Internet trolls who hide behind anonymity while spreading hate should be prosecuted under new legislation called “David’s Law”, a friend of the dead MP said on Monday.
During emotional and at times humorous tributes to Sir David Amess, who was stabbed to death while meeting constituents on Friday, parliamentarians from all parties united in praise of the popular MP.
Cheers broke out from both sides of the House when it was announced that Queen Elizabeth II had agreed to grant the town of Southend city status. The 69-year-old MP had long campaigned to reward his 183,000 constituents with the elevated title.
At 2.30pm MPs gathered to observe a minute’s silence for Sir David.
An hour later the prime minster arrived to give the first of many tributes for the Conservative backbencher, the House of Commons’ green upholstery barely visible among the packed rows of MPs.
The greatest cheers and laughter were reserved for Sir David’s friend and fellow Essex MP, Mark Francois. After several amusing anecdotes, he raised the issue of the “toxic environment” found in social media, in which people in public life - from MPs to doctors and even their receptionists - are attacked by people hiding behind anonymity.
To applause and cheers he called for the current Online Harms Bill to be changed to “David’s Law” in memory of the MP.
He called for his fellow legislators to “drain the Twitter swamp” by denying the trolls anonymity so that his friend “did not die in vain”.
He said: “In the last few years David had become increasingly concerned about what he called the toxic environment in which MPs, particularly female MPs, were having to operate in.”
“He was appalled by what he called the vile misogynistic abuse which female MPs had to endure online and he told me very recently that he wanted something done about it,” he added.
“Surely we can all agree that we came here to try for which we are now systematically vilified day after day … I suggest that if we want to ensure that our colleague didn’t die in vain, we collectively all of us pick up the baton, regardless of our party, and take the forthcoming Online Harms Bill and toughen it up markedly.
“So let’s put, if I may be so presumptuous, David’s Law on to the statute book, the essence of which would be that while people in public life must remain open to legitimate criticism, they can no longer be vilified or their families subject to the most horrendous abuse, especially from people who hide behind a cloak of anonymity with the connivance of the social media companies for profit.”
He said: “If the social media companies don’t want to help us drain the Twitter swamp, then let’s compel them to do it by law because they’ve had more than enough chances to do it voluntarily.”
Paying an emotional final tribute to his colleague and friend Sir David Amess, Mr Francois said: “I am absolutely determined, and I ask for your support in that, that he will not have died in vain.
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford described the loss of Sir David Amess as “devastating”, and said it had “once again” laid bare the “twin threat” of terrorism and “the toxic culture of hate and intolerance that has become all too common”.
He said in the Commons: “For too long we have been dragged down a path where passionate disagreement has been infected by poison. All of us can do better not to feed into that corrosive culture. All of us have been a victim of it, and every single one of us have a responsibility to put an end to it.”
Paying his tribute, Boris Johnson said there was nothing that he or anyone else could do to lessen the “grief and anger of one taken from us in a contemptible act of violence”.
Sir David, a married father of five children, was one of the “nicest, kindest, gentlest individuals to grace these benches”, Mr Johnson said, to the echo of “hear, hear”.
In a rare moment of unity, one side of the chamber nodded in agreement while the other side spoke.
“I’m happy to announce that Her Majesty the Queen has agreed that Southend will be accorded city status.” The cheers turned to a roar at Mr Johnson’s words.
He said that Sir David was not an ambitious MP seeking a ministerial post, but one who “just wanted to the serve the people of Essex”.
The mayor of Southend, Councillor Margaret Borton, said: “Hearing the announcement from the prime minister today is a sombre but special moment. For the borough to achieve city status is testament to how loved and well-respected Sir David was.
“My only wish is that Sir David could have seen this moment himself, because it has brought years of his tireless campaigning to fruition. I hope that this announcement will highlight the legacy that Sir David leaves us.”
In the spirit of solidarity, Sir Keir Starmer the Labour leader reached out to MPs across the political divide. “We are united in our grief at this terrible time,” he said, spreading his arms wide. “I acknowledge the pain that’s felt on the opposite benches.”
The government’s front bench team of Mr Johnson, Home Secretary Priti Patel, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss the Foreign Secretary all nodded in appreciation.
The House fell silent as Sir Keir determinedly stated that the killing was an “attack on our country’s way of life” but that “we refuse to succumb to extremism”.
If the “intention was to sow division between us” then “hatred will never win,” he said.