Parliament is moving towards a special inquiry into the abuse and harassment of MPs after repeated threats and other forms of intimidation in relation to Brexit and other issues.
The proposal for a Speaker’s conference was made by Harriet Harman and Ken Clarke, the longest-serving female MP and male MP in parliament. A panel of cross-party MPs will examine evidence and make recommendations for police, prosecutors and others.
Harman, a Labour MP since 1982, said the idea was first considered more than a year ago, but had been lent fresh impetus by the barracking and abuse of MPs such as Anna Soubry by pro-Brexit protestors outside parliament in recent weeks.
The panel would consider how best to balance the right to protest with helping MPs carry on with their jobs, Harman told reporters.
“People have got to have freedom of expression, to get into groups. And that’s something we’ve got to be champions of. But we’ve also got to balance that with the ability of MPs to do their job freely. And once somebody has been voted for, whatever I think of them, they’ve got to get on and do their job, however they see fit to do it,” she said.
The special inquiry would have to be approved and formally established by the Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow.
To promote the move, Harman has put together a dossier of dangers faced by MPs in recent years, including the murder of Jo Cox, the plot by a neo-Nazi to kill another Labour MP, Rosie Cooper, and as well as dozens of other incidents covering threats, abuse and other issues.
MPs had tended to play down such problems, said Harman, who had to call police to a constituency surgery in 2016 when someone threatened her staff, and in 2008 was forced to leave her home after protesters from Fathers for Justice scaled the roof.
“We are colluding with the idea that we are the sort of people who it’s right for people to abuse in the street, like they abused Anna Soubry. We’ve got to say: we do not deserve that,” she said. “We don’t want MPs who are looking over their shoulders when they are going out.”
Harman said she was hopeful Bercow would back the move. Next week, she will chair a session of parliament’s joint commission on human rights, which will hear evidence from MPs representing their party’s backbenchers on the scale of the problem.
MPs, Harman said, tended to be less good at sorting out issues within parliament than legislating for problems affecting people more widely: “We don’t do it for ourselves, but we do need to.”
She said she wanted the Speaker’s conference to begin as soon as possible, and rapidly come up with recommendations.
One argument for a low-key police response to activists like the self-styled Westminster “yellow vest” protesters outside parliament has been to avoid making them martyrs by being arrested.
This should be considered by the conference, Harman said, but added that she did not think there was validity to the idea. “My judgment is we are beyond that point, because MPs are changing the way they go about things. It’s not because they’re snowflakes, it’s because their personal experiences are making them feel that’s what they need to do.
“In a way, that ship of ignore it and see if they go away as already sailed, and Brexit means it doesn’t seem it will die down any time soon.”