Are councillors safe? #DebateNotHate

Jason Lowther

Earlier this summer the Press Association reported an attack on an Edinburgh Councillor who was said to be very shaken up after he was confronted by a man he reported as ‘hurling verbal abuse’ at him as he was delivering leaflets in his ward at about 11.10am on Sunday, continuing ‘he then put his hand up to my throat and he then pushed the leaflet down the top of my shirt’ (PA Newswire: Scotland, 7 August 2022).  This isn’t an isolated incident, although media and government attention has often been focused on threats to British MPs, such as the tragic murder of Jo Cox, and violent conflicts in the USA.

The LGA submitted evidence to the 2019 House of Commons review of intimidation in public life, giving several examples of the intimidation of councillors including:

  • A Sandwell councillor’s car was forced off the road, and the authority used a court injunction to stop an abuser approaching two councillors.
  • A young female Conservative councillor decided not to stand for election again, citing the abuse she faced.
  • A disabled former council leader stayed away from a council meeting because he feared for his safety.
  • Abusive messages were sent to an Isle of Wight councillor’s daughter in the run up to a controversial decision.

The 2017 review of Intimidation in Public Life by the Committee on Standards in Public Life made recommendations to government, social media companies, political parties, the police, and others about the measures needed to deal with intimidation, which the Committee described as ‘a threat to the very nature of representative democracy in the UK’.  Three years on, the Dec 2020 progress report welcomed greater protections by social media companies, whilst noting the companies had still not enabled users to escalate potential illegal content online to the police.  All of the Westminster political parties have established Codes of Conduct that explicitly prohibit bullying, harassment and unlawful discrimination and some (the Labour Party, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party) have signed the joint statement of conduct against intimidation.

Just over a year ago, LGA Labour Group leader Cllr Nick Forbes called for a ‘zero-tolerance approach’ to the harassment of councillors and a ‘change in the law to protect us’ (Municipal Journal, 21 October 2021).  He recalled abuse over social media and dog mess being put through his door.  At the same meeting of the LGA’s executive advisory board, LGA deputy chair, Cllr Tudor Evans, who has been subject to a death threat, said: “we can’t tolerate this anymore”.  The meeting received a report which recommended a campaign focused on detoxifying public political discourse and improving the response to unacceptable behaviour, as well as developing a code of conduct for councillors.

Some guidance and support is available.  The LGA has published advice for councillors on handling intimidation, which it defines as “words and/or behaviour intended or likely to block or deter participation in public debate, which could lead to an individual wanting to withdraw from public life”.  The guidance includes the organisation of ward surgeries, such as avoiding holding solo surgeries in otherwise empty buildings, advice on home security, managing social media contact, and how to handle visitors to the councillor’s home address.  There’s also useful advice for councils on how they can support councillor safety. 

But more needs to be done. It is never acceptable for councillors to have to choose between feeling safe and serving their community. It’s wrong that social media companies don’t facilitate reporting to the police. All political parties should be signed up to conduct against intimidation. All councils should be reviewing the LGA advice to ensure their elected members are as safe as possible, and government should provide funding for the necessary security measures. As the Committee on Standards in Public Life concluded in a blog on progress since their report: “Intimidation and abuse have no place in a healthy democracy”.

Jason Lowther is the Director of INLOGOV. His research focuses on public service reform and the use of “evidence” by public agencies.  Previously he worked with West Midlands Combined Authority, led Birmingham City Council’s corporate strategy function, worked for the Audit Commission as national value for money lead, for HSBC in credit and risk management, and for the Metropolitan Police as an internal management consultant. He tweets as @jasonlowther

Picture credit: guystuffcounseling.com/

Handforth and the acoustics of local democracy

Kevin Harris

“Underlying the democratic ideal of government by consent of the governed is… the consent of the governed to behave themselves” (Jacobs, 2004, p. 211)

What might Jane Jacobs have had to say about recent challenges to democracy – like the prorogation of the UK parliament, the assault on the US capitol, Myanmar, and the fraught tragi-comedy of Handforth Parish Council’s infamous committee meeting? The expectation that the governed should behave themselves surely extends to those elected to govern. But our representatives sometimes disregard this, dismissing codes of conduct and protocols, as the Committee on Standards in Public Life has found. In my limited experience as a community council clerk I witnessed some of the consequences, having had to ensure on one occasion that police were on hand for a full council meeting, following a reported threat of disruption. It’s not so fanciful to see a connection between the villages of Washington DC and Handforth, Cheshire. Nonetheless, there may be a positive indirect consequence for local democracy, which I shall come to.

I do not propose to re-measure the hole that Handforth councillors dug themselves into. The episode was referred to by the Society of Local Council Clerks as “superficially amusing” while it exemplifies syndromic bullying behaviours. At the same time, if the celebrated Jackie Weaver has entertained many, there seems little doubt that she was out of order. The puzzle that remains unsolved (for me, at least) was posed parenthetically by David Allen Green in a heavily-commented post: “who can exclude a disruptive chair if the chair is disruptive?” I refer my right honourable friend to the quotation I gave earlier.

For those of us who have been keen to see a higher profile for parish and community councils, the Handforth incident is Fate’s Reminder to be careful what you wish for. And for all the comment generated – much of it showcasing a forensic fascination with regulatory niceties – what has struck me is how little of it acknowledges how local people have been forsaken by the institution designed to represent them.

There are two elephants in the zoom. One is the alpha male whose sense of power tramples his sense of responsibility (‘trump’ might be a better verb to use, but for the entangling of metaphors). The SLCC calls for “a dramatic strengthening of the standards regime”. Hmm, how dramatic would you like?

The other is democracy’s reliance on an impenetrable bureaucratic skin. It’s hard to see how the regulatory framework can be reduced, and Handforth may have given cause to extend it. But its effects can be countered, and there are all sorts of devices for that. As a clerk I wanted councillors to host, in turn, one each month, an informal reception (refreshments of course) immediately before each council meeting, inviting all residents from their zone (ward). And keep doing it. A few people we didn’t know, would have come. In time, the democratic return on investment would surely be visible in terms of the numbers who stayed on for at least part of the meeting, those who raised issues, and those who voted at the next election.

I failed to persuade my management group of any virtues in this idea, but had I stayed longer in post I think I could have got this and similar notions established. Democracy needs diligent ongoing maintenance, not frantic last-minute repairs.

To me, a key point about town and parish councils – now sometimes called ‘ultra-local councils’ – is that among their powers is a rather special informal convening power. They are able quickly, and usually a-politically, to bring together agencies (including principal authorities, police, health, schools etc), local businesses, community groups and residents to focus on specific local issues and get them sorted. This is oddly under-appreciated, not least by principal authorities. And it points to the need, when talking about democratic revitalisation, to ensure reference to the community sector, which can function as a democracy sandpit, default care provider, lightning-conductor for issues, and social responsibility conscience for councils.

Well, we now have a parish council in England that has become a huge embarrassment to its residents. The technology made a difference: Jackie Weaver’s performance would have been impossible in a face-to-face meeting. Meanwhile, councils in all tiers apparently have reported increased participation through online meetings. Bryony Rudkin offered insightful councillor’s reflections on the comparison with face-to-face meetings, on this channel recently. Now the government is under pressure to remove, permanently, the legal requirement for councils to meet in person.

I observe that public debate over the past year, in and out of lockdown, has acknowledged the reality that many families do not have anything like adequate technology to participate in a virtual society: so at least that argument doesn’t have to be made, does it? How then are hybrid meetings going to function against the risk of exclusion (the affluent signing in from home, with their intimidating bookshelf-backdrops; the rest huddling round a phone on threadbare broadband)? Do we expect those who would not have been likely to attend a formal council meeting before, and who cannot participate online, suddenly to be so excited at the prospect of a Weaveresque fracas that they’ll be queuing at the door?

There will have to be guidance for hybrid meetings, for all tiers. I’d like to see strong recommendation that councils fund community centres to host large-screen streaming. Community development workers will want to set these up anyway – refreshments, creche, homework corner, publicity; and someone on hand to give a little introduction and explain procedural necessities, to ‘sub-chair’ participation from the ‘annexe’, and provide feedback to officers. Councillors and officers should be encouraged to participate from these locations.

Forget the Handforth cacophony, maybe this is a chance to improve the acoustics of local democracy.

Kevin Harris is a PhD student at INLOGOV, researching into democratic voice and community action in local councils. He was previously a community development consultant and Chief Officer at Queen’s Park Community Council in London (2017-2019).

Photo source: https://www.swingdebates.com/news/handforth-parish-council/

References

Committee on Standards in Public Life, 2019. Local government ethical standards:  a review. Committee on Standards in Public Life, London.

Jacobs, J., 2004. Dark age ahead. Random House, New York.