THE decision by the Conservative Party to issue its MPs with a code of conduct on how to treat their staff is a positive step, and other parties should review their guidelines too, but it also highlights the painful inadequacies of the protections given to those employed by MPs.
The code was issued following television investigations suggesting that sexual harassment at Westminster is widespread and in the wake of the trial of Commons deputy speaker Nigel Evans. He was acquitted on sexual assault charges, but one of the complainants has accused the main political parties of doing nothing about the potential exploitation of young researchers by MPs.
MPs, like MSPs, employ their staff directly, not through their party or the House of Commons. Much of the time, the arrangement is harmonious, but when a dispute arises, such as when an employee feels that he or she has been the subject of inappropriate touching or has witnessed others being harassed, it can be difficult for young staff to know where to turn.
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The problem was crystallised by Sir George Young, the Conservative chief whip, in his covering letter to Tory MPs. He was at pains to make clear that if a dispute did occur between an MP and a member of staff, it had nothing to do with Conservative central office. Sir George merely expressed his "hope" that MPs would choose to adopt the voluntary code and grievance procedure sent with it. The speaker John Bercow later chimed in that the House of Commons too was limited in what it could do, with regret.
In essence, researchers who feel mistreated by their MP boss are still left in the invidious position of having to complain to that MP; there is no human resources department for them to turn to. Inhibited by fears for their future advancement, or out of party loyalty, this is a non starter for many.
It is high time there were better arrangements in place, especially given that at Westminster the lines can easily become blurred between the professional and the personal. Researchers are often recruited straight out of university, with little idea of what sort of behaviour they have a right to expect from their employer. MPs are away from their families. They and their researchers often work late and mingle in the Commons bars. Twice a year, researchers go with their MPs to party conference, an almost 24/7 round of speeches, fringe events, receptions, schmoozing, late-night pub sessions and whisky-fuelled speech writing in MPs' hotel rooms. It is easy to see how some politicians might cross the line of acceptable behaviour.
The Speaker admits the system needs to be modernised and is setting up a telephone hotline for staff to complain. But in reality, researchers should not be employed by MPs, or indeed MSPs, at all; instead, they should be contracted by the Commons and Holyrood, which would also help iron out the sometimes colossal pay disparities between different parties.
These recent revelations about the seamier side of parliamentary life are yet another woeful own goal for the parties. Urgent reform is needed.