I am writing this on Sunday following the shocking murder of the MP Sir David Amess last Friday at his constituency surgery in Southend. We are beginning to learn that the man suspected of attacking him may have had links to an Islamic extremist group, and may, therefore, have been motivated by its ideology.
It raises again the question of MP security. There is nothing new about this. Throughout the time of the troubles in Northern Ireland, security was a constant concern. Airey Neave MP was blown up as he drove out of the House of Commons underground car park in 1979. The Irish National Liberation Army claimed responsibility. In 1984, a bomb exploded in the Grand Hotel, Brighton, during the Conservative Party conference. It had been planted by the Provisional IRA some weeks before but timed to go off during the conference. Sniffer dogs had failed to find it, probably because it had been wrapped in cling film. The Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, survived, but five died in the attack including several MPs. Then more recently we had the murder in West Yorkshire of Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen.
Many have said – again – that ‘lessons must be learnt’. But it is hard to know what lessons there are left to be learnt. The Brighton bombing led to party conferences taking place in what one commentator called ‘impregnable citadels’. Spending on MPs security shot up from £170,000 in 2015, before Jo Cox was killed, to over £4.5m the following year. Over the past weekend, police have contacted each MP, including here in South Yorkshire, to review their security.
A range of common sense measures can be taken – such as only seeing people by appointment, which is what I do. Even so, Sir David’s attacker may have made an appointment. And it is unrealistic to suppose that there can be police protection always and everywhere. MPs go to events and meetings almost every week. Jo Cox was not murdered at her surgery but in the street. Sometimes I have joined South Yorkshire MPs at a ‘street surgery’, which is advertised on social media. We stand in the street and people walk up to us to have conversations. At moments like these, everyone is vulnerable.
Even secure buildings are never as secure as we would like. My office is in a secure police station, but a couple of years ago, someone managed to get through a security gate, then in through a door which requires a pass to open, and into my office. He was disturbed rather than dangerous but it made my staff very nervous until two police officers arrived to take him away.
We shall have to await the review of security now underway. But whatever recommendations are made, the chances are that they will only serve to make our MPs seem more remote and less accessible – which is what neither we nor they want.
We must do what we can, but at the end of the day it will still be about relative risks and mitigations. There is only so much that can be done.
But the debate has also broadened. Over the weekend there was much discussion about the language in which we discuss our differences. The Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, was asking us all to be kinder in the way we talk about one another. I agree. In fact, we have given funding over the years from both the PCC’s grants scheme and the Violence Reduction fund to many groups that work with young people in the knowledge that as well as coaching them in sport or dance or drama, they also teach young people to be respectful towards one another. Young people may or may not listen to their parents or teachers on the subject of respect, but they certainly listen to those they look to as role models.
But if MPs think respect matters, and, therefore, words matter, they must practice what they preach. We don’t want to hear any more talk about political opponents as ‘scum’.
We all, understand that if we are to reduce violence in our communities, we must try to prevent people being drawn to it in the first place. This starts with children. They learn by what they see and hear around them every day, and if, for example, abusive relationships are the norm in their household, it is hardly surprising if they exhibit the same patters of behaviour themselves.
So what can we do?
Worth Unlimited is a charity that works with schools across the Doncaster District. It provides early intervention for children who are displaying signs of anger or who live in violent households, and whose behaviour is such that they are likely to be excluded. And we know that excluded children become prey to violent, criminal gangs.
The school refers the child to Worth Unlimited and they assign a mentor to work with them. The service is free to the school – which provides a real incentive to schools in disadvantaged areas whose budgets are under pressure, especially for such a potentially costly provision.
The mentor works one to one with the child, helping them to understand why their behaviour causes them to get into trouble with their fellow students and teachers, and how they can learn to overcome their anger or disturbing behaviour. Mentors can also help young people understand what is happening at home and how they can best cope.
I recently met with the founder of the charity, Ken Foden, and one of the mentors, Carol Parker-Cowan. They were both impressive people – dedicated and committed to make a difference to the lives and life chances of the young people they engage with. We met at one of the schools where they are working – Hatfield-Woodhouse Primary – with their equally committed head teacher, Halen Acton.
But does it work? The charity measures its success in two ways. First – if the child they are working with is not excluded. And second – if the number of ‘incidents’ falls by at least 60%.
I was visiting the school in my capacity as chair of the Violence Reduction Executive Board along with Graham Jones, the VRU leader. We have just awarded the charity £25,000 to develop their activities.
Working with these children is painstaking and requires a great deal of patience. But if we are serious about reducing violence, we have to start here – prevention at an early age.
Stay safe and well