Pestminster watch: Why even sacking MPs won’t go far enough

Politicians could face recall under new sanctions against sexual misconduct and bullying.

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At last, the Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom has released the cross-party plans to deal with sexual misconduct in Westminster.

The proposed new code of conduct includes tougher punishments for MPs found to have harassed or abused staff.

Here’s how it would work: the parliamentary commissioner for standards would look into complaints against a politician in a confidential inquiry. If considered serious enough, this would go to the Commons or Lords standards committee, which will have the power to suspend an MP or peer from the House for a specified period.

If this suspension lasts 21 sitting days, then it’s a trigger for the recall process under the Recall of MPs Act, by which MPs must face a new election in their constituency. Peers can face expulsion under a different process.

Since the “Pestminster” scandal broke, a number of people involved in campaigning for – and advising on – parliamentary and party grievance procedures have pushed for greater powers to sack MPs who do wrong.

But recall might be a flawed way of doing it. As it’s down to constituents to both sign the petition for their MP losing their seat (you need 10 per cent of constituents to do this), and to vote in the subsequent by-election (which the recalled MP is allowed to stand in), this turns the punishment from a disciplinary over a workplace transgression into a political campaign.

Naturally, constituents vote on their political priorities – for or against the government of the day, for example – over anything else. Yes, by-elections can throw up unusual results, but personal votes (or in this case, vetos), rarely come into it.

Parties won’t want to campaign for candidates guilty of wrongdoing, so the hope is that recalled MPs, lacking party support and hit by scandal, will choose to stand down – something that rarely happens mid-term (scandal-hit MPs usually wait until the next election to quietly not run again). Out of 51 MPs’ resignations from 1979-2016, only eight have stood down and triggered a by-election due to any kind of scandal, sexual or otherwise.

It will take more than a beefed up code of conduct to change this ingrained culture of impunity.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.