At next week’s council meeting TDCs Deputy Leader, Cllr Helen Whitehead, is moving a motion which commits the Council to “challenge the abuse against Councillors and Officers” and to lend its support to the Local Government Association’s campaign “Debate Not Hate” which, amongst other things , seeks to introduce a toughened up regime, and possibly new powers, for the Police, local authorities, and social media companies to take action against those deemed to have abused, bullied, or intimidated councillors.
In a democratic society, councillors, like anyone else, should be pe protected from abuse, bullying, intimidation and threats. Bearing in mind the vile murders of MPs Jo Cox and David Amess, the brutal stabbing of MP Steven Timms MP and the appalling personal abuse that many politicians suffer online, I would agree that councillors need protection and in some cases additional support if necessary.
But having said that there is no need, as Cllr Whitehead’s motion and the LGA’s Debate not Hate campaign appear to suggest, for tougher regimes, or new laws and regulations, to be rushed into force.
The Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Malicious Communications Act 1998, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and up and coming legal changes on hate crime proposed by the Law Commission all provide, or will provide, powerful protection against abuse, harassment, intimidation, and hate speech. These laws also serve to protect politicians too.
In my view, if existing powers are fairly and properly implemented councillors will be adequately protected from abuse intimidations and threats. To push for further regulation and laws will be counterproductive and most worryingly, profoundly undemocratic too.
Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights provides everyone with “the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers”.
UK courts and the European Court of Human Rights have on numerous occasions over many years repeatedly ruled that because of their role and power in society politicians “inevitably and knowingly lay themselves open to close scrutiny of their every word and deed by both journalists and the public at large; they must consequently display a greater degree of tolerance” to what is said and written about them.
The courts all agree that such tolerance extends to robust, offensive, sometimes upsetting and shocking criticism and commentary about them. This right also extends to all forms of artistic expression and the use of parody and humour.
Whitehead’s motion and the LGA report Ending Abuse in Public Life pay no attention to the impact that their proposals will have upon the right to freedom of expression, especially our right to speak out against and criticise politicians.
The dodging of this important issue in her motion suggests to me that Whithead wants to introduce a system which, under the guise of preventing the abuse and intimidation of councillors, serves to silence, or scare into silence, anyone who dares to hold to account and criticise a politician for their actions and decisions. This has all the hallmarlks of some sort of snooping and suppressive Big Brother regime.
Make no mistake Whitehead’s motion and its disgraceful undermining of the fundamental human right to freedom of expression is something you might expect from Putin’s Russian dictatorship but not in a democratic state such as ours where sufficient laws and regulations already exist.
This motion looks to me like the work of a second rate, narcissistic, politician wanting to protect his/ her ar*e from any and all legitimate criticism of their performance in office.
This motion is certainly not the work of democratic socialist and I would suggest to Whithead that instead of blaming the public she was elected to serve for making her job difficult, she should instead read the Seven Principles of Public Life (the Nolan Principles) which make it perfectly clear that she should be held to account for her actions even though this might, from time to time, hurt her egotistical pride.
If you only have the remotest acquaintence with democracy , I would urge all councillors to ammend Whitehead’s motion to include reference to accountability and freedom of expression.
In its present form its not needed nor is it wanted. And it opens the door to a Town Hall dictatorship in which threatening letters, visits from enforcement officers or the Police, court injunctions, ASBOs, fines and worse, might easily become the price to pay for criticising a councillor for not doing his/ her job.