Precarious balance between safety and openness to public
The killing of Sir 大卫·阿姆斯 at a constituency surgery will renew questions over security arrangements for MPs.
Following the murder of Labour’s Jo Cox 在 2016, security was stepped up, with all MPs offered panic buttons, extra lighting and additional locks at their homes and offices, as well as emergency alarm fobs to carry with them.
And Commons Speaker Sir 林赛·霍伊尔 today said that “in the coming days we will need to discuss and examine MPs’ security and any measures to be taken” in the wake of Amess’s death.
But MPs today said that a balance needed to be struck between keeping them safe and allowing constituents easy access for opportunities to raise concerns and worries.
There is a strong attachment to the surgery system which sees MPs operating first-come-first-served discussion sessions with members of the public, and which Sir David himself saw as a crucial means of keeping in close touch with local issues.
In his book Ayes and Ears: A Survivor’s Guide to Westminster, published last year, he wrote of the “great British tradition of meeting constituents” as a fundamental element of the democratic system.
The safety of MPs outside the Houses of Parliament is the responsibility of local police forces but the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has responsibility for approving funding for security procedures.
After Ms Cox was shot and stabbed by a right-wing extremist as she attended a surgery in Birstall, West Yorkshire, changes were made to ensure that MPs were automatically offered security equipment, rather than having to apply for it.
And they were advised by police and parliamentary authorities not to meet constituents alone, as well as to be more careful when opening mail and to improve security around their homes and offices.
In the four months after Ms Cox’s death, MPs spent around £640,000 on additional security measures, four times as much as in the whole of the previous year, according to Ipsa figures.
Some moved all surgeries to constituency offices where they could be accompanied by staff and had access to alarm systems. Others introduced booking systems to limit numbers and control access.
But others, particularly those representing large geographical areas, continued to conduct sessions in churches and community halls all around their constituency and to speak with any member of the public who turned up to raise an issue.
Ms Cox’s death was the first murder of a sitting MP in 25 年. But it came after the stabbing of Labour MP Stephen Timms at a constituency surgery in 2010 and a samurai sword attack on Liberal Democrat Nigel Jones as he met constituents in Cheltenham in 2000, which resulted in the death of his aide Andrew Pennington.
Security at the Palace of Westminster itself was stepped up following the 2017 murder of a policeman stabbed at the Carriage Gates by an Islamist extremist, who was himself shot dead. Armed police were stationed at all entrances, while the physical barriers at the gates to parliament were also strengthened.
Sir David’s predecessor as MP for Basildon, Harvey Proctor, said it was now “time to consider again the security of MPs, especially when they are present at fixed events and times such as constituency surgeries”.
And veteran MP David Davis said that concerns over security had shifted in recent years from revolving largely around Irish terrorist gangs towards the threat from violent individuals.
“This is something that is new,” Mr Davis told Sky News. “We will have to think about this. There is a sort of acidity in public life, possibly because of social media, possibly because of fiercely divisive issues. There is a real issue, particularly with more women and more younger people in the House.”
But Mr Davis added: “David of all people would not want us to answer that by putting more distance between ourselves and others. That is the opposite of what he stood for.
“There will be a limit to what we can do. We live in an open society, we are not the sort of society where we are surrounded by bodyguards. And David wouldn’t want that.”
Former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith 说: “The reality for us is that we see constituents all the time, both in their houses and in surgeries, we’re out and about, we’re always available, we must be available. It’s the most critical bit of what makes the British parliamentary system I think one of the most accessible in the world.
“That’s because we want it that way and we don’t want to be cowed or frightened into doing something different and I certainly won’t and I know my colleagues will feel the same.”
While it was sometimes possible to have policemen posted outside surgery sessions, it was often “not practical” to institute significantly tighter security, said Sir Iain.
And Tory MP Shailesh Vara pointed out that it was not only at surgery events that MPs are exposed to encounters with unknown members of the public.
“It’s difficult to say how much more security there can be,” said Mr Vara. “MPs attend various functions and leaflets are sent out to people saying they will be attending.
“A few days ago, I attended the reopening of a village hall, and the message had gone out that I would be attending. It’s difficult when you go to an event like that to say that people need to be policed or checked. I don’t think it’s possible.”