The true, gruesome scale of unprofessionalism and misconduct in political life is painstakingly detailed in the report from the cross-party group set up by the Prime Minister to investigate it. Even with all the allegations and resignations of recent months it is still disquieting, to say the least, to discover that so many people – predominantly women – have experienced such incidents. It reveals that the Westminster village is more of a Babylon than some cosy little political community and that every section of people working in and around the Westminster estate has either been the subject of such an incident or witnessed one in the past 12 months alone. Predictably, women report twice as many incidents as men. The survey also revealed that 39 per cent of staff, MPs and peers had experienced bullying and harassment. The facts speak for themselves, and volubly.
Obviously this is unacceptable. Obviously Theresa May was right to task a cross-party group with examining the problem. Obviously much more needs to be done to regularise employment practices at Westminster, and all the more because it seems to run, rather too potently, on some sort of exotic fuel distilled from power, sex and privilege.
The obvious answer is HR for Westminster (PR can wait). Even a rudimentary version of a human resources department would be a potentially valuable step forward. When the Government spends so much time, as yesterday on the gig economy and employees’ rights when working under ill-defined employment status, it seems odd that the position of staff at Westminster, particularly those working for MPs and peers, should be so anomalous.
HR departments are not some sort of shoulder to cry on or a court of appeal for decisions reached by management. What they are there to do is to ensure that best practice is maintained, that managements work within the law, and ethically, and that systems and procedure are in place to deal swiftly and fairly with claims against others (whether they be of a direct manager or someone in a completely different department or political party, say). It is rarely in the interests of a political party to suffer headlines about “sleaze”, to watch the demise of one of its own MPs and to risk losing a messy by-election. The habit has always been to play down affairs, deal with them secretly and pretend that the problems are confined to “the other side”. It is an attitude that has ruined lives and has run its course.
Under a conventional HR regime, disputes can be managed; misconduct dealt with appropriately and, if fitting, informally and discreetly, and serious cases can be reported to the police. Whistleblowing, now protected under the law, should be strengthened within Parliament, and indeed Whitehall, because civil servants working for minsters need protection too (though, because of their institutional independence, they are in a stronger position than those in Parliament itself).
Such reforms would mark a revolution, and traditionalists would grumble that they undermine the unique status of an elected MP – that their employers are the voters in their constituency, and that they are answerable to none other. To a fair degree this is, from the point of view of how they run their offices, an obvious and convenient fiction. Constituents are not concerned with the bullying of researchers or politicians making passes at PAs because they are in no position to know or do anything about it.
Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the Commons, is the minister responsible for implanting reforms, and has spoken of her determination to do so, and how “embarrassed” she feels about the various scandals. Given the lewd remarks reportedly made by Sir Michael Fallon to her before they were ministers, she has some direct experience of this type of misbehaviour. She and Ms May have had their differences in the past, but on this issue at least they, and all the other party leaderships, should be able to unite on some uncontroversial but long overdue changes to the way that Westminster goes about its work. In the Commons the other day, the Equalities Minister and Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, appeared to deny that online harassment and bullying was carried out by Conservatives, and was instead confined to Momentum and the far right. Such politicking from women in such a position bodes ill for the prospect of real change. If Theresa, Andrea and Amber cannot face up to the challenge then it is difficult to be optimistic about declaring the era of the casual groper to be finally over.