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4 November 2021updated 05 Nov 2021 10:08am

We cannot rely on shame to hold politicians like Owen Paterson and Rob Roberts to account

The idea that MPs’ sense of honour and decency is enough to keep them playing by the rules has been proved wrong.

By Kate Maltby

What does it mean for a politician to know shame? About a year after the #MeToo movement hit parliament, I was invited to a meeting with Andrea Leadsom, then leader of the House of Commons. To the fury of more retrograde colleagues, Leadsom was pushing reforms to establish an independent system for adjudicating complaints of harassment and bullying against members of parliament. I and others in that meeting were campaigners being asked to endorse that new system.

At that point, MPs were still demanding the power, even in cases of serious sexual harassment, to debate, amend and then vote on whether to accept recommended sanctions against a colleague. We raised concerns. But Leadsom reassured us. “I think we have to rely on an element of shame at that stage”, she told the room. Yes, it wasn’t ideal to give MPs the power to protect each other, but surely the sheer power of public opinion would make it impossible for the Commons to reject a well-researched finding by independent experts in a case of clear wrongdoing? MPs have a sense of shame, so Andrea Leadsom told us, all that time ago.

In the end, the new Independent Complaints and Grievances Scheme (ICGS) got off the ground without its founders having to concede to MPs any meaningful power to veto a sanction. Leadsom worked tirelessly to make that happen, and everyone I have worked with on harassment in politics praises her personal commitment. Yet that’s the same Andrea Leadsom who stood up yesterday in the Commons and tabled an amendment to suspend a sanction against her Brexiteer ally Owen Paterson. The same Owen Paterson who had been found by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to have breached lobbying rules, making 14 approaches to ministers or to the Food Standards Agency on behalf of companies which, between them, pay him more £100,000 a year as a consultant. A sense of shame can be useful. But perhaps only when it’s felt by other people.

Sexual harassment and financial corruption are different types of wrongdoing. As Leadsom herself pointed out yesterday, investigations into them in parliament are now handled by different bodies: the ICGS investigates harassment, the Commissioner for Standards investigates matters such as paid lobbying. But both acts constitute an abuse of power. Both flourish in hierarchies of patronage, power and entitlement. Both are best policed by independent bodies, but can only really be tackled by a change in culture. Who sets that culture? Fundamentally, MPs define our democratic norms through the behaviour they enable among their own.

Shame only goes so far. The Tory MP Rob Roberts was recently investigated for sexual harassment under the ICGS scheme, which imposed on him a 12-week suspension. Until yesterday, Conservative MPs could make a good case that they had responded decently. Roberts lost the whip, although he remains a party member, and yielding to public pressure – shame, again – both major parties acknowledged the need to add new recall powers to the ICGS. Labour proposed retroactively applying such a recall to Roberts. Yet the Tories retorted vehemently that it breaks every principle of justice when we change the rules of a disciplinary procedure after charges have been laid. They’re not wrong. The current Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg also pointed out, reasonably, that a rushed rewriting of the recall process could also endanger the anonymity of complainants, something many of us have fought to protect.

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Instead, Rees-Mogg called on Roberts to do the “honourable thing” and resign. But oops! Roberts refused. Turns out some MPs just can’t be shamed. Then, a new twist: in the case of Owen Paterson, Rees-Mogg and his colleagues suddenly decided that they could suspend the rules of a disciplinary process halfway though after all. Was that, too, the honourable thing?

For many of us, this hits like a claw on the stomach. Throughout the inquiry into Paterson’s conduct, Paterson and his friends have used friendly media to misrepresent Kathryn Stone, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and her work on the investigation. It is an old legal trick to bog down an inquiry by padding submissions with so many witness statements that no investigator can get through them in time – criminal systems have protections against this. But Paterson’s wrongdoing was proved by emails, so when he produced an extraneous slew of supposedly relevant personal witnesses, Stone accepted written witness statements from them and demonstrated in her report that there had been nothing pertinent that required her to follow up with interviews. (Again, because Paterson’s lobbying was in email evidence and on the record.) Paterson has put this – his complaint that his witnesses were not “interviewed” – at the heart of his defence, yet he also attacked Stone for taking time to complete her investigation.

It is also misleading to claim, as Paterson does, that the system grants him no right of appeal. After the Commissioner makes her findings in such cases, she submits them to an independent panel of cross-party MPs, which functions as an appeals tribunal though it does not bear that name. The committee, which includes four Tory MPs, scrutinised the case again and upheld the ruling against Paterson.

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Meanwhile, a concerted attack on Stone’s character and credentials have been launched in the right-wing press, led by Paterson’s ally David Davis. Virtually every person who has made a complaint about harassment in parliament has faced a campaign of such smears, as have senior women charged with investigating impartially. It is not the first time David Davis has been involved in such campaigns. When the former cabinet minister Damian Green resigned, after an inquiry that looked at issues of pornography in the workplace and allegations of sexual harassment first raised publicly by me, Davis was reported to have run a “war room” to ensure that no “smears [about Green] went unchallenged” in the media. (A coincidence, no doubt, that both myself and Sue Gray, the ethics chief who held Davis to account, faced hatchet jobs in the press. “No smear unchallenged”, eh?) Last year, Davis used Parliamentary Privilege to selectively leak messages that he suggested should discredit complaints about Alex Salmond, his acknowledged friend.

This kind of behaviour isn’t just the province of the right. When Lord Lester of Herne Hill, then a Liberal Democrat peer, was found by the Lords’ Commissioner to have committed sexual harassment, his left-liberal friends lined up to defend him. One woman, Jasvinder Sanghera, put her name publicly to the complaint, which meant that soon she was the subject of vicious ad hominem attacks in the Lords itself, and again, in friendly media in an attempt to discredit the case. Yet Sanghera wasn’t the only complainant. I’ve seen emails sent to the Lords Commissioner by another woman who alleged sexual harassment by Lester. A later, damning report into harassment in the Lords published in 2019 noted that contributors described the “chilling effect” of the debate within the Lords Chamber at which Lester’s friends attacked Sanghera, mocked the legal credentials of the Commissioner and rejected the recommended sanction. The report was a clear warning that when members of either House evade the systems in place to regulate them, ordinary people give up bringing complaints.

But for now, it is the Tories who are tearing up the norms of accountability. It is true that the government dramatically U-turned today (4 November) in the face of public pressure and agreed to hold a separate vote on Paterson’s suspension, and true too that Paterson eventually chose to resign rather than face further scrutiny. But the Conservatives have still opted to shred the rule book when it comes to holding MPs to account, and Paterson continues to insist he did nothing wrong and would act in the same way again.

Once upon a time, Tory philosophers lionised “shame” as a useful tool for imposing high moral standards. In 2000 Roger Scruton, guru of the cultural right, wrote an article called “Bring Back Stigma”,  in which he celebrated the belief of traditional societies “that the genial pressure of manners, morals, and customs – enforced by the various forms of disapproval, stigma, shame, and reproach – was a more powerful guarantor of civilised and lawful behaviour than the laws themselves”. The Conservative Party might find it useful reading.

[see also: Tory MPs feel voter fury after Boris Johnson blocks sleaze sanctions against Owen Paterson]

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