Harriet Harman says the abuse of MPs has got so bad it is now a “threat to our democracy” as Bermondsey and Old Southwark MP Neil Coyle reveals his team have been attacked and spat on and he carries a personal alarm after receiving death threats.
A report published this month by the House of Commons Human Rights Committee describes how reported intimidation and abuse is just the “tip of the iceberg” as many members suffer in silence or are reluctant to file complaints.
Evidence heard by its authors showed how women MPs and particularly those from minority backgrounds experience the most abuse.
Shockingly, black women politicians are nearly twice as likely as their white peers to be abused on Twitter.
Stats from the Met back up the claims, with Cressida Dick describing the current situation as “unprecedented”.
In 2017, there were 151 crimes reported by MPs across the country, increasing by 126 per cent in 2018 to 342.
From January to April alone in 2019, there were 152 such crimes, only counting as a fraction of the total number of incidents of which police were made aware.
Coyle says that although the abuse and threats he experiences pales in comparison to that of some colleagues, his team have been attacked – including being spat on – in their Jamaica Road office in Bermondsey.
On that occasion, the man responsible had to be wrestled to the ground in front of children during a weekly advice surgery, while staff called 999.
The office’s windows have been smashed, and he has been targeted at both work and his home address – including with death threats.
“I consider myself an aggressive campaigner who fights my corner. What I believe in some people think is too aggressive, but there is a difference between aggressive campaigning and outright abuse,” he said.
“The bit that frightens me is anyone who threatens my daughter and my wife.”
The committee’s chair, Camberwell and Peckham MP Harriet Harman, said threats and abuse, often arising from political differences, were eroding British democracy.
“We cannot have a situation where many MPs are looking over their shoulder, keeping their head down, restricting their advice surgeries and reluctant to go on public transport on their own at night,” she said.
“Parliament is keen to get on with tackling other people’s problems but notoriously slow to address our own, fearing accusations that we’re feathering our own nest.
“And we’re rightly even more wary if it could be alleged that what we’re doing is against the public right to demonstrate, their freedom of expression and protest.
“There needs to be a zero tolerance of threats to MPs. That is not free speech. It’s a threat to our democracy”.
Coyle says his approach is not to feed “trolls” – many of whom are looking for a reaction – But when it comes to the extremes of credible death threats and physical violence, there needs to be more clarity around what security is available to MPs as a matter of course, and who pays, he argues.
CCTV at his office has helped prosecute offenders, but Coyle says some MPs have been told they cannot have similar protection put in place.
Harman’s report says online companies, such as social media giants, are failing to self-regulate, and recommended that parties take a strong line against any of their own members responsible.
The committee will also be scrutinising any new government legislation that could help prosecute offenders.
But the language among MPs themselves has also been questioned, after increasingly toxic levels of insult-hurling both in and outside the chamber.
Neil Coyle previously pledged he would tone down his vociferous twitter habit after complaints from the public – including stalwart Bermondsey Labour members – over his crude language.
But he had no truck with the notion and that MPs themselves are part of the problem.
“99.9% of people do not support the actions of thugs who think this is OK,” he said. “Just being a normal human being, you know the line.
“There’s disagreeing with my policies and then there’s telling me to die.”