can underestimate the psychological pressure these things put on us all. But it is also the brutal sexism and racism, together with threats of rape and violence, which are a world away from the studied insults of the Victorian House of Commons. And, of course, there was the murder of our colleague Jo Cox.
The Home Secretary will be aware that I have some knowledge of these matters, as fully 45% of this abuse on Twitter in the run-up to the last general election was directed at me. Does she agree, however, that it is unhelpful to suggest that abuse and harassment are the sole preserve of any particular political party or any faction of a political party?
Social media companies have a role to play. They are quick to take down material that is in breach of copyright; they need to be made to react as quickly to offensive material and material that incites hatred or even violence. If necessary, a system of punitive fines should be put in place.
But mainstream media also have a role to play. When politicians get death threats as a result of how they vote in this House, that is not the primary responsibility of social media companies; if anyone is responsible, it is the headline writers who accuse judges of being enemies of the people, and elected Members of Parliament of being mutineers and saboteurs, when all they are doing is exercising their civil right to cast their vote in the House of Commons.
Political parties also have a role to play. All parties should be wary of attack ads, posters, Facebook advertising and political narratives that implicitly target particular politicians on the basis of race, colour and creed. That would be the lowest form of dog-whistle politics.
When people online use the N word, and when they use racist, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim language, that is not acceptable. Threats, and the use of memes of people being hanged or targeted in crosshairs, against any party or public official, from whatever quarter, are equally unacceptable. However, Opposition Members believe that the knee-jerk reaction to every problem cannot be yet more legislation. There are laws against abuse, threats and violence, and before we consider fresh legislation, these existing laws need to be properly enforced against every perpetrator and to defend every victim. In particular, Opposition Members query whether there needs to be special legislation for people in public life. Abuse and harassment are not acceptable for anyone.
Finally, does the Home Secretary agree that we need to deal with this acknowledged crisis of abuse for the sake not just of those of us who are currently Members of this House but of young people who might be considering a career in public life but are rightly horrified by current levels of abuse?
I find much to agree with in the right hon. Lady’s comments. To start with her final one, that is such an important point. This is not just about the Members of Parliament who are sitting here. We are none of us wallflowers or made of glass. We expect scrutiny, but we do not expect, and nor should we receive, the sorts of threats that some of my colleagues and some of hers have received—it is completely unacceptable. However, it goes wider than that. Other people considering a life in the public arena will look at us and hear about some of the abuse that we have received, and it will put them off. That is unacceptable as well. This has a much further, wider reach than just the MPs who are here. That is why it is so important that her party and mine are so clear that it is unacceptable and that we will call it out.
As the right hon. Lady rightly says, there is a tradition of debate in this place. Some of it can verge on the rude, but there is no need for it to verge towards and over the threshold of actually being threatening. I agree that there is no need to single out an individual source. She particularly names a political party. Other colleagues may have a view on that. We must be clear that the real attackers here—the villains in this particular area—are the people who write and deliver these attacks. Some of my colleagues, like, I am sure, some of hers, have received those attacks not online but through the post or through telephone communication. This is all unacceptable, and we will always call it out.
Order. In a bid to accommodate colleagues on this very important matter, may I appeal to Members for brevity, and to those who arrived late not to expect to be called?
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the support that you have given to some of us who in recent days have had particular death threats and abuse because of—as has been identified by both the shadow Home Secretary and the Home Secretary—newspaper comments. I am not going to go into them at length; others can talk about that. My question to the Home Secretary is quite specific.
You, Mr Speaker, have seen quite clearly, in the two dossiers that I have presented to you, a link between a front page of The Daily Telegraph using the word “mutineers” and threats, including death threats, made to me and to other right hon. and hon. Members. Then last week, with the Daily Mail, again, specifically, you can see the link between words that are used and being called traitors, with comments like “Traitors get hanged” —or “hung”. There is lots of bad grammar. But this is serious stuff.
I commend the Home Secretary for her statement. She says that we have to call this out, and she is right. I am an old journalist as well as an old barrister. I believe in freedom of the press, but everybody has a responsibility not to incite abuse and death threats. Will the Home Secretary help us with any thoughts and plans that she might have as to how we get a more responsible press that understands its role and its public duty in doing the right thing by everybody?
My right hon. Friend speaks with such clarity from her personal experience. She has shared with me copies of some of the threats that she received, and they are truly appalling. I modestly pay tribute to her strength of character and ability to stand up and to continue to fight her case, for which I have enormous respect. Given that everybody knows the level of abuse that is taking place towards MPs and more widely in public life, everybody should consider very carefully the language that they use so that it does not incite the sort of activity of which we have seen too much, and to which there is such a high cost, not only to the individuals involved but, as has been stated, to the enthusiasm of other people to join us in public life. We need to think very carefully about the type of language that is used in order not to give succour to the type of violence that can follow.
On behalf of the Scottish National party, I welcome this timely report on intimidation in public life. The report highlights how minority religious groups and ethnic groups, women and LBT women experience the highest levels of abuse. Research published recently by Amnesty International found that in the period
Researchers had to set the right hon. Lady’s results to one side in order to provide analysis of the abuse that the rest of us were receiving. The research revealed that I was the second most abused female MP in this House during that period. I can tell the House that the daily diet of sexist, homophobic and anti-Catholic abuse that I receive on Twitter not only wears me down but has a serious effect on my family and my loved ones. I have no doubt that the abuse that we all receive is designed to intimidate us and prevent us from speaking out. We saw that at its zenith last week when people who had dared to vote in line with their conscience were attacked. I pay tribute to Anna Soubry for calling out some newspapers in this respect. It is an attack on democracy.
Will the Home Secretary confirm that she will not only consider the terms of this report carefully but take action? Deadlines for action on some of the recommendations are set out in the report. Will she set up some sort of monitoring process to tell us whether the Government are acting and on which recommendations, and to track their actions?
There is a real issue about discrimination against women discouraging young women, women of colour, women of religious or ethnic minorities, LBTI women, and women with disabilities from entering politics. Will the Home Secretary reassure me that action will be taken to make sure that these young women are not put off from entering this House or, indeed, any of the other Parliaments in these islands?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her constructive comments. By being here to make those points and to stand up against the harassment, she is herself a great example that I hope other women will be inspired to follow. It is so important for other women to have these sorts of role models who have the courage of their convictions to stand up and oppose the abuse, and to say how they will attack it.
The Government have just received the publication. We will look carefully at its recommendations, which are varied. I share some of the concerns raised by Ms Abbott about whether additional legislation is required for people in public life. I share her view that people in public life should not necessarily have additional coverage, because all abuse is unwelcome, but we do not yet rule out legislation. I would welcome an early conversation with her, and with Joanna Cherry, to discuss that. The hon. and learned Lady made the very important point that, in a bid to increase diversity in this House, we have an extra duty to combat this abuse.
We are not exactly shrinking violets in this House, and I think that most of us are perfectly capable of engaging in robust debate. I have to say, however, that I have been shocked by the level of vitriolic abuse that I have received in the past week, and shocked also to realise that actually this is the new normal for large numbers of Members of this House—a sort of hidden unpleasantness that dominates our lives. I am concerned that, while undoubtedly some of it comes from people who may be a little unhinged, the stimulus for it undoubtedly, as has been suggested, comes from some sections of the national media choosing to report the politics of this country in a way that is designed to entertain but also to intimidate. This is all the more remarkable because when, about a year ago, I criticised one national newspaper, the Daily Mail, for its attack on the judiciary over article 50, its response was to threaten to sue me for libel.
One really has to wonder how this extraordinary unpleasantness has crept it. I think that the Home Secretary may agree that we are going to have to stand up for decency in public discourse and face this down. If we do it collectively, then we do not need to change the law—we can prosecute those who cross the boundary. Then we may be able to face down what seems to me to be a deeply unpleasant phenomenon in our society at present.
I share the view of my right hon. and learned Friend that this must not be allowed to become the new normal. That is why I am here to make this statement. It is also why so many colleagues across the House—and you, Mr Speaker—feel so strongly about this issue. Let us make this a tipping point where we call it out and say “No more”. We in the Government will take action. We have set out elements of the action that is already being taken. We have the Committee’s recommendations, and we will look carefully at them. I will certainly join my right hon. and learned Friend in making sure that we call this out and ask for a new type of behaviour, so that colleagues do not receive the sort of intimidation that they have experienced.
I fully endorse the words of my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary. I thank the Home Secretary for her statement, but I want to press her on the question of death threats to MPs because of how they voted in last week’s debate. Does she agree that we have here a toxic triangle, which is made up of the divisiveness of the Brexit issue, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail identifying certain Members as targets and framing the attack on them and—facilitated by social media—the mob following? When MPs in other countries are threatened with violence because of how they vote, we call that tyranny, and we call that fascism, but that is what is happening here.
As well as rightly commending the bravery of her Conservative colleagues, will the Home Secretary be brave herself and call in the editors of the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph? We have more contentious votes ahead of us, and there are people out there who are vulnerable to being incited to violence. Barely 18 months ago, our colleague Jo Cox was killed. The safety of MPs is at stake here, and so, too, is our democracy.
The right hon. and learned Lady makes a passionate case about the difficulties, challenges and very real threats that all MPs find themselves facing. Let us be clear that the real criminals are the instigators of these threats and attacks. Everybody should be clear that anything that is illegal offline is illegal online, so anybody who is in receipt of such a threat should go to the police, so that action can be taken.
From the Government’s point of view, we have made sure that the police have the resources to address the problem. We have invested, through the police transformation fund, in new digital advice to ensure that the police know how to record for evidence the types of accusation and attack that Members may receive online, so that there is a proper trail of evidence for prosecution. I believe that the attackers are the clear enemy, and we should focus our policy on them.
Let us be very clear about what is happening here. Wherever the abuse comes from, it is a deliberate action to remove from the public space certain voices that these people do not agree with. I applaud all the comments that have been made so far, particularly those made by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Grieve, who called on us all to act collectively.
Does the Home Secretary agree that it is not enough simply to say that such abuse is appalling? We have all got to think about every word that we use. We are all used to robust political debate, but the way in which we manage ourselves and our teams, the way in which Departments are managed, the way in which the Front Bench teams are managed and the way in which party leaders allow their campaigners to operate, conduct campaigns and put material on social media all contribute to how people see our politics and our democracy. It will put people off going into public life if the Members in this House today do not call out such unacceptable abuse every time they see it unfolding online or in the press.
My right hon. Friend’s question follows on from that asked by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Grieve. I agree that we must call out such abuse and not allow it to become the new normal.
My right hon. Friend makes a particular point about the past 10 days or so, during which I know several colleagues have received a particularly large number of nasty threats and attacks. I point out to her that a number of colleagues have experienced such levels of intimidation and threat for a much longer period. I know that because those colleagues have approached me, or because I have heard about them approaching their own chief of police to report threats and request additional security, not only for themselves but sometimes for their staff. This has not just happened in the past few weeks; it happened more than a year ago, and in some cases two years ago. We must not simply accept that such abuse is part of the life of an MP. It is not acceptable, and now is the time for us to call it out and make the necessary changes together.
We all believe in passion in politics, as well as in disagreement and argument, but when that passion turns to poison, it can undermine democracy itself. I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement and strongly support the strength and the words of the shadow Home Secretary. We will be hearing in the Home Affairs Committee tomorrow from Google, Facebook and Twitter about the further action we want them to take to tackle online abuse; they have all been urged to do more.
I must press the Home Secretary again on an issue that has been raised by Members from all parts of the House—namely, the need to challenge national newspapers if they do things that incite death threats or have an impact on the quality of our debate. In its report, the Committee on Standards in Public Life called on us all to show leadership and condemn individual cases. I asked the Prime Minister earlier to take the opportunity to say that the Daily Mail was wrong to call people treacherous. May I ask the Home Secretary to show some leadership and do so, even though the Prime Minister did not?
I welcome the right hon. Lady’s inquiry into online abuse, which she is taking forward tomorrow. I also welcome Twitter’s statement today about taking down a number of particularly hateful accounts; it shows that action is being taken. Google has announced that it will be publishing transparency reports. At least action is being taken in an area that has, I know, caused a great deal of harm and concern to very many of us.
I repeat that I believe that the real issue is the attackers, who are potentially launching their hate and abuse. As far as the media are concerned, it covers not just national newspapers but internet companies, commentators and television. I hope and expect that the level of discourse here today, and further in response to the Committee’s investigations, will start to engage them; and that they will notice that their language must reflect the fact that MPs are beginning to talk about hate threats and threats of violence as the new normal. We need their assistance to step down from that.
Like many of my colleagues, last week I was subjected to hundreds and hundreds of emails, many of which were abusive. The situation was not helped by Members calling for deselections. There is a clear link between abuse and certain parts of particular political parties calling for deselection. Will the Home Secretary condemn that linkage and work across this House to ensure that Members, who are democratically elected by their constituents, can stand here, speak for their constituents and vote in accordance with their conscience without such threats hanging over them?
My hon. Friend is an exceptional Member of Parliament. She is always speaking out on behalf of not just our constituents, but what she believes in. I absolutely believe, as I think most colleagues in this House do, that she is exactly the sort of Member of Parliament that we should have here. Members such as my hon. Friend enhance our democracy, so she has my entire support.
I am sorry to say that I, too, have received threats. A fake bomb was sent to my office. I have experienced homophobia. I have had threats of hanging, and I received a threat this week from someone who said that all traitors should be shot.
We have to accept that there is a plague on all our houses when it comes to the operation of some parts of the fringes of our political parties. I am sick and tired of the abuse that individuals receive in my own party. A party member told me that hanging was too good for me. I am sick and tired of abuse such as I received during the Scottish referendum, when I was told that I was a dirty traitor to the Celts. When we see the sort of abuse that Conservative Members have received from certain newspapers and elements in their own party, we simply have to stand up and say, “This is not acceptable.”
Social media has a massive part in this. The Home Secretary has referred to the action that Twitter has taken today—I welcome that action—by banning Britain First and the two individuals who created the tweets that the President of the United States retweeted. Will she speak to social media organisations and tell them that they need to get their house in order? They have had three weeks to take action, and they did not do so until today. They need to sort themselves out.
The hon. Gentleman raises such an important point. It is tragic to hear about the attacks on him, so I am pleased that he has had the opportunity to put them on the record. I hope that we will start to turn this around, and I wholly agree with him that we need to see more action from communications service providers. As I have said, I am delighted that the Home Affairs Committee is playing its part, and we in the Government will certainly play our part in making sure that they do more, act faster and go further to protect everybody.
May I add my congratulations to Lord Bew on presiding over a typically balanced and well researched piece of work? When some time ago I asked my right hon. Friend’s then ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend Sarah Newton, what the figures for successful hate crime prosecutions were, she said that she did not have the figures to hand at the time. Although I very much welcome the tone of my right hon. Friend’s statement about looking again at the Crown Prosecution Service’s guidance and about more funding for local police forces to investigate digital crimes in particular, will she reassure me that both the CPS and police forces nationally and locally will take this more seriously and that we will see some successful prosecutions to warn off others who would follow in their wake?
My right hon. Friend raises such an important point. Part of addressing hate on social media is about preventing it, but we also need to make sure that we pursue people and get convictions. I am pleased to say that CPS prosecutions for online hate crime are up 68% in the past three years, and we are ensuring we have a programme of work in place to improve police forces’ digital capability. I hope that he will feel that we are addressing this, but there is obviously more to do.
I believe something very dangerous is going on in our country. As Antoinette Sandbach said, it is being perpetrated, unfortunately, by some Members, certainly by members of other bodies and definitely by elements of our media. What they do is to imply to varying degrees that if Brexit—there is undoubtedly a link to that issue—is not delivered in certain terms, there will be violence. For example, the leading UKIP MEP Nigel Farage said at a dinner earlier this year that if Brexit was not delivered to his satisfaction he would be “forced to don khaki” and to “pick up a rifle”. Does the Home Secretary agree that this type of talk, whether said in jest or otherwise, is totally and utterly unacceptable because the effect is to justify violence when under no circumstances would it ever be acceptable?
May I just press the Home Secretary again about the fact that there is no doubt that The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail have a particular role to play, given their disgusting equivalents of wanted lists on their front pages? What is she doing to engage with those publications in particular?
The most important point that the hon. Gentleman makes is about language. I completely agree with him that the language that was used by Nigel Farage, as he described, is the sort of inciting language that is completely unwelcome in an environment where we are trying to protect not just MPs in the House, but anybody in public office and the people who will come after them. I urge media companies—online and offline—to consider that very carefully, because of the atmosphere in which some of these debates are taking place.
Sadly, abuse and intimidation are directed not just against those in public life, but against their families and those who work alongside them. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to our amazing teams in our constituency and parliamentary offices—in my case, Nina Smith, Lucy Mannion and Daragh Quinn—who deal with people with unfailing courtesy and respect. It is a great shame that, after I am targeted as a traitor by organisations such as the Daily Mail, the extent of the abusive calls is unfortunately so great that I have to ask them to work from home, and that when Members listen to this stuff—when we go in and work alongside them the next day—we find that it is truly shocking and unacceptable.
I thank my hon. Friend for making such an important point. It is for us all to remember that our staff—they are the frontline—so often have to deal with these abusive phone calls, and they do such a fantastic job in usually protecting us from them, but they often have to deal with a torrent of abuse. Yes, I completely share her view, and I wholeheartedly endorse what she says about the people who work for her, as I do about everybody whose staff working for them put up with a level of abuse that we all have to endure.
On behalf of my party, I warmly—I repeat, warmly—welcome what the Home Secretary has said to us today. May I suggest that one way to help to tackle this problem would be to redouble our efforts in teaching about democracy, and teaching about debate and the courtesy of debate, in our schools the length and breadth of the United Kingdom?
That is a very interesting point. I believe that the coarsening of debate in the political environment has led to the acceleration of this, and I will certainly pass on that point to the Department for Education.
I am beginning to think that it is almost impossible to mix politics with Facebook and Twitter. These platforms are just made for anonymous abuse, and they do not contribute to modern civilisation. They encourage people to instant outrage, because they have to react immediately, without any pause for reflective thought. There is just an automatic direction towards abusing somebody, rather than towards debating, discussing and, importantly, listening because these platforms are for the transmission not the receipt of ideas. To my mind, they do not enhance our democracy in any way at national level, but also, importantly, they do not do so in relation to local councillors at local level.
My hon. Friend makes such an important point. That is largely, but not exclusively, where a lot of the hate comes from. For my own part, I no longer look at my Twitter timeline, but I know that plenty of people, particularly younger people, live online and they should not be put off coming into public life because they would then be expected not to engage on Facebook or Twitter. We must have an environment in which such people can continue to engage in their normal communications and go into public life if they choose to do so.
Will the Home Secretary join me in condemning the behaviour in my constituency this weekend of an individual attending the William Hill darts championship who got dressed up as the shadow Home Secretary, put that on Twitter, and began making insults and using racist and demeaning language? Is the Home Secretary pleased, as I am, that the venue in my constituency was able to eject the individual and that we have robust approaches to dealing with this? Will she condemn it, and will she perhaps look again at whether we can do anything more in relation to licensing to ensure that, at sporting events and in entertainment venues, we are doing all we can to clamp down on racism or disgusting and demeaning behaviour to those in public life?
I wholeheartedly condemn that. It sounds as though it was dealt with appropriately, so I commend the officers engaged with and delivering on that. If the hon. Lady felt that we should be doing anything in addition, I would welcome an early appointment with her, so that she can tell me what that is. I urge her to have a look at the recent report from Lord Bew to see whether anything should be added.
The difference between social media and the printed media is the anonymity factor. Will my right hon. Friend listen very carefully to the investigation about what can be done that is being undertaken by Yvette Cooper? At the end of the day, social media is becoming a cancer in our society, but the people who own and run it can actually be the surgeons who remove that cancer. They need to be encouraged to do so, because we will otherwise disengage from social media and have a lack of democratic accountability, which would be a pity.
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. We cannot have a situation in which people are expected to disengage from social media to avoid the abuse. As I have said, I am delighted that the Home Affairs Committee is taking this forward as well.
It appeared during those terrible days following the murder of Jo Cox—
The hon. Lady raises a very important point in an appropriate and delicate way, but I think everybody knows exactly what she is highlighting. I share her views. We need to clean up our own houses as well as working across houses. I hope that her party, as well as mine, will listen carefully to the points she raises.
On that point, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, of which I am a member, reported in some detail on party leadership. It strikes me that simply calling out bad behaviour may be going nothing like far enough, so will the Home Secretary, at least on behalf of our party, assure us that not only will offending activists and third parties be brought to book, but it will be done in a public and robust manner?
My hon. Friend is quite right. May I take this opportunity to thank him for his work on the Committee on Standards in Public Life and to thank Lord Bew for his leadership in delivering the report, which makes a number of recommendations? I may talk delicately across the Floor of the House with Angela Smith, but there are some very clear recommendations in the report and some very hard-hitting points. I urge everybody to ensure that their party leaders are held to account and deliver on those.
I thank the Home Secretary for her statement and the firmness of her response. Will she outline what protection and support there is for staff in constituency offices, bearing in mind that they can be accosted by constituents regarding casework in their personal time, and can be subject to verbal and sometimes physical abuse?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston commented, the staff in our offices are often on the frontline of this abuse. We have to make sure that they are protected. This is not just about us; it is about a wider group of public servants, such as our staff. I agree with him that it is equally important to protect them. I hope that if he looks at the report, he will see that that point is addressed, but if he has further concerns he should come and talk to me about them.
I will pick up on a point that was made from the Opposition Benches. Where do our children learn to trust? Where do they learn what is right, what is wrong and what is acceptable behaviour? I honestly think that we have to deal in our education system and in our schools with the issue of social media and how we conduct ourselves as citizens, because what is happening now is truly unacceptable in so many cases.
My hon. Friend is right. In citizenship classes, there is an online element that I would expect to be covered. That point has been made by other Members, and I will ensure that the Department for Education hears it. I think that our children hear about what is acceptable when they hear people like us calling things out, saying, “No more,” insisting that this is the end of such abuse, and saying that we will take action. It is by example that they learn.
My Speaker, the first thing you did as Speaker, as is required, was to go to the House of Lords and demand the traditional privileges of this House. At the top of that list is freedom of speech. We should be able to speak our mind without fear or favour and, for that matter, to vote without fear or favour. What we have seen over the past week is a deliberate attempt to humiliate, to bully, to intimidate and to prevent people from doing what is their democratic right. We will not be a Parliament—we will not be a free Parliament—if we continue to allow that to go on.
The worst of it is that there is a concatenation here. Yes, the newspapers, with the authority they have, are putting horrible stories on their front pages and effectively lining people up as if they should be politically shot. An amplification then goes on through social media. But there are also international actors involved in this. There are Russian bots deliberately seeking to intimidate Members of this Parliament.
I do not believe for a single instant that the Government are taking this seriously enough. At the beginning of my time in Parliament, I might have got one death threat a year; it is now one death threat a week and several a month. Until we see real action—until I know that a police officer will one day ring me back and say, “We have done something about it. That person is going to prison,”—I honestly will not believe that the Government really know what is going on out there.
Let us make that change ourselves. Let us make sure that our voice is heard clearly, loudly and effectively. Let us say that this is the point at which we will make those changes. We have made it clear that the sorts of activities the hon. Gentleman describes are illegal online, as they are offline, and I would expect them to be reported. We are seeing prosecutions by the CPS, and the police are taking it seriously and are much better trained on digital evidence. I would expect that to start to make a difference.
I welcome the sentiments of the Home Secretary and what she has said today, but when it comes to social media, the time for pussyfooting is over. These are multibillion-pound companies that have the resource to tackle this issue if they want to. What is the Home Secretary doing to tackle those who hide behind anonymous accounts, making it very hard to close them down and to pursue them through the courts? That is something that she should be tackling with the social media companies.
I say to my hon. Friend that there is no pussyfooting on this side of the House. We are determined to ensure that the social media companies are held to account. As I said earlier, we are pleased that Google has announced that it will publish transparency reports. Twitter has taken action. It is not enough, but it is an important step in an area that we care about so much. We need to make sure that the people who do these sorts of things and make these sorts of posts are held accountable. We will achieve that by leaning into the social media companies.
The Government regularly state that what is illegal in the real world is also illegal in the virtual world. Effective laws need effective enforcement, yet the Home Office has allocated only £200,000 to the online hate crime hub. Now that exercising the sovereignty of this House is resulting in death threats, will the Government make sufficient financial resources available to protect all victims?
The hon. Lady has drawn attention to one element of our strategy—the online hate hub, which is staffed by police officers who centralise and act on reports of hate—but that is by no means the only activity. The CPS has increased the number of prosecutions by 68% over the past three years and we have put £17 million from the police transformation fund into proper engagement with different police forces to ensure that they have the right skills for the digital recording of the evidence. I reassure the hon. Lady that the online hate hub is only one part of a strategy and we will take action.
There is a fine line, is there not, between disagreeing with someone and being deliberately disingenuous with a view to inciting hatred and harassment, often repeatedly and often for political advantage? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is corrosive for our political discourse and that it has to stop, but that in order for it to stop we need leadership from across the political spectrum?
I agree that there is nothing wrong with argument and a little bit of rudeness, but that the sorts of examples that we have been quoting are absolutely unacceptable. We need to work across the House to ensure that we have a proper answer and strategy to combat them.
Does the Home Secretary agree that it is high time we brought back respect in public life? This is not just about MPs, but about the people who provide our public services. When I was told by a constituent during the last election that it was part of my job to take abuse, I spoke to a local police officer about it and he said, “Welcome to my world.” Does she agree that we must lead by example on these Benches?
I agree completely with the hon. Lady. I had a similar experience when I was a Back-Bench MP, when somebody said, “Well you’re an MP—you can take it.” MPs are not blushing wallflowers, but nor should we have to take that sort of abuse. I would welcome the sort of approach she sets out.
Does the Home Secretary agree that we must all take personal responsibility on this issue and that any Member of this place whose name or hashtag is persistently associated with hate-filled comments on social media must do everything to distance themselves from such campaigns? Otherwise, they deserve the disdain of the entire House.
That is a very good point about something constructive that each of us can do. When we see one of our colleagues in the House receiving this sort of hate crime, we can go out of our way to call it out or, at the very least, not participate in any sort of endorsement, which sometimes does take place.
What I would like to say is that the people to blame are the people making the threats and the attacks. It is not just about one media channel, but the whole arena. It is about making sure that we all call out the language. The hon. Lady may have one particular target and other MPs may have different particular candidates they want to call out, but I am very clear that any use of that sort of language to denigrate MPs can lead to the sorts of attacks that should not take place.
I thank Lord Bew for a very robust report. Having experienced death threats and a campaign of sustained harassment towards me, my family and my excellent staff, I note that the report indicates that political parties must show leadership and do something that perhaps does not come naturally: work together and enforce a code of conduct for Members. How does the Home Secretary see that going forward, and does she have a timeframe for taking that very important step?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I know she, like us, feels very strongly about this. It is a very good report and there is a lot for us to do. It calls for party leaders to call this out and to take action. I am standing here making sure that I reassure Members that we will be taking action. There are a number of different particular items. One we have not discussed today is additional legislation for people in public life. We have agreed to look at that, but we are not yet convinced that it needs to be done. I will certainly come back to her before deciding whether to go forward with it.
I am sure that everybody in this House recognises that the abuse and intimidation, mainly online, faced by people in public office is replicated and symptomatic of what is happening across the country, including to children. I welcome the Department for Education bringing in relationship education to teach children to respect themselves and others, but will the Home Secretary commit to extra resources for police, not just for training but so they can protect and prosecute?
We have put £17 million of resources from the police transformation fund to support the police, so they can have the tools they need to collect evidence when there are online threats. We will always make sure that the police have sufficient resources to do their jobs.
In welcoming the Home Secretary’s statement, may I press her on this idea of focusing on the attackers? Just as a clockwork mouse will only scamper across the floor if it is wound up, so some of these keyboard warriors will only take to their computers if they are incited by billionaire tax-dodging newspaper owners—or their editors. Does the Home Secretary accept that there is an element of incitement in some of the shocking newspaper headlines and that that incitement corrodes the quality of our democracy?
The hon. Gentleman refers to the language used. The point I have made in my statement and in answer to questions is that we should all—media companies, too—consider very carefully the sort of language used in our debates. I would also ask him to consider very carefully some of the language used by those on the shadow Front Bench about some of my fellow MPs on the Government Benches. We have to be very careful about the type of language used, not just by media companies but by individuals in this House.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s comments about language. It was not social media that made, carried or celebrated a massive banner at the Gay Pride celebrations in Trafalgar Square this summer proclaiming—I spell out the word—“F-u-c-k the DUP”, but an identifiable individual, reported to the CPS and the Metropolitan police, whom I could name but will not. The report referred to by the Home Secretary claims:
“We are persuaded that the CPS guidelines are reasonable and proportionate.”
The fact of the matter is that if such a banner was carried in any other jurisdiction of the United Kingdom that person would have met the test and would have been prosecuted and probably fined. I hope the Home Secretary will consider legislative change to lower the threshold, so such crimes can be dealt with properly by the police and the CPS. I hope she will also consider an additional tariff on a person’s sentence if a public representative is attacked verbally or abused physically.
I am not familiar with the individual case the hon. Gentleman raises, but if he would like to write to me about it I will certainly take a look at his recommendation. It is interesting to hear his view about the requirement for additional legislation. No doubt we will be looking at that when we consider the Committee’s responses.
Mr Speaker, you will be aware that I joined this House in May 2016 after a by-election. Before that election, newspaper articles claimed that I did not live at the address I did live at. Despite the Labour party offering proof, without doubt, that I lived at my home address, articles were run saying I did not live there. After my election, I received countless numbers of tweets from people saying they were looking through my lounge windows to see how my furniture was laid out. I lied to my partner—she now knows this—when I referred that to the police, because I was terrified she would want to move out of our home.
I was a councillor for 10 years and I had to move because my address was public when I sought election. I have asked the Home Secretary whether she could change it so that councillors receive the same protection as MPs. I had to move because constituents put dog excrement through my door. This behaviour is not just linked to MPs, but to councillors too. May I also ask that by-election candidates, with all the scrutiny they receive from the written and social media, are given support, particularly if they are then elected to this House and have never experienced that type of abuse before?
I am very sorry to hear that horrific and hateful personal example from the hon. Gentleman. It must have been very distressing for him and his family. We have changed the rules so that candidates no longer have to put out their home address when they stand for election, but I will certainly look at that. I would be grateful if he would send me a note about it.
The most common question I get asked by young people these days is, “How do you put up with all the abuse?” I know the Home Secretary will find that as heartbreaking as I do. Young people know that a corruption has entered our politics, whereby people now believe that if somebody honestly disagrees with them they are unprincipled. As soon as we accept the principle that somebody is unprincipled simply for disagreeing, that opens the door to all sorts of really bad behaviour. This cannot be tackled purely with legislation. What can we do to drive this notion out of our body politic?
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman. When I visit schools or universities, I too get exactly the same question: “How can you put up with this abuse?” That is why it is so important for us to call it out. He asks what we can do and I urge him to look at the report. But it is not enough to just act on the report, which we will, or to consider additional legislation, which we may. We all have to make sure that we call it out often and firmly. Sometimes it is difficult when people come after us and we think that this is the role of a Member of Parliament. But no, it is not just about that. [Interruption.] I am getting a certain amount of heckling, Mr Speaker. I referred earlier to somebody from the Labour party. I just remind hon. Members that another person who needs calling out is John McDonnell.
The Government have rightly said that offences online are the same as offences offline, and that the punishment should be the same. Is the media vehicle carrying such offences not as responsible as the driver of a bank robber?
That is exactly an area we are continuing to look at, and which the Home Affairs Committee is looking at, and where we are starting to see some real action. It is not enough. We want to go further and faster, but it is a start.
As the DUP’s home affairs spokesman, I say gently that this evening’s statement would have been stronger if Members had been less selective in their condemnation of political commentary and abuse. Just today, I received notification from a local PSNI inspector in east Belfast that abuse reported to him could not be progressed because Twitter does not comply or engage unless there is an imminent threat to life. In reflecting on legislative provisions, will the Home Secretary ensure that this frustration and the failure to engage with authorities in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom is dealt with appropriately?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. It is distressing to hear that example, because we are beginning to see some progress from Twitter. If he would like to write to me about that particular example, I will certainly take a look at it. Abuse online is not only just as unwelcome but just as illegal as abuse offline.
Order. I thank the Home Secretary for her statement, the shadow Home Secretary for her response and all hon. and right hon. Members for their remarks this afternoon.
Let us be absolutely clear: making death threats or other threats of violence will always, everywhere, without exception, be wrong. In a political context, making death threats or other threats of violence against people on grounds of their views is, whether the authors know it or not, a kind of fascism that must be explicitly and unequivocally denounced. Today, thankfully—and I am extremely grateful to colleagues across the party divide from the highest level—it has been.
You will hear me, as your Speaker, call Divisions. Chris Bryant referred to the freedoms of this place, and when the Chair calls Divisions the Chair is calling on hon. and right hon. Members to vote as they think fit, and I would go so far as to say that they not only have a right to vote as they think fit but have an absolute bounden duty to vote as they think fit, and I am confident that that is what all of you—if I may speak to you very personally—do. How you vote is always a matter for you and not for me, but you must be conscious, as I am sure you are, of your duty in this matter. I want, in the light of what has been said and of the experiences of some of my colleagues in recent days, simply to conclude by saying that in voting as you think fit on any political issue, you as Members of Parliament are never mutineers. You are never traitors. You are never malcontents. You are never enemies of the people. You are dedicated, hard-working, committed public servants doing what you believe to be right for this country. If there are people who cannot understand that basic concept of principled conduct, perhaps they need help to ensure that in future they do.