The rotten culture at Westminster has been exposed once again. Has anything changed since allegations of sexual misconduct and bullying first emerged in 2017?
Neil Parish: “The situation was that funnily enough, it was tractors that I was looking at and so I did get into another website that sort of had a very similar name and I watched it a bit which I shouldn’t have done… but my crime is that on another occasion I went in a second time.”
Presenter: “And was that deliberately?”
Neil Parish: “That was deliberate.”Neil Parish speaking to BBC politics
Last week, Conservative MP Neil Parish resigned after he admitted watching pornography twice in the House of Commons.
He claimed it was a moment of madness…
“I must have taken complete leave of my senses and my sensibilities and a sense of decency, everything.”Neil Parish speaking to BBC politics
And yet, there have been many “moments” of madness in Westminster over many years.
Most recently, Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner was the subject of misogynistic claims by unnamed Tory MPs; Imran Kahn, a Tory MP, resigned after being convicted of child sexual assault; and the Sunday Times reported that 56 MPs are facing sexual misconduct complaints.
They include an allegation that one MP “bribed a member of staff in return for sexual favours”.
Three of those accused are said to be in the cabinet while two are shadow cabinet ministers.
It’s thought that many of those allegations are yet to be corroborated, but five years after sexual abuse and bullying allegations prompted outrage over the culture at Westminster, people are wondering whether anything has changed.
In 2017, a tsunami of harassment and abuse allegations from every corner of society led to the MeToo movement.
And Westminster was not immune.
“No one should have to work in the toxic atmosphere of sleazy, sexist, or homophobic banter. No MP, let alone minister, should think it’s something to make jokes about. This is not hysteria, this is something which is long overdue for all the parties in this house to deal with.”Harriet Harman speaking in Parliament
Female politicians and journalists spoke out from across the political spectrum and a wave of sexual misconduct allegations led to a string of resignations.
Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary at the time, quit. The Tory MP Charlie Elphicke was jailed for two years on three charges of sexual assault, while Damian Green, another cabinet minister at the time, was sacked after he lied about the presence of pronographic images on his House of Commons computer.
Out of those revelations came a flurry of promises by parliamentary authorities and political parties to clean up Westminster.
“In a statement today the Commons leader vowed to take action within days to set up a complaints procedure for MPs’ staff, after allegations about serving ministers and opposition politicians.”4 News
A phone line was set up for victims to report allegations of wrong-doing and a cross-party committee was created to lead cultural change.
Since it was set up in 2018, the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, or ICGS, has resulted in several MPs being sanctioned for unacceptable behaviour.
So, why hasn’t more changed in Westminster?
Westminster is a toxic mix of late nights, subsidised bars, and power.
MPs employ their staff directly meaning they deal with any human resource issues themselves, making it difficult for employees to challenge inappropriate behaviour.
“There are about 15,000 people who work in the Palace of Westminster and there are so many different employment relationships… as we know, MPs are a whole bunch of small businesses so it’s actually quite complicated to have a proper system that works for everyone.”Andrea Leadsom speaking on the BBC’s Newsnight programme
Andrea Leadsom was leader of the House of Commons and led the cross-party panel that oversaw the creation of the ICGS. This is her speaking to the BBC’s Newsnight programme.
“So what we’ve been trying to do… is to create an entirely independent system that will change the culture of Parliament and professionalise it… and the key challenge was to make sure that we didn’t have that “MPs marking their own homework” thing going on.”Andrea Leadsom speaking on the BBC’s Newsnight programme
While the creation of the ICGS was progress, it’s still thought that women in parliament prefer to rely on what’s known as the “whisper network” to warn each other who to stay away from, rather than the stresses of a formal complaint which may be dragged out or dropped.
That’s because the ICGS has failed to employ enough specialist investigators,
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House of Commons, has called for a review of working practices and wants a new body that will employ people on behalf of MPs.
The latest slew of sexual misconduct cases in parliament are troubling, but unsurprising. Introducing a new official body to deal with complaints and employment practices will and do make some difference… but changing an ingrained and toxic culture is the real task at hand.
Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.
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