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Members security (2019)

Request

  1. What is the annual budget of the Members' Security Support Service for 2019-20?
  2. How many people work within the unit?
  3. How many MPs as of today's date have opted into the social media monitoring service?
  4. How many alerts have been sent to MPs regarding threats or abuse on social media since April 1st 2019?
  5. And how many referrals have been made to police?

 

Response

  1. What is the annual budget of the Members' Security Support Service for 2019-20?
    This information is held by the House of Commons. The annual budget for the MSSS for 2019-20 was £2.2 million.
  2. How many people work within the unit?
    This information is held by the House of Commons. There are 10 Members of staff that work within the MSSS.
  3. How many MPs as of today's date have opted into the social media monitoring service?
    This information is held by the House of Commons. There are 237 Members who have opted into the social media monitoring service.
  4. How many alerts have been sent to MPs regarding threats or abuse on social media since April 1st 2019?
    This information is not held by the House of Commons.  The social media monitoring service involves forwarding threatening or abusive social media communications directed at Members to the Police. Whilst it may be the case in practice that Members are notified, there is no requirement to inform them under the scheme and so no official record of notifying Members is held by the House.
  5. And how many referrals have been made to police?
    This information is held by the House of Commons. The House considers this information to be sensitive because it provides information about the effectiveness of the MSSS and the seriousness with which instances of online threats, harassment and abuse towards Members are treated. The increased level of threatening and abusive behaviour in all communications – including social media – is of particular concern, and recent physical attacks on Members and their offices have resulted in a real need for the House to be careful about what information is released.  Therefore, the House is withholding this information in accordance with sections 31 and 38 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) as we believe disclosure of this information would prejudice law enforcement and also health and safety. These are qualified or limited exemptions and require public interest tests to be performed. Please find the tests for each of these exemptions below.

Section 31 – Law Enforcement
There is a public interest in knowing how many referrals have been made to the police under the social media monitoring service.  The safety of the public's elected representatives is a public concern, and there is a clear public interest in understanding how we cooperate with those services providing us with law enforcement to ensure the safety and security of Members, their staff, family members, constituents and the public at large.
However, these obligations and legitimate interests are outweighed by the increased risk of criminal activity being undertaken if the information was disclosed. As previously mentioned, in recent years the incidents of criminal abuse and harassment suffered by MPs have risen sharply and both the House of Commons and the police services have increased security arrangements and taken more legal action as a result.  We are very aware of the increased physical risks to Members, highlighted but not limited to the tragic death of Jo Cox MP, and now take a great deal of care when asked to disclose information related to our security monitoring and arrangements.  The information you have requested could be highly useful to a person wishing to circumvent or compromise Members' security arrangements. In providing details of how our safety advice and support is prioritised and resourced, we would fail in our duty to prevent potential vulnerabilities from being identified by individuals with malicious or criminal intent against those Members, which in turn would fail in our duty to assist those services providing us with law enforcement. A commitment by the House that law enforcement reporting remains confidential is important from an individual point of view and effective on the estate and for Members away from the estate is therefore of legitimate interest to the public generally. It is our view that the greater public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the minor public interest in disclosing the information.

Section 38 – Health & Safety
In addition, this information is also being withheld on the basis that its disclosure to the public would endanger the health and safety of Members and related individuals.  Any exposed vulnerabilities or failures in our monitoring or security arrangements are likely to prejudice the health and/or safety of the individuals concerned.  As already identified, these individuals could be Members, their staff, family members, constituents, or even the public at large. We have therefore concluded that the information requested is exempt in accordance with section 38(1) (a) and (b) FOIA. This is a qualified exemption and requires a public interest test to be performed.
The Houses recognises that there is a public interest in disclosing this information. There is a legitimate interest in knowing the effectiveness of measures in place to protect the health and safety of elected Members of Parliament, as well as the people they work or otherwise interact with. The public have an interest in knowing the extent to which the social media monitoring service can be used to prevent individuals causing criminal harm, both physical and non-physical, to Members, their families and those around them. As online abuse can itself cause criminal harm and also be an indication of intended criminal harm in the future, disclosing the number of police referrals resulting from the social media monitoring service could give an indication of the measures taken by the House to prevent this behaviour and protect the physical and psychological health and safety of Members and those around them.
However, there is a countervailing public interest in exempting this information for the protection of the health & safety of individuals. As discussed above, the disclosure of this information may allow motivated individuals to gather information on how to avoid detection by the social media monitoring scheme and send abusive or harassing communications to Members over social media. This could itself have a direct impact on a Member's psychological health & safety and contradicts the intended goal of the social media monitoring scheme to reduce online abuse and harassment. Further, disclosing information that could compromise the protection of Members online could have a knock on effect on their physical health & safety, as well as the physical health and safety of those they work and interact with. Individuals motivated to harass Members online may also be motivated to physical attack Members in the future and disclosing information that allows them to circumvent the social media monitoring service may prevent their activity being brought to the attention of the police, with them continuing to pose a risk to the physical health and safety of Members. In this instance, therefore, the House believes that the public interest in exemption on health & safety concerns outweighs the public interest in disclosure.