22 MAY 2019

Speech on intimidation

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on bringing this debate to the Chamber. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), who made some important comments.

A lot of people have raised the subject of intimidation in connection with the UK, but I would like to raise it from an international perspective. It is absolutely essential that MPs have a role in foreign affairs; it is essential that we play that role. I have taken a stand against Russia, for example, that has not led to any intimidation yet, but I have also taken a stand in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has led to intimidation and a series of more than 30 emails threatening me with death. The conversations that generated them started with a UK boy, who was clearly pro-Palestinian, asking me what I made of the Israeli bombs falling on Palestine. I replied, "What do you make of the Palestinian bombs falling on Israel?" For that I was put on a death list and my name was not taken off it. When I told the Serjeant at Arms, I was told to queue up with the 180 other MPs who had received death threats, which goes to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire made about our needing to make sure that our own system here for dealing with such issues takes them seriously and provides a good service for MPs.

In contrast was the reaction of my own chief constable, who told me that she would give the case to a chief inspector who normally dealt with these things, and if he saw something there, he would take further action. I said no more about it to my family. I went away, forgot it and got on with my work, but at 2 o'clock in the morning my house had a panic alarm installed by the police and I was given a telephone number that I could ring from my mobile or my home address that would scramble a helicopter from the local base and set in train a response unit from the Thames Valley headquarters in Kidlington. If I dialled it now, of course, it would take two days for the response unit to reach us, which would probably be too late, so I suppose there is a small mercy in that.

The death threat was supposed to intimidate me into taking a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on which I had actually taken a very even view throughout. It made me want to go out to the region to see what was happening. I have now been out to the region 10 times in the past seven years to see for myself what is happening, and I have had discussions on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides to be able to take the matter forward.

The really frightening thing has been mentioned by others. I run my office in a large and long constituency on the basis that it does not have a physical location. It has a PO box, an email address and a telephone number, and that immediately put at risk my staff who work there. In fact, it is somebody's house and it is possible to find out from the PO box address where the house is. To find that my staff were equally threatened was a stage too far.​

The intimidation did not work and there is a very good reason why it did not work, apart from my own attitude to it. I do not think that such intimidation should ever work. We all have to stand up and make sure that our voices are heard. We need to stand up to bullies wherever they come from and make sure that we are true to ourselves and to our own intelligence and logic in assessing such situations.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)

On standing up to people, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that in the wider discourse we make it clear that, whatever our views are on somewhat controversial issues, we can express them clearly, directly and even vehemently, but there is a line that Members of Parliament, other elected representatives or people outside must never cross: violence, the threat of violence, the use of violence or the endorsing of violence? If everybody understands that, we can have a much more measured debate in future.

John Howell

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. I agree with every word. The problem is that not everyone outside understands what that line is. That is the difficulty. We in this room can understand exactly where that line is, but there are those outside who do not understand it, and that is a source of great regret to me, as I am sure it is for him and for all others in this room.

We need to stand up to bullies wherever they are. We need to be true to our own views, however we have come to them and however different they might be from other people's. I certainly was not going to be intimidated by the group, and I have not been, regardless of my views, ever since.

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