Picking up where they left off: the items on MPs' in-tray
Our institutions, their representatives and reputations have been bruised and battered in recent years. Does a new Parliament offer a chance for renewal? Whether it’s closing loopholes in electoral law or tackling bullying and harassment, Sebastian Whale and Georgina Bailey look at how MPs can get their House in order
A new Parliament brings with it the opportunity for a fresh start. Those who left the Palace of Westminster in early November will no doubt cherish such a prospect. Politics had descended into a steady stream of mud-slinging in which empathy was a bygone component. Drawing a line in the sand is in the interests of all concerned.
The cooling-down period will be brief. There is much for MPs to contemplate, not least solving the existential questions posed by Brexit. And though there will be a clamouring for a clean slate, an autopsy of the past two and a half years will be necessary to move Parliament forward.
For meaningful change to occur, you need buy-in at every level, from the most newly-elected Member to the top. All eyes will therefore be on the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, as to how he renews the culture of the Commons. His predecessor, John Bercow, was a divisive figure. His detractors argue that his interventionist, often barbed approach added to the toxic atmosphere in the Chamber. His rulings during the Brexit debate, such as allowing an amendment to a government business motion and granting of emergency debates under Standing Order 24, proved highly controversial. Many are now calling for clarity over how parliamentary procedures will be interpreted.
Prior to the general election, the Procedure Committee, chaired by Tory MP Sir Charles Walker, a close ally of Bercow, expressed concerns over a “number of procedural developments” that took place in 2019. Walker said: “In particular we have been worried by the development of inconsistent interpretations of procedures which were previously well understood. The Committee in the next Parliament will no doubt want to review these developments and advise the House on an even and considered interpretation of its procedures which is beneficial to all.” In the opening months of this Parliament, Speaker Hoyle will be able to demonstrate how he plans to proceed.
The Lancastrian ran a campaign for the Chair based on four fundamental tenets: ensuring the health and well-being of those who work on the Parliamentary Estate, improving accountability by reviewing the role of the House of Commons Commission and improving transparency, addressing areas around rights and equalities, and extending parliamentary outreach.
The issue of security is one that Speaker Hoyle has taken a lead on in his former guise as Chairman of Ways and Means, the most senior of the three deputy speakers. In a May interview with The House, he called for vehicles to be banned from the road in front of Parliament to protect people from potential terror attacks. Such action has yet to be taken, and considering recent events, security will feature high on the agenda of Speaker Hoyle and the relevant authorities. Prior to his election, Hoyle vowed to secure the Parliamentary Estate, constituency offices and homes “in light of the emerging threats against our staff and family members”. He also pledged to introduce an onsite GP and mental health care services.
The well-being of staff has become a focal point of debate on the Parliamentary Estate. More than two years have passed since the ‘Pestminster’ allegations first rocked Westminster, yet there is still a palpable sense that not enough has been done to tackle bullying and harassment. As Dave Penman, General Secretary of the FDA union, tells The House: “There is still a long way to go to properly address the culture that helped to create this scandal.” Responsibility rests on the House of Commons Commission, and subsequently MPs, to lead the agenda.
Several QC-led inquiries published in the last 14 months have painted a clear picture of the problem: a small but significant number of MPs, peers and senior parliamentary staff have engaged in bullying behaviour and sexual harassment towards staff in a variety of roles across the Estate. These behaviours were compounded by ineffective reporting and remedial mechanisms, a culture of deference which protects the accused rather than the accuser, and the genuine or perceived risk of “career suicide” if a complaint is made.
In response, Parliament has made some positive changes. This includes setting up the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) with two anonymous helplines, a new Behaviour Code, training on correct behaviours and specific policies on bullying and harassment and sexual misconduct.
But the scale of the problem was put into stark relief by the first annual report of the ICGS, published during the election campaign. Some 783 calls were made to its two independent helplines in its first year – nearly four times the number initially expected. The unanticipated volume, plus resourcing issues identified by Gemma White QC in her report on bullying and harassment of MPs’ parliamentary staff and the ICGS report itself, contribute to the fact that some investigations are taking up to ten months to complete.
The report also revealed that only 99 MPs (15%) and 4% of parliamentary staff had taken part in the new Valuing Everyone training programme. The White report recommended that all MPs and their staff should be required to attend the training. “I’ve tried to tell everyone I know to go on it, but I imagine it falls quite low down the list of priorities given all the pressures,” says one parliamentary staffer.
One Labour frontbencher tells The House that they had never heard of the training, despite the party’s whips’ office insisting that all MPs had been encouraged to attend. The Conservative whips’ office was also approached for comment.
A UK Parliament spokesperson said the programme had been “regularly promoted” over the internal intranet system, through House of Commons authorities and informally via the Leader and Shadow Leader of the Commons. “All new MPs will be requested to attend training during the first week of the new Parliament,” the spokesperson added – however, this would still mean at least two-thirds of Members had not. During the campaign to succeed Bercow, Hoyle pledged to ensure that “all Members and staff” undertake training on bullying and harassment.
A key issue raised by inquiries centred on MPs being made to mark their own homework when it came to HR complaints. Although complaints are now made via the ICGS, rather than through MPs, they are still involved in considering cases and the sanctions for them – a situation that both Laura Cox and White (who also called for a Members’ Staff HR function) condemned in their reports. The Commission first agreed in principle to an independent process for dealing with complaints over 12 months ago but has yet to act.
Penman argues that Speaker Hoyle must make this one of his “most urgent priorities”. Writing in The House in October, Hoyle committed to “full implementation of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Policy code of conduct for House and Members’ staff within six months with regular reviews on the progress made and effectiveness”.
The UK entered a third general election in fewer than five years without updating the rules underpinning electoral law. Currently, there is no requirement for online advertising to meet the same standards set by more analogue methods of campaigning such as leafletting, which is required to set out whose advertisement it is and who has paid for it. “You get a bit of paper through your door, it says it on there. So, let’s put it on online campaigning as well,” says Louise Edwards, director of regulation at the Electoral Commission.
The use of online campaigning has grown exponentially in recent years. “We could work out in 2015 it was about 20-25% of advertising spend was online. In 2017, it rises to over 40%. Now, we won’t know for certain until we get the spending returns afterwards, but I would lay money on it being significantly higher than that this time. It is the changing nature of campaigning,” says Edwards.
The lack of transparency over online advertising only adds to concerns regarding overseas interference in our elections. “It affects confidence and integrity doesn’t it, because it opens a gap,” says Edwards. The publication of a controversial Intelligence and Security Committee report on Russian interference in UK politics could reignite the debate. After refusing to clear publication immediately prior to the election, Number Ten has this week given the green light and the report is now expected in January.
Edwards adds: “Just to be clear, foreign interference is a security services matter. We’ve not been made aware of any successful attempts. It’s important to say that. But we have a system that in many ways is based on trust and has been for 150 years. If you open gaps, trust can go away quite quickly.”
Given the highly changeable political landscape, unforeseen public votes such as a snap election or another referendum remain possibilities. Given that, Edwards urges MPs to ensure that the UK’s electoral law is up to scratch. “Make reform of electoral law a priority. It is outdated, it needs to be modernised,” she says.
Proposals to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600 have also been dormant since September 2018. The Boundary Commission published recommendations for a new electoral map which reduced the number of seats and aimed to make constituencies more equal in size. With the Tories winning a majority, the proposals - which are expected to benefit Boris Johnson’s party - are likely to be revisited. The Conservatives have also pledged to scrap the Fixed Terms Parliament Act which prevents prime ministers from calling snap elections without parliament’s approval.
Voting in the House of Commons is another area for consideration. In January 2019, MPs unanimously voted to implement a year-long trial of proxy voting for MPs on parental leave. Under the system, MPs can nominate a colleague to vote on their behalf if they have recently become a parent or were due to give birth. With the House dissolving two months before the trial had completed, MPs on the Procedure Committee called for an extension of the pilot. The committee wants more time to complete a review and consider proxy voting for other areas such as illness or caring responsibilities.
As proven with the introduction of proxy voting, it is the House that ultimately decides on its procedures. Therefore, it is in MPs’ power to address concerns with Friday business. The flawed system of Private Members’ Bills remains an omnipresent bugbear for backbenchers keen to influence the legislative agenda. Campaigners have long been pushing to change the rules that allow proposed bills to be talked out and often cause reputational damage to the institution. Tory MP Sir Christopher Chope notoriously talked out legislation seeking to prohibit up-skirting and tackle FGM.
The Procedure Committee in 2016 sought to address the problem of filibustering by proposing that the House should “explicitly authorise the Speaker and his deputies to impose time limits on speeches on sitting Fridays”. They also proposed a guaranteed vote on second reading and prioritising bills by merit. At the time of their report Charles Walker said the government “is defending procedures and practices which would not have looked out of date in the nineteenth century, let alone the eighteenth”.
MPs can change the rules, but it would require them to coalesce around an agreed solution. Doing so would be an important milestone towards the grander ambition of restoring the reputation of Parliament.
This is the largest challenge presented before MPs. Politicians are arguably viewed in an even less favourable way than they were at the height of the damaging expenses scandal. The divisive nature of the previous Parliament, and MPs’ collective failure to reach a solution to Brexit, ensured that outcome. Showcasing the cross-party work that can take place in the Commons will be essential to changing the narrative.
Political leaders have a duty to amend the People versus Parliament narrative that has taken shape in the past twelve months. The House of Commons is an essential part of the UK’s democracy. It has taken something of a beating in the past few years, and it will take careful work to repair its reputation in the eyes of the public. The responsibility for this starts at the bottom and goes right to the very top.
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