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Building a better culture in Parliament

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Accountability, Ethical standards, MPs, Nolan Principles

It has been another bad few weeks for Parliament and trust in public life.

Reports of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour across the political spectrum over many years are worrying on a variety of fronts. Not only have they clearly caused a great deal of personal misery, but they give a very poor impression of the culture at Westminster as a whole. I have heard commentators say that this is reminiscent of the sleaze scandals of the 1990s - which led to the setting up of the Committee on Standards in Public Life - or the 2009 expenses scandal, in terms of its detrimental impact on public perception of politics and politicians in general.

A successful and effective democracy needs sincere, hardworking people who share a desire to contribute to society. Poor conduct by a fewnot only taints everyone, most of whom serve the public interest with honesty and commitment, but it also discourages new talent from joining the ranks of a seemingly unrepentant institution. On both these counts, the political process is weaker as a result.

Fostering good behaviour and preventing scandals is possible.

The Nolan principles - honesty, integrity, selflessness, objectivity, leadership, openness and accountability - are timeless, tested and well-accepted baselines of what the public expects. They articulate the ‘contract’ between the public and those that represent them.

Strong leadership is needed from parties and Parliament working together to set the tone, along with regularly reviewed codes of conduct, a range of appropriate sanctions, and better education about what is expected from people who enter public life.

After twenty years of the Nolan principles, several intakes of new MPs, new and explicit codes of conduct, and the extraordinary bravery of individual voices in bringing bad behaviour to light, these scandals recur with unedifying regularity.

A scandal breaks, the ensuing media storm causes panic and calls for action but once the spotlight fades from these issues, the impetus for decisive action subsides. Gaps remain unresolved in the arrangements for maintaining standards. Recommendations which may have been quickly accepted in the heat of the scandal are quietly forgotten. Until next time.

There is a point of view that says these abuses will recur, it is intrinsic to human nature to exploit power in every institution, culture and society and that by extension Parliament can expect nothing else. In my view that is too easy and passive, an explanation but not an excuse.

It is irrefutable that more must be done to change the culture in Parliament that leads to these abuses of power. And clearly, more must be done, more swiftly and definitively, when abuses of power come to light. Politicians and the media are well aware that standards issues are toxic - and so they are commonly used for sensational stories and for political gain. But the truth is that, from the public’s perspective, failure to properly address the serious and deliberate abuse of power is a plague on all your houses. This failure has a sharp and lasting impact on the perception of politics and politicians in general, and on trust in our public institutions. The parties must act definitively this time.

The Committee intends to look in detail at the new structures the political parties have committed to put in place in response to this most recent evidence. We will want to see that they make lasting and necessary decisions about preventing, and if they occur, dealing with, abuse of power. Most of all, we want to see a visible and active commitment by political parties to the rights of all individuals of all backgrounds and genders to participate in political life without fear or favour, and to accept the duty of care that parties have to hear and protect everyone who makes such a commitment to the effective functioning of democracy.

Without such urgent and critical action, trust in public institutions like Parliament will continue to erode. And there will be a next time.


Monisha Shah is a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

To learn more about the Committee’s work, visit our website or follow us on Twitter.


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