Tackling bullying and harassment in parliament may make bad headlines for the government

Some think the measures to tackle bad behaviour do not go far enough.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

With Brexit legislation dealt with, only one hurdle remains for the government before the summer recess: passing new measures to deal with sexual harassment and bullying in parliament. 

MPs will vote on the plans, which are being driven through by Commons leader Andrea Leadsom tomorrow. They have been signed off by a working group of representatives from all of the parties with seats in the Commons, which was set up in the wake of the Pestminster scandal. They include an independent complaints system, sexual violence adviser and bullying services, as well as a raft of new sanctions for MPs and peer accused of misconduct

The package amounts to far more than has ever been implemented in the Commons before. When passed, they should give Leadsom, and by extension the prime minister, a straightforward PR victory. So why do they still have reason to worry?

While the proposals have for the most part been welcomed, the new grievance process will see MPs against whom there are complaints remain anonymous until investigations are concluded, and incidents before 2017 will not fall under its remit, on the grounds that historical behaviour cannot be judged by the standards of the new code of conduct for MPs. 

Those close to the Commons leader were worried about the potential for the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers to scupper the plans – as I wrote after Christopher Chope vetoed the upskirting bill last month – and others involved in the process think those two controversial measures bear their imprimatur. 

The official argument for anonymity, however, is that it ensures confidentiality for victims. But critics argue that it goes too far. Under the plans to be voted on tomorrow, all MPs being investigated by the parliamentary commissioner for standards would be anonymous, even if they are accused of misusing Commons stationery. 

Campaigners for measures to combat harassment and bullying in Westminster have found this hard to stomach. Parliament’s standards committee has argued that only sexual harassment and bullying probes should be covered by anonymity, and those familiar with its work question why a blanket provision for secrecy is even needed, as the standards commissioner can already anonymise individual probes at their discretion.

What should have been a palate cleanser is instead leaving a sour taste. “95 per cent of the package is great,” one source involved with the process said. “Leadsom’s problem is that the five per cent she hasn’t got is going to overshadow it.” 

Amid the controversy, will the measures still pass? Most probably, even though some Tory traditionalists could vote against them and some of their keenest advocates have made their disappointment public (Jess Phillips, the Labour MP, wrote last week that she is “uneasy” about the plans despite supporting them, and suggested Leadsom and others “will have been leant on by their people”). 

When the plans come before the Commons tomorrow, all sides will have the chance to air their disappointment with the proposals – and there are even whispers that the government’s motion could be amended in an effort to beef them up. To Leadsom’s credit, the net result of the vote will be better protection for those working in Westminster. But she could still yet find that the prevailing mood is not a thankful one.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.