How can Parliament more explicitly address bullying, harassment and racism in its Code of Conduct?
While some might argue that intolerance to racism and discrimination are reflected implicitly within the current Code of Conduct for MPs, there is a powerful argument to broaden the Code.
In June 2020, I wrote an article in The House magazine reflecting the need for MPs to show leadership and act as exemplars to stand up against racism and racist attitudes following the tragic killing of George Floyd in the USA, and the much longer history of racism apparent in everyday life both in the USA and in UK.
I argued for an additional eighth principle to be included in the MPs’ code of conduct, one with an explicit focus on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion alongside the seven “Nolan” principles that are currently reflected in the Code of Conduct for MPs.
This could read: “MPs should promote anti-discriminatory attitudes and behaviours through the promotion of anti-racism, inclusion and diversity placing a responsibility on each MP to promote specific attitudes and behaviours in relation to anti-racism, inclusion and diversity.”
A recent ParliREACH report entitled “Stand in my shoes: race and culture in Parliament” highlighted some disturbing experiences of BAME staff members including having their competence, their seniority, or the value of their contribution assumed to be less than it would be for white colleagues:
- Disparaging remarks being made when issues of diversity and inclusion were being discussed (e.g. “oh, you sound just like xx or xx [reference to two BAME MPs]” said as a derogatory remark);
- Two members of staff being asked why they were speaking Spanish because “everyone here in Parliament speaks English”;
- Some parts of Parliament having a “macho bravado” or “banter” culture which encouraged and allowed inappropriate behaviours to be normalised and accepted; and
- BAME colleagues being more frequently and more forcefully asked to have their passes checked
MPs can become exemplars to others in society, in their leadership roles, about the need for tolerance and inclusivity in guiding the way we all conduct ourselves in everyday life
While some might argue that absolute intolerance of issues related to racism and discrimination are reflected implicitly within the current Code of Conduct for MPs, the excellent recent report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, “Black people, racism and human rights”, provides a further powerful argument to broaden the Code, ensuring members reflect an anti-discriminatory, anti-racist stance.
Following allegations of bullying and sexual harassment of Parliamentary staff made against MPs and others, much work has been done to introduce a new behaviour code and sexual harassment policy. In this regard it is helpful to remind ourselves of the definition of bullying and harassment where a recent civil service report defined harassment as any unwanted actions or comments that are demeaning and unacceptable to the recipient and bullying as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour or misuse of power intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.
Interestingly, the ministerial code of conduct, which sits apart from the MPs’ code, explicitly states in its foreword that “harassing, bullying or other inappropriate or discriminating behaviour will not be tolerated.”
This has led me to think also about how the promotion of values, attitudes and behaviours by MPs that are already implicitly contained within the “Nolan” principles can be made more explicit to demonstrate an intolerance of bullying and harassment in any form. In relation to bullying and harassment the Nolan principle on leadership is particularly important. This could be adapted to apply to MPs as follows:
“Members should lead by example and behaviour and challenge inappropriate behaviour including any form of bullying or harassment whenever it occurs.”
This is important, because in abiding by specific principles relating to anti-discriminatory and anti-bullying behaviours, MPs can become exemplars to others in society, in their leadership roles, about the need for tolerance and inclusivity in guiding the way we all conduct ourselves in everyday life.
Who then should be a part of such a conversation? Well clearly MPs, but also those involved in setting and overseeing the Standards system in both the Commons and the Lords. However, it is also crucial for those working in Parliament to be able to express a view as indeed should the public. Without public engagement, the respect a democratic society should have for its elected representatives will sadly diminish.
Dr Arun Midha’s views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Committee on Standards.