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Sun, 26 May 2024

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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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Deeply problematic and toxic culture in Westminster cannot go on

(Alamy)

4 min read

In just under a week’s time, MPs will have the chance to vote through new rules aimed at better protecting staff from Members accused of sexual or violent misconduct.

These proposals are long overdue. That over 50 MPs have been accused of sexual abuse is an outrage. That many of them continue to attend Parliament is a national disgrace. 

Under the new proposals, Members suspected of abuse will be subject to a risk-assessment ahead of their potential exclusion from the parliamentary estate. This exclusion will be enforceable from the moment an accusation is lodged – before and during any the potential police investigation into their alleged behaviour. It means the House of Commons can act swiftly to shield staff from further contact with MPs known for or suspected of being abusive. 

Of course, questions will still need to be asked about the oversight and enforcement of these policies but they are, overall, to be welcomed and endorsed. 

One of the most regrettable symptoms of the continued misbehaviour in Parliament has been the steady alienation of the public

And yet, no matter how necessary these rules are, they are no panacea. They address just one aspect of the problematic culture in Westminster – albeit the most extreme and damaging – and do so only by treating the symptom and not the cause. Staff and MPs will continue to mix and mingle in an environment which is extremely hierarchical, predictably exclusionary, and often very toxic. These underlying features of political culture must be addressed with equal vigour if we are to create a system which is supportive to MPs and staff and of service to the public.

Last year the All-Party Group for Compassionate Politics, working with the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, carried out an investigation into working life in Parliament – 315 people responded to our survey which was sent to both MPs and staff. The findings made for grim reading. Two in five said they felt miserable at work. One in five reported that they do not like who they were becoming. More than a third – 38 per cent – said working in politics has a negative impact on their mental health. One in three had experienced conflict in the last 12 months with nearly a quarter (22 per cent) saying they have been undermined or humiliated. Unfortunately, when these issues arise, the mechanisms for dealing with them prove inadequate. It also showed 65 per cent of incidents have gone unresolved and half said the independent complaints process is unhelpful.

Which is why earlier this year, I brought forward a bill – working with Compassion in Politics – to create a new Ethics Commission and I am delighted that the Labour Party endorsed this proposal in the recent “preview” of their manifesto. We need to stop playing whack-a-mole and get to grips with our problematic political culture as a whole. We need to see that many of the scandals that splash on our front-pages each day – sexual abuse, lies, leaks, and illicit lobbying – are connected. They stem from a system which in its structures, design, and tradition is not fit for purpose.

My proposed Ethics Commission would seek to do two things. Firstly, of course, to clean-up Parliament. It would provide the channel through which Parliament’s myriad issues and problems could be analysed, understood, and addressed. But it would also, secondly, serve to reinvigorate the public’s interest and engagement with politics, towards a system that’ meets the needs of our 21st century democracy.

One of the most regrettable symptoms of the continued misbehaviour in Parliament has been the steady alienation of the public from those who are meant to represent them. An Ethics Commission would need to not only work internally but externally to gather the public’s views on how they want to be represented and served. Polling by Compassion in Politics found that two in three (69 per cent) believe they have a right to decide the rules by which they are governed. We must create new ways to meaningfully engage with the people we serve – for example, through the establishment of citizens’ assemblies in a process of democratic renewal.

With the issue of parliamentary standards once again in the spotlight, let’s use this opportunity to be ambitious and bold in our efforts at reform. It is, after all, the least we can do for our staff, our Members, and people we serve.

 

Debbie Abrahams, Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth

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