Uttlesford councillors: 'I've fashioned a way of locking up my letterbox'

Sir David Amess MP and Jo Cox MP

Uttlesford District Council held a debate on abuse following the death of Sir David Amess, Southend West MP, on October 15 and Jo Cox MP in 2016 - Credit: Parliament/Jo Cox Foundation/Archant

Councillors lock up their letterboxes and have taken their contact details offline to ward off attacks.

At a meeting on Tuesday (December 7), Uttlesford district councillors shared their experiences of abuse and harassment with one another during a debate about public servants' safety.

The debate was held to note the death of Sir David Amess MP, who was killed at his constituency surgery in Leigh-on-Sea on October 15 this year.

Uttlesford District Council members agreed that more needs to be done to combat abuse and harassment, and said that the current levels of abuse are preventing residents from meeting and speaking with their elected councillors.

They said that the recent death of Sir David - their fellow Essex politician - and Jo Cox MP in 2016 reflects an increase in harassment against those who serve in public office.

They agreed to review council members and officers' safety on an annual basis.

The late Sir David Amess MP, who represented Southend West

Sir David Amess MP, who represented Southend West, was killed at his constituency surgery in Leigh on Sea on October 15 - Credit: Richard Townshend Photography

Council leader Petrina Lees proposed the motion, seconded by Conservative councillor Chris Criscione.

Cllr Criscione said: "It was deeply shocking what happened in Leigh-on-Sea to someone who I campaigned with previously."

He added: "I want to pay particular attention to the line in the motion that 'vigorous political debate and the holding to account of office holders is of vital ongoing importance to our local democracy'.

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"That is true, but at the end of the day, I do want to think more about how I direct that opposition and my language to effectively make sure I'm not feeding into that cycle of intimidation."

Cllr Criscione said he has faced abuse from members of the public, and Liberal Democrat councillor Geoffrey Sell said he has reported harassment to Facebook in the past.

A photograph of a Facebook webpage: Report post - I'm concerned about this post

Cllr Geoffrey Sell has reported abuse to Facebook in the past - Credit: Archant

Residents for Uttlesford councillor Richard Freeman said: "I have personally, in this chamber, suffered an assault.

"It was quite a scary experience.

"I filed a report with the police, the police interviewed the individual concerned, and no further action was taken.

"It brought into sharp focus many aspects of our role as councillors."

Cllr Freeman said council members' decisions impact residents' lives and livelihoods, so he can understand how deeply frustrations can be felt.

But he said: "I live in a townhouse, and in the event of a fire, it would be extremely difficult for me to get out.

"I - and I know another member of the planning committee does this as well - fashioned a way of locking up my letterbox.

"If we get a fire in the hall, we all die.

"I sometimes have grandchildren staying over and they are put at risk for my being a councillor."

Conservative councillor Susan Barker - along with Cllr Lees - said councillors are using the council office's address and phone number on their online profiles more often.

Cllr Barker, who represents High Easter and The Rodings, said: "My address will be somewhere in the public domain as well as my phone number.

"I have received calls from as far away as Thaxted, Takeley and Saffron Walden because their councillors' details are not available."

Cllr Barker said the motion "doesn't go quite far enough".

She said the council's lawyers should be enlisted to help tackle threats of abuse.

A sign for Uttlesford District Council and Essex Police in Saffron Walden

Councillors want the chief executive to work with Essex Police to assess public servants' safety and security. Picture: Will Durrant - Credit: Archant

Cross-party councillors voted in favour of the motion, which read: "The Council notes the recent killing of Sir David Amess MP and passes on its heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and colleagues."

It adds: "We believe that hostile activity by keyboard warriors, often anonymous, exists on a continuum with physical attacks, creating an unacceptable and negative context that both puts officials and public servants at risk, as well as discouraging others from entering public life."

Uttlesford District Council's Scrutiny Committee will now consider "standards of discourse in public debate" and present its findings for debate annually.

The chief executive will work with others, including Essex Police, to assess safety and security on a yearly basis.