It was only when he mentioned the knife that we started to panic inside

The man sat, twisted on the chair in front of us.

He was clearly agitated, veering between frustrated anger and incoherence.

Life had not been kind to him and his behaviour and choices hadn’t helped him.

We were the outlet for his frustrations.

We were the staff in an MP’s office. We dealt with these sorts of frustrations on a regular basis, doing everything we could to help. We made it a rule that we would never turn anyone away and we always promised them that we would do everything within our power for them. We couldn’t guarantee success, but we were on their side.

The man got up and walked around the office shouting. Then he’d sit down again and the cycle would repeat.

It was only when he mentioned that he sometimes carried a knife that we started to panic a bit. The door to the room was between the man and us. The windows, two storeys up from the busy High Street did not offer any possibility of escape.

Stuff suddenly felt very real. 

We were able to reassure him and eventually he left of his own accord.

Afterwards we spoke to the Police. Their knowledge, both specific and general, led them to believe that he most likely was carrying a knife. They gave us advice as to how to proceed in the future.

Last year, a Commons Administration Committee report highlighted concerns raised by MPs about security in their constituency offices:

Members and their staff however frequently raised concerns about lack of security in constituency offices. Many staff were appreciative of constituency visits by security staff and the resulting recommendations for office security. However, it was felt that the limitations of the office allowance that could be claimed through IPSA meant offices could often only be situated in out of town areas, or deprived areas of town, where rentals were below premium, and that this had potential implications for the security of staff.

We couldn’t afford a shop front with access to the street and a means of escape out of parliamentary allowances.

I tell you this not because this is an unusual situation.

Virtually every person who goes to an MP or councillor for help is no risk to anyone. That needs to be emphasised. However, every MP or councillor will at least once or twice during their service find themselves in a situation where they are worried about their safety.

 

On a lower level, most will fairly regularly get abuse of some sort, especially over social media. I’ve seen experienced members of staff reduced to tears by aggressive members of the public.  The behaviour of a very few people borders on harassment.

People who ramp up the idea that politicians are all a useless waste of space have clearly never been one. I remember one new councillor getting a phone call at 6am the morning after the by-election with a bit of urgent casework. An MP’s working week starts at the crack of dawn on a Monday and finishes, well, it doesn’t really. There are always Sunday events in the constituency that require their attendance, emails to respond to and meetings to prepare for.  It’s a great job to have, no doubt, but it’s an exhausting one. In more than three decades in politics, sure, I’ve met some people who disgrace it, but the vast majority, in all parties, have been decent people who want to make the world a better place.

The media have an important job in holding governments to account, but they often whip up baseless, generalised anti-politician sentiment. They don’t stop there, though. Benefit claimants, asylum seekers, anyone vulnerable get the sharp end of the tabloids’ keyboards. To suggest that these publications have no influence on underlying national mood is ridiculous. If there’s talk about getting our country back, it should involve wresting its portrayal from large, rich media corporations who have an axe to grind against an EU who’s trying to control them.

MPs won’t hide away, nor will councillors after the brutal murder of Jo Cox.  They can’t do that and serve their constituents properly so they will show courage, keep calm and carry on. The brutality we saw this week is at the same time very rare and too frequent but every MP will have a story of when they felt uneasy. The Expenses Scandal created a climate where people resented every penny spent on MPs including their staffing costs. Perhaps we need to think more about all aspects of safety when planning their property allowances and perhaps allowing staff overtime payments so MPs are never left (as some of my acquaintance have been) on their own at isolated surgery locations where they pick up the key and lock up after themselves.

 

 

 

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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8 Comments

  • Someone I have known for years committed suicide while on remand in prison last year. He was an obsessive campaigner for the rights of fathers, loud and probably a bit intimidating if you didn’t know that he was actually intelligent and peaceable. But to local politicians, and particularly the MP, and to the police he was a nuisance. Our MP had a court order banning him from his surgeries, or from contacting him or his staff by phone, letter or email, or from approaching him or his staff. His arrest seemed like a payback by the authorities for all the trouble he had caused and the remand without justification for the particular offence with which he was charged. He clearly needed help – and had probably had plenty over the years – but I don’t know what could have made a difference. I helped him where I could, but I was not a target for his anger. Had I been the MP I would probably have felt considerable trepidation as to what he might have been capable of in extremis.

  • I advertised my latest ward surgery this week – but unlike ever before I hesitated. I’m advertising where I’ll be, I know I will be alone, and just supposing someone did come and get aggressive (or unhappy about an issue I hadn’t sorted) would I know what to do?

    I’ve thought about who I’d contact, what my escape route would be, and the signs I’d look for as warnings that the situation might be risky.

    All very sensible, and I should emphasise that I’ve never had a problem before, and everyone who’s come has been pleased to see someone on their side. But the last few days have made me think very deeply about personal safety and accessibility. I’m sure it’s a much bigger issue at MP level, and I really hope the outcome of this isn’t for elected representatives to shy away from local surgeries.

  • Tpfkar – No-one should ever do a surgery alone. You need to find some way that offers you greater protection.

    MPs usually have a staff member or volunteer with them – I did it many times for my MP. Councillors could arrange for two of them to be meeting people in adjacent rooms or in a public space where others are around.

  • Colin Green 19th Jun '16 - 8:55pm

    I remember chatting to my local MP when waiting for an event to start. She said, after one difficult advice surgery, that she always aranged the table so she was next to the door and the constitituents were the other side of the table, so she could make a quick escape the next time she was threatened.

    It’s not just MPs of course. Teachers, doctors and nurses, restaurant and bar staff, anyone who works with the public are subject to threats and abuse.

  • Tpfkar – some useful tips (I’m a teacher and have been a councillor too so these do work.)

    1. Keep your back to the door – or at very least, keep the door side-on to you so you can make an escape if you need to.

    2. Keep your mobile on the desk, open and ready – you could pre-program an emergency number so all you have to do is hit redial.

    3. Try to have someone else around – even if it’s just the caretaker of the village hall – who can see or hear what is happening.

    4. Think about where you have your surgeries. Could you have them in a more public area? There’s an increasing trend for MSPs to have their surgeries in supermarkets or public areas – could you do this too? There’s the added benefit of being seen.

    5. An appointment system, I think, works best – I know some councillors who only have surgeries but do them during the day when many people are at work.

  • My advice, for what it’s worth…..”DON’T PANIC”…..

  • “People who ramp up the idea that politicians are all a useless waste of space have clearly never been one”

    The all is the issue, the four LibDem MPs I have had have been known for excellent local representatives, but the safe Labour and Tory seats I have lived in have been much less so. One Labour seat I was in the MP was completely useless. On the one issue I ever had to discuss (functioning of the benefit law he had voted on) he and his staff were clearly completely incapable of grasping a very simple concept.

    “wresting its portrayal from large, rich media corporations who have an axe to grind against an EU who’s trying to control them”

    I think you are looking for too much conspiracy where it is simple short term incentives to blame. People like over simplified scandalous stories that allow the to feel outraged and morally superior, the media simply supplies to meet thet demand.

    “The Expenses Scandal created a climate where people resented every penny spent on MPs including their staffing costs”

    I’m not sure it had to be that way. I think the response (a body of the great and the good to oversee the situation) turned what was initial outrage in to hardened cynicism. If we had seen a better response (with a better naming convention/status of certain costs) we could have avoided the opportunity for exploitation by journalists looking to fill column inches with a “shocking” story.

    All that said only a limited amount can be done if we are dealing with a domestic terrorist. So basic security will help a bit but some things are too unpredictable.

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