All the candidates in this Tory leadership contest will have to pay tribute to the importance of standards in public life, given what did for Boris Johnson. For some of them, this will probably be as meaningful as posting a #bekind meme on social media.
But if there isn’t a wider reckoning over standards and particularly sexual harassment, then the Conservatives – and all the other parties – are just setting themselves up for more scandals. This should matter particularly to the Tories given their general belief in preserving and strengthening institutions: parliament as a whole has been seriously damaged by the scandals of the past few months, and so far there is precious little evidence that anyone is bothering to think about how that will change.
There is currently no party in parliament which can offer a best practice guide to tackling a culture of harassment or indeed dealing with complaints and reports of inappropriate behaviour when they arise. All of them manage their pastoral issues through the whips system, which has been exposed repeatedly as totally inadequate for this job. It doesn’t really need repeating – but I will do it anyway until someone changes the system – that it is a massive conflict of interest for the people charged with herding recalcitrant MPs through the voting lobbies are also the ones who manage pastoral problems.
The appointment of Chris Pincher to the deputy chief whip role highlighted the paucity of the current arrangements, as this was the very job that is supposed to be particularly responsible for pastoral matters. But it was obvious beforehand. The whips simply cannot be the people doing both jobs. And they aren’t. By and large they deal with the voting and discipline side of things, and occasionally tend to MPs who have a few personal worries. Meanwhile, those with serious issues are put in the ‘too difficult’ box by whips who see them as too useful to confront, too far gone to help, or too complicated for them to really understand.
Members of parliament get very little training for any part of their jobs. Whips don’t get any, even though it has a safeguarding element. Some have been truly excellent, such as Anne Milton when she was deputy chief whip. Most have been very poor. There is an HR department in Parliament, and it was pointedly holding stalls in Portcullis House this week. But it is small and doesn’t have the disciplinary clout that it would need to deal with the myriad problems that MPs and their staff can develop.
If the various leadership contenders and opposition politicians really care about integrity and standards in politics as much as they’ve been claiming recently, then they don’t even need to cast around for a policy to help with that. They just need to get on with it: take pastoral issues away from the whips and set up a proper department for that, either within each party or in parliament with funding from each party to cover the number of MPs that sit on the green benches. Otherwise this really is going to be as meaningful as those #bekind memes, which are so often posted by people who have no real intention of being so themselves.
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