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”.
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