The British government is considering enhanced security measures for members of Parliament, including sending police protection when they meet with constituents at regular town hall-style events, in the wake of the knife attack that resulted in the death of long-serving lawmaker David Amess.
Home Secretary Priti Patel told Sky News on Sunday that the government is considering multiple measures, including asking constituents to pre-book appointments with their elected representatives for public meetings — as the second killing of a British lawmaker in five years sparks a debate over the best way to keep lawmakers safe but accessible to the public.
Patel insisted that the killing — which police declared an act of terrorism possibly linked to Islamist extremism — should not stop lawmakers from engaging openly with constituents.
“This should never, ever break that link between an elected representative and their democratic role, responsibility and duty to the people who elected them,” she said.
“For me and for the government, this is about safeguarding our democracy and enabling our elected representatives to carry on doing what they do, serving the public,” she added. A day earlier, she stood by the tradition of regular face-to-face meetings between lawmakers and constituents known in Britain as “surgeries,” telling journalists from the scene of the attack, “we cannot be cowed by any individual.”
It’s not clear whether one of the government’s main suggestions — to limit attendance at the town halls to those who have preregistered — would be able to prevent incidents of violence. Sky News reported Sunday that the suspect in Amess’s killing booked an appointment to see the lawmaker. (The Cabinet Office and Essex Police referred questions to the Metropolitan Police, which declined to comment.)
Amess, 69, a long-serving Conservative member of Parliament who represented Southend West in Essex, was stabbed to death Friday while meeting with constituents in a local church annex. Authorities arrested a 25-year-old male suspect, whom local media identified as Ali Harbi Ali and described as a British national of Somali origin. He is being held for questioning in London under the Terrorism Act.
The speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, told Times Radio on Sunday that David Amess’s coat of arms will be erected in the chamber of Parliament and said lawmakers would pay tribute to him Monday afternoon in a special session followed by a church service. Amess was a Catholic who was known for his support of animal rights and his opposition to abortion.
Members of the Muslim community of Southend-on-Sea condemned the killing. In a joint statement, representatives of local mosques said, “This act was committed in the name of blind hatred, and we look forward to the perpetrator being brought to justice.”
The violent attack reminded many of the 2016 killing of Labour Party lawmaker Jo Cox, who was repeatedly shot and stabbed as she headed to meet constituents by Thomas Alexander Mair, a white supremacist who is serving a life sentence for the crime.
“We face the unenviable choice of enhancing their security — and in doing so making them less approachable and accessible, or continuing as we are, but at huge personal risk. I hope we can find a middle way,” Cox wrote, calling on the government to tackle extremism in all its forms.
Several lawmakers have suggested changes to the way the town hall meetings are conducted given the killings of Cox and Amess and the threats they face on social media in an increasingly polarized political environment.
Labour Party lawmaker Chris Bryant, in an editorial for the Guardian calling for Britain to “get serious about MPs’ security,” said it was time for greater police protection for elected representatives, an end to anonymity on social media, and preregistration for constituency meetings.
“It’s in the nature of our constituency system that many constituents don’t just know where our office is, they know where we live,” Bryant said. “That openness is absolutely central to our democracy and we must never surrender it.”
However, he added, “there must be a review of all MPs’ security arrangements, both in Westminster and in the constituency.”
“Sensible measures maintained and regularly reviewed can protect that pearl of great price — democratically elected representatives that are easily but safely accessible. We don’t want to live in fortresses. But I don’t want to lose another colleague to a violent death.”
Separately, Conservative lawmaker and chair of the defense committee Tobias Ellwood told BBC Radio that fellow lawmakers should shift their constituency meetings to Zoom, and called for a “temporary pause in face-to-face meetings” until the review of lawmakers’ security is complete.
“There are other ways” to meet, he said. “You can actually achieve an awful lot over the telephone, you can get things moving far faster than having to wait for the surgery date as well.”
Not everyone agrees. Hoyle, the speaker of the House of Commons, told Times Radio that someone recently threatened to put a bomb under his car — but that he is against restricting in-person meetings with constituents even as he agreed there should be a review of security measures.
Hoyle, who wrote in the Observer and the Daily Mail on Sunday that hosting his own meeting with constituents in Chorley hours after Amess’s stabbing reinforced how vital they are, said: “The very essence of being an MP is to help and be seen by our constituents. They are the people who elected us to represent them, so surely making ourselves available to them is the cornerstone of our democracy?”
Lawmaker and former cabinet minister David Davis said he wouldn’t take the government up on the offer of police protection and expressed concern about the prospect of distancing elected officials from the public. He said that people who come to in-person meetings are often “the people for whom there is nothing else left,” according to Sky News.
Still, some lawmakers acknowledged the risks. Labour MP Wes Streeting also told the outlet, “we’re having difficult conversations with our own families.”
“This is not just about us,” he said, “it’s about the safety of our staff, the people who work for us; it’s about how our families feel when we go off to work, and the conversations that particularly our colleagues who are parents have been having with their children in the last day or so about why our job is important and why it’s worth the risk.”
Patel said Saturday that every member of Parliament has been contacted by authorities since Amess’s killing to ask about “their whereabouts, what they’re doing in their constituency, to make sure that they are protected, so that they can go around, serving their constituencies in that open way, but in a safe way. It’s important that that continues.”