The intimidation of public office holders, particularly on social media, has been a regular feature of Committee discussion in recent years. Indeed, the impact of social media and the need to recognise public service have been on the Committee’s mind for some time and were both raised by a number of contributors at our recent horizon-scanning event.
Today the Prime Minister has announced that she has asked the Committee to carry out a review to look at:
The intimidation of Parliamentary candidates, including those who stood in the recent election, and the implications for other candidates for public office and public office holders. The review will examine the nature of the problem and consider whether measures already in place to address such behaviour are sufficient to protect the integrity of public service; and whether such measures are effective, especially given the rise of social media, and enforceable.
We have been asked to produce a report for the Prime Minister, including recommendations for action focused on what could be done in the short- and long-term, and identifying examples of good practice.
It’s not a typical piece of work for us. Our role - promoting the Nolan principles of public life - focuses on promoting high standards of public office holders themselves, but we have agreed to conduct this piece of work because of the wider negative impact on public life.
How candidates for office and holders of office are treated inevitably has an impact on who is willing to stand for office, how those in office conduct themselves, and how they relate to members of the public. The Nolan principles of public life rely on the existence of a shared understanding of procedures and practices within a broader public culture of civility, tolerance and mutual respect. It is difficult to promote and encourage the implementation of the Nolan principles without addressing concerns about changes in that wider culture.
Intolerance and vitriolic behaviour have not been confined to representatives of any single party: Yvette Cooper, Sheryll Murray, Byron Davies and Diane Abbott have all talked candidly about this issue. Neither will this review seek to reduce the role of legitimate scrutiny of those standing or holding public office from legitimate scrutiny by the public of the press which is a critical function of our democracy.
I am clear that this is not to be a case of ‘special pleading’ on behalf of MPs; indeed, the Committee has a reputation for producing evidence-based recommendations that have not always been easy for Parliament to swallow. Equally, any recommendations we make will have relevance for others who serve the public. But recent abuse and intimidation of election candidates and other public figures, and the wider issues about the role and treatment of those in public service must be discussed and addressed. The public have a right to be angry and hostile on occasions – but, if the political culture is to respond constructively to people’s concerns, it cannot be in an atmosphere of intimidation, demeaning personal abuse, and threats of violence.
These issues have touched MPs across the political spectrum, of which the tragic murder of Jo Cox in 2016 serves as a shocking, extreme example. The First report from this Committee, under the Chairmanship of Lord Nolan, makes much of the proud tradition of public service in the UK. So many important institutions – Parliament, schools, public bodies, juries - rely on individuals stepping forward to serve the public. Taking a public role carries responsibilities of its own, but should not leave anyone living in fear.
We hope that anyone with an interest in or experience of these issues will contribute to this piece of work. More details will be published on our website in due course.