A Yorkshire MP in the neighbouring constituency to Jo Cox’s has told how the murder of her friend has permanently altered the face of Britain’s Parliamentary democracy.
Paula Sherriff, elected at the same time as Mrs Cox in 2015, said her fellow Labour MP’s death at the hands of neo-Nazi killer Thomas Mair has prompted her to re-think how she approaches her public duties.
Speaking after Mair was handed a whole life sentence on Wednesday, Ms Sherriff told The Yorkshire Post that she no longer allows people into her office without an appointment and now rarely advertises her whereabouts in advance on social media.
She now goes to very few appointments unaccompanied and has upgraded security at her home after becoming “a lot more conscious of my personal security”. Referring to Mrs Cox’s death, she said: “It changed everything. That day changed everything. It changed Parliament and democracy.”
The Dewsbury and Mirfield MP also revealed that an application to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) for funds to improve her home security was turned down on June 16, the day Jo Cox was murdered.
The request for money from the Parliamentary watchdog’s security assistance budget was made with the support of West Yorkshire Police. A later request for funding by Ms Sherriff was successful.
It feels completely different now, I have become a lot more conscious of my personal security.Paula Sherriff
Ipsa says it has had a “huge rise” in the number of applications from MPs for funding to improve their security since June, resulting in more than £600,000 being paid out. This total is four times the funding agreed for the entire previous financial year.
Other Yorkshire MPs have revealed that they have reviewed their security after the attack on Jo Cox but say elected representatives must be accessible and “must not be hindered by a fortress of security”.
Ms Sherriff received what she describes as a “credible death threat” ten weeks after becoming an MP, but said that prior to the murder of her friend she had the attitude of ‘it will never happen to you’.
She said: “When I got the death threat everyone went hysterical. The security services were saying ‘you must do this’, but I thought the likelihood of this happening was negligible.
“That feels completely different now, I have become a lot more conscious of my personal security. I have upgraded security in my home and office.
“My staff are really quite nervous, they feel conscious that I would be under threat, not them.
“It came out during the trial that Jo said ‘get away, let him hurt me’, and I understand why she said that. All my staff have children, they are all women and mums.”
Ms Sherriff had already had experience of abuse and threats prior to June, prompting her to increase security in her Dewsbury office. Last October a man from Nottinghamshire admitted threatening to rape and kill her in a Facebook Messenger post.
And in March this year a man frightened the MP’s staff with his behaviour in her office. He admitted affray but was cleared of making threats to kill.
But the Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities says she has taken apparent threats to her safety and that of her staff more seriously since June.
She said: “Three weeks after Jo died I got out of my car, shut the door, and a gentleman came up behind me and shouted ‘bang’ in my ear and started laughing. I said to him, do you realise someone has been murdered three weeks ago.
“I was shaking, I went back to my office and told them what happened, they asked me if I had rung the police.
“Last Thursday, because I am on the front bench now, I spoke in a debate that was quite controversial. It was international men’s day, which is something that definitely divides opinion.
“I called out a group called Justice for Men and Boys, I called them out because some of the material on their website is so offensive, their first premise is that women automatically lie about being raped. On the Saturday they wrote an article about me and called me a hatchet-faced trout.
“Because it is an anti-feminist website, and I have been open about my feminist views, previously I would have thought ‘it is not like someone will come and murder me’, but now I think that potential always exists.
“My mum rung me and told me to stop bringing controversial things up. We have had some issues in Dewsbury, the Daily Mail wrote an article about Savile Town and I wrote to them saying it was exaggerated. You can’t change who you are because of what happened to Jo.”
Reflecting on her change of attitude, she said: “In general terms things have changed a bit, that is regardless of party, I think I feel it slightly more than some others because of the geography, it is that sense of ‘it could have been me’.
“I think it is really important that we talk about this, it might make people think about their behaviour and the language that they use. The amount of abuse I get is phenomenal, particularly on social media.”
Fellow Yorkshire MP, Conservative Alec Shelbrooke, who represents Elmet and Rothwell, said he had been forced to review security arrangements for him and his team.
But he said: “I’ve been determined not to let the hatred of a few force me to hide away from the residents I was elected to serve”.
He added: “The relationship between MPs and the residents we serve is an important one and I believe it’s a relationship that must not be hindered by a fortress of security.”
Greg Mulholland, Liberal Democrat MP for Leeds North West, said: “The disgusting and cowardly murder of Jo Cox was an attack on democracy, as well as an attack on a fine MP, wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend.
“However it must not and will not be allowed to stop MPs representing their constituents as she did.
“With the unique role that British MPs have dealing with hundreds of constituents’ issues and problems every month, we have to be accessible and meet with the people we serve.
“MPs and MPs staff should be given what personal and office security measures they can, but we will still be out and about in our constituencies, meeting the people we represent and we can’t do the job without doing this”.
It is understood that Ipsa has relaxed its procedures for requests to fund security improvements since Jo Cox’s death. Previously MPs would have to provide two quotes for an application to be successful, whereas now only one is needed.
The watchdog has also arranged for the security firm Chubb to visit the homes and offices of MPs to provide advice on security.
A spokesman said: “IPSA takes the security of MPs, their staff and their families very seriously. We wrote to all MPs in January to make clear the range of support available to them.
“We have dealt with a huge rise in the number of security applications since June 2016 and have been able to provide the necessary funding, in most cases, in a matter of days.”