Falkirk councillors' plea to end abuse and intimidation of politicians

Sir David Amess is the first serving MP to be killed since Labour’s Jo Cox was murdered in West Yorkshire in 2016.
-Credit: (Image: Getty/Jo Cox Foundation)

An emotional plea has been made by Falkirk councillors to look at ways to protect members from abuse, intimidation and threats that have become more common in recent years.

Yesterday (Wednesday), SNP councillor Iain Sinclair paid tribute to the late Labour MP Jo Cox and Conservative MP Sir David Amess - both murdered while carrying out their duties as members of parliament.

And he apologised to Falkirk Council colleagues for getting emotional as he spoke of the abuse, threats and intimidation that politicians, including local councillors, now face all too often.

Read more: Freedom of Falkirk for miners' group that 'won't forget the battles of the past'

"Cars set ablaze, threatening emails, abusive social media messages and, worryingly, public meetings where members of the public can call for local councillors to be executed and be met with a round of applause.

"When did this become acceptable?" he asked.

Councillor Sinclair has worked as a member of staff in both UK and Scottish Parliaments, so has friends and colleagues in both places.

Councillor Iain Sinclair represents Falkirk North on Falkirk Council
Councillor Iain Sinclair, Falkirk North -Credit:Falkirk Council / Lisa Evans

He remembered the shock of hearing that Jo Cox had been murdered by a far-right extremist while carrying out her duties as an MP in 2016.

The same shock and fear was felt once again when Conservative MP Sir David Amess was murdered in 2021 at one of his surgeries.

Cllr Sinclair admitted there have been times when he wondered "if putting my family through everything that comes with the spotlight of elected office was the right thing to do".

But he told members that being elected to Falkirk Council to represent Falkirk North, he said, was "an honour and a privilege".

He added: "While elected members in all branches of government may not always get it right, we carry ourselves forward with the best of intentions and always with the interests of our communities at the very heart of all that we do."

The Jo Cox Civility Commission, set up in 2023, has been looking at ways to tackle the abuse and intimidation in UK politics and Cllr Sinclair urged Falkirk Council to endorse the recommendations it has made and implement them where possible.

Agreeing the motion will mean Falkirk Council improving risk planning for abuse at meetings and other events, ensuring security and making sure security and wellbeing resources are available to anyone who needs support.

His fellow SNP councillor Stacy Devine was also clearly emotional as she seconded his appeal, saying the comments had "really hit home".

Councillor Devine said "misinformation and abuse", often posted anonymously on social media, creates a hostile environment for politicians, with threats and harassment that can have "severe psychological, emotional and physical consequences".

"Nobody in any job should have to put up with threats, aggressive emails, being shouted at in the street and sworn at, personal attacks on social media - everyone has the right to feel safe, regardless of the job they do," she said.

While there was unanimous support for Cllr Sinclair's motion, Independent councillor Laura Murtagh - formerly a member of the SNP - put forward an addendum acknowledging the "toxic culture" that can come from within the council chamber and its political groups.

"Although it might be rare, it can be keenly felt," she said.

"There are significant issues that members of all groups have spoken to me about and we ignore it at our peril."

Independent councillor Billy Buchanan - a councillor for 32 years - told the meeting he has had to call the police twice to his surgery over the years.

He said: "We know there have been a lot of tough decisions taken lately. People are fired up because they are trying to protect their communities but the fact is that some people go over the line in terms of attacks on individuals."

Councillor Murtagh recalled a threat of violence that had been made against her on social media, relating to a decision that had been made, and said she was grateful for the support she had received.

She remembered "suddenly realising that my daughter was in the house on her own".

"Suddenly, the panic I felt at that moment - that threat having been made.

Cllr Laura Murtagh Falkirk Council, Carse Kinnaird and Tryst
Councillor Laura Murtagh -Credit:Lisa Evans / Falkirk Council

"But I did feel that having gone to council officers I did feel their advice and time was given and given freely and I found it really helpful."

While the report will look at ways that support can be increased and behaviour challenged, members were reminded that abuse that turns threatening should be reported to the police.

Councillors from all parties agreed that abuse has become much worse in recent years, in particular as the council faces huge financial challenges that have seen buildings and services close.

The leader of the council, Cllr Cecil Meiklejohn, says the abuse is now so bad it has made her "think twice about going out on my own".

She also had to think seriously about whether to go ahead with surgeries in one venue after threats were made.

"I decided to continue because it's one of the busiest surgeries and to be honest that's one of the parts of the job that I enjoy because I feel like I can make a real difference.

"But it does leave you feeling very exposed."

In the future, she said, the decisions will only become more difficult and support will become even more vital for local members.

Councillor Sinclair called on councillors to lead by example and act always with "civility, reason and basic human kindness" towards one another as they debate issues they may not agree on.

He summed up using Jo Cox's words from her maiden speech to parliament, when she said "we have more in common than that which divides us".

"That speaks to a kinder and more reasonable society that everyone here should aspire to," he said.

For more Falkirk news, sign up to our newsletter here.