Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
During the past week, it has become clear that the real ‘Restoration and Renewal’ of Parliament project has nothing to do with replacing cabling and waste pipes – and everything to do with entirely changing the culture inside the Palace of Westminster.
I was a parliamentary candidate when the expenses scandal broke, so I wasn’t in the Commons to witness first-hand that particular series of events, and the response by Party leaders and the Commons authorities. But those who were tell me that the past week has revived memories of it.
The good news is that action was taken, the system was changed, those who had broken the rules did face punishment and now our expenses aren’t front page news, because all the details are publicly available.
The bad news is that dealing with the problem costs millions of pounds a year, yearly fiddling with the rules by IPSA and a computer system which can drive us mad – although it is due to be updated next year. And the really bad news is that the expenses scandal simply confirmed in many voters’ minds that all MPs are venal creatures in politics to serve their own ends.
But as Roger Gale said yesterday morning, and so many others have said too, the Commons is made up of hundreds of men and women who work very hard for their constituents, who put up with online abuse that no one else would, and who put their own family relationships under great strain to do the job.
Our Parliamentary democracy was already creaking before this latest series of events. Brexit has been pushing notions about our representative democracy and the relationship between Parliament, the executive and the judiciary to breaking point.
Is Parliament strong enough to deal with this latest crisis at the same time? The short answer is will have to be and it will require great leadership to do so. I agree with Paul Goodman’s view yesterday on this site that it will not be enough for Party leaders to put in place Codes of Conduct within their own parties. This matter requires a determined and rapid response from the Speaker and the House of Commons Commission (who are they?).
Thousands of MPs and peers staff work in Westminster and constituency offices, and hundreds more staff work for the Commons and Lords themselves. Party Codes of Conduct will not help them: many of our staff are not Party members, nor should they be. They are there to help us with our parliamentary and not our political work.
As I said in the Commons last week, MPs do not work in a modern workplace; we work in a very strange work place. We work in two places, we work odd hours, we often deal with matters of critical and life-changing importance for our constituents, we pass laws which change the future of our country and some of us also get to be Ministers, thus taking on even more responsibility.
For all this there is no complusory training. There is no training in how to be an MP, on how to do casework and how to scrutinise legislation. Most importantly, in the current debate, there is no training on how to be an employer.
The whole culture of the Commons needs to change. Although sexual assault and sexual advances have been in the news, we haven’t even yet started on the bullying which goes on, and to which a blind eye has been turned. When I supported anti-bullying campaigns as Education Secretary, I talked about a ‘whole-school’ approach.
Tackling the culture of the Commons requires a ‘whole-Commons’ approach. It means no-one, from the leaders downwards, can implicitly sanction bullying by their own advisers, supporters or enforcers.
Changing a culture requires appointing different faces with different backgrounds. Not appointing the first female Defence Secretary and first female Conservative Chief Whip last week were missed opportunities to demonstrate that change, although it is good that our new Chief Whip has direct professional human resources and personnel experience.
Changing this culture means treating everyone with respect. It means not bullying people into voting for the Government, not taking advantage of your own position to harm someone else’s prospects, not briefing against colleagues nor making grown men and women cry.
The House of Commons needs a proper central human resources function; the Whips office needs a new role for the 21st century which shows respect to members of the Parliamentary Party, and those who work for them, by treating their concerns with respect – and isn’t just about getting the right number of MPs into the voting lobby. Every Conservative MP needs to sign the Code of Conduct when it is agreed.
Finally, in all this, personal responsibility has been overlooked. Policies and codes are all well and good, but MPs are meant to be grown-ups who use their judgment to work in the interests of their constituents. Surely there are things we all know we just shouldn’t do at work. Part of the problem is that we spend so many hours in Westminster, and the line between work and entertainment is so often blurred, that it is too easy to forget it is a workplace. Before it becomes tainted forever, we all need to step up to the plate, put aside Party differences and long-standing grudges and get on with rooting out the poor and sometimes criminal behaviour in our ranks. No one else is going to do it for us.