Personal security

More Leeds councilors are downloading personal safety apps after a rise in bullying and threats

It’s a startling number and perhaps a reflection of an increasingly angry society, which has more rigs to evacuate than ever before.

It will be a year next month since Southend MP Sir David Amess was stabbed to death while undergoing surgery in the constituency, while it has now been six years since Batley and Birstall MP, Jo Cox, was murdered.

The repercussions of the two tragedies have led to heightened sensitivity around the personal safety of politicians, including advisers as well as MPs.

The repercussions of the two tragedies have led to heightened sensitivity around the personal safety of politicians, including advisers as well as MPs. Photo: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Read more

Read more

Leeds ‘irreplaceable’ library offers expansion plans

It’s a problem felt as acutely in Leeds as anywhere else.

According to a report presented to executive members of the city council next week, there has been an increase in the number of councilors using a personal security app, provided by a company which has a contract with the local authority.

The level of security at the municipal hall also remained “reinforced” for several months.

So, how safe do counselors feel performing their duties in the current climate and face more aggression or not?

The LDRS spoke to a cross-section of members of different parties in Leeds this week to gauge their thoughts and experiences. All accepted the offer of anonymity, so they could be more candid.

A counselor had to close one of her social media accounts several years ago after receiving a barrage of threats.

“It’s often in the back of your mind,” says the adviser. “I think since Sir David Amess and Jo Cox we have really understood better how vitriol is for public figures.

“The reactionary nature of a social media storm is quite dangerous.”

The same adviser says online business can be ‘toxic’, but adds: ‘It doesn’t seem to be as intense and as toxic as it was’ before the pandemic, when Brexit dominated conversations at home.

“I think people are at least more aware now of how offensive and threatening it is and people agree that it’s unacceptable,” she adds. “But it still happens.”

The same adviser changed the location of her operations, in part because of the layout of the building, which offered no easy escape in the event of a disaster.

Trying to strike a balance between being open and accessible to the public and maintaining personal safety can be tricky.

Prior to the pandemic, a rule requiring local election candidates to make their home address publicly available was dropped, in response to the levels of abuse some were experiencing.

But some think it’s still a political necessity.

A councillor, who allows his speech to be published, says: “The reason I do this, frankly, is because in local elections people vote for the locals.

“The big concern for me is someone coming into my house and being threatening or violent when I go out and it’s just my wife and kids.”

The same adviser says levels of public aggression tend to peak and trough, with pre-election periods deemed particularly “difficult”.

“March and April tend to be worse than June and July, for example,” he explains.

A common feeling among advisors using the app, known as Pick Protect, is that they feel safer and more comfortable having it.

The app acts as a personal alarm system. At the click of a button, the operator tries to contact the phone user. If they cannot establish that they are safe, the incident is escalated to emergency services if necessary.

“It helps to know it’s there,” said an opposition party adviser. “I never needed to use it.

She adds: “To be honest, I don’t feel in danger. This does not mean that I minimize the problem.

“I am sometimes aware when I go out and do operations that I am alone.”

A common theme among female counselors, unsurprisingly, is the experience of misogyny.

One of them even had to withdraw her number from the town hall’s website after receiving “sexual calls”.

She adds, however, that since then she has been “fine” and that her residents are “very respectful”, and that as long as there are no name-calling, she is generally happy to “roll along with the shouting and the raised voices. “.

“Counselors are the ones people contact when they’re at a loss for what to do, so people can be very emotional,” she says.

“Overall, I find it understandable. I’ve been the recipient of the benefit system and I’ve been in bad situations, unable to pay my rent and my bills too, so I always approach people’s emotions with empathy.

“People often apologize for any aggression they’ve shown once they see that my colleagues and I care about them and will do our best to represent them.”

Another adviser, whose time in politics began before the era of social media, does not use the security app and believes the abuse problem is ‘no better or worse than it has been never been”.

“I think most counselors consider their safety before they get up,” he says.

“I think for most people, if you’re careful about what you post on social media, you tend to get a measured response.

“I think people working in public services on the front line and in A&E have a much bigger problem than politicians.”

Overall, most counselors seem to think they can take practical steps to at least feel more secure.

Training for new members includes tips on how to take care of themselves when meeting with the public.

Surgeries can be tricky, given the frequent need for residents to speak confidentially, but it’s understood that counselors are discouraged from using enclosed, opaque spaces, for example. One says he makes sure his chair is near a door.

None of the advisers the LDRS spoke to suggested they were above residents who disagreed with them, with several wishing not to confuse criticism with abuse.

Several of them spoke proudly of being elected councilors and emphasized that they have the privilege of representing ordinary people.

But if society wants quality politicians, it will have to reduce the aggressiveness towards those elected to serve us.