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Debate on parliamentary democracy and standards in public life, House of Lords, 11 January 2024

Democracy and standards in public life are vital at a national and local level. However, increasing levels of toxicity in public and political discourse are deterring people from standing for election and representing their local communities.

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Key messages

  • Councillors are at the centre of local democracy. Elected from amongst their local community, it is a privilege and responsibility to be elected to public office at the local or national level. Communities rightly have high expectations of those in public office including in relation to their conduct and behaviour to each other and to members of the public. In return, councillors should not have to experience abuse and threats while fulfilling their public role.
  • Many politicians face abuse, online and offline, and this is negatively impacting democracy at a local and national level. The LGA’s Debate Not Hate research shows that this is a growing issue, with half of councillors saying abuse has increased in volume since they were first elected. This is putting people off from standing for election or pushing them to stand down from office, undermining local and national democracy and risking the loss of a whole generation of talented politicians with valuable skills, experience and expertise.
  • Our research also indicated that some people are more likely to experience higher volumes of more vitriolic abuse, including women, Black and ethnic minority people, and LGBTQIA+ people. The LGA works hard through Government funded programmes, such as the Be a councillor campaign, to promote the role of councillor to target groups and improve representation on local councils. However, these candidates need to feel confident that if elected, they will be supported and protected from inappropriate levels of abuse, threats and harassment.
  • This challenge is multi-faceted, and a coordinated effort is needed across the Government to tackle the issues affecting our democratic institutions, including the rise in online abuse and misinformation and increasing instances of serious incidents, intimidation and threats against elected members at all levels of Government.
  • Areas of priority action for local democracy include:
    • Amending the Localism Act 2011 to explicitly allow monitoring officers to proactively withhold councillors’ home addresses from the public register without a specific incident or threat having been made. Currently the legislation is unclear and open to interpretation as to whether publishing an interest would put a councillor at risk of being subject of violence or intimidation. This leads to a postcode lottery situation where some councils will redact home addresses for any councillor who requests it, while others will only do so in cases where a risk can be demonstrated. 
    • Work with the police to improve responses to reports of crime against councillors, including creating a specific single point of contact or liaison officers with specialist understanding of the councillor role and associated risks.
    • Establish a fund for home and ward surgery security to ensure that councillors have access to good advice and proportionate security arrangements.
    • Work with social media companies to ensure that they understand and acknowledge the democratic significant of local politicians and provide better and faster routes for councillors reporting abuse and misinformation online.


Councillors are at the centre of local democracy. Elected from amongst their local community, it is a privilege and responsibility to be elected to public office at the local and national levels. 

It is a key principle of democracy that government should be open and transparent and that decisions made by elected members at any level of government should be open to scrutiny and challenge. The ability to debate and disagree well is also vital to when there are significant division in viewpoints, to take into account varying experiences and when politicians grapple with difficult decision about complex issues. However, increasing levels of abuse and intimidation in political and public discourse are negatively impacting politicians and democracy at local and national levels. Communities rightly have high expectations of those in public office, both in terms of their decision-making and their conduct and behaviour while fulfilling their public role. In addition, the right to object and constructively challenge are both key components to our democratic system, but abuse and intimidation cross the line into unacceptable behaviour, serve to silence democratic voices and deter people from engaging with politics.

There is evidence that increasing levels of toxicity of debate and abuse against public figures are having an impact on our country’s democratic processes at a national and local level. In 2017, the Committee for Standards in Public Life published a report on Intimidation in public life in which the Committee suggested that “the scale and intensity of intimidation is now shaping public life”. Since then, research into abuse toward parliamentary candidates has supported anecdotal concerns that levels of abuse are increasing and that women, ethnic minority and LGBTQIA+ politicians receive more discriminatory abuse related to their personal characteristics. During the general election in 2019, concerns were raised over a number of female MPs who retired from politics and cited abuse they faced as a key factor in their decision-making. 

Beyond abuse that may dissuade prospective politicians from standing for election, there are significant concerns about the risks to politicians’ personal safety. Although rare, serious incidents do occur as shown by the murder of Jo Cox MP in 2016 and Sir David Amess MP in 2021.

Growing concerns about abuse and councillor safety

Data collected by the LGA in 2021-2022 showed that seven in 10 councillors experienced abuse or intimidation in the previous twelve months, with 10 per cent saying they experienced it frequently. A similar proportion had felt personally at risk while fulfilling their councillor role. Refreshes to this dataset in June 2023 showed an increase in both these measures to eight in 10 councillors saying they’d experienced abuse or intimidation and felt personally at risk during the last year. Half of respondents to our survey in 2023 said the amount of abuse and intimidation they received had increased since they first served as a councillor.

The abuse described by respondents to LGA surveys took place both online and in person, although many said the high volumes of abuse received online were particularly challenging. Death threats, abusive and discriminatory language, character assassination and intimidatory behaviour, such as encroaching on personal spaces, were common forms of abuse. Destruction of property, physical assault, and serious ongoing harassment like stalking or sexual harassment were rarer but not unheard of.

Both persistent “low-level” abuse and single incidents of threat or aggression had a dramatic impact on victims and their families. Some reported feeling very vulnerable in their local communities, with their personal information very accessible to the public, from when and where their ward surgeries will be held to their home addresses. Many suggested that significant levels of abuse experienced by local councillors and the requirement to publish home addresses on the public register of interests puts prospective councillors off from standing for election.

As with parliamentarians, there are a wide range of contentious issues that have been seen to lead to abuse, harassment and intimidation of councillors, arising from heated debate and sometimes from deliberate mis or disinformation. These can include purely local issues, such as planning decisions, parking policies or traffic management schemes; policy areas where national government decisions or choices impact a local area, such as the housing of asylum seekers in hotels or on sites such as former airfields; but also national or international issues unrelated to council functions – most recently, some councillors have reported an upsurge in harassment and intimidation in relation to the conflict in the Middle East. Other abuse or harassment is purely personally focused against a particular individual councillor, based on personal fixations, disagreements or prejudice. 

Growing concerns about abuse and councillor safety

Priority areas for reform

Councillor home addresses: MPs do not publish their home address on the public register of interests. Instead, there is a presumption that this address is kept confidential. With councillors, the opposite is true. Councillors must declare their pecuniary and other interests within 28 days of taking office or from when the interest arose. This often includes councillors' home addresses, which are recorded on the public register of interests. If a councillor does not want their address published on the public register, they must request that the Monitoring Officer treat it as a sensitive interest. The Officer must agree that disclosing the details of the interest could lead to the member or a person connected with them being subject to violence or intimidation. The sensitive interest is very broad and undefined, and this lack of clarity has led to a divergence between monitoring officers who believe that a specific incident or threat needs to have been made before a home address can be redacted and others who agree to withhold councillors' addresses proactively. We would argue that the lack of clarity in the legislation is unhelpful to monitoring officers and councillors and creates inconsistency across the sector.

The relevant legislation (the Localism Act 2011) and associated regulations should be modernised to reflect the increased risk profile associated with being an elected member and move towards the presumption that councillors do not share their home addresses publicly as with members of parliament. The divergence between the protections for MPs and councillors has been brought into sharp relief by recent rising community tensions. Approaches should differ only in response to the level of risk or threat, not the position the member holds. The legislation should recognise that councillors are the best judge of their own safety and put it beyond doubt that monitoring officers can withhold councillors' home addresses proactively rather than waiting for a specific threat or an incident to occur. In 2019, legislation came into effect to enable council candidates to choose not to have their home address published on the ballot paper, bringing them into line with parliamentary candidates who had obtained the same right a decade previously. Given the increasing risk of abuse, intimidation and harassment faced by councillors, it would be appropriate for a similar levelling up of protections to take place regarding registers of interests.

Specialised police support: MPs and candidates during elections have access to a network of Single Points of Contact (SPoC) in police forces that coordinate security support for MPs in their constituencies. For a long time, police forces have assumed that extending this level of support to councillors would be impossible to resource. However, some areas, for example, West Yorkshire Police in Leeds, have taken the innovative step to extend their SPoC arrangements to councillors and have not been overwhelmed. In fact, feedback from these areas indicates that councillors do not involve police unnecessarily and impose their own high threshold for contacting the police, which helps to manage demand.

The Home Office should work with the police at a national level to extend some specialist provisions for locally elected people, including a SPoC or liaison officer and security assessments, advice and support for councillors' homes, ward surgery venues and council meetings.

Funding for security mitigations: the UK Parliament funds specific security support for MPs, including providing home safety mitigations, such as security lights, ring doorbells, better locks, etc. However, this advice is not readily available to councillors and councillors and councils may be unable to afford to put these mitigations in place.

The Government should follow the example of other countries, like the Dutch Government, and provide funding for certain home and civic security mitigations to ensure locally elected members are protected in their homes and civic buildings.



Hannah Sadik, Public Affairs Communications Improvement Graduate

Email: [email protected]