‘I suffer abuse every day but I won’t let hate win’
The shocking murder of MP, Sir David Amess, has heightened fears over the safety of our politicians and the people who work with them.
He was stabbed multiple times while taking a weekly surgery with consituents in Essex - a man has been arrested and police suspect the killing may have been an act of terrorism.
It followed just five years after the murder of Labour MP, Jo Cox, by a Far Right extremist in her Yorkshire constituency as she walked to a meeting.
Sir David was a good friend to Melton’s MP, Alicia Kearns, and the tragedy has forced her to re-examine security measures for her teams at the town contituency office in High Street and in Westminster.
Shortly before she joined colleagues from all parties in paying tribute to Sir David at a sitting in the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon, Mrs Kearns spoke at length to us about the face-to-face and online threats and abuse she receives on a daily basis and how it affects the people around her. This is what she told me:
NICK RENNIE: Where were you when you heard about the incident involving Sir David Amess on Friday and how did you react?
ALICIA KEARNS: I was in Oakham and about to open Oakham School fair and I had just been to visit a primary school that morning.
There aren’t really words to decribe it - your heart just shatters. And people aren’t just saying nice things about him because he died.
He was genuinely that person who walked into a room and you were so pleased to see him. He brought fun and humour and joy.
He’s been such a good friend to me from before I became an MP, supporting my journey. I last spoke to him only last week.
He was helping me to get some refugees from Qatar to the UK.
NR: There has been a discussion about how safe MPs and their staff are when meeting members of the public. Do you think changes are needed?
AK: The priority for me is personal security training. All MPs and their staff need to have the full training that I had when I was at the Foreign Office. What to do if you are in a crowd and it turns ugly, how to escape a knife attack. It wouldn’t neccesarily have saved David’s life but that kind of training gives you the minutes that you need to stay alive before the police get there.
My staff are terrified. They worry about how they would keep me safe. My staff already get enough abuse without worrying I am going to get phyically attacked.
NR: Has security been an important issue for you even before Sir David was murdered on Friday?
AK: I installed every single security measure that the police offered to me and my team in Melton as soon as I was elected.
We had a complete security overhaul. I changed where my team sat in the office so they had escape routes, I put in place bullet-proof glass,
I made sure my staff were safe immediately because I have a duty of care to them. I am going to look again at what my team need.
I stopped people walking into to see my team months ago because some people were coming in and shouting and screaming and abusing them.
NR: Abuse of everyone in public life seems to have been intensified in recent years - what kind of issues have you faced since you were elected in December 2019?
AK: People would assume that places like Rutland and Melton are completely safe but it’s not the case.
One of the first meetings I had in the January after I was elected, somebody came into my office and sat down and one of the first things they said was ‘if you f..k us on this I will drive you and your family out of this constituency, just you wait and watch’.
A few months ago the police had to go and knock on someone’s door in Rutland because they threatened to murder my children in great detail.
I get stopped and shouted and screamed at in the street. On a daily basis people email me saying that I am a piece of dirt, and scum.
This is every day. With politicians it’s targeted and personal against you as a person as well as the job you are doing.
I shouldn’t have to take the measures I do to protect my children. My son asked me on Friday ‘who hurt your friend?’. I said ‘it was a bad man’.
He sasked why and I wasn’t going to say it was because he does the same job as mummy.
NR: Has this climate of abuse and the murders of two MPs in recent years made you consider not standing again at the next election?
AK: My background is counter-terrorism, I will never let hate and division win and I refuse to let that happen now.
One of the first things my team said on Friday was ‘are you sure you want to continue?’. They said ‘we will stand with you Alicia but are you sure you want to do it?’ My husband asked me the same question but he knew what the answer would be.
You hear older MPs talking abou the good old days when you weren’t being constantly attacked and there wasn’t this abuse.
It’s become fun and entertainment to pull other people down. We are in the time of gotcha and catch you out click bait.
There was the big expenses scandal and that eroded trust and the scandal with journalists and that did too. That erosion of trust has driven through to today but that’s a fundamental issue that we have to re-shape.
We all need to do better but the way you end division is through dialogue and you stop hatred by having discussion and being calm.
I would like to think that Meltonians have seen that I’m not that MP who is on social media always attacking other parties.
I don’t play party politics, I don’t play games, I just focus on what I have promised to deliver.
NR: Are you concerned now about holding surgeries where you will be dealing with people in person and who could be a threat to your safety?
AK: I cancelled all walk-in surgeries a long time ago after we had some incidents in the office. Now I do surgeries by appointment only.
My team said to me last week ‘please don’t do surgeries because we can’t do background checks on people, we don’t know who is walking in’.
I am doing everything I can do and I will continue going to events and meeting people.
The vast majority of constituents are amazing human beings, incredibly supportive and very kind.
It’s the small majority. I don’t know how they’e got so much free time. They seem to have made it their thing that every single thing you do they are going to post negatively and criticise.
It’s a contant negativity which is completely unneccesary and no-one should have put up with it in any career.
One of my team said recenty ‘I have worked in public service all my career and I have never seen the hate and vitriol that you get in your inbox every single day’. It upsets my team and it’s not fair on them.
NR: Is it an option for you to stop using social media to avoid some of the abuse you receive?
AK: Lots of MPs have stopped doing social media altogether and I think that’s a critical question. Do we want to dehumanise MPs or do we want human MPs who go out and about and live their lives in the constituency, going to every single event they can and engaging with their constituents.
I have colleagues who have to move out of their own consituency because of stalkers. At least six of my colleagues have had to go to court over the last six months due to abuse from consituents.
I go shopping locally, live my life locally, this is our home but its the choice we have to make.
NR: Is there anything you plan to do differently to deal with those who do not interact with you respectfully?
AK: I like to think I never raise my voice to constituents, I never would. I’m going to have much more of a zero tolerance approach from now on.
In the past I’ve said ‘if you are rude and abusive to me online and to my team I will help you if you genuinely need help’.
But I won’t respond to these people who send me emails every single day just on policy issues or just to have a go. I will protect my team.
MPs and our teams are in essence social workers. We spend time getting people new houses, getting their heating fixed, getting HMRC to pay people back, getting people into hospitals when the doctors haven’t given them appointments, getting cancer treatment for people. No-one would ever abuse a social worker and yet they are very happy to abuse me and my team.