How Westminster can address racism more explicitly in its standards system
The code of conduct in the House of Commons could be updated to include a clause on promoting anti-discriminatory attitudes and behaviours through the promotion of anti-racism, inclusion and diversity
As a person of colour, I have shared the global outrage rightly provoked by events in the USA and the senseless killing of George Floyd and the much longer history of racism which is exercised both overtly and covertly in everyday life.
Parliaments across the world often introduce codes of conduct as a reaction to a seminal moment. The United Kingdom is no different. The 1994 ‘cash for questions’ affair, where some members had accepted payments in exchange for tabling questions, acted as a catalyst for fundamental change in the way standards and conduct matters were addressed.
The affair prompted the then Prime Minister John Major to set up the Committee on Standards in Public Life, establishing a set of seven principles of public life. One of its recommendations was for the Commons to adopt a code of conduct based on these principles, which it duly did in 1996.
Should the House of Commons be seen to be more active now about combating racism?
In the same way as the ‘cash for questions’ affair ushered in a principles-based code of conduct, could the events in the USA also prove to be a seminal moment to consider a broadened code for the House of Commons?
Currently, the code contains a general statement requiring Members to abide by the general law against discrimination. Should the House of Commons be seen to be more active now about combating racism?
The seven principles in the code reflecting the ‘Nolan’ principles have, until now, stood the test of time. While some might argue that absolute intolerance of issues related to racism and discrimination are reflected implicitly within the current principles, is the time right to explore a broadened code to ensure that attitudes and behaviour of members reflect an anti-discriminatory, anti-racist stance?
The Committee on Standards is currently exploring the benefit that could accrue from creating a bespoke set of principles covering the seven “Nolan’ areas recast to reflect more closely the context in which an MP works. Perhaps the time is now right to introduce an eighth principle; one that has a focus specifically on both behaviour and attitudes relating to racism and diversity.
This principle, which might be called ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’, could read: ‘Members should promote anti-discriminatory attitudes and behaviours through the promotion of anti-racism, inclusion and diversity’.
In abiding by this and the other principles contained within the Code, members can set an example to others in society about the need for tolerance and inclusivity in guiding the way we all conduct ourselves in everyday life.
The recent ParliREACH report, Stand in my shoes: race and culture in Parliament, supported the view that there has been insufficient focus on actions to challenge racial bias (both conscious and unconscious) and advocated the introduction of training to address both overt and covert and other forms of prejudice that can be not intentional.
In the same way that Gemma White’s recommendations on bullying and harassment in Parliament have been a catalyst for the introduction of the ‘Valuing Everyone’ training, perhaps this is the time for similar training to be introduced specifically focused on racial and implicit bias training.
This would support a great understanding and develop an overarching philosophy of why diversity and inclusion matters.
Dr Arun Midha is a lay member of the Commons Committee on Standards
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