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Backing for wider police powers to protect MPs amid fears of political violence

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A UK government-commissioned review into tackling political violence is poised to back wider use of special police orders to swiftly shut down public protest around democratic venues including parliament, council buildings and MPs’ offices.

Lord John Woodcock will propose broadening so-called Expedited Public Space Protection Orders to protect politicians from intimidation when he submits his report on curbing political violence and disruption to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in the coming weeks, according to people briefed on the plans. At present, these orders cover schools and vaccination clinics.

A spotlight was shone on the threat to MPs after Sir Lindsay Hoyle said his handling of the chaotic parliamentary vote on Gaza on Wednesday was designed to protect members by ensuring Labour politicians could publicly back a ceasefire.

The remarks by the House of Commons Speaker have launched a debate about the scale and severity of the threats facing UK politicians — and the lengths deemed legitimate, in a democracy, to ward against them.

Woodcock — a crossbench peer and former Labour MP who was asked to write his review by Boris Johnson at the time of climate protests by Extinction Rebellion — has widened its scope to look at Islamist groups in view of the Israel-Hamas war.

“There’s a serious and concerted effort by parts of the hard left, working with Islamist groups, to present a sense of menace to intimidate MPs,” said Woodcock, who declined to comment on his review. “MPs are scared. It’s having a really corrosive effect . . . Even if there is no direct violence, it’s having an effect and that’s unacceptable”.

Expedited Public Space Protection Orders were introduced in 2022 to enable local authorities to swiftly shut down protests outside places such as schools and Covid-19 vaccination clinics. An order can last up to six months and people who breach it can be fined.

Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle said his handling of the Gaza vote on Wednesday had been designed to protect members © UK Parliament/AFP/Getty Images

The review, which has already been submitted to the Home Office for first consideration, will recommend that their use be extended to democratic public venues.

Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which has organised weekly protests around London, said it would be “outrageous” for the government to give police greater powers to shut down protest around democratic buildings.

“The powers the police have are already far too broad and used in a deeply repressive fashion,” he said.

Jamal said he did not agree with people protesting outside MPs’ homes, because politicians had a right to privacy. But he said the debate around MPs’ safety was being used to conflate legitimate forms of peaceful protest with illegitimate and genuine threats to safety.

Hoyle on Thursday admitted making the “wrong” decision when he breached convention on Wednesday to allow a Labour party amendment on a Gaza ceasefire to be debated. He apologised but insisted considerations about the “danger” facing members of the Commons had underpinned the move.

Acknowledging the intensity of public sentiment on the war, Hoyle said he believed allowing a wider set of motions to be debated in the Commons would bolster MPs’ security.

Hamas killed more than 1,200 people and took about 250 hostage during its attack on southern Israel on October 7, according to Israeli officials. Some hostages have since been freed. Israel’s retaliatory offensive in Gaza has killed over 29,000 people, according to Palestinian officials.

Less than three years after the murder of Conservative MP Sir David Amess at his local surgery and less than eight years since Labour MP Jo Cox was killed in her constituency, all parties agree about the risk to parliamentarians.

Leader of the Commons Penny Mordaunt said on Thursday she was not aware of a single MP who had not faced threats and intimidation. However, she warned that the Commons must “never bow to external threats or intimidation”.

Former immigration minister Robert Jenrick took an even harder line, declaring the Commons appeared “cowed by threats of violence and intimidation” and was “weakened and diminished as a result”.

A spate of recent high-profile incidents have focused attention on MPs’ safety. More than 60 pro-Palestinian protesters surrounded the home of Tobias Ellwood for three and a half hours last week. Police warned him and his family to stay away.

Meanwhile fellow Tory Mike Freer this month said he would step down at the next election because of the threat to his personal safety, after an alleged arson attack on his constituency office in December.

MPs have access to a range of security measures, including stab vests, portable panic buttons connected to a specialist police hotline, close protection officers at surgeries, and reinforced front doors at home. Some safeguards are also offered to parliamentarians’ staff.

Some leftwing figures have argued the threat to MPs’ safety has been exaggerated for political ends. A spokesperson for Momentum, the campaign group within Labour, said the safety of MPs was “vital” but that it was “wrong to conflate this safety with insulation from democratic accountability”.

Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, said it was “really difficult to get the balance right between the right to protest and intimidation”.

She said that while people protesting outside politicians’ homes was “unacceptable”, she did not believe there was a need to curtail their rights to protest outside MPs’ offices, or parliamentary buildings.

The Home Office was contacted for comment.

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