Magenta Security’s Abbey Petkar considers the security challenges faced by our political representatives.
According to official figures: 342 crimes towards MPs and their staff were committed in 2018 and just four months into 2019 the number was already at 152.
Polarised opinion on current political and social issues were blamed for this increase in criminal behaviour directed towards MPs and their staff, with women and minorities disproportionately targeted. These offences occur both online and off. MPs and their staff are no stranger to vitriolic messages from internet trolls, but both the volume and violence of the messages has spiked since the run up to the Brexit referendum with no sign of slowing.
While there have been some arrests – many MPs have said that they receive death threats daily with no repercussions. We can hope that continued arrests of criminals hiding behind their keyboards will help to deter others from sending violent messages, but the sheer scale of the problem is currently beyond police control.
One of the greatest features of the UK’s political system is the access that we have to our politicians, with most MPs holding regular surgeries where constituents can meet them directly to raise their concerns. But this public access is undermined when MPs don’t feel like they can meet the public safely. Jo Cox was murdered on her way to a constituency surgery and videos have emerged of MPs being heckled as “traitors” during their surgeries.
Being an MP is a public service, and one that we should respect even when we do not share their views. If our direct access to MPs is reduced as a result of violent actions and language, democracy is weakened to the detriment of us all.
We are at risk of not just our access to MPs but the diversity of MPs that represent us. It’s no mistake that harassment and abuse is disproportionately directed towards women and minorities, the objective of such harassment is to intimidate them out of the political system. If we cannot guarantee the safety of MPs, candidates and their staff, our political system will become less democratic and less diverse.
With Brexit being kicked further and further along, Parliament has to be prepared for the fact that MPs are going to continue to be victims or harassment and other criminal behaviour.
There should be a dedicated budget which goes directly towards MP security, including provisions to hire private security guards for their offices and for public appearances so as not to overstretch the police force. If the only MPs and candidates who feel safe enough to appear in public are those who can afford private security, then we end up with another blow to our diversity of public representatives. For example, Nigel Farage has been known to spend over £15,000 of public money a day on his security team during his tours.
With recent expenses scandals and public trust of MPs at a historic low, it’s unlikely there would be much public support for MPs being given a security budget to manage themselves, so a separate organisation within government needs serious consideration to take care of the security requirements and concerns of MPs.
Security suppliers could be paid directly by this organisation rather than by MPs themselves to prevent alleged misuse of expenses and to ensure that any security guards hired have been properly vetted and carry qualifications for providing security in a public place.