David Amess: Every MP offered security advice in wake of murder

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Every MP in the UK is being contacted by police today to discuss whether they should step up security measures in the wake of the murder of Sir David Amess.

© Getty Images iStock-1152037744.jpg

Officers will discuss equipment already available to MPs, like panic buttons in office and key fob-style emergency alarms, and security arrangements for public events in the coming days.

The move comes after home secretary Priti Patel ordered a review of MPs’ security, amid intense debate over the balance between safety and public access to elected representatives.

Chief constables are expected to report back to Ms Patel by the end of the weekend, ahead of a statement to the Commons by the home secretary early next week.

Tory MP Tobias Ellwood – who came to the aid of a police officer murdered in a terrorist incident at Westminster in 2017 – has said that MPs should cease face-to-face surgeries while the review is conducted, meeting constituents via internet video services instead.

And senior Conservative backbencher Sir Bernard Jenkin said all meetings with constituents should in future be conducted online, arguing there was no justification for spending police resources on protecting open-door events which he said were “frankly not really necessary”.

But Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle went ahead with a planned surgery on Friday evening, declaring: “We can’t afford for democracy to be smashed. Nobody will beat democracy.”

One of the House of Commons’ most senior MPs, Harriet Harman, today wrote to Boris Johnson asking him to convene a cross-party Speaker’s Conference to examine the safety of MPs outside Westminster.

Ms Harman said change was needed to political practices after the murder of two MPs at constituency surgeries within five years – Sir David in Essex and Batley & Spen’s Jo Cox in West Yorkshire.

“We cannot have the death of an MP being a price worth paying for our democracy,” she said.

“All MPs value that connection with their constituency. That’s why we’re different from other democracies – we don’t go about in armoured cars and only meet in secure offices with police presences. We’re out and about with our constituents, which is not only – we feel – important to them, but also important for us to keep a connection and understanding.

“But I do think that with the second death of an MP in just five years, we do have to consider how we change things. No one wants MPs to hide away, but we’ve got to agree a safe way to do it.”

Speaker’s Conferences are rare political events, happening only once a decade or less, commissioned by the prime minister and chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons, bringing together senior figures from all parties and representatives of public authorities to address fundamental issues of electoral democracy. Earlier conferences have dealt with issues like votes for women and ethnic minority representation.

Ms Harman said that levels of threats have “absolutely” worsened in recent years amid a growing culture of hostility towards MPs. Appealing for the removal of vitriol from political debate, she told Radio 4’s Today programme: “We can’t allow the word ‘politician’ to be a dirty word.”

Jacqui Smith, former Labour home secretary and chair of the Jo Cox Foundation, said that the review by Ms Patel must go beyond simple questions of MPs’ physical safety.

“All of us have a responsibility to protect our democracy, which is so important for this country,” she told BBC Breakfast. “We can’t do that unless we protect and respect those people who are elected as part of it.

“Sometimes for MPs it’s actually quite difficult for them to argue for special treatment, but they are special.

“They are the people who are elected in our democracy to represent us and we all therefore have a responsibility to treat them with respect and to ensure that they’re safe as they go about that job.”

Since the murder of Ms Cox, MPs have been offered advice on physical security in their homes and constituencies under a national police system codenamed Operation Bridger.

MP engagement with the public:

This is a vital part of our work -our accessibility with the public.

But understandable huge anxiety amongst MPs now.

Until the Home Secretary’s review of MP security is complete I would recommend a temporary PAUSE in face to face meetings. pic.twitter.com/TUgf5zYTQP

Tobias Ellwood MP (@Tobias_Ellwood) October 16, 2021

Sir Bernard Jenkin said that he had stopped advertising the location of weekly surgeries, requiring constituents to make appointments before being told the venue.

And he said: “So much is now done online. Covid has changed everything.

“I think there’s a a great understanding in the public after an event like this that we cannot use up massive police resources to protect us doing something that frankly is not really necessary. We have to be available to our constituents, we just have to find other ways of doing that.”

In a statement, a National Police Chiefs’ Council spokesman said: “In light of yesterday’s tragic attack every MP will be contacted individually by Operation Bridger representatives in their local force to discuss their security arrangements, and to ensure they are aware of all advice pertaining to their personal safety and security.

“They will also speak to MPs about security arrangements for any events they are planning to attend in the coming days, so the appropriate advice can be provided.

“We encourage MPs to immediately report any security concerns to their local police force in order to keep themselves, their staff and members of the public attending surgeries safe. Funding is available through the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority for security needs based on threat assessments made by police.”

Ms Harman said she was not arguing for MPs to be given the same level of close security afforded to prime ministers or home secretaries, who are accompanied constantly by plain-clothes officers in a way which many find intrusive to their everyday lives.

But she said: “Since Jo Cox’s tragic killing, we’ve had changes in our home security, we’ve had changes in security in parliament, but we haven’t looked at the issue of how we go about that important business in our constituency, but do it in a safe way. I think we must do that now. We cannot have the death of an MP being a price worth paying for our democracy.”

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