MPs are set to be offered beefed-up security in their constituencies in the wake of the murder of Sir David Amess, which could include a regular police presence at weekly surgeries like the one at which the MP for Southend West was stabbed to death on Friday.
Police forces contacted all 650 MPs on the day after Sir David’s death to offer reassurance and support, with some deploying officers to public events MPs were attending.
Home secretary Priti Patel said MPs should not be “cowed” by the fear of violence from carrying out their duties as elected representatives of the public, including holding meetings with constituents to discuss their concerns.
But there were deep divisions between members of the House of Commons about the way ahead, with prominent backbencher Tobias Ellwood urging colleagues to suspend all face-to-face surgeries until a police review of safety was completed, and veteran Tory Sir Bernard Jenkin saying it was time to switch to online video conferencing rather than imposing the financial burden on police of protecting in-person meetings, which he said were “frankly not really necessary”.
As Ms Patel joined prime minister Boris Johnson, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle in laying wreaths at the site of Sir David’s death in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, counterterrorism police continued to question a 25-year-old UK national of Somali origin who was arrested at the scene of the attack and is being held on suspicion of murder.
The Independent understands that early indications from the investigation are that the suspect is thought to have acted alone, rather than being involved in any conspiracy with others to target the Southend West MP.
Police are believed to be combing through mobile devices and computer equipment for any indication of links with others in a crime that is being treated as potentially having been motivated by Islamist extremism.
Two addresses in the London area were searched on Saturday in the hunt for clues.
Chief constables are due to report back to Ms Patel by the end of the weekend on any gaps identified in the protection offered to MPs, though it is not thought that any new package of support will be finalised in time for a statement she will make to the Commons on Monday, when proceedings will be devoted to tributes to Sir David, a highly respected MP of 38 years’ standing.
The home secretary wants to ensure a uniform approach to the issue from forces across the country, after complaints from some MPs that forces outside London do not take the issue as seriously as those in the capital, where counterterrorism units are based.
Since the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox outside a constituency surgery in 2016, MPs have been automatically entitled to funding from parliamentary authorities for equipment such as CCTV, panic buttons, additional locks, and keyfob-style alarms at their homes and offices.
No firm decisions have yet been reached on whether these and other security measures could be extended to more venues where MPs meet members of the public. And it would be an individual decision for each MP whether to accept any support – including police guards – that was eventually offered. It is thought that many would reject measures that might create a barrier to open interaction with voters.
Speaking after visiting the scene of the crime, and following talks with police, security services and Speaker Hoyle, Ms Patel said that MPs must not let violence of the kind seen on Friday “get in the way of our functioning democracy”.
She refused to be drawn on the security changes being considered, but said that it was “absolutely” possible to balance MPs’ safety with the need for constituents to have access to their representatives.
“We will carry on,” said the home secretary. “We live in an open society, a democracy. We cannot be cowed by any individual or any people with motives to stop us from functioning to serve our elected democracy. We have measures in place and we will continue to review and strengthen measures.”
But one of Westminster’s most senior MPs, mother of the house Harriet Harman, said there must be change to political practices, declaring: “We cannot have the death of an MP being a price worth paying for our democracy.
“All MPs value that connection with their constituency. That’s why we’re different from other democracies – we don’t go about in armoured cars and only meet in secure offices with police presences,” she said.
“But I do think that with the second death of an MP in just five years, we do have to consider how we change things. No one wants MPs to hide away, but we’ve got to agree a safe way to do it.”
Ms Harman wrote to Mr Johnson, calling on him to convene a cross-party review on MPs’ safety in a Speaker’s Conference, a rare political event happening only once a decade or less in which senior figures from across Westminster and wider public authorities come together to address fundamental issues of electoral democracy.
Jacqui Smith, former Labour home secretary and chair of the Jo Cox Foundation, said Ms Patel’s review must go beyond simple questions of physical safety and address the wider culture of hostility that has developed towards politicians.
“All of us have a responsibility to protect our democracy, which is so important for this country,” she said. “We can’t do that unless we protect and respect those people who are elected as part of it.”
Sir Bernard Jenkin said that he had stopped advertising the location of weekly surgeries, instead requiring constituents to make appointments before being told the venue.
And he said: “So much is now done online. Covid has changed everything.
“I think there’s a great understanding in the public after an event like this that we cannot use up massive police resources to protect us doing something that frankly is not really necessary. We have to be available to our constituents, we just have to find other ways of doing that.”
Labour’s former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said she would prefer to talk to constituents from behind a screen, but felt that a police presence at surgeries would be “off-putting” to individuals who may be seeking help with sensitive problems involving the criminal justice system.
Many MPs posted photos on social media showing themselves going ahead with surgeries and other constituency events, in a signal that they would not let the attack deter them from doing their jobs.
Labour’s Karl Turner said he had CCTV in every room of his constituency office, but accepted that it was not possibly to protect himself completely without alienating constituents.
“You can do as much as you can possibly do, but if a knife-wielding maniac bursts into your room, what can you do about that really?” said the Hull East MP.
“I think you’ve got to take the risk. I’m not pretending to be any kind of a hero, far from it, but I think it is a pretty bad deal if you can’t see your MP.”