Seven in ten councillors reported experiencing abuse and intimidation within the last 12 months, with one in ten experiencing abuse frequently, a new Local Government Association (LGA) Councillor census has revealed, sparking a call for greater safeguards.
Responses to the LGA’s call for evidence indicate that many councillors believe abuse is becoming more common, with the majority who experience abuse and intimidation experiencing it multiple times and half experiencing it on an ongoing basis.
In response, the Associaton is calling for government to work with local authorities and partners to urgently address toxic discourse and abuse against councillors or risk long-term impacts on local democracy and representation.
Alongside the release of the survey results, the LGA published a new report, Debate Not Hate: the impact of abuse on local democracy, which it says highlights how councillors are facing increasing abuse and intimidation from the public, with little power to deter perpetrators or support to tackle the issue.
This is leading to the expectation that councillors must tolerate high levels of sometimes extreme abuse and threats, discouraging prospective candidates from engaging with local politics, the LGA warned.
The effects of such abuse and intimidation is having a detrimental impact on the wellbeing of local councillors and their families, from their mental health to feelings of safety, with some reporting seeking medical advice for depression, anxiety and others unable to leave their homes at all or unaccompanied for fear of an incident, the LGA added.
Being encouraged to publish their home address and declare their financial interests made councillors feel more vulnerable, the LGA heard.
As a result, the Association has called for government to prioritise a change in legislation to put it beyond doubt that councillors can proactively withhold their home address from the public register.
In light of its findings, the LGA also urged local government leaders, the Government, partners, political parties and social media companies to sign up to a public statement, pledging to come together to develop and implement an action plan to address the issue of abuse of local politicians and their safety.
The survey also found that:
- 88% of councillors who responded to the survey said they had experienced abuse or intimidation directed at them personally in relation to their role as a councillor or candidate;
- 76% said they had witnessed such abuse. Social media was the most common place for abuse to take place, but two thirds had experienced abuse in person, with many describing use of threatening and discriminatory language and physical abuse such as spitting.
- 72% of respondents stated they had taken some action to avoid intimidation and abuse, such as moderating planned and unplanned engagement with the public, never working alone, and installing home security equipment.
- Anecdotally, the call for evidence found that some councillors were receiving targeted and personalised abuse due to their protected characteristic, the LGA said. In particular, there is a perception that women, ethnic minorities and LGBTQIA+ councillors will experience higher volumes of threatening and discriminatory abuse.
- 60% of respondents stated they knew others who were unwilling to run for election or take on leadership roles due to anticipated abuse.
Cllr James Jamieson, LGA Chairman, said councillors are “as much a part of the community as those they represent, and they should not expect to be subjected to any form of abuse because of their position”.
He added: “Debating and disagreeing with one another is an essential part of democracy, however abuse has no place in politics and stops residents from engaging in local government and councillors from reaching their full potential in the role.
“Council officers, including some frontline staff, are also reporting higher levels of abuse which is completely unacceptable.
“We need to see concrete action to protect current councillors and ensure potential future councillors feel safe to stand for election. Anyone, regardless of their background or political affiliation, should feel safe and proud to represent their community.”