Earlier this month, we looked at why some Conservative MPs remain determined to overhaul Parliament’s disciplinary and HR procedures, despite the total disaster that was the Government’s previous bid to do this during the Owen Paterson affair.
One thing we noted at the time was that whilst there do on the surface seem to be at least some solid arguments for at least reviewing these practices, some MPs were playing with fire by demanding procedures more in line with what one might expect to find in an ordinary, commercial workplace.
Specifically, some complain that the punishments imposed by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards – forcing someone to apologise to the House, for example – are completely out of the ordinary, especially as Hansard is forever. Few other employees are expected to stand up and recant to, say, a shareholder meeting or via a company-wide email. However, as we noted then:
“…any system will have to reflect the unique role of MPs as elected representatives. They are not mere employees of the House, and their status necessarily means that they must have more leeway in certain areas than a normal employee might expect.”
Fortunately, the Government seems to grasp this. In a written statement issued last week Michael Ellis, the Cabinet Office minister, spelled out the same concerns about proposals to bind MPs to an expansive new code of conduct:
“…the Government has underlined the importance of protecting elected representatives’ rights to exercise free speech within the law. The Government expresses concern that some of the proposed changes to the Commons Code of Conduct could have a chilling effect on Members commenting on contentious matters of public policy.”
Ellis goes on to specifically note that: “Free speech within the law can sometimes involve the expression of political views that some may find offensive.”
On the same day, the Government published a letter from Kemi Badenoch which pushed a similar line in the context of local government. In response to a proposal to allow local authorities to suspend councillors, she writes:
“It would be undesirable to have a government quango to police the free speech of councillors; it would be equally undesirable to have a council body (appointed by councillors, and/or made up of councillors) sitting in judgment on the political comments of fellow councillors.”
In a normal workplace, the HR system is backed by the full might of the employer, which enjoys great power over the employee to impose things such as corporate codes of conduct and to enforce its specific commercial objectives.
Politicians could not properly fulfil their function with the institution of Parliament (or its equivalent, such as a local authority) wielding such power over them. Any system for policing politicians therefore has to tread a fine line between preventing improper and abusive behaviour, whilst allowing much greater lassitude on questions of principle and speech than most systems afford.
The Government is right to safeguard these privileges, and MPs should think twice before bargaining them away.