Prime Minister's Role in Creating a Safe Environment

– in the House of Commons at 12:03 pm on 26th September 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee 12:03 pm, 26th September 2019

I referred earlier to events in the Chamber yesterday, and what I am about to say I say as much for the benefit of those observing our proceedings as for Members of the House, as I think it extremely important that our proceedings are accessible to the people who are interested in them. In light of the appalling atmosphere in the Chamber yesterday, and the toxicity that that can spawn or exacerbate in the country at large, I have granted an urgent question to Jess Phillips, which treats of this matter. In my book, it is manifestly urgent.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

(Urgent Question): I had wanted to ask the Prime Minister, but I shall ask the Minister if he will ask the Prime Minister to reflect on his language and role as Prime Minister to create a safe environment both in our country and our country’s Parliament.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

British democracy has always been robust and vibrant, and healthy respectful debate is vital to it. Freedom of speech is a fundamental British liberty, but it is not an excuse to threaten or abuse anyone whose views we do not agree with. That liberty is compromised when a culture of intimidation forces people out of public life or discourages citizens from engaging in the political process. Let me make clear and say with no equivocation that such behaviour is wrong, unacceptable and must be addressed.

The Government recognise that this is an ongoing challenge that does not stop after each election. It is important that we tackle this issue and ensure that everyone, no matter their background, can participate in our democracy, free from hatred and intimidation. That is why we are taking action to confront it. The Government have committed to legislating for a new electoral offence on intimidation of candidates and campaigners in the run-up to an election. We have already made secondary legislation that removes the requirement for candidates standing at local and mayoral elections to have their home addresses published on the ballot paper and we will do the same for the Greater London Assembly elections.

Members across the House have faced threats of violence, attacks on their constituency offices and staff, and abuse aimed at family members. This is abhorrent. I know that right hon. and hon. Members from across the House raised this concern yesterday. We want to ensure that people from across the political spectrum can stand for office free from the fear of intimidation and abuse. We want to tackle this extremely serious issue and protect voters. The security arrangements for Members of Parliament have been kept under constant review by the Palace of Westminster authorities and the Metropolitan police’s parliamentary liaison and investigation team. Local forces engage with their MPs and other political figures to meet their security needs. Each force has a single point of contact who has contact with the PLAIT through regular updates and meetings as required.

The Government are also considering what further steps are necessary to ensure the safety of parliamentarians and their staff. Crucially, this applies not only to the vicinities of Parliament, but also in constituencies and online. We are working with social media companies to address threats online and abuse of MPs, candidates and others in public life to create a safe environment for debate.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

I did ask a question, and that was whether the Prime Minister would reflect or could be asked to reflect.

Let me start by saying that I am not—and nobody is in this House—a traitor. They are not ignoring their constituents; they are all acting in good faith. I was raised thinking that we on these Benches were the goodies and over there were the baddies, but what I found when I got here was that everybody pretty much wanted to get to the same conclusion, just in a different way. I will wager that, more so than the Prime Minister, I spend time in my constituency office, loving and laughing with my constituents, no matter what they voted.

I do not just want to probe the idea that we all get abuse—not doubt we will hear a lot of that today—because we all get abuse. I had a death threat this week that literally quoted the Prime Minister. It used his name and words in a death threat that was delivered to my staff. So we know that it gets out. What I want to look at today—and what I want answers to today—is when there is a clear strategy to divide. The use of language yesterday and over the past few weeks, such as “surrender Bill”, invoking the war, and talking about betrayal and treachery, has clearly been tested, workshopped and worked up, and is entirely designed to inflame hatred and division.

I get it: it works; it is working. We are all ambitious. I am not going to pretend that I am not ambitious, but I also have a soul. It is not sincere, it is totally planned, it is completely and utterly part of a strategy designed by somebody to harm and cause hatred in our country. When I hear of my friend’s murder, and the way that it has made me and my colleagues feel scared, described as “humbug”, I actually do not feel anger towards the Prime Minister; I feel pity for those who still have to toe his line. Government Members know how appalling it was to describe the murder of my friend as mere humbug. [Interruption.] Can I ask everybody to act with calm and dignity in this moment?

I want to ask the Prime Minister to apologise and to tell him that the bravest, strongest thing to say is sorry. It will make him look good. It will not upset the people who want Brexit in this country if he acts for once like a statesman. Calling me names and putting words in my mouth and in the mouth of my dead friend makes me cross and angry, scared even, but I will not react. The Prime Minister wants me to react and join in the chaos that keeps this hatred and fear on our streets. I simply ask the Minister to ask the Prime Minister, who is notable by his bravery today, to meet me in private, with his advisers and with some of my colleagues and my friends from Jo’s family, so that we can explain our grief and try to make him understand why it is so abhorrent that he has chosen a strategy to divide rather than to lead.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I will show calm and dignity in my responses today as well. I am very clear that the Government are looking at how we can create a safe environment not just for Members of Parliament, but for journalists and others in public life who can face abuse merely for being involved in what they do, and, of course, for members of the judiciary. I am always clear that no one is a traitor for saying what they believe, or for arguing a different political point. That is part of public debate. The last actual traitor was in 1946—someone who tried to support those looking to overturn this democracy by violent means.

It is right to say that the Government are moving to take action. We have the Online Harms White Paper. With colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, we are working to tackle some of the corrosive nature of the debate online. We see some of the work that is being done across Government to try to tackle the issue and see where things are being done and to make sure that people do feel safe to express their views. We have been very clear that the law applies as much online as it does in the physical world.

We can all look at what may have been said over the years—I am sure that the hon. Lady will look at anything that she has said over the years about particular political figures as well. It is about how we do not get into a game of what-aboutery, but focus on what we can do to protect. I heard the comments that you made this morning, Mr Speaker, about some of the suggestions. I am sure that you, like me, will be interested to hear some of the thoughts that have come out about the idea that has been floated with you.

As the Minister who is responsible for our defending democracy programme, I would be only too happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss in a different format where it comes, and, ultimately, to see where we can go with the approach of this House. As I have said, we are already committed to legislating around intimidation at election time, which is one of the things that many picked up on following the last election, and we see that as an ongoing debate. Actually, I was due even yesterday—if this House had not been sitting—to have a meeting with the police to discuss what we can do to ensure that all candidates receive support in any future general election, as it is not just when people are Members of this place that they face intimidation and abuse.

As I have said, the Government are taking a range of actions. Ultimately, it is for everyone to think about what they say and how they have contributed. Certainly today, what they will get from the Government is a calm dignity in response, making clear what we are doing to tackle this issue and create a safe environment for all, and not just for Members of Parliament.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Draft Domestic Abuse Bill (Joint) Committee

When it comes to creating a safe environment in this place, we have a very clear code of conduct, which is enforced by you, Mr Speaker, in this Chamber. Yesterday, you were rightly, I think, rigorous with the Prime Minister, as ever, in the enforcement of his behaviour in accordance with that code. Now, I have the very greatest respect for Jess Phillips. We serve on the Women and Equalities Committee together, and I know how passionately she feels on many issues, but I am afraid that, yesterday, she was the person I could hear screaming the loudest from her Bench—so noticeable was it that she was actually having a conversation with one of the Whips who was standing by the side of your Chair, Mr Speaker. It was that that created a significant impression to people watching this debate of the hostility that the media reported. Is not one of the issues here the equal implementation of the code of conduct, so that all Members of this House feel as affected by the code and its requirement for all of us to treat each of us with respect, regardless of party?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

My right hon. Friend makes a valid point: it is for all of us to look at how we contribute to respectful debate in this Chamber. Of course when it comes to what happens in this Chamber, Mr Speaker, it is you and your deputies who ensure that Members stick to the code of conduct and, of course, you have taken action when you believe that that is not occurring. Ultimately, it is about—certainly for the Government—not just this place, but the whole of democratic debate. There are people who will be thinking of doing their democratic duty, as they see it, in standing for this place and in giving their fellow citizens a chance to vote for a particular set of policies who will know that, in doing so, they will have their arguments, their thoughts and their proposals put to the test, but what should not be put to the test is just how thick a skin they have.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee

What the Minister has said is absolutely right: that code of conduct has to be enforced and, indeed, as far as the Chamber is concerned, adjudicated by the Chair. The record is clear and the evidence is there for all to see. People can observe week after week after week after week that there can be abuses on both sides—for example, during Prime Minister’s questions—and every time without fail the Chair intervenes to seek to restore order. It has been the case, it is the case, and it will always be the case. It is not a matter of party politics; it is a matter of procedural propriety, and that is the way that it must continue to be.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Labour Party

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Jess Phillips on securing this urgent question.

It is extremely disappointing that the Prime Minister has not respected this House by attending here today. His language and demeanour yesterday was, frankly, nothing short of disgraceful. Three years ago, our colleague—our Member of ParliamentJo Cox was murdered by a far right activist, shouting, “Britain First. This is for Britain.” The language that politicians use matters and has real consequences. To dismiss concerns from Members about the death threats that they receive and to dismiss concerns that the language used by the Prime Minister is being repeated in those death threats is reprehensible. To dismiss those concerns in an abusive way, as he did, is completely unacceptable. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), and for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), and other Members, including Anna Soubry, for what they said yesterday.

Today, I have written to all Members of the parliamentary Labour party expressing solidarity with my friends and setting out the conduct expected of all colleagues. No part of this House, as you have said, Mr Speaker, has a monopoly of virtue. Inappropriate language has been used by all parties, but we all have a duty to keep our debates political and not to descend into personal abuse.

I disagreed profoundly with the previous Prime Minister, but she did offer cross-party talks to try to find a compromise. She also set out her approach to this House, allowing for scrutiny and debate. I was pleased to participate in a meeting with her and other party leaders about conduct and abuse in the House and around the parliamentary estate. The current Prime Minister, unfortunately, has sought to entrench divisions, refused to set out any detail of the deal that he is seeking and continues to pledge that we will leave with no deal on 31 October, despite the fact that this House has voted against, and legislated against, such an outcome. Not only should he comply with the law, but he should come to this House and apologise for his conduct yesterday, which fell well below the standards expected by the people of this country of the way their elected representatives should behave, should speak and should treat each other.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I have outlined what the Government are doing, but the Leader of the Opposition mentioned the murder of Jo Cox—a dreadful crime committed by an extremist. Many of us who were in the House at that time remember exactly where we were when we heard the news of that appalling attack—in my case, I was attending a constituency event. In the same way, many from a previous generation of politics remember where they were when they heard that our colleagues Anthony Berry, Robert Buckland and Airey Neave had been assassinated by those looking to bring terror to this country.

The biggest issue is that delay will just bring more division to this country—

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I apologise. Thank you for correcting me, Mr Speaker.

In terms of how the Government are tackling this issue, we do need to bring a resolution to debates. As the Leader of the Opposition will know, the Government were clear that we were prepared to take our arguments to the country on Tuesday 15 October and to ask the electorate to pass a judgment. That would have not only given us a chance to resolve the division affecting this House, but given the country a way to move forward. As you yourself have reflected, Mr Speaker, the passions that this issue has inflamed will only carry on if there is not a resolution.

Photo of Anne Milton Anne Milton Independent, Guildford

I once again associate myself with the remarks you made at the beginning of proceedings today, Mr Speaker. I fear that the Minister is going to go to great lengths to take this argument to the wider issues of MPs’ safety, but this question is about what happened here yesterday. It was completely unacceptable behaviour in every way. Whipping up a crowd and creating division is not helpful, from whichever side it comes. If we cannot deal with these issues in this place, maybe it is time to put aside our party parliamentary T-shirts and our Brexit and remain T-shirts and to put on a T-shirt that stands for parliamentary democracy, unity of purpose, consensus and agreement. Yesterday was unacceptable, and if we do not do something to change things, we are putting our parliamentary democracy under threat.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The question clearly relates to creating a safe environment in both the country and Parliament; certainly, as the Minister responsible, I do not want this debate to be just about MPs being a case on their own—there are many who face abuse and intimidation, from the judiciary, to journalists, to those who will never be Members of Parliament but who just want to take part in our democratic process.

We heard your comments this morning, Mr Speaker, about some of the thoughts and reflections on what may happen in this place. Ultimately, it is for the House itself to decide how it wishes to regulate itself, how it wishes to behave and what changes it may wish to make to its Standing Orders, and we can, of course, rely on you and whoever is elected to replace you to lead the way in enforcing them.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy), SNP Deputy Leader

As others have said, the scenes in the House of Commons last night were deeply disturbing. The Prime Minister’s tone was appalling, his behaviour was appalling and his language was appalling. We have in No. 10 a man who has built his career on making inflammatory remarks, stoking division and shouting down those who disagree with him. The Prime Minister is not fit for office. His behaviour is an outrage, and his Government are treating people disgracefully.

People want leadership, and they want accountability. Yesterday, the Prime Minister should have come in front of this House and apologised for acting unlawfully. He should have held his hands up, agreed he had acted wrongly and pledged not to do it again. Instead, he chose to brazen it out, proving that he embodies the very worst of the wrongs in our society, and totally ignoring the seven principles of public life.

Young people are watching our Parliament today. They are watching and learning that, to get to the top, all they need to do is break the law and shout people down. The House of Commons and the Prime Minister should be setting a good example to all those living across these isles. The Prime Minister should be here today. He should pledge to stop using language that incites hatred or violence, whether that is against other MPs, citizens with different political beliefs, or migrants who have chosen to live and work in the UK. Will the Minister ask the Prime Minister to come before us and do that?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

When we look at creating a safe environment for debate, many colleagues will reflect on exactly how that was shown at times online during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. However, in terms of the comments that have just been made, if the Scottish National party has no confidence in the Prime Minister, it had a perfect opportunity yesterday to table a motion for debate to that effect today. There was also an opportunity for SNP Members to take their arguments to the country on Tuesday 15 October. However, it is an invitation that they declined.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

There is already a danger of these exchanges turning into a “holier than thou” competition. We should reflect on how much unhappiness and anxiety there is among Members of the House and that this is going to be expressed in various ways. People are going to use robust and emotive language to express their views, and that is entirely understandable. May I just make one request, Mr Speaker—that we no longer invoke the name of any person who has been a victim of attacks in order to try to make political points because—[Interruption.] Well, there we are. It is simply used as an opportunity to shame other Members of this House. I do not think any of the exchanges and mentions of Jo Cox yesterday were particularly fair on her family.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

It is always useful to benefit from my hon. Friend’s experience in this House over many years. He is right to say that we can have robust, emotive debates. The issues settled in this Parliament are of great concern across the nation, and people will rightly get passionate about them, but we should not do so with disrespect, and I know, of course, that if that happened, it would be dealt with.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Leader of the Liberal Democrats

I gently say to Sir Bernard Jenkin that it is not for any Member of this House to determine whether another Member can talk about their own grief and about how they feel in a certain circumstance and whether that should somehow not be allowed.

The language that leaders use matters because it sets the tone for public debate. I am sure I am not alone in looking across the Atlantic at the rallies with crowds of people chanting, “Lock her up!” about Hillary Clinton or, “Send her back!” about Ilhan Omar—by the way, it is no coincidence that women are often the targets of this hate, and especially women of colour—and seeing worrying echoes in our own politics of that Trumpian approach. Can the Minister give any assurance that there will be no deliberate campaign to use that kind of language to inflame? I fear that he cannot, because the repeated use of those inflammatory words by the Prime Minister yesterday was, it seemed, very obviously deliberate.

I would just end by saying that, on Tuesday morning, I spoke to a group of 400 young women. They asked how I dealt with abuse and hate on social media as a woman in public life. They asked whether going into politics was something I would recommend. I want to be able to say to such young women and to all young people that they should play their role in public life. We in this House need to be able to create the environment that enables those young people to come forward into our public life, and I fear that we are failing to do so.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I think we all want to see an environment where everyone feels they can take part. That is why I have outlined some of what the Government are looking to do, such as legislating on intimidation around election times. The hon. Lady gave examples of what we have seen across the Atlantic. I am sure she will join me in saying that, while I never voted for him, seeing a group of people chanting, “Tony Blair can eff off and die!” is something we would all condemn.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I see her indicating that that is the case.

What would inflame the debate further is the idea that we should just have more delay and people feeling that when they do vote and want to have a say, they are ignored. That is why we need to bring the Brexit matter to a resolution, as the Government are seeking to do.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Father of the House of Commons

I was only just beginning to stir, Mr Speaker. You spotted me rather promptly!

What concerns me is whether there is any sense of a deliberate strategy in all this. I would like my hon. Friend to reassure me. I assure him that I have been a junior Minister myself, so I do realise he is probably not consulted closely about strategy—I am not sure many members of the Cabinet have much idea of what the strategy is at the moment. Can he allay two fears that I have?

First, it seems to me that the Prime Minister is absolutely desperate to have an election before 31 October, so that he can fight it before the chance of some untoward effects after that date. Also, I fear that the strategy is to fight it on the people versus Parliament platform that Nigel Farage invented and that we are imitating. Will my hon. Friend assure me that what happened yesterday was one of those occasions when people lost control of themselves and the House, not for the first time, erupted in disorder, and that this is not part of some grand discrediting of the usual political institutions in order to fight a populist and nationalist campaign?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

As a junior Minister, it is always good to benefit from the advice of the Father of the House. I reassure him that the Government’s strategy is to do what the vast majority of the nation want, which is to bring a resolution to Brexit and deliver the referendum result. I know that the Father of the House has voted for deals and has seen that as compromising and moving forward. The Government will look to fight a general election on a platform of resolving Brexit, no more pointless delay, bringing 20,000 extra police officers on to our streets, increasing school funding and taking our economy forward. I have to say that our platform will be far stronger than that of the Opposition.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee)

I thank my hon. Friend Jess Phillips for bringing forward this urgent question and you, Mr Speaker, for your comments last night and your comments from the Chair this morning. I agree with everything the Father of the House said. I think that what happened last night was just an ugly spectacle of things that have been happening for months and months getting even worse. We all know that hon. Members from all parts of the House have felt inhibited in doing the work that they are elected to this place to do. It is important—it is essential—that everybody who is elected to this House is able to speak out without fear or favour to say what they believe in. Nobody in this House should do anything that stops any other Member exercising that right. Whether it is threats to people who are remainers or people in balaclavas bursting into a university meeting that was being addressed by the Leader of the House, we cannot allow it in our democracy. Nor can we have a situation where Members are fearful not only for themselves and their own safety, but for their staff and their families.

The Minister has mentioned a number of initiatives. Heaven knows, we have had enough discussion and wringing our hands about these problems over the months in this Chamber. We have had a number of initiatives, but there is a lack of coherence and focus for action. That is why the Father of the House and I have proposed a Speaker’s conference that brings together the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the House authorities and the parties to look at what can be done to ensure that we protect our democracy. It also needs to look at our political culture. We know, for example, that we cannot call each other blackguard, guttersnipe, stoolpigeon or various other things. We need rules of this House that are updated, and that protect us and enable us to do our business today.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I reflect on the productive conversation that I had with the women’s caucus, when the Mother of the House was present. Again, people should be able to speak out. An example was given at that meeting of a female candidate being advised that a solution to the problem was to not campaign on social media. That completely unacceptable solution had been advised by a local council. That would mean that women could not engage in politics in the same way as men, which is completely unacceptable.

The rules of the House may be something you wish to reflect on, Mr Speaker, or that whoever happens to be elected by the House to replace you wishes to work on. Some of those expressions probably are not in common parlance today, in contrast to other statements that are. The Government’s focus is not just on Members of Parliament. This is about all who engages in public life—journalists who face abuse for what they say and others who just want to discharge a public duty or share their opinion in our democracy. We need to ensure that they are covered by any proposals as well.

Photo of Justine Greening Justine Greening Independent, Putney

Like many people in this Chamber, I was shocked by the unacceptable conduct of the Prime Minister and particularly by his attitude, which succeeded that of the Attorney General earlier in the day, to how this House works. My concern is that these institutions—both the Supreme Court and the judiciary, which we debated earlier, and Parliament, where laws are set in the first place—are absolutely crucial to the wellbeing of people in our country. We all rely on them. All those who are part of these institutions are effectively custodians who should protect their wellbeing for the future.

What we are seeing right now in British politics is effectively, in my view, a deliberate race to the bottom to a form of gutter politics that, unfortunately, directly disadvantages those of us not willing to be part of that race. The sooner the leadership of the main political parties in this country rise to the challenge of showing the levels of integrity in their conduct and behaviour that the British people are entitled to expect, the better.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I always reflect on comments by the right hon. Lady. I say again that we as a Government are committed to ensuring that what we do about public discourse, particularly online via the Online Harms White Paper, is not just about how we make sure that people are not breaching the law and how people can participate without fear of abuse, but about ensuring that we tackle some of the disinformation that can have such a corrosive impact on our society. Ultimately, the social media giants have made some moves, but there is obviously a need to do even more.

Photo of Ed Miliband Ed Miliband Labour, Doncaster North

All of us need to take care of our language and none of us is without fault, but the Prime Minister of our country holds a special responsibility. I say to Members across the House, I spent four and a half years opposite David Cameron and I never saw a performance like the one we saw last night from this Prime Minister. He said in answer to my hon. Friend Peter Kyle,

“the best way to ensure every parliamentarian is properly safe and to dial down the current anxiety in this country is to get Brexit done.”—[Official Report, 25 September 2019;
Vol. 664, c. 803.]

Yes, “safe”.

Everyone in this House shares the frustration about the last three and a half years—in fact, some of us did not want the referendum to happen in the first place—but none of us can agree that the safety of Members of this House should depend on the way they vote in this House. It is a disgrace that the Prime Minister said that yesterday. He should apologise and the Minister should apologise on his behalf.

This language and the language of surrender suggest that we are at war either with Europe or with each other. Let me say, as someone who grew up with parents who were born in the shadow of war: we are not at war with Europe and we are not at war with each other. Go down any street in this country and there are people who voted remain, there are people who voted leave and there are people with different views about how Brexit should be resolved.

The Prime Minister has a special responsibility. He is not exercising that responsibility; he is trying to divide an already divided country. Some people say this strategy will work. I say this strategy will not work, because the British people are better than this.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

It was interesting to hear the right hon. Gentleman’s brief mention of his parents. I remember the attacks he faced in terms of his own father and his reaction to them. I thought those attacks took politics to a place which was not appropriate. We should always judge Members by who they are and what they say, not seek to attack their family. In terms of the strategy, I am very clear, when we liaise with the police and when we talk to them about appropriate measures to be taken, that that applies whatever opinion anyone adopts within this House. I suspect my discussions are more likely to focus on those who may strongly disagree with me but have absolutely every right to put those arguments forward, and to have measures in place to protect them—and not just from those things that cross the boundaries of the criminal law, but also from incessant abuse online, particularly when it is ill-informed.

But as we all know, we as a Government wanted to give the British people an opportunity express their views on Tuesday 15 October 2019. Sadly, for the first time in history, a Government wanted an election to resolve the matter but were blocked from doing so by the Opposition.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

There is a strategy. The Prime Minister is the last thing standing against ending the Brexit enterprise entirely. He can expect no quarter. Absolutely everything is going to be thrown at him, isn’t it?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I think it is safe to say, as you yourself reflected, Mr Speaker, that the Brexit process has provoked passions and arguments and debate, but I think where the Prime Minister is very clear is that his view is the way to deal with this, and the Government’s view is that we should ensure that we deliver Brexit on 31 October 2019.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

The challenge of what the Minister is saying is that this is not actually about Brexit, and nor, for many of us, is this about how we make this stop. If we want to do that we need to understand where it starts, and how the extremists on all sides of our political culture will trump proudly about how they might stand at Cable Street to defend people’s rights, or will listen to Steve Bannon and disagree with him, but have absolutely no understanding or comprehension of how we get to a Cable Street or how we get to a Steve Bannon in the first place. The danger with the Prime Minister’s conduct last night is that it is feeding a culture and a language that normalise extremism, so that those of us who have had “Traitor!” shouted at us in the street, as well as online—because the online and the offline are no different—experience this as “the heat of the kitchen” rather than as language that does nobody any favours in our democracy.

The most important thing the Minister can do now is go and listen to what we are missing, because this does not affect everyone equally. We are still going to have white men of a certain age, with independent means, in our politics. It is the young people, the women, the people from minority communities, who are already saying they are not going to take part in our politics, not because they have already experienced the rape threats and the death threats, the bomb threats and the intimidation, but because they see it. When the trolls are in Parliament, how do we stop feeding the trolls?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

As the hon. Lady outlines, what is important is that we get the message out there that action is being taken, not just online—as she said, the law applies online as it does offline—and that we tell people that they have a place here, that they can make a difference, and that their votes count. Ultimately, the longer indecision goes on on one issue—Brexit—the more there will be frustrations, but that does not justify people crossing the line of abuse in hatred and intimidation. It needs to be clear that the same legal standard will apply, at whichever extreme people are. There are two sides of the same coin of hate.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Independent, Romsey and Southampton North

I fear I might be repetitive because last night I asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister whether it was not just about language but about tone. I commend my hon. Friend the Minister for his tone today, but how would he suggest that I should respond to those in the beautiful marketplace of Romsey who three Saturdays ago told me I was a traitor who deserved to be shot, when the language of “traitor” is heard in this House?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

As I said earlier, there is no one in this House who is a traitor; there is no one in this House who should be threatened in that way. Those who shouted that in the marketplace should realise that if they talk such nonsense and make such threats, there is a criminal law that they can be held accountable to.

Photo of Luciana Berger Luciana Berger Independent, Liverpool, Wavertree

Our words carry consequences. They reverberate far and wide beyond these four walls. The Prime Minister, who holds the highest office in our land, also bears the greatest responsibility for what he says and inspires. I do not believe that the Minister can tell this House that he seeks to reduce online harm while the Prime Minister booms out toxic, divisive soundbites, the clips of which are immediately posted and promoted on online, hate-filled social media channels. We have seen the incidents of hate crime in our country increase, and as a Member of this House who has seen no fewer than six people convicted of harassment and hate crimes directed at me, can I ask the Minister to take back to this Prime Minister that he must urgently reconsider this deliberate strategy of sowing seeds of division in our country?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

As the hon. Lady rightly indicates, those who behave in certain ways will face the criminal justice system and conviction for their offences. However, I would just gently reflect that a national party going round with the slogan “Bollocks to Brexit” will not necessarily help tone down the debate. Ultimately, for us all, bringing a resolution to this issue is a key part of what this Parliament is meant to be here for, and if we cannot do it in this Parliament, I would look forward to having the mature, sensible and informed debate with the electorate that we should have been having on Tuesday 15 October.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Conservative, Rutland and Melton

Mr Speaker, if you were to reread your Samuel Pepys, you would find a line in the diaries of over 350 years ago, which says that so low had the rump fallen in the eyes of the people, that the lads in the street

“do now cry, ‘Kiss my Parliament’”.

If we are to avoid that same reputation persisting today, in our current politics, may I ask the Minister and all in this House to apply to our conduct of social media the same standards that you, Mr Speaker, are asking for today, and that it should include us, journalists and the wider public if we are not to see the continuing debasement of the body politic?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am not sure whether I shall be using the “Kiss my Parliament” adage. [Interruption.] Well, I suppose, it is a new take on the famous “Never kissed an MP” tee-shirt that some people like to wear. However, my right hon Friend is absolutely right to say that it is not just about MPs; it is about journalists, judges—anyone involved in public life. Some of the comments that have been directed at one journalist this morning would hardly be seen as the top brow of political debate. As I said, though, it is about the Government looking to create an environment that is safe for all to engage in, not just within this House, because ultimately the culture of debate outside this House will be reflected in the Parliament that is elected to be in this House.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Labour, Barking

Down the years that I have been a Member of this House, we have had memorable and important debates on highly contested issues—on Iraq, when I remember Robin Cook’s speech; on 9/11, when I remember David Blunkett’s speech; on the great crash, when I actually remember Gordon Brown’s speech. When I come into the Chamber today—I think last night was the culmination of a trend—I feel I am coming into a session of the Bullingdon Club. That is what it feels like in here. That culture is set by the leadership; it is always set by the leadership.

The courageous thing that the Prime Minister could have done today would have been to come to this House and explain to us why he thinks that style of leadership is appropriate. In his absence, will the Minister tell us what practical steps the Prime Minister will undertake to set a new culture of leadership that brings this House back to sensible debate on critical issues and makes us the important Chamber that we should be?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

When reflecting on some of the great debates and issues of the past, I sometimes wonder how the political discourse might have been affected if Twitter, Facebook and other social media had existed at that time. That certainly applies to the 1975 referendum.

The Prime Minister and the Government will continue the work that we have already outlined to tackle intimidation, hatred and abuse, and, during the current Parliament, bring back a deal that will deliver the referendum result and finally put the Brexit issue to bed. I hope we can look forward to wide cross-party support for that.

Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

In the context of creating more diversity in Parliament, does the Minister agree that the toxic, nasty, aggressive behaviour that is emanating from all parts of the House is preventing many more women—and some men—from coming to the House, feeling safe, enjoying it, and believing that Parliament is a place where they can achieve, progress, and reach their full potential?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I hear my hon. Friend’s passion. We do want more people to feel that they can stand for election, not just to Parliament but to their local council, or to become an elected mayor or a police and crime commissioner, without facing the type of abuse that some have sadly faced in recent years. However, people should also see Parliament as a place where decisions are made, rather than a place that ends up on a merry-go-round of delay without actually making a decision on behalf of the nation. That, ultimately, is why people stand for Parliament—they want to make that difference—and we want to see people from all backgrounds here. I am a comprehensive school kid, the son of a Paignton labourer, and not many of my type used to get into Parliament; but we can now.

Photo of Paula Sherriff Paula Sherriff Shadow Minister (Mental Health and Social Care), Shadow Minister (Mental Health)

Yesterday I asked the Prime Minister to moderate his language, because I desperately wanted to remind him that words have consequences. I accept that it is necessary for all of us in this place to reflect on our language and our behaviour. After all, I have been known to have the odd heckle here.

I am grateful for the solidarity shown by my fellow MPs, including many on the Government Benches, but last night I was horrified to see a tweet from Mr Clarke; I will not refer to him as “honourable”. I informed his office that I would be raising this issue today. The tweet that he sent last night appeared to mock me, referring to the Labour party as toxic—which, sadly, brought more abuse.

The Minister has said that his Government want to stamp out abuse, but how can we believe him when the Prime Minister describes genuine concerns expressed by female MPs as “humbug”? This morning, his official spokesperson confirmed that the Prime Minister has no regrets about the language that he used. Will the Minister confirm that the tweet from the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland reflects the view of the Government? Will he also take the opportunity, further to the comments from the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson, to say that he stands by the Prime Minister’s comment that threats to female MPs—death threats and daily abuse—are humbug?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

My own speeches have been subjected to the odd heckle from the hon. Lady, and I always recognise the spirit in which that is done: a spirit of passionate competition and disagreement rather than, necessarily, of disrespect for my remarks.

The Government are introducing a Defending Democracy programme, and are taking action to deal with online harms and tackle the social media giants in this regard. As the Minister with responsibility for this policy area, I think that the hon. Lady should take account of what the Government intend to do, and I hope that we will have her support when we introduce legislation to deal with intimidation before an election. Ultimately, the test will lie in what difference we can all make through legislation, and by tackling those who feel that they can abuse people online with impunity as they would never do in the street.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

It is a sad fact that a study of Parliaments across Europe found that more than four out of 10 women MPs had received threats of death, rape or beating. The language that we use does matter, and the language that was used yesterday by Members in all parts of the House was unacceptable. We need to dial it down.

Let me also remind Members that, unfortunately, the protest on the night when we last met unleashed a huge amount of hatred towards people who had voted leave. Colleagues who had voted leave in the House had to pull nails and screws out of their car tyres last week because of the threats and the language used against them—and the Liberal Democrats, sadly, are not innocent in this respect.

There are four actions that I what to see. [Hon. Members: “Four?”] Four. First of all, Mr Speaker

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

Please, Mr Speaker, will you continue to make sure that you are fair and balanced, because sometimes it does not feel like that? [Interruption.] Secondly, please will all Members, including those on our Front Bench, dial down the language? Thirdly, please can we all work together to heal the divisions in our country, and that means respecting democracy? Fourthly, because it matters, please can we bring the Domestic Abuse Bill back to the House?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee

Let me just very gently say to the House that, as experienced Members know, there was a time when statements did not run for very long, and not many Members were called. That has changed, and over the last decade I have called nearly everybody most of the time. The idea that if you do not call everyone every time they want to speak, that is somehow unfair, is so manifestly absurd that I think that most of the House would recognise it as such. I do what I can to stand up for the rights of this House, and those of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of it. I have done that for a decade, I am doing it now, and I will go on doing it. I am standing up for the important principle of the decency of our democracy, and I should have thought that that was pretty fair.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Let me first compliment my hon. Friend Vicky Ford on the work that she does, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament, to ensure that the views of women both inside and outside Parliament are heard.

Yes, this is about having a calm and dignified debate, taking the challenge in the way it is meant and responding to it in a dignified way. The Government are seeking to work together to heal the divisions by bringing an end to the Brexit process, and doing so by delivering the result of the referendum. The longer the delay and indecision continue, the more, sadly, this argument will continue.

Photo of Rosena Allin-Khan Rosena Allin-Khan Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport)

I was elected to this place on the day that Jo Cox was taken from us. A week later, we had the EU referendum.

I have only ever known a politics of division in this place. It is beyond embarrassing that the Prime Minister has sent a junior Minister with a folder full of rebuttals today, making every excuse in the book. So I ask the Minister this: what does it say in your little folder about the Prime Minister acknowledging that unless he dials down the tone, unless he watches his language and adopts the position of statesperson, the wounds that divide this country will turn into scars—permanent scars?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The hon. Lady made the point herself that, for over three years, this Parliament has been absolutely focused on rows and debates around Brexit. Hundreds of hours have been spent on it and we are unable to move on to the agenda that many people wish to see us discussing. The best way to finally bring that debate to an end and to move on is to support the Prime Minister in getting a deal, and I hope we will have her support when he brings a deal back.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Independent, South West Hertfordshire

At best, the Prime Minister’s answers to some of the questions last night were deeply insensitive, but the concern that many of us have is that there is a deliberate strategy of division and confrontation. Can the Minister reassure me that the Conservative party and the Government are not going to pursue a strategy of division, of confrontation and of the undermining of the institutions that protect the peace and stability of our citizens?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I can reassure my right hon. Friend that the Conservative party, going into a general election, will go forward with a manifesto that seeks to serve the country and unite the country, but a key part of doing that is bringing a resolution to the Brexit process. I know he has supported a deal, and I hope when the Prime Minister brings back a deal we can look forward to his support again.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee

Order. We have another statement to follow in a moment from the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. There is also a motion to be voted on and a further debate, so we must proceed. I regret that, because I like to hear everybody, but there is a moment of interruption today in a way that there was not yesterday. We could extend yesterday, but we cannot do so today and I have to take account of that. So unless there is a point of order appertaining to this particular exchange—

Photo of David Davies David Davies Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Could you confirm that it would be unacceptable under any circumstances for a senior Member of this House to say of a female MP: “We should lynch the bastard”?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee

Yes. That would be totally unacceptable. I am not aware of the particular circumstance to which the hon. Gentleman is referring, but I can confirm that that is totally unacceptable.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee

No, I am not going to take a whole series of points of order—[Interruption.] Sorry, no, I am now going to proceed with the statement from the Secretary of State—[Interruption.] Order. I do not require assistance from the hon. Gentleman. We come now to the statement by the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. [Interruption.] Order. If people who are leaving the Chamber would please do so quickly and quietly, we can attend to the terms of the statement from the Secretary of State. I think there is now something approaching calm.