We need to demonstrate there is more to Westminster politics than just pantomime
In 2019 we will have difficult decisions to take. But as tempers fray and the political temperature rises, we must all re-commit to treating each other with dignity and respect, writes Andrea Leadsom
The House of Commons faces a challenging year ahead. Throughout 2019, much of the focus will be on debates relating to our exit from the European Union, an issue of historic significance. Yet this is also a critical year for another important cause: our collective efforts to transform the culture in Westminster for the better.
We have started 2019 as we mean to go on. Last week the Commons approved reforms that strengthen the independence of the Committee on Standards, and modernise their practices. The process for determining complaints of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment will better command the confidence of the House, and the public, as a result. By giving the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards full independence and greater scope to begin investigations as she sees fit, including cases older than seven years, the Commons is demonstrating its determination to ensure all complaints are given a fair hearing.
These positive steps build on the introduction of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) last year. I am proud of this new scheme which, for the first time, gives all staff in Parliament an independent route to turn to if they have been bullied, abused or sexually harassed. We have put the complainant at the heart of the process. Since the launch last July, there has been a steady stream of calls to the helplines and a number of investigations are underway. Initial feedback suggests the scheme is functioning as we had hoped.
As I made clear in 2018, however, the introduction of the ICGS was the beginning rather than the end of a long period of culture change. I am determined that as we enter 2019, we renew our efforts to make the Palace of Westminster somewhere everyone is treated with dignity and respect. I won’t allow this to become ‘last year’s issue’ – and our six and 18 month reviews of the ICGS will ensure that does not happen.
The six-month review gets underway later this month, and the House of Commons Commission has accepted my proposal that an independent reviewer should take the lead and report by the end of April. A panel made up of staff, trade union representatives and parliamentarians will provide advice to the independent reviewer.
Separately, an independent inquiry conducted by Gemma White QC is considering the nature and extent of bullying and harassment of MPs and their staff, both past and present. Its findings, taken with those of Dame Laura Cox’s inquiry and the House of Lords’ own independent inquiry into bullying and harassment, will feed into the six-month review.
We all want our Parliament to be the example that others want to follow – not only in terms of how we make laws, but also in how we behave while doing so. Together, this work will help ensure Westminster remains focused on the scale of the task ahead in changing the culture.
For us to make rapid progress, though, what is needed in 2019 is a shift of mindset – and with it a conscious re-commitment to treating everyone with dignity and respect. We need to convince members of the public who are sceptical of our ability to change that we can do so. In practice, that means acknowledging that our behaviour in the important debates ahead.
I hope the House of Commons can begin this year by remembering that UK voters, and the wider world, are watching our debates closely. There are difficult decisions to be taken. Tempers will fray as the political temperature rises. That does not mean our courtesies or good humour should be forgotten – we need these now more than ever.
I am just as optimistic about the House of Commons as I am about our country’s future outside the European Union. My time as Leader of the House has shown me time and time again how committed so many parliamentarians are to representing their constituents and improving the lives of people up and down the UK. I’m confident that we will make our Parliament a shining role model which others around the world will aspire to emulate.
For that to happen, though, we need to demonstrate that there is more to Westminster politics than just pantomime. My message to all my colleagues in Parliament is a simple one: to keep in mind over the next 12 months that the way we conduct our politics is, in many ways, as important as what we achieve.
Andrea Leadsom is the Leader of the House of Commons and Conservative MP for South Northamptonshire