Councillors report death threats and online abuse as they call for more protection
Richard Evans, local democracy reporter
Councillors in Denbighshire are calling for more robust legislation to protect them from death threats and online abuse.
During discussion of a diversity in democracy report, detailing how the council could attract people from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures before next May’s elections, some councillors took issue with a reference to members having “a thick skin”.
The chosen wording was guidance from the ombudsman, referring to a court case between two quarrelling councillors. The ombudsman’s advice was that councillors should be able to engage in a rigorous debate as long as matters did not become personal.
But Cllr Rachel Flynn took issue with the wording, and so did Llangollen councillor Graham Timms, who claimed he received abuse both on the street and online.
“I was, too, absolutely disgusted at this idea that councillors should have thick skin. I’ve worked in schools with some very difficult children for many, many years, and I have a pretty thick skin, I can tell you,” said Cllr Timms.
“But the level of unpleasantness and vile comments on social media in Llangollen is dreadful, and it is shameful, and I think something needs to be done. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my work as a councillor. I’ve represented my community, and I’ve been very proud to do it; however, the effects of the actual unpleasantness and abuse I’ve received, it’s meant I don’t even go down to the town with my wife any longer. I have to go on my own because it’s just unpleasant. That’s not how it should be.”
He added: “I know in Llangollen there will be a lot shorter list of candidates in the next election because that abuse goes on.”
Cllr Rachel Flynn also appealed for better protection for councillors and complained about the ombudsman’s use of the words ‘thick skin’. She also welcomed a change in legislation in which councillors’ personal details, such as personal addresses, will soon be taken down.
Alarmingly, Cllr Flynn said she had received death threats.
“For five years now nearly, I have had my personal details online,” she said.
“Anyone can come to my house. At the beginning of this council, I had death threats and abuse from people, and they knew I had two small children, and they knew where I lived, and yes, for a short time my details did come off the internet, which I was grateful for at the time. But it was against the norm.”
She added: “I felt very vulnerable for a very long time. Occasionally I would have somebody come to my house, but there is no reason for a constituent to come to my home when they’ve got emails and phone calls, and I could happily arrange to meet them.”
Cllr Christine Marston agreed, adding: “I think Denbighshire, as a county council, should be a little bit more proactive in investigating this unacceptable behaviour. I do feel Denbighshire officers need to do more and address this situation. You talk about diversity and encouraging more women to get involved with our council. It should be addressed, and this shouldn’t be tolerated.”
Cllr Joan Butterfield told the meeting she had once received abuse from a councillor in the past who had labelled her a ‘prostitute’ on Facebook.
“I do think we (the council) should be more robust,” she said.
“It’s all well and good to say that we will do our best, but it always seems to be at the back of the queue when abuse is happening. It is really very unpleasant.
“I just will share one post about myself. It is quite a few years ago now. I was very, very distressed, but my family were more distressed than I was when it was published, and this was by one of the councillors, that put online that I was a prostitute in Leeds, and that says it all. It is just toxic, and I don’t see that we’ve moved forward on that yet.”
She added: “I put myself forward as the other members do to become a public servant, but my family don’t.”
Earlier last week councillors in Monmouthshire also called for more protection, with Independent councillor Simon Howarth revealing he had suffered two arson attack since becoming a councillor. Labour group leader Dimitri Batrouni also said that members in Newport had removed their home address from being publicised to protect them from abuse.
The diversity in democracy report seeks to increase flexibility, regarding the timing of council meetings, take into account members’ childcare costs and the impact of councillor duties on their employment. It will also look at public criticism and tackling online abuse and a lack of diverse role models within the council chamber.