Council leader calls for 'zero tolerance' on abuse after MP's death

Sir David Amess MP (inset) and South Norfolk council leader John Fuller.

Sir David Amess MP (inset) was killed on Friday at his constituency surgery in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. John Fuller (right), Conservative leader of South Norfolk Council, said on Monday the council must take a zero tolerance approach to abuse going forwards. - Credit: Rose Sapey/Chris McAndrew

A council has pledged to take a stand on abuse towards elected members following the killing of Sir David Amess MP, in a call echoed by council leaders and MPs across Norfolk. 

Sir David had been holding a constituency surgery in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, on Friday when he was stabbed to death in what police are treating as a terrorist incident.

At a Monday cabinet meeting of South Norfolk Council, Conservative leader John Fuller said he and other councillors had observed that “not just on social media, but on emails and other communications, people are taking ever more extreme views.”

“There are casual allegations of impropriety, bribery, brown envelopes and corruption, which I can tell you does not happen,” said Mr Fuller.

“And yet these casual allegations, the casualness, is going unchallenged and it corrodes trust in councils, in councillors, those people who’ve put themselves [forward] for public service.” 

South Norfolk Council leader John Fuller

South Norfolk Council leader John Fuller - Credit: Rose Sapey

He said definitions of what is abusive and corrosive behaviour should be adopted by the council from resources provided by the Local Government Association. 

“We should have a zero-tolerance approach,” said Mr Fuller.

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“If we are to maintain the moral high ground and be a democratic institution, we should show leadership.”

Mr Fuller said the council would bring forward proposals in December, which may include changing the code of conduct, and revising its procedures around customer complaints and standards of behaviour.

Conservative deputy leader Kay Billig agreed, saying that councillors were even more accessible to the public than MPs, and were sometimes seen as “a free shot” for abuse.

Arthur Mason's mother, Kay Mason-Billig. Picture: SOUTH NORFOLK COUNCIL

Arthur Mason's mother, Kay Mason-Billig. Picture: SOUTH NORFOLK COUNCIL - Credit: Archant

She added: “I was very fortunate in having met David Amess, in a previous life some years ago, and he was the kindest, most gentlest man you could possibly hope to meet.

“I was deeply shocked that it was him that had been the subject of this attack, because I couldn’t see how anyone could take offence at him, but perhaps because he was so accessible, that made him more of a soft target.” 

Speaking later on Monday, North Norfolk District Council's Liberal Democrat leader Sarah Bütikofer said she had experienced “soul-destroying” abuse.

Liberal Democrat councillor Sarah Bütikofer. Picture: North Norfolk District Council

Liberal Democrat councillor Sarah Bütikofer. Picture: North Norfolk District Council - Credit: North Norfolk District Council

“I had a set of death threats which were taken so seriously by the police that I had special training on how to drive home,” she said, referring to a period in 2019 in which misunderstandings over netting on the coast at Bacton drew anger towards the council.  

“I was given a personal alarm to carry and was told ‘We won't get to you in time but we’ll know where to find you.’ 

“My house had an alarm system fitted, with panic alarms in it as well, and you get abuse on a virtually daily basis.” 

She added: “It doesn’t go away. It’s constant. I’m the only female [council] leader in Norfolk, and I do sometimes wonder whether that plays its part, but I do know that men get it too.

“You would not go into local government to get rich. It’s about doing our best for our local communities, that’s why we do it...

“There are times when you think: can I keep doing this?”

Norfolk County Council’s Conservative leader Andrew Proctor said: “There are risks in everything we do. We’ve just got to think: what are those risks, and are we prepared to take those risks?

Andrew Proctor, leader of Norfolk County Council

Andrew Proctor, leader of Norfolk County Council - Credit: Norfolk County Council

“I think the risks are probably a little bit bigger for MPs than they are for councillors, but then councillors do have surgeries as well. 

“I’ve never encountered any violence in mine - but that’s not the point. There may be somebody who thinks as a result of this [the death of Sir David Amess], ‘Well, we can do the same.’

“So I think we’ve just got to be cognisant of risk, and not overreact to it.”

Speaking hours after Mr Amess’s death on Friday, Conservative MP for North Norfolk Duncan Baker said: "The climate that MPs work in at the moment is extremely toxic.

Conservative Duncan Baker speaks after becoming the new MP for North Norfolk. Picture: DENISE BRADLE

North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

“The ability for people on social media to incite hatred against MPs who they have never met nor had any contact with is a very sad part of the job.”

George Freeman

Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman - Credit: Richard Townshend Photography

Over the weekend, Conservative MP for Mid Norfolk George Freeman raised similar concerns about online threats, saying: “The level of abuse on social media has become appalling: especially the commonplace threats of physical violence all too often aimed at women MPs like the threats of political rape."

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham Usher. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Bishop of Norwich Graham Usher said in a Sunday tweet that he had written to the MPs of the diocese to assure them that they and their families were "in our prayers". - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

In a tweet, Bishop of Norwich Graham Usher said he had written to the region’s MPs “to assure them and their families of our prayers, to thank them for their public service, and to encourage the fostering of a better public discourse in how we speak and listen, agree and disagree.”

What does the law say about abuse and harassment?

Trolling, a form of baiting online which involves sending abusive or hurtful comments via social media, can be prosecuted under the Malicious Communication Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003.

Harassment, online and offline, is both a criminal offence and a civil action under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

This means that someone can be prosecuted in the criminal courts for harassment and also means action can be taken against them in the civil courts.

Among the more serious threats experienced by people in public life are death threats.

Under section 16 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, a person who, without lawful excuse, threatens another person with death so that they fear the threat will genuinely be carried out, is guilty of the offence, and could be punished with up to ten years’ imprisonment.

There is no need to show that the defendant actually intended to kill them.

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