Shailesh Vara writes for The Telegraph.
The tragic passing of Sir David Amess, a much-loved member of Parliament, has again ignited a debate as to how MPs are treated by the public.
The verbal and physical threats are real and the free-flowing bile and poison on social media is easily available for everyone to see and contribute to.
One aspect of abuse and harassment against MPs that is less public however, is the correspondence that we receive from constituents, in the hundreds, on a weekly basis. Much of it is by email although some is still by letter.
Regrettably, the tone in some of this correspondence in recent years has become increasingly hostile and aggressive. Swear words, including referring to MPs with the “c” word is not unusual.
There has been a distinct difference in tone since the rise of social media, with many of the more abusive correspondence coming from individuals who have clearly taken a leaf from the book of the unpleasant side of online debate.
When challenged on their unacceptable language, some constituents come back, saying there is nothing unusual in the language they are using as it is “normal” as far as they are concerned.
To be clear, the vast majority of constituents are respectful and, if they disagree, are able to do so in a constructivemanner.
Before the advent of emails, MPs used to receive about 20-25 letters a week and it was not uncommon to have one secretary working for two or three MPs. Today however, MPs can easily receive more than 25 emails in an hour and they need to employ several staff to deal with their inbox.
A direct consequence arising from the change in tone is that while the venom is intended to be directed at MPs, it is our staff who often have first sight of the emails or end up answering the telephone when an abusive constituent calls.
Extraordinarily, when a member of my staff once told a constituent that they were simply doing their job and there was no need to be abusive, the constituent responded by saying that anyone working for an MP should not complain. If they didn’t like the way they were spoken to, then they shouldget a different job.
Our staff are not public figures. They are ordinary citizens simply doing a job, trying to put food on their tables and pay their rent or mortgage. Sadly, they have become innocent victims in the process.
It is not acceptable to abuse or harass MPs, and certainly not their staff who are private citizens simply trying to earn a living.
As we move forwards, the tone and quality of political dialogue must change. When there is disagreement, and there always will be, it must be done in a respectful manner.
If people dislike their MP, or what they stand for, the solution lies in making a change through the ballot box which is central to our democratic way of life.
The silent majority believes in civility and respect for others. It is time to get that message out to the minority who believe otherwise.
Shailesh Vara MP
Former Northern Ireland Minister