Today MPs spoke in a backbench debate to raise their concerns of a growing ‘digital threat to democracy’ which is preventing women from a career in politics.
The debate was secured by Maria Miller in her capacity as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Women in Parliament, along with co-sponsors including Caroline Nokes, Yvette Cooper, Wera Hobhouse, Angela Crawley, Claire Hanna and Carla Lockhart.
At the debate Maria Miller MP said, “Parliaments are at their best when they are diverse. The Gillard Institute at King’s College is clear that the evidence shows the equal participation of men and women strengthens democracy, yet we still only have 1 in 3 MPs who is female. Online abuse is a factor not only stopping women standing for election but is contributing to cutting short the careers of those who do stand and are successful in being elected. Tackling online abuse, particularly when it impacts freedom of speech of elected members, needs to be a bigger priority for Parliament and Government.”
“Let’s be clear what that this abuse looks like. It’s not just offensive language, or strongly-felt vigorous political debate; for some colleagues online abuse it is a threat of rape, a threat of murder, a threat of stalking, physical violence towards themselves or their families. Other times its mass coordinated harassment by groups online, and anonymity online can mean the Police can find it difficult to take action swiftly before reputational damage is done”.
The debate was held against the backdrop of growing evidence that women in politics are facing disproportionate online abuse compared to their male peers. Studies from UCL’s Constitution Unit have shown that harassment against women has increased over the past two general elections, with women experiencing double the increase in abuse that men have experienced.
Equal Power, a project led by the Fawcett Society, Centenary Action Group, Citizens UK, 50:50 Parliament, Glitch UK, Muslim Women’s Network UK and The Parliament Project, has also revealed that in December 2019, 59% of women surveyed said they were ‘unlikely to stand as an MP’ and 44% ‘unlikely to stand as a councillor’. Nearly a year on, this has risen to 74% ‘unlikely to stand as an MP’ and 62% ‘unlikely to stand as a councillor’.
In the lead up to the debate and May Local Elections 2021, the Local Government Association (LGA) shared its ‘growing concerns about the impact of the level of public intimidation and toxicity of debate’, indicating that local councils had observed that online abuse has prevented women from standing for election, with women, those from BAME groups, members of the LGBT+ community and individuals with disabilities being particular targets of abuse.
MPs made calls for the Government to take action to stamp out violence against women in politics by introducing legislation creating electoral sanctions of intimidation. The Minister of State for the Constitution and Devolution committed to bringing forward this legislation in 2018 and March 2021, but no timetable has been set to date.
Members also called for Parliament to take a more active role in tackling abuse towards MPs, and proposed that House Authorities designate online abuse as a workplace harassment hazard, and also to facilitate training and support for female MPs and their staff so they can feel safer, more prepared and better protect themselves online.
Several MPs also showed support for the government to introduce specific measures in the forthcoming Online Harms legislation, including mechanisms allowing social media users to filter anonymous accounts, as well as proposals to ring-fence a percentage of the Digital Services Tax so that the tech industry contributes to police resources needed to tackle abuses on social media.
This comes amid polling data from the think-tank Compassion in Politics which found that 27% of people are put off posting on social media because of retributive abuse, and that three in four people believe that social media companies need to have a more interventionist role to wipe out the abuse on their platforms.