The Speaker, John Bercow, has written to the head of the Metropolitan police to urge immediate action against pro-Brexit protesters who harass and abuse MPs and journalists outside parliament, as senior officers promised more a robust response.
Bercow, who said the small but noisy group of demonstrators represented “a type of fascism”, wrote to the Met commissioner, Cressida Dick, after the remain-supporting Conservative MP Anna Soubry was barracked during an outside TV interview before being surrounded by shouting men as she returned to the House of Commons.
In the letter, the Speaker requested Dick’s help in addressing “as a matter of urgency, a number of incidents of aggressive, threatening and intimidating behaviour towards MPs and journalists” around College Green, a grassy area opposite parliament used by broadcasters.
At least 60 MPs who are concerned for their personal safety when they go to and return from media interviews have also written to police seeking action, Bercow said, adding that he wanted to add his voice to their worries.
“There seems to be a pattern here of a regular coterie of burly white men who are effectively targeting and denouncing members whom they recognise and dislike – most notably female and those from ethnic minority backgrounds,” he wrote.
The previous police tactic of observing the abuse but not intervening was not only intolerable but untenable, he added.
The protesters, some of whom have far-right links, have yelled abuse at MPs and journalists in recent weeks, as well as interrupting TV interviews with chants and, on occasions, blocking Westminster Bridge.
Asked in the Commons about the group on Tuesday, Bercow said it seemed to particularly target women and people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. “Let’s be quite clear about that, it’s a type of fascism,” he said.
The issue was discussed during a cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning, Theresa May’s spokesman said, with ministers condemning “the unacceptable and disgraceful treatment” of Soubry, who was called a traitor and a Nazi by the protesters.
Earlier, the Met deputy assistant commissioner Laurence Taylor defended the way the force polices parliament, after Soubry accused it of ignoring the targeting.
He also said officers had been instructed to intervene after they were filmed on Monday standing by while the abuse took place.
“An ongoing policing operation at the parliamentary estate around Brexit continues and we have an appropriate policing plan in place,” Taylor said.
“Our role is to facilitate peaceful protest and balance the needs and rights of all those present, including protesters, MPs and members of the public.
“We will deal robustly with incidents of harassment and abuse against anyone where that harassment or abuse constitutes a criminal offence.
“Officers in the area have been briefed to intervene appropriately where they hear or see breaches of the law.”
Speaking to ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Soubry said there was a small group of people “roaming around Westminster intimidating people going about their lawful business”.
The Broxtowe MP added that while she expected a level of criticism and abuse as a member of parliament, she wanted authorities to act when it “crossed the line”.
Soubry told the programme: “It crossed the line in December, it was journalists who were being attacked. Faisal Islam [Sky News’ political editor], who is male, was racially abused by these people. It’s the same group, all on video, and the policy of the Metropolitan police is to ignore it.”
The Met said: “Police received a third-party report of a public order offence on Monday 7 January, in the area of College Green, SW1. Officers are assessing if any crimes have been committed. There has been no arrest at this stage.”
Earlier on Tuesday, the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, faced criticism from some Labour MPs for using the harassment of Soubry as an apparent argument against a second Brexit referendum.
“I think that would be hugely damaging to our democracy, to our politics. We saw in the appalling scenes outside parliament, in the way that my colleague, Anna Soubry, was disgracefully treated yesterday, how divisive this process has been,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.