The allegations of sexual impropriety swirling around Westminster have made two things crystal clear. First, Parliament needs a new and independent body where complainants know that their allegations will be investigated properly and in confidence. Second, there needs to be a new culture of respect at the centre of our public life.
Refreshingly there appears to be some political consensus on these principles. Not before time. The current arrangement, whereby each MP is an individual employer (and also HR manager) of their staff, is antediluvian. What on earth is an employee supposed to do when the person complained of is the MP themselves? The potential for abuse of power is obvious.
But it’s also vital, if this body is to command confidence, that it provides natural justice – both to the complainant and the respondent. Allegations must be investigated fairly to ensure that the guilty are brought to book, but also that the innocent are exonerated.
Crucially too, the body must be sufficiently bold to distinguish between the serious and the trivial. That’s important because we currently have a situation in which the media is reporting serious sexual assault allegations alongside matters which are entirely frivolous. What possible public interest, beyond prurience, is there in naming people who have had consensual relationships with unattached colleagues? That shouldn’t lead to a conviction in a court of morality – still less a court of law. And yet they appear under the same, damaging, headlines.
Unless proper distinctions can be drawn, serious allegations risk being undermined by a tidal wave of trivia. The public could end up concluding (wrongly in my view) that the whole business is an enormous overreaction. Only this week BBC presenter John Humphrys openly queried whether this is becoming a “witch hunt”.
He highlights an important point. Unless Parliament moves fast to set up a credible body, it is genuine victims of serious harassment (or worse) who will be discredited. That trap must be avoided.