(Photo: The Elephant In The Room At Westminster? Credit: Alan Dobson/ Pixabay)
Bad behaviour in Parliament – and I mean verbal or even physical assault of staff by elected (or appointed, in the case of the Lords) members – has been highlighted by a “don’t-pull-you-punches” report from Dame Laura Cox.
A key recommendation. Is that the complaints system needs reform and needs it now. Parliamentarians should not judge allegations of this misconduct themselves; there should be an independent process.
The reasons for this are all too clear – fairness, transparency, and a sense of justice. And, also, a justifiable belief that Parliament cannot do this for itself, as some of the responses to the report arguably showed.
But there are two practical reasons which have been overshadowed by the Cox report and reaction, both of which need recognising and debunking before they become established as a justification for doing nothing.
First up: MPs are elected by the people. How can a panel, even an independent one, sit in judgement on them, let alone take a decision to suspend them from the Commons if they are judged to have misbehaved seriously?
It’s a fair point – until you consider the alternative. The current reality is that the fate of errant MPs depends on party politics and parliamentary maths and nothing more.
It’s also not a fair point in the sense that we have already lived with a scheme that had independent people sitting in judgement on elected politicians, with a power to suspend them from office in series cases. The Local Government Act 2000 gave quasi-judicial powers to Standards Committees in England, which lasted until the Coalition Government’s Localism Act abolished them in 2012.
The rationale for doing so was that a centrally determined regime for local authority conduct was deemed incompatible with localism – though this is so at odds with the government’s subsequent behaviour towards local authorities and the communities they serve, that the cost savings arising from abolition of the Standards Board for England was probably the main driver.
And in any event, Scotland has retained and refined its own Standards Regime, if you want to look at a live working example.
So, to our second point; MPs are employed by Parliament, so any complaints would be made against a third party. How can that work? What mechanism can bridge the different lines of accountability that would apply in such a circumstance?
We do not need to look far to find illustrations of how this would-be knot has been untangled. The Legal Services Consumer Panel, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, and schemes for Traffic Commissioners have all grasped this nettle – with the third party harassment provisions of the 2010 Equality Act (updating legislation form 35 years previously) perhaps being the most striking example.
At the heart of this are two inter-twined employment issues: Bullying in a workplace and the absence a sufficiently powerful collective worker voice to make it stop. So great credit to the FDA union and others for speaking truth unto power on this. It’s time for the good people in Parliament to say “Enough”. There is no reason they cannot, and every reason that they should.
You can hear more about this issue and the union response to it in our latest podcast, available here