Ministers should this morning be concentrated on the terror attack on our American allies, the continuing menace of further ones here, the looming Budget, housing, Brexit – and a mass of other policy issues. Instead, they will be consumed by the weird afterwash from the Harvey Weinstein scandal which, like some east-bound hurricane from the New World arrived to batter our coasts, is sweeping through Westminster and Whitehall, and is at once both serious and trivial.
The Commons, primarily, and the political parties, separately, must find some just and proportionate means of dealing with what lies between the criminal and the private: that’s to say, workplace bullying, abuse and harassment – whether sexual in nature or not; and whether inflicted by MPs on other MPs, male MPs on female staff, male MPs on male staff, or senior staff on junior staff. There has also been a claim involving a woman MP and male staff.
It is for Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and other party leaders to deal with claims made against those appointed to respective front benches. In the Prime Minister’s case, allegations will inevitably tested against the Ministerial code.
As far as the Commons is concerned, Andrea Leadsom announced on Monday a beefed-up confidential helpline with a dedicated support team which will have the capacity to provide pastoral support and the power to make “onward referral”.
What is not clear is who any onward referrals would be made to. The Prime Minister has floated “a House-wide mediation service, complemented by a code of conduct and a contractually binding grievance procedure, available for all MPs, peers and their staff, irrespective of their party banner”: the Speaker called it a “corporate scheme”. This would presumably be accountable to and run by the House of Commons Commission. In our view, that responsibility should be shared by some independent outsiders – though not given over entirely, please, to IPSA or some new lumbering bureaucratic equivalent set up at taxpayers’ expense. It is up to the Speaker and the Commission to make this corporate scheme happen, and they should take “action this day”.
As far as the political parties are concerned, our focus is naturally close to home. Obviously, suspension or withdrawal of the Whip – even resignation from Parliament – would be appropriate in some cases. What is lacking, however, is some means of resolving claims against MPs that fall short of suspension. There is provision for an ethics and integrity committee in the Party constitution.
During the expenses scandal, David Cameron tried to get ahead of the controversy by establishing the Party’s own investigation into MPs claims, which was run by the Whips Office. There is no equivalent in this case. The Whips could then work from officially-published claims and receipts. All they would have to go by at present is an unreliable list, and whatever the media in future will duly turn up.
In any event, the Whips are not the right arbiter of any such allegations, since their responsibilities to the Parliamentary Party, the Government and the Party leader are not consistent with reaching a decision that is fair to all concerned. What is needed is the ethics committee, or something like it. In most cases, it would presumably wait for the Commission’s new corporate body to report before deciding if further action was necessary.
Oh, and let’s have no state-licensed Bloody Sunday or child abuse-style enquiry, please – all at further expense to the taxpayer, and with our colleagues in the media nicely set up, as in that last case, to force the resignation of successive Chairmen. Governments usually reach for an inquiry in such circumstances as a means of kicking the can into the long grass.
In short, the Speaker, May, Corbyn and the party leaders must get a grip. Then Ministers can return their attention to matters no less serious than alleged rape and sexual assault – such as the mania of Islamist fanatics who want to murder the rest of us.