As readers of this blog will now, I am a big supporter of MPs in general. They work much harder than the popular portrayal of them in the media and around the country suggests. It is an endless job with incredibly anti-social hours, huge sacrifices to family and personal life and extraordinary levels of stress and scrutiny. Being an MP is not easy and we are lucky in the UK to have such a dedicated band of men and women (not enough women but we are getting there) who are prepared to step up and take on thess near impossible jobs.
There is a but. I have been around Parliament and MPs for years, spending plenty of time inside the Palace of Westminster, seeing first hand the realities of the culture and the environment. Sadly, nothing in today’s newspapers reflecting on concerns about poor behaviour of MPs, especially towards young members of staff, surprises me. Sadly, alongside the hard work of Westminster there is a murky and grubby culture of play.
Scratch the surface of the Westminster village and you will find a drinking culture; high prevalence of mental health issues; excessive gambling; many men and women away from their partners and families most of the week; bad diets; high degrees of gossip and back-biting; groups of men who have been through the public school system and see Parliament as an extension of that or their Pall Mall club; young ambitious twenty-somethings trying to impress their MPs bosses to get on, desperate for opportunities and patronage; lots of in jokes and inappropriate humour – the sort that was consigned to the dustbin or margins in most major organisations in 21st century Britain, but remains mainstream in Westminster; in short, a very toxic combination of factors – coupled with the long and anti-social hours and high levels of stress – that drives an unhealthy working environment and culture.
Rather like the 2009 expenses scandal, which exposed how out-dated and out of step Parliament’s working practices had become, so too the latest spate of media stories about its attitudes to acceptable behaviour and conduct now leaves a lot to be desired. The Prime Minister has written to the Speaker to raise this issues, which is to be welcomed. But real change will only come about when the whole place is reformed – dragged into the 21st century. Yes,it is a royal palace but ultimately it is a workplace for many hundreds of people; a workplace like all workplaces where people deserve to be treated with respect and feel safe and secure from unwanted comments or unwanted advances. If Parliament has learnt anything from the expenses scandal it should be to reform itself and fast before it is reformed by others and the latter will hurt a lot more than the former.