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

Part of Secondary School Standards: East Cleveland – in Westminster Hall at 3:38 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs 3:38 pm, 21st May 2019

I congratulate Simon Hart on securing this debate. He posed the question of whether the levels of intimidation in public life that we all face have got better or worse since the last time we debated this issue. I reflected that since we last discussed this matter, I took some time away from this place because I had a baby. I was shocked that the abuse that is received not just by politicians but by their family members extended even to a baby who was just a few days old, because somebody on social media decided that it was okay to wish that my baby would die. I felt that was very shocking. I had got used to the idea that, because I stood for public office and was a Member of this House, such abuse was almost part of the job and sort of expected. I did not, however, expect a tiny baby to be on the receiving end of such abuse, so I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate today. I know he will continue to champion this issue until we rid ourselves of this scourge and the way that political debate has gone in this country.

Intimidation, including death threats, criminal damage, sexism, racism, homophobia and antisemitism, has no place in our democracy, but all those kinds of abuse have been raised in our debate. On behalf of the Opposition, I condemn any action that undermines the integrity of our electoral process and our wider democratic values. It is clear that no Member of the House, and certainly no Member taking part in the debate, will be intimidated by these people; regardless of the abuse scrawled on our offices, written on social media or screamed at us in the street, we will continue to do our job as parliamentarians and stand up for the values that we believe in and that the vast majority of our constituents obviously elect us for.

Unfortunately, violence against politicians is not particularly new. In 2010, my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms was stabbed at an advice surgery, and the phenomenon was certainly brought home for us in 2016 with the tragic murder of our friend Jo Cox. In recent days, we have seen the conviction of a man for a credible plot to murder my hon. Friend Rosie Cooper. These cases are probably quite prominent in the public mind, but Members who have taken part in the debate, and many Members who were too afraid to take part, have experienced many more.

Candidates are often targeted because of their gender, sexuality or ethnicity, which reflects the wider context of discrimination that targets individuals on the basis of their identity. Particularly concerning is the scale of abuse experienced by women MPs and the emergence of an organised far-right presence on the streets of British cities and across Europe.

The exponential growth of social media has caused the level of abuse to rise in recent years, with online platforms creating unprecedented levels of transparency in political discourse but reducing the perceived barrier between the electorate and politicians. Andrew Percy really brought that home to us when explaining how he has come off social media, which in many ways disadvantages him as a local politician as he is not able to have direct contact with his constituents. There is no easy, single solution to address this problem, and the Opposition welcome the package of recommendations outlined by the Committee on Standards in Public Life for the Government, social media companies, political parties, the police, broadcast and print media, MPs and parliamentary candidates.

Turning to potential cross-party actions, it is worth prefixing that with the recognition that many abusers, particularly anonymous trolls on the internet, may not be members of a political party. This complex issue requires those across public life to work together, and the Opposition welcome the cross-party action taking place in response to the committee’s inquiry. On 27 March, representatives of the Labour party, the Green party, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party attended the second meeting held by the committee, during which Labour put forward our initial proposal for a joint code of conduct, providing a suggested framework that could be adopted by political parties. That was one of the committee’s recommendations, and we await feedback from other parties.

In response, the committee’s chair, Lord Evans, said:

“It is clear that political parties have done a great deal of work internally to address intimidatory behaviour and improve their own processes to call out and address unacceptable behaviour where they can. Building on that, there is goodwill and commitment from those political parties who attended our meeting on 27 March to make further joint progress.”

Although representatives of the Conservative party and Plaid Cymru were not able to attend that meeting, we are pleased that those parties have confirmed their commitment to making further joint progress. I thank the Minister for that. I am sure that Members across the House welcome the Jo Cox Foundation agreeing to act as independent support for that cross-party work.

The Labour party’s rules make it clear that abuse, bullying or intimidation of any kind are considered grossly detrimental or prejudicial to the Labour party, and that members engaging in such behaviour can expect to be subject to our disciplinary procedures. In September 2016, our national executive committee agreed a members’ pledge and a new social media code of conduct to further address concerns about bullying and harassment. We are considering ways in which our existing codes of conduct can be strengthened in response to the Committee’s inquiry, and we are reviewing the ways in which we use digital media and communications to clearly communicate to both existing and new members our party’s rules and expectations about the standard of behaviour that we expect to be upheld.

The Cabinet Office has a key role in ensuring that sufficient safeguards are in place to protect parliamentary candidates and party campaigners from intimidation. I thank the Minister for making moves to ensure that, for the very first time, home addresses were not on ballot papers for local election candidates this May. I know he looked into doing that for candidates in the European parliamentary elections, but unfortunately it was not possible due to the very tight timeframe. This is a good step in the right direction. I am sorry that it has come to this, but it is right that local election candidates have the same protections as those who stand for this House.