Opinion: We must talk about public servant safety

Alistair Burt served as the MP for North East Bedfordshire 2001-2019
Alistair Burt served as the MP for North East Bedfordshire 2001-2019

In the wake of the death of David Amess MP, former North East Bedfordshire MP, Alistair Burt writes exclusively for the Bedford Independent about the issues of safety for MPs, Councillors, and other public servants.

I was elected to Parliament on the same day as David Amess in 1983. For the best part of forty years after we were friends and colleagues, and the descriptions of him, and his life in public service, were an accurate reflection of his lively character and devotion to his calling.

There will be two strands to the inquiry into his death. One will focus on the motives of the individual who killed an unarmed pensioner, and will undoubtedly uncover a pseudo-political/religious justification with all the hallmarks of terrorist violence now wearingly familiar.

The other strand, prompted by the outpouring of grief for a well-loved representative of his people, must examine the way in which those on the front line of exposure to the public are now treated by some, and a growing number, of that same public.

We seem to have accepted and normalised a way of speaking about, and talking to, those whose role in life is to be engaged in delivering services to others or sorting out problems associated with such delivery.

MPs are not the only ones to be speaking of death threats, of hateful, sexually related abuse of women, and everyday use of violent language and aggression in correspondence or social media.

Local councillors or those who work in hospitals or doctors surgeries speak of a level of intimidation directed towards them, where those with a grievance, real or imagined, take it out on those usually not personally responsible, but on the closest to them that they can get to.

While the level of this has risen since I was first in public office in 1982, the curve was relatively gentle until the clash of perhaps three things- the anonymity and ease of social media, the Brexit arguments, and the pandemic.

Language changed, as did the sense that a contrary point of view was no longer debatable but had to be shut down.

A perception that as ‘citizens who pay the wages’ of those employed in public service life, an entitlement to bully and simply get their own way goes with their obligations as taxpayers, is a frequent claim.

We continue to accept this at risk to ourselves. It is not just that fewer people will stand for public office, from parish to Parliament, or that those who do will be different from today, it is also that fewer people will work close to them, sorting out people’s problems, or in places where contact with the public is essential, especially where there are difficult issues to deal with.

David Amess’s death will not be the last of an MP struck down, but let us turn the admiration for him into something more tangible in how we treat those who try to help us.

Alistair Burt
Former Member of Parliament
North East Bedfordshire (Conservative): 2001 – 2019

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