Bath Voice News: death threats, frightened families, murdered pets and intimidation – councillors speak of the ‘sickening abuse’ they receive as council leader rounds on abusers who send hate mail

By John Wimperis, Local Democracy Reporter: Local councillors have spoken of receiving death threats and having their homes, families, and pets targeted, as they called for more to be done to end the abuse of elected officials and council staff at Bath and North East Somerset Council.

Tim Ball (Twerton, Liberal Democrat) said he had been sent death threats when trying to get the area’s first Gypsy and Traveller site approved, Michael Auton (Midsomer Norton North, Liberal Democrat) said he had received a death threat with comments about his weight over a campaign leaflet, and Robin Moss (Westfield, Labour) said he had a brick thrown through his window when he had previously been a councillor in Bristol. Steve Hedges (Odd Down, Liberal Democrat) said that in the past people had watched him leave his home, waiting to call his family with abuse.

Mr Hedges also described a particularly sickening incident, when he returned home from a long council meeting as a new councillor when he was elected in 1999 to find a family pet had been deliberately killed. He said: “We went home after being here for hours and hours and hours. Got home to find that our children’s pet rabbit had been killed, cut in half, half put on the back doorstep, half put on the front doorstep.

“I nearly walked away from the council then. But, with help from Tim [Ball] and other senior councillors at the time, I didn’t. And I’ve been a councillor for over 20 years now.”

Councillors were sharing their experiences at a council meeting on March 14 after Lesley Mansell (Labour, Radstock) tabled a motion condemning “increasing levels of toxicity” and calling on the council to take a zero tolerance approach to abuse of councillors and officers. Ms Mansell said: “We need to see concrete action to protect all our current councillors and ensure that potential future councillors feel safe to stand for election.”

Backing the Local Government Association’s “debate not hate” campaign, her motion commits the council to train councillors in online safety, set up a clear reporting mechanism for harassment, and work with the police. Seconding the proposal, Dine Romero (Southdown, Liberal Democrat) the current Mayor of Bath said she knew many councillors and members of staff who had quit over abuse. She said: “I am all for healthy debate but none of us needs abuse or intimidation. It harms us as individuals and is damaging to democracy.”

Council leader Kevin Guy (Bathavon North, Liberal Democrat) said: “As leader of the council, you expect to have a level of criticism — both constructive and sometimes aggressive at times — but you don’t expect to receive hate mail, death threats, people coming up to your husband and giving them abuse randomly in the street. That is beyond unacceptable.”

Eleanor Jackson (Westfield, Labour) said she had received calls with  “very serious death threats” 10 years ago and was indebted to Manda Rigby (Bathwick, Liberal Democrat) who had taken her in. She said: “After all, the last place you would expect me to go was to a Lib Dem home.”

She said: “Why do we do it? Why do we become councillors? It’s because we want to make Bath and North East Somerset a better place, a better place for our children and certainly with a lower level of violence and everything that goes with it. So I think we persevere but we do ask a lot of our families, and I’m grateful for their support. But of course I am particularly grateful to councillor Rigby, and councillor [Paul] Crossley gave me a lot of support and encouragement.”

Ms Rigby, who said she had faced “less than optimal” experiences herself, added: “I take it with real optimism that people here do acknowledge why we came in to do this in the first place and that, yes, we will disagree on matters on policy and, yes, there are times that our values are not aligned, but that should not translate to any ad hominem attacks.

“We need to talk about policy; we don’t need to attack people. And actually, its right and proper that, if we see someone who is having this activity directed towards them, we reach out and help.”

But she added: “It’s not just us. We are elected officials but some of our officers too get treated in a way that is unacceptable.”

Last year, the council launched a campaign against the harassment of its staff. It warned that in the past year one worker had been driven at, a female member of staff had been followed home, and one member of staff had been threatened with a hammer.

Ms Rigby said: “We absolutely are here to serve, but being here to serve — whether as an elected member or as an official — does not translate to being able to be treated with complete disrespect, or with hate, or in any way which makes people feel less than they should be feeling.”

Mr Guy added that he knew some councillors in the room had anonymous accounts on X (formerly Twitter) and blogs which triggered people online who were already “boiling with hate.” He said: “I would just ask councillors in this room just before you press send on those anonymous accounts or those blogs that you have, just think of the impact that you might have on a fellow councillor.”

Councillors voted unanimously to pass the motion.

The “debate not hate” campaign was launched by the Local Government Association in 2022 and offers a toolkit on how councils can take action on the issue. In the LGA’s 2022 councillor census, seven out of 10 councillors said they had experienced abuse in the past year.