An increasing number of councillors and candidates are being subjected to abuse, threats and public intimidation, and the growth of social media has offered a largely anonymous route for individuals and groups who want to engage in such activity.
The LGA and Welsh LGA are concerned that this is undermining the principles of free speech, democratic engagement and debate. It is also putting people off standing as local councillors.
This is of concern to us as organisations representing local government, as we want to encourage more people to stand as councillors. We need numerous and diverse candidates and councillors to represent our numerous and diverse local communities, ensuring that local decision-making is robust and well-informed.
While debate and having different views is all part of a healthy democracy, abuse, public intimidation and threats are designed to undermine democratic decision-making by generating fear in those who represent local democracy.
As a first step in addressing these issues, the LGA and the WLGA have launched a guide for councillors on how to handle intimidation. This gives advice on the way to respond to a threat; personal safety and security; relevant legislation; managing social media; and setting personal standards of public debate.
This guide is not designed to alarm, but to suggest some steps you and your council can take to protect you as a person in a public position, and how to respond should an incident occur.
In addition to producing this guide, the LGA and WLGA are planning further work and will continue to engage with national governments and other agencies to address the issue of public intimidation and its impact on local democracy.
This guide does not take the place of legal advice or personalised advice from the police on offences or personal security. If you are concerned about your personal safety or security as a result of abuse, harassment or intimidation, you should contact your local police force.
The guide sets out five ‘SHIELD’ principles:
- S-afeguard – where possible, protect yourself online and in person. Set out in any online biography that abusive, threatening or intimidatory communications or actions will be reported. Use security features, take personal safety precautions and have a point of contact in the local police for any incidents.
- H-elp – ensure you are safe before you take further action and get help if needed. If the threat is not immediate, contact your council’s member support officers or someone with that role from your political group.
- I-nform – you can inform the individual or group that you consider their communication or action intimidating, threatening or abusive. A growing ‘digital citizenship’ movement encourages the labelling of poor online conduct as a way of challenging such behaviour.
- E-vidence – if you consider that a communication or action is intimidatory, threatening or abusive, gather evidence such as photos, recordings, screenshots, letters, emails, and details of witnesses.
- L-et people know – report incidents to your social media platform, council officers, party officials, lead members and the police, depending on their nature and severity.
- D-ecide – determine whether you want to continue receiving communications from an individual or group and block or mute them on social media where appropriate. Decide if you want to pursue any action to inhibit the ability of an individual or group to approach you.