Intimidation in Public Life — [Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]

Part of Secondary School Standards: East Cleveland – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire 2:30 pm, 21st May 2019

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. I have been told by colleagues only in the last few days that they do not want to draw attention to their plight in this debate for exactly those reasons. At home I have a shed full of election boards with swastikas and various other semi-artistic contributions that people put on them. The hon. Lady and I may be able to stomach that kind of thing, but it is about the effect on our staff, families, volunteers and voters.

When MPs are accused of being thin-skinned, it sometimes strikes me that Parliament would be a terrible place if it consisted only of the thick-skinned, because with thick skin comes occasionally the temptation to dismiss or be somehow unsympathetic to the causes that are brought to our attention. I commend thin-skinned Members of Parliament. Although none of us will ever admit to being thin-skinned, there should be no harm in privately admitting it to ourselves.

As my hon. Friend Andrew Percy said, it undermines the fundamentals of democracy that people who want simply to exercise their democratic right in public by expressing a voting preference, making a donation that might appear on a register or engaging in some other quite modest and discreet way, should not be allowed to do so free from prejudice and discrimination. If nothing else, we owe it not to Members of Parliament but to all those who make the democratic wheels turn to make them feel that they can do so free of that risk.

Going back to 2017 when we lasted debated this issue, everybody in the room, including the Minister, agreed that something must done. The Minister commented:

“The Government are determined that no candidate—regardless of their party, background, race, ethnicity or sexuality—should be forced to tolerate abuse, online or offline, whether it is physical abuse or the threat of violence or intimidation. It is utterly unacceptable in our modern democracy, which we believe is an inclusive and tolerant one, for the incidents of abuse discussed today to be allowed to go on unchallenged.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2017;
Vol. 627, c. 168WH.]

That was in July 2017. Are we in a kinder and gentler place than we were then? Is politics a more refined profession? There will be many views on that. We may expect another electoral event coming down the tracks some time in the next few months or years. There could be another referendum, God forbid. There could be another general election. We may have thought that 2017 was bad, but unless we do something by the next wave of electoral events, this time it could be really bad.

The Government will no doubt explain their position, and they have made a lot of progress, but not much has changed since 2017. If things do not change by the next opportunity that people have to engage in a campaign of one sort or another, we will have only ourselves to blame. The reason for that is simple. In the past 12 months alone, reports of threats of this nature have doubled. The head of UK counter-terrorism policing said that 152 crimes had been reported by MPs between January and April this year. That is a 90% increase on the same period last year. The number of offences reported by MPs in 2018 increased by 126% on the previous year.

Despite the best of intentions by us all and the Government and other agencies in 2017, the facts speak for themselves: we are in a worse position than when all this last bubbled to the surface. In the last year we have seen Members pilloried as Nazis as they make their way to Millbank for media commitments and journalists subjected to precisely the same abuse, to the extent that the media operation, which used to be a regular feature down the road in the open spaces between here and Millbank, has been driven slowly but surely into the more secure confines of this building. I suspect that that is not a forward step for democracy. Crown Prosecution Service guidelines have been rewritten to account for the current situation. The Deputy Speaker has had to write to MPs about security arrangements in their constituency offices and in their own homes.