To ensure that they can do their jobs in safety, MPs are able to claim for any security costs they incur. Spending on additional security for MPs has increased substantially over the past three years.
These costs, along with the broader system of expenses for MPs, are administered and paid for by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). There are two forms of security assistance for MPs: recommended measures, which are a package offered to all MPs; and further measures, for those MPs who face specific risks or threats. Both are paid for out of IPSA’s security assistance budget. Additionally, separate areas of expenses may cover some security-related costs for MPs: for example, the cost of fitting a new door lock may be covered through an MP’s office budget.
Since early 2016, a number of factors have combined to significantly increase the cost of MPs’ security. At the beginning of 2016, and following threats made to MPs in the wake of parliamentary debates over British military action in Syria, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) recommended that all MPs adopt a package of security measures. As MPs began to adopt these measures, several tragic events highlighted the very real threats they face. In June 2016, Jo Cox MP was murdered in her constituency, then in March 2017 a terrorist attack killed six people outside the Houses of Parliament, including PC Keith Palmer, a police officer on duty.
In light of these events, and the NPCC’s earlier recommendations, spending on MPs’ security increased significantly. In the 2017/18 financial year, a total of £4.2m was spent on providing additional security assistance to MPs. This was a more than 60% increase on the £2.6m spent in 2016/17 – and over £4m above the £171,000 spent in 2015/16. Although the details of individual MPs’ security claims are not published (to prevent identification), the dramatic increase in costs since 2015/16 indicates that MPs and the police are more concerned about security than in previous years.
Because many of the security costs that individual MPs claim for are likely to be one-off (e.g. the fitting of new security apparatus), IPSA estimates that the cost of security assistance will fall in the next financial year. At the same time, there is concern among some in Parliament that the take-up by MPs of additional securitymeasures has not been as high as should be expected. Efforts are underway to ensure that MPs are aware of the assistance available to them, and IPSA is clear that it will supply funding for security measures where necessary.
Data and anecdotal evidence show that MPs are facing greater threats to their safety than in recent times. The Metropolitan Police describes the level of threat to MPs as “unprecedented”. According to its data, MPs reported 151 alleged crimes to the police in 2017, rising to 342 in 2018: a 126% increase.
While some of this rise may be due to greater reporting, the Met Police believes that there is “a clearly increased volume” of incidents aff cting MPs. A 2019 survey of MPs by the BBC found that over 60% of those who responded had contacted the police about threats received in the previous year. In the 2017–19 parliamentary session alone there have been numerous prosecutions of members of the public for making violent threats to MPs, with one person jailed for having plotted to murder an MP. Police data suggests that female MPs and those from minority backgrounds are disproportionately targeted.
The heightened threat to MPs in recent years has been attributed – at least in part – to the deeply polarised politics surrounding Brexit. The Metropolitan Police told the Joint Committee on Human Rights last year that “Brexit has been a huge driver of some of [the threats], post referendum.” But spending on MPs’ security was already increasing before the 2016 referendum: between 2014/15 and 2015/16, spending rose from £77,000 to £171,000, though this increase was far less steep than what has happened since.
Many MPs also report experiencing persistent abuse, particularly online, which may not always constitute a criminal offence but is nonetheless distressing. The increased use of social media offers more opportunities for direct contact between people and those who represent them – but while this raises the potential for debate, it also gives more scope for abuse and intimidation of MPs, much of it anonymous. The Committee on Standards in Public Life believes that “the widespread use of social media has been the most significant factor accelerating and enabling intimidatory behaviour in recent years”, as it creates “an intensely hostile online environment.”
As well as having profound effects on the lives of MPs and those around them, this hostile environment may be constraining political debate, and dissuading would-be MPs from entering politics.