Use of Language to Create a Safe Environment - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 12:23 pm on 26th September 2019.

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Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 12:23 pm, 26th September 2019

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given earlier today by my right honourable friend in the other place to an Urgent Question asking the Prime Minister to reflect on his language and his role as the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

“British democracy has always been robust and oppositional. This healthy, respectful debate is vital to our democracy. Freedom of speech is, of course, a human right, but it is not an excuse to threaten or abuse anyone whose views you do not agree with. That freedom 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 it clear, and say with no equivocation, that such abuse is wrong, unacceptable and must be addressed.

I recognise that it is an ongoing challenge—it 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 legislate for a new electoral offence of 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 will do the same for GLA Members.

Members across this 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 honourable and right honourable Members 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, PLAIT. Local forces engage with their MPs and other political figures to meet their security needs. Each force has a single point of contact in place who has contact with 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 Parliament and its vicinity but in constituencies and online. That is why we are also working with social media companies to address threats online and the abuse of MPs, candidates and others in public life in order to create a safe environment for debate”.

That concludes the Answer.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 12:26 pm, 26th September 2019

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, for repeating the Answer from the House of Commons. Perhaps the Government have put forward the noble Earl to respond today because he has not, I do not think, ever been offensive to anyone in his life. It feels awkward to have to address these questions to him when I am sure that the Statement we heard last night from the Prime Minister was as anathema to him as it was to the rest of us.

I thought that this House conducted itself with honour last night because we united in condemning, with shock and disappointment, the content and the language of the Prime Minister’s Statement. There was no party division at all on that. However, after we left the Chamber last night, it got worse. I have watched some of the debates and I have read others since, and I thought that the Prime Minister’s responses to the questions and concerns raised about the impact of his language and tone were shameful. I am thinking in particular of Paula Sherriff. She was really quite emotional when she stood up and referred to what happened to her friend Jo Cox, the MP who was murdered. The Prime Minister’s response was that it was “humbug”. We deserve better than that. To argue that the way to honour Jo Cox’s memory is to bring in the Brexit that she so opposed was, I thought, tacky and unpleasant. We all have to take care regarding our language and behaviour. Abuse in politics is not new—it did not start with Boris Johnson—but yesterday the Prime Minister sank to a new low.

Those who have been Members of Parliament or advisers, or have had to see members of the public, understand the difference here. It is one thing if someone comes to see them, or sends a letter or email, who is aggressive and abusive because they are distressed or unhappy and they get angry, and there are times when we have robust and perhaps overenthusiastic debates. But what we saw last night was a whole different order. When we see calculated actions and language that are designed to provoke intolerance and division, that is something very different. The words of a Prime Minister carry great weight and can dictate behaviour throughout the country and beyond Parliament.

I listened very carefully to the Statement. It is right that the Government are putting in measures for the security of parliamentarians and their staff, but we have to ask: why is it now that we need those? The level of debate has changed; social media has exacerbated that. So when you open that Pandora’s box of intolerance, or when you try to pitch Parliament against the people, you have lost the moral high ground to seek to heal.

We have two things to ask of ourselves and the Government. They relate to a course that I went on recently, and which we will all be asked to attend: the valuing everyone parliamentary course. One thing said in that course is that unless you call out bad behaviour, you are complicit. My two asks are this: first, that we must be conscious of our own behaviour and language and call out the wrongdoing of others; and, secondly—coming back to this point of not being complicit in bad behaviour—it would be really helpful if our own Government Front Bench in this House were to deliver a message to the Prime Minister that he has a duty and a responsibility as the leader of our country to seek to heal, rather than to exacerbate divisions. If that message went out from our Front Bench, I think this House would feel a lot more comfortable and happier. The Prime Minister has to change.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, let me comment very briefly on what the noble Baroness has said. I am quite sure that we are all of one mind that it is important for this House to maintain its custom and practice of debate that is sometimes robust but always polite and respectful of the other person’s point of view. I am at one with her in her wish to see that practice spread more widely. It might be helpful if I refer your Lordships to the words of the Speaker in the other place earlier today:

“This country faces the most challenging political issue that we have grappled with in decades. There are genuine, heartfelt, sincerely subscribed to differences of opinion about that matter. Members must be free to express themselves about it and to display … the courage of their convictions. It ought, however, to be possible to disagree agreeably”.

I think that we would all subscribe to that.

Photo of Baroness Parminter Baroness Parminter Liberal Democrat

My Lords, from these Benches, I too thank the noble Earl for repeating the Statement. When I left the Chamber last night, I went to my daughter’s sixth form college for a talk on how we can support our young people through the difficult teenage years. The talk was about how there will be strong differences of opinions on challenging issues, how parents need to remain the adults in the room and that poor communication will only make the situation worse.

Yesterday, here in Parliament—particularly down the other end, I am sad to say, with the words of our Prime Minister—we saw that the language and tone on the issue of Brexit can have the potential to make the divisions on our streets much worse. There is a real possibility of consequences for people in our divided communities and homes. As the noble Earl has said, in this House we champion the right of people to express strongly their views, and we value challenging debate so that we can tease out the realities of the world we are facing. But the many people who are now tuning in to watch Parliament—many more so than normal—do not need to see parliamentarians stoking the divisions and fear in our communities today. They need to see parliamentarians who believe that tone, language, respect and common decency still matter. Does the Minister agree that, for all parliamentarians, from the Prime Minister down, now is the time to remain the adults in the room?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

Yes, I fully agree with everything that the noble Baroness has said. Again, I think that we can cite a good example from our own House on this very set of issues. Earlier this year, the Government published their response to the report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life—so ably chaired at that time by the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and now by the noble Lord, Lord Evans—and have undertaken to take a number of steps arising from its recommendations. These include issuing a public consultation, Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence, and Information; consulting on our Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper—we will publish a DCMS-Home Office White Paper shortly; writing to local authority chief executives to raise awareness about the sensitive interest provisions in the Localism Act 2011; and a lot more. It is important that those strands of work are kept to the fore, particularly if we are to face a general election in the next few weeks or months.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Conservative

My Lords, as a recent refugee from the other place I was dismayed by the tone of last night’s exchanges. I will, however, make a slightly different point from that of my noble friend. The Prime Minister says that he wants a deal. I hope that he gets one, but to do so he will need to get legislation through both Houses and the support of all sides in both Houses. In addition to my noble friend’s arguments about respect, would it not be politic to tone down the invective in order to build the consensus that the Prime Minister will need to bring this Brexit saga to a satisfactory conclusion?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My noble friend makes, as ever, a very powerful point. However, much of the debate of recent hours has conflated two issues which it is important to distinguish between: strongly felt political opinions on the one hand, and unacceptable, abhorrent acts of abuse, hatred, intimidation and violence on the other. We should keep those two things absolutely distinct in our minds.