Supporting councillors dealing with harassment and intimidation

Posted on September 11, 2019 by Ed Hammond.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Scrutiny and democratic services officers are in a unique position in the council – they deal, day to day, with councillors in a way that most officers don’t.

Within the council, we are used to deferring to, and working closely alongside, members. For those of us who have worked our entire careers in democratic services and associated professions, we take these relationships, and our understanding of the critical role and responsibilities of councillors, for granted.

Sometimes, though, this can lead us to miss some of the wider pressures that councillors are under in the community. The rise in the use of social media in particular has exposed elected members to more transparency and a higher local profile. Alongside this, the increasingly febrile nature of both national and local politics has led to the state of public discourse becoming more divisive, antagonistic and heated.

On occasion this tips into outright harassment and intimidation. Councillors are uniquely vulnerable to this behaviour on account of their role, and on account of the inherently subjective nature of how they experience this harassment. It is fair to say that councils have not, as yet, done the best job in understanding these pressures, risks and vulnerabilities – and providing support to councillors who need it.

It’s not enough for councillors to be advised to ignore such behaviour, or to withdraw from social media, or to moderate their own activities to attempt to “pacify” abusers. The LGA and WLGA have published a guide for councillors themselves on how to handle intimidation – https://www.local.gov.uk/councillors-guide-handling-intimidation – but for councillors to be able to do so they need the backing and support of officers. Inevitably, as the officers with the most regular contact with councillors, those working in and around democratic services will be the first line of defence.

Legitimate political debate, and community opposition, to councillors can quickly slip into this kind of harassment. We have seen these kinds of things arise in, and outside, scrutiny committees. It can be easy to turn a blind eye by saying that this kind of abuse comes with the territory, or that we can’t take action because to do so would be to deny local people access to their representatives.

There are a number of things that officers can do to assure themselves that they are doing all they can to provide this vital support.

  • Be prepared to have frank, candid and proactive conversations with councillors about these pressures and how they experience them as individuals, to properly understand the local dynamics.
  • Think about how officers more generally can be made aware of these pressures, and the kinds of practical support and advice that can be offered on a day to day basis;
  • Think about the range of tools that councils have available to tackle this behaviours, and how these tools might be deployed systematically and consistently, rather than putting the onus on councillors to take action themselves. Councils should think about when a situation demands a quicker, more muscular response, including the involvement of the police.

Other forms of harassment also exist. Councillors can, of course, themselves be perpetrators – against other members, and against officers – and perpetrators can cast themselves as victims to abuse systems for protection and support. Codes of conduct and the engagement of political groups (particularly whips) need to play their role in tackling these issues.

These matters impinge upon scrutiny, and the ability of councillors to carry out their scrutiny role. Scrutiny will often be looking at issues where there is contention in the local area, and intimidation on such matters may be brought to bear on scrutiny councillors as committee meetings become lightning rods for this kind of activity. On the other hand there needs to be a place for debate – and for disagreement.

For scrutiny, then, we think that particular care needs to be taken with regard to councillors’ safety and security when they are considering complex and controversial issues, where doing so may place them in danger. Careful selection of venues and design of the spaces in which committees meet will be part of this. This won’t be about building (physical) barriers between local residents and councillors – quite the reverse. In fact, the way that we design and plan meetings can help to defuse this risk, if managed carefully.

We are particularly interested to learn about how scrutiny has managed these risks and concerns, where meetings engage with topics which risk becoming bitter and antagonistic, and where councillors might see themselves as being at risk – both in committee meetings and in day to day life. How do you manage this? And do councillors feel supported as a result?

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfPS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.