David Amess: Review of MP security ordered after attack at constituency surgery

Precarious balance must be struck between safety and openness to public

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Friday 15 October 2021 22:44
MP David Amess dead after stabbing at constituency surgery

Home Secretary Priti Patel has ordered an immediate review of MPs security in the wake of the killing of Sir David Amess in his Southend constituency.

Ms Patel spoke with Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle in the hours after the veteran MP’s death.

Sir Lindsay vowed that Westminster authorities would not “rest on our laurels” but would reassess security arrangements that were heightened following the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016.

But MPs said that a balance needs to be struck between keeping them safe and allowing constituents easy access so that they have the opportunity to raise concerns and air opinions.

Following talks with Sir Lindsay on Friday afternoon, a spokesperson for Ms Patel said: “The home secretary has asked all police forces to review security arrangements for MPs with immediate effect and will provide updates in due course.”

Sir Lindsay said that Commons business will be devoted to tributes to Sir David when MPs return from their autumn break on Monday, adding: “Afterwards, we will take out further measures if needed.”

The speaker acknowledged that many MPs will be concerned about their safety in constituency “surgeries” of the kind where Sir David was repeatedly stabbed on Friday, where members of the public are invited to raise issues face-to-face.

But he said he would personally be going ahead with a planned surgery in his Chorley constituency on Friday evening, declaring: “We can’t afford for democracy to be smashed. Nobody will beat democracy.”

The safety of MPs outside the Houses of Parliament is the responsibility of local police forces, but the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) has responsibility for approving funding for security procedures.

After Cox was shot and stabbed by a right-wing extremist as she attended a constituency 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 Cox’s death, MPs spent around £640,000 on additional security measures, including panic buttons, extra lighting and additional locks at their homes and offices, as well as emergency alarm fobs to carry with them.

The bill was four times as much as in the whole of the previous year.

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 some, particularly those representing large geographical areas, continued to conduct sessions in churches and community halls and to speak with any member of the public who turned up to raise an issue.

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.

Cox’s death was the first murder of a sitting MP in 25 years. 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 was stepped up following the 2017 murder of PC Keith Palmer, who was stabbed at the Carriage Gates by an Islamist extremist who was then shot dead. Armed police were stationed at all entrances, while the physical barriers at the entrance 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”.

Veteran MP David Davis also said that concerns over security had shifted in recent years, from revolving largely around Irish terrorist gangs to focusing on 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 said: “The reality for us is that we see constituents all the time ... 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.”