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After Rennard, Parliament may seek to bar sexism, with good consequences - and bad ones

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-02-26 at 23.02.03In my sole venture into school drama, I played Arthur, "a very junior Home Official official", in Tom Stoppard's New Found Land.  I might otherwise have been cast as an Parliamentarian in the two-part play between which it is sandwiched, his Dirty Linen: indeed, the play boasts no fewer than seven male MPs.  I was perhaps ineligible to play the part of the eighth, Mrs Ebury - and also to star as the central figure in the play, Maddie, the Secretary to a Select Committee, who first appears on stage wearing "a low cut, sleeveless blouse, buttoned insecurely down the front; a wrap-around skirt, quite short; underneath, suspenders, not tights, and a waist-slip which is also pretty, silk and lace, with a slit...the knickers ought to be remembered for their colour - perhaps white silk with red lace trimmings."

The plot turns around the dalliance of Miss GoToBed - to use Maddie's surname - with all eight MPs (yes, including Mrs Ebury).  So what would happen in a Dirty Linen for our times?  Maddie would surely refuse to yield to the MPs' advances, find her way to Kathy Newman of Channel 4 News, and tell her tale as part of an investigative special.  My point is not that the 1970s were better or worse than today (Dirty Linen was first performed in 1976) than that attitudes towards Parliament and sex have changed almost out of recognition - the second, arguably, even more than the first. And the places in which changes to those attitudes are most pervasive are institutions or businesses which have at least one thing in common with Parliament: size.

The bigger and more public an institution is, the more likely it is to have a regulation-shaped culture, in which sexual harrassment (a concept yet to penetrate public consciousness forty or so years ago) is one of familiar contours of the office landscape - a rock that can damage or wreck a ship, and is thus best avoided by those otherwise disposed to practice it.  Government departments, big charities, local authorities, large law firms, multi-nationals, the more established lobbyists: all these are more likely than medium-size manufacturers or small businesses or enterprises driven by self-made businessmen to have human resources departments, codes of conduct, grievance procedures and all the rest of it.  (Let alone parts of the City, but that's another story.)  These may not always prevent harrassment, but at least they are in place.

Women who want to avoid hands being shoved down their back, or their legs and knees being touched - to borrow examples from the Rennard allegations - may therefore have an easier time, especially if they are relatively junior employees, working for a sprawling multinational than a smaller enterprise - whose business ethics may be less questionable, but whose workplace discipline is more slapdash.  Some people complain that the backlash against sexual harrassment has hit office romance in its wake, and that no-one now dares to make an overture to anyone else for fear of disciplinary action or dismissal or a lawsuit.  Others argue that such talk is cover for the exploitation of the vulnerable by the powerful, and that sexual harrassment should be purged from small businesses as well as larger ones.

The first group, needless to say, are largely men and the second, of course, mostly women.  I will avoid plunging into these murky waters, other than to state the obvious: that sexual harrassment is inextricably linked to the abuse of power. This being so, the role of law is ultimately less decisive than that of culture, as so often.  Since I have worked in no trade other than journalism, my experience of working practices has its limits.  But I was an MP for the best part of ten years, and am not in a bad position to make three points about the Rennard claims.  First, similar allegations are now likely to disturb all parties.  Second, Parliament has no code of conduct, no disciplinary procedures, no "processes" - to borrow the term of one of Ms Newman's sources - for dealing with sexual harrassment.

This is so because although Parliament may be big, it isn't a business or a government department. It is not what Oakeshott called an enterprise association: in other words, it has no single aim or goal.  This being so, no-one is in charge of it: the powers of the Speakers in the Commons and Lords are limited.  It is not an employer and MPs are not employees, at least not fully. (For example, Parliament can't sack an MP.)  The Commons is thus in exactly the same place with sexual harrassment as it was with MPs expenses.  It is true that since the latter hit voters in the pocket and the former doesn't, it won't make waves of the same size.  Indeed, many will shrug it off as no more than can be expected, of MPs or anyone else.  I doubt whether any action will be taken as swift as the purging of the Fees Office or the creation of IPSA.

But this brings me to my third point.  A steady stream of claims is now likely to be be made about MPs of all parties, including some big names.  (Members of the lobby were playing grandmother's footsteps on Twitter yesterday, egging each other on to reveal details.)  It is thus unlikely that only the political parties will end up reviewing their procedures, as the Liberal Democrats have already done by appointing Public Concern at Work to deal with complaints by party members.  Somehow or other and sooner or later - probably sooner - some equivalent of IPSA will deal with allegations of harrassment, bullying and intimidation against MPs.  Perhaps IPSA will further increase its costs to the taxpayer, which were £6 million in its first year, by taking on the role itself.

More likely, the Code of Conduct for MPs will be amended to bring bullying and harrassment and suchlike clearly within its remit, and the role of the Commissioner for Standards will be beefed up further.  Some consequences of such change are unknown, but one is certain.  More able men who are considering trying to enter the Commons will sniff the wind, and decide that it is not for them - especially those who work in small business or for themselves or in parts of the private sector.  I'm not suggesting that a crackdown on harrassment would be wrong (indeed, one is overdue); or that all men who work in private enterprise or want to enter the Commons are able (far from it); or that they are more or less likely to bully or harrass than anyone else - only that such change will provide a further disincentive for such people to become MPs.

Entering the Commons brings good money and a secure pension.  However, there are catches in the small print.  Media exposure comes with the territory.  Those who live by Twitter must run the risk of dying by Twitter - but MPs families, to whom this doesn't apply, are more exposed than ever.  And while the money may be good, it looks less a lot less so compared to what business people may already earn.  IPSA presides over a tangled web of an expenses system, and it is becoming more difficult for MPs to earn outside the Commons.  For good reasons and bad, to be an MP means being treated by voters with a presumption of guilt.  Why run the additional risk of being caught up in a harrassment case?  The law of unexpected consequences will apply to the coming crackdown - namely, that it will further entrench the political class of full-time politicians.


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