This section sets out some advice for considering and maintaining your personal safety and security. While much of this is common sense, we hope the reminders will prove useful.
- consider your personal safety and security and incorporate it into planning any public duties or interaction, in association with your council
- much personal safety is common sense, but it is useful to remind yourself of the advice
- 1. Introduction
An important role of a councillor is to keep in touch with their residents and communities. This includes helping individuals with any problems they might have. Often this extends beyond just the delivery of council services. These contacts are usually rewarding and non-adversarial. However, councillors can find themselves in a position where they need to manage angry and frustrated residents who often contact their elected representative when they feel that they have no other avenue to pursue. Often councillors will deal with constituents on a face to face basis when alone.
Councillors are encouraged to:
• assess the risks to personal in carrying out their public duties
• recognise potential danger from personal contact or internet / postal communication and take appropriate action
• be proactive in considering personal safety through, for instance, the purchase of personal alarm, ensuring your partner, friend or relative has information on your activities, and ensuring your mobile telephone is charged
• if possible, vary daily routines, such as leaving and returning home at the same time or on the same route
The purpose of this section of the guidance is to set out what personal safety and security measures you could take to prevent and deal with those rare circumstances when you might find yourself in situations where you are concerned for your safety.
Most councillors will not experience any problems during their term(s) of office, but a little time given to the preparation and planning can reduce any risk.
- 2. Ward surgeries
The arrangements you can make will vary according to your local circumstances and it will be a fortunate councillor who can find premises for their surgery which meet every aspect of good practice and are also accessible to their constituents.
The following suggestions are designed to help make a ward surgery safer and more effective:
• Not holding surgeries alone in an otherwise empty building. Try to get someone to act as receptionist. This not only makes you safer, but also makes it much easier to manage a busy surgery. If you are currently holding surgeries alone, you could discuss how this can be overcome with fellow councillors or council officers.
• If you cannot avoid holding surgeries on your own, you can try to reduce any risk by considering the layout of the room, for example, sitting nearest to the door with the constituents seated on the other side of the table. Seating is best set out at an angle of 45 degrees (seating directly opposite can be confrontational). You can make sure there are no heavy items in the room that could be used as weapons and generally declutter the room.
• If possible, a separate and comfortable waiting area for constituents allows for a preliminary assessment.
• Have a plan for any helpers or staff regarding what to do in an emergency that you review and test regularly. This could include having an emergency word or phrase you can use to ask for assistance.
• Have an incident log book to record any incidents. This should include all types of unacceptable behaviour and should be dated, timed and signed in case further action is required.
• You can also undertake personal safety if you want to have additional skills in dealing with a potentially volatile situation.
• If you are at the stage of looking for suitable premises in which to hold a surgery, the following can help when considering personal safety:
- council premises (e.g. libraries) during opening hours or other premises where there are many other people about
- close to members of staff or other people in case you need assistance
- premises that where the names of any visitors for councillors are recorded
- premises where there is a comfortable waiting area
- easy access to a landline or an alarm linked to reception
- a clear and agreed procedure for dealing with a call for assistance
- is in view of a public area or a reception
- a vision panel in the door
- has a swift means of escape and any visitors are not able to lock the door from the inside.
It can be useful to make the following personal security checks:
• Are council staff/friends/family aware of where and when I am holding my surgery? And will they check on me if the meeting takes longer than expected? Do they know how to contact me?
• How do I call for help if I need to? Have I got my mobile phone with me, is the battery charged and can I get a signal? Do I have a personal safety alarm with me that is working?
• Is the visitor displaying signs of irrational, aggressive or confrontational behaviour?
• Am I sat at their level and using eye contact and open and gestures to display a helpful attitude?
• Do I think it is safe for me to conduct this surgery? Do I need to consider other options, such as a fellow councillor supporting me during the surgery? Do I need to call the police?
• Have I checked the room to make sure it is set up correctly with no items lying around that could be used as weapons?
• Is my chair nearest the door, so I can get out quickly if I need to?
• Am I aware of the quickest way out of the area or building and is there a safe location identified for me to go in case of any issues?
- 3. Dealing with a variety of behaviours
It is inevitable that some of the people you will meet will be angry or upset. Calmness in the face of whatever comes up will help you and your constituents.
If you are subjected to offensive, threatening, intimidating, racist, homophobic or derogatory remarks, you are within your rights to bring the meeting to an end and seek assistance. It is recommended that you take a detailed note of the incident and person(s) involved and let your council know about the incident. You can decide if you want to inform the police.
Some constituents seeking a councillor’s help may have additional needs or a mental health condition, and it is important that they are still able to seek advice and representation from their councillor. They may just require suitable adjustments to be made and for an understanding of the nature of their condition. Advice on supporting such individuals is available from a number of organisations, including the Autistic Society and mind.
- 4. Home visits
Councillors do sometimes visit residents in their homes, especially those who are elderly, disabled, have additional needs or where they simply want to see for themselves the conditions that are the subject of complaints.
It is for each councillor to decide whether a particular home visit should be made, especially if the person to be visited is unknown to the councillor. Most councillors trust their own instincts as to whether to meet someone alone. However, if you have any doubts about the safety of the premises you are to visit and the purpose of the visit is not about the premises itself then arrange for the meeting to take place at a neutral venue.
If a home visit is undertaken, the following general personal safety issues can be considered and planned before the visit:
• arrange the visit during normal working and daylight hours, if possible
• if appropriate, refer to the council’s ‘cautionary contacts’ database
• let somebody know who you are visiting, providing details of address, date and time of visit and expected duration
• keep a record of your whereabouts. This might include making a call on your mobile during the home visit, telling the resident that there is such a record or that you are expected elsewhere at a specific time. It would be advisable to let colleagues or family members know when you expect to finish.
During a home visit, you can consider the following specific personal safety advice:
• consider calling the person before the meeting to confirm arrangements and establish their mood/state of mind
• set up a code word or phrase for use on the telephone that you can use to raise the alarm. This needs to be something you have agreed with someone which will alert them that you think you might have a problem
• park your car so that it can be driven away easily and park in a well-lit area near other vehicles, if possible
• stay alert when approaching the property, and look around the garden for obvious dangers, for example dogs or prowlers
• after knocking, stand back and to the side of the door and do not stand on the edge of any steps
• be aware of potential weapons
• you can ask for any dogs or other pets to be secured
• assess the situation and mood of the resident. Also note any other people in the property and their mood
• if in any doubt or you feel threatened, do not enter, make an excuse and leave
• only sit down when the resident does
• where possible, sit in an upright chair as this is easier to stand up from barrier. If you have to sit in an armchair or settee, sit on the edge near the arm. This will enable you to stand up more easily
• take a look for any alternative escape routes
• if the situation changes and you feel threatened, make an excuse and leave. Back out rather than turning your back on the resident.
If a serious situation occurs, vacate the premises immediately and report the incident.
If you are unable to leave immediately when a serious situation occurs, you can:
• place defensive barriers between yourself and the resident
• continue talking to the resident, reassuring them that you mean them no harm
• set off your personal alarm, if you have one, or scream or shout to attract the attention of others. The use of reasonable force to protect yourself can be a last resort.
- 5. Potentially violent persons register
The council will have a corporate database. Councillors can contact designated officers to check about potentially violent persons prior to undertaking a home visit.
- 6. Lone working
If you are working alone you might consider the following:
• leaving details of where you are going and how long you will be with a partner, friend or colleague
• checking that you mobile telephone is charged and switched on
• carrying a personal alarm
• making regular check-in calls to a partner, friend or colleague or asking them to call you at regular intervals
• teaming up with another councillor in your own or a neighbouring ward
• carrying out a risk assessment and discussing it with another councillor or officer, if there are a number of risks associated with a particular visit, for their view on whether a visit should be undertaken.
- 7. Personal callers to councillors’ private homes
Most councillors seek to maintain a balance between their personal and public lives and do not want to encourage any callers at their private homes. Good publicity by the council as to how to contact councillors and details of ward surgeries reduces the chances of unwanted callers. Contact details for councillors can be found on the council’s website, although councillors do not need to show their address on the published election nomination paper or on the council’s website.
If a visit is to take place at your private home, it is recommended that this only takes place via a pre-arranged appointment, ideally with another person in support
It is inadvisable to see an unannounced caller in your home. You can suggest making an appointment, but if you have any doubts as to their intention or if they appear angry/aggressive, then contact the police
If you believe you are safe, you can try to ascertain their name and address
If you believe you are safe, try to ascertain the nature of the issue they want to discuss, conducting any discussion outside the house.
If you do feel under threat you can carry a personal alarm, perhaps keeping it at the door for easy access.
If you have another person with you inside the house they could take a photo of the person or film the encounter, but be aware that this is likely to inflame the situation if the person is aware of it and they may become more aggressive – this should really be a last resort if you want evidence for the police.
If more than one individual who are not known to you turns up unannounced and you are concerned that they pose a threat it is advisable to contact the police and decline to open the door.
Once the incident is over, record as much as you can, including descriptions, should you decide to take any action over the matter. If you are concerned, report the incident to the council and/or the police.
- 8. Home security
As a person with a public profile it is advisable to maintain a decent level and awareness of home security. The following is general advice on what to consider in making your home safe and secure:
• Try to make it clear via boundaries the difference between public and private space. Front boundaries should be kept low so they don’t provide hiding places and to enable good natural surveillance.
• Keep fences and walls in a good state of repair and consider your planting to reduce the availability of handholds and to put off prospective intruders
• Remember to lock your garages, outbuildings, sheds, etc. Ensure they are fitted with high-quality and secure locking devices, and you can add extra locks if you are concerned.
• Ensure tools and ladders, which could be used to access your home, are locked away, and remove anything that could potentially be used to cause damage, such as loose bricks or large stones.
• If possible, keep your dustbin and recycling bins secure until collection day to prevent them being used as climbing aids.
• Obscure the view into your home by fitting blinds, curtains or film including glazed exterior doors. Get into the habit of closing curtains or blinds when occupying a well-lit room.
• Do not label your keys – if you need to identify keys, use a colour-code theme, and keep control of your door keys. Make sure you know who has copies and if you cannot account for all the keys, change the locks. Do not give keys to people you do not know, e.g. trades people.
• If you are planning on installing a home alarm or CCTV, the police recommend that you select an installer who is affiliated to one of the recognised alarm and CCTV inspectorate bodies, such as the National Security Inspectorate (NSI) or the Security Systems and Alarms Inspection Board (SSAIB).
• In order to identify visitors at night, good external lighting is recommended, alongside low wattage lighting is recommended to illuminate all external doors, car parking and garage areas and footpaths leading to your home.
• Additional useful information is available at SecuredbyDesign.
- 9. Attendance at meetings
Councillors have to attend evening meetings which often finish after dark. It is possible that depending on the nature and outcome of the meeting that members of the public may leave feeling angry or upset. In such instances, councillors may wish to ask to be accompanied to their car or nearest public transport by colleagues or officers who also attended the meeting.
- 10. Demonstrations
It is possible, due to the nature of the difficult decisions that councillors have to make, that you may experience a protest against such decisions. If this does occur:
• stay calm – such protests may feel intimidating but will not necessarily lead to a physical threat
• remain inside, close and lock doors and windows and draw the curtains/blinds
• inform the police
• it is not recommended to confront the protesters
• if you concerned that the protest is an aggressive one, and it is safe for you to do so, note descriptions of individuals and vehicles present so you can pass these onto the police.
- 11. Reporting incidents
If you consider any incident to be severe, contact the police. Even if an incident is not considered serious enough to involve the police, it should always be reported to the council.
If you have been subject to, or witnessed a hate incident or crime you have a duty to report it. By taking appropriate action you may help to prevent a similar incident reoccurring.
- 12. Training
Personal safety of councillors is a responsibility of your council whilst you are on council business. Personal safety training for councillors may be a key component of the councillor induction programme.
- 13. Terrorist-level threats
Although the purpose of this guide is not to cover this in detail, it provides a good opportunity to highlight the current safety advice should such an incident occur.
The main ‘Stay Safe’ principles are to “Run – Hide – Tell”. If you would like more information you can refer to the National Counter Terrorism Support Office’s website.
You can discuss your personal security with your local counter-terrorism security adviser.
Further information on issues raised here are available with acknowledgement to the LGiU, the National Counter Terrorism Support Office, Northampton Borough Council and Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council, which has comprehensive paperwork relating to personal safety training.