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Daniel Boffey Policy editor
Four out of five MPs have been victims of intrusive or aggressive behaviour, study finds
Psychiatrists working with the Home Office have advised that MPs need greater protection after a groundbreaking study found that four out of five had been victims of intrusive or aggressive behaviour, and 36 even fear going out in public.
Marriages have been left on the brink, MPs have felt forced to take time off from work, a dozen have seen health professionals and several have resorted to seeing therapists or are on medication for anxiety or depression due to their experiences at the hands of members of the public, according to the study. “One MP described how his marriage was close to breakdown, as his wife blamed him for the persistent amorous intrusions of a female constituent,” the research notes.
It adds: “One MP described how she had to get her husband to go out and look down the street before she could go out of the front door. She had panic attacks several times a day, even in the House of Commons, leading to a ‘mad way of life’.”
Seven psychiatrists carried out the research, including Dr David James, founder of the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre, a unit that assesses risks to high-profile individuals, including the royal family, on behalf of Scotland Yard, the Home Office and the Department for Health.
The study, supported by parliament and the Home Office, found that 192 of the 239 who responded to a survey circulated by party chief whips had experienced aggressive or intrusive behaviour. In half of those cases, they said they were targeted in their own homes. The response rate to the survey of 38% of the 633 MPs who received it was described by the sergeant at arms as “unusually good”.
One in five (43 of the MPs who responded to the survey) had been subject to attack or attempted attacks, 41% (101 MPs) had received threats to harm them and 22% (52 MPs) threats of property damage. Half said they believed they had been subject to harassment or stalking, defined as behaviour that lasted for two weeks or more and caused fear.
Comments from MPs to the researchers, whose study has been published in theJournal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, included: “Pulled a knife on me in the surgery”; “repeatedly punched me in the face”; “came at me with a hammer”; “hit with a brick”; “shot with air rifle”; “attacked by a constituent with a samurai sword. I escaped with injuries to my hand, but my assistant was killed.”
Of the 101 MPs who had experienced threats to harm them or those close to them, the study notes: “There were numerous reports of death threats, both in person and by mail, and of bomb threats … Other examples were: ‘You’d better keep an eye on your children’; ‘stated he would kill me if his child dies in hospital’; ‘threat to kill me by telephone at home – call taken by my seven-year-old daughter’; ‘I will destroy you’; ‘wife received phone calls saying “I am going to kill you or one of your family”; ‘petrol poured through letter box’.”
Fifty-two MPs had their property interfered with or damaged, including the slashing of car tyres, paint stripper poured over their vehicles and bricks thrown through their windows.
Of those who had been stalked, for 46.5% it had continued for more than a year and in 14.1% of cases it lasted for more than five years. Younger women were particularly targeted, it is claimed. Of those subject to intrusive behaviour, 22% (36 MPs) were concerned about going out in public and 16% (25 MPs) worried about being at home alone.
The figure of 38% of MPs who have say they have been stalked in their careers compares with 8% of women and 2% of men in the wider public who say they have been stalked at some point in their lives.
Harry Fletcher, director of Digital-Trust, a charity that helps victims of cybercrime, and who successfully campaigned for stalking laws to be significantly strengthened in 2012, said the study should provoke action on the part of the government. “The number of incidents and the large number of parliamentarians who have become victims is not acceptable. There needs to be an urgent review of their security and safety,” he said.
Fletcher added: “Digital-Trust has published a guide for MPs on how to keep their phones and devices safe. A briefing on dealing with fixated behaviour will follow.”
The report says it is fixated loners rather than terrorists who pose the greatest risk to MPs and suggests that MPs should be advised to work more closely with the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre so as to reduce the threats to their safety.
Speaking to the Observer, the former children’s minister, Tim Loughton, who was subject to a campaign of harassment by one of his constituents, added that the police must now take the risks more seriously.
However, Stephen Timms MP, who was stabbed twice in the stomach in 2010 as he held a constituency surgery, said he feared there was little more that could be done. “After what happened to me I was offered a knife arch for my surgeries, but I refused because that just makes it more difficult for people to come and see you,” he said. “It isn’t the MP I want to be.”