The appalling murder of the Essex MP David Amess has caused great shock and sadness in Westminster and across the country over the past week. There were some moving tributes in Parliament from some of those closest to him, after which we all attended a memorial service at St Margaret’s Church next to Westminster Abbey.
David had been an MP for many years since 1983 in fact. I can remember that when I first became an MP in 2010, he was the sort of person who was always there to offer helpful advice and support as we all tried to find our feet and learn the ropes. He was very approachable and unassuming and he had a sunny optimism and a beaming smile, with constant good humour that could lighten the mood on any occasion. He was undoubtedly one of the kindest people in politics.
As a Minister in Defra, I got to deal with him quite often because of his lifelong passion for animal welfare issues and we would often discuss policies such as banning live animal exports, tightening the laws around licensing for those who breed and sell puppies and improving slaughterhouse regulations. Next Monday, I will introduce a new Bill to Parliament that will bring forward the ban on the export of live animals. He would undoubtedly have been there, in the Chamber, offering support and encouragement from a couple of benches behind me in the normal way and we will all feel his absence.
A few years ago we saw the tragic murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox in very similar circumstances and I attended the memorial event in Camborne Town Square alongside the local Labour Party. Despite sometimes profound differences in opinion, everyone in politics in this country is united in their unshakeable belief in our democracy and all parties were united in their grief again this week.
David Amess’ murder has inevitably led to discussion around security for MPs and the coarseness and aggression directed to people in social media and online. My view is that we need to keep these things in perspective. This was ultimately a senseless murder. Our focus should be on the violence that we see from a tiny number of individuals and how we address that. In recent years we have sadly seen a rise in violent incidents against the police, against healthcare workers or those working in other public-facing roles such as job centres. Sometimes these are linked to mental health problems or to drug or alcohol addiction.
Our democracy is designed to ensure that MPs are grounded by what they see and hear from the constituents in the seat they represent. Surgeries, which are where an MP hears directly about the trials and tribulations that people are wrestling within their life and then tries to offer a helping hand are crucial to making sure any government is responsive to what is actually happening on the ground. In the absence of this, things become far more remote and out of touch. We should make every effort to ensure that we retain that connection.