Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Protecting MPs involves more than sentry duty for one hour a fortnight


There’s a story about a man living in a remote house who spots two burglars entering his shed. He immediately phones the police, telling them that, if they’re quick, they can catch the two burglars red-handed. This being austerity Britain, he gets the inevitable response that there are no police officers available to respond. He waits ten minutes, then calls again. This time he tells them that he saw two burglars entering his shed so took his shotgun out and that, after shooting one of them, the other is now cowering in the shed. Within minutes, three police cars full of armed officers pull up outside his house and a police helicopter is circling overhead. “You told us you’d shot someone”, said the senior police officer on the scene, after failing to find any evidence of a corpse. The householder replied, “And you told me that there was no-one available”.

The point, of course, is that any under-resourced police force is always going to have to prioritise which calls it answers – and the result is that the police simply no long respond to a growing number of crimes, as many victims of burglary or car theft palmed off with a crime number for insurance purposes will readily attest.

It is, of course, right that MPs going about their business meeting constituents should be properly protected (although I can’t help but observe that some of the politicians shouting the loudest about the need for protection following a single fatality are the same people who tell us that between 800 and 1000 preventable premature Covid deaths each week for the last two months, and for the currently foreseeable future, is an ‘acceptable’ price to pay: all lives matter, but some, it seems, matter more than others). The question, though, is what the police will not do to enable them to divert resources to protecting MPs. It isn’t as simple as having a policeman on duty at a fortnightly hour-long constituency surgery, which is the way it has been largely presented. Surgeries may be one of the easiest ways of gaining access to an MP, but if someone is determined to murder an MP there are plenty of other opportunities.  Considering only surgeries looks like a tokenistic response. Providing sufficient coverage of all possible attack opportunities for 650 MPs (and then, what about MSs, MSPs, and MLAs, the inclusion of which would add significantly to the requirement?) would probably need a couple of thousand full time officers, allowing for 7 day working, holidays, sickness etc.

I wouldn’t argue that MPs should not receive a suitable level of protection, but it is entirely reasonable to ask two questions: firstly whether the resources required would be additional to those currently available, and secondly, if not, which other policing activities will be deprioritised as a result. Pretending that a significant additional responsibility can be loaded onto already overstretched police resources is just dishonest. I don’t believe that most people would begrudge the provision of appropriate protection to elected public servants, but withdrawing from even more police activities supporting local communities might be a good way of changing that. The response needs to be rather more nuanced than the knee-jerk reaction we’ve seen to date.

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