It’s time for change

Recent events have brought to mind the old adage “the more it changes, the more it stays the same” and when it comes to the upper echelons of politics that certainly still seems to be the case. Sex scandals, harassment and bullying might make for good headlines and sell news but they don’t make for a good society and they certainly don’t make for a great work experience for anyone who has experienced these behaviours in their workplace.

Recent revelations about harassment or “inappropriate behaviour” as it is somewhat euphemistically referred to is a startling indication of how stuck in the past Parliament and some of our politicians are.

Michael Fallon might have been the first to fall on his sword, but I doubt he will be the last. The Parliament rumour mill has gone into overdrive. All parties will be affected. All will have a duty to act.

Ultimately Parliament is a workplace. Disproportionately filled with men. Disproportionately still working to an archaic way working with late night debates and late night votes (or not – in the Tory Government’s case) and late night drinking.

Put simply the current atmosphere in Parliament is hardly conducive to more women playing their part in shaping our country. On the other hand the Scottish Parliament has neither long hours nor a drinking culture, yet it too is subject to similar rumours of harassment and abuse from politicians and officials in senior positions. So while a revision of Parliamentary working hours and measures to curb the number of bars and the prevalence of drinking might help, what we really need is an end to the tacit acceptance of harassment and abuse of power.

Harassment of any kind is almost always about power in some shape or form. The balance of power in Parliament is predominantly male and sadly ‘that place’ is predominately stuck in working practices that are not conducive to an acceleration or rebalance of its membership any time soon. New entrants often describe it as Hogwarts – for a women it can feel strange – for a young intern or junior researcher it must at times feel very intimidating indeed.

With 650 MPs 442 men and 208 women members it’s all too apparent where the challenges still are. When you then factor in the House of Lords (799 members, 591 men and 208 women) this simply adds to that whole sense of “male-ness”.

Everyone has the right to come to work and feel comfortable. Employers have a duty of care to their employees, and that applies to those in Parliament as much as anywhere else. MPs, MSPs, political parties and the parliamentary authorities must act now to ensure that it is made abundantly clear to all that harassment, abuse or discrimination of any form are absolutely unacceptable, and that complaints of any such behaviour will be treated with utmost seriousness, investigated and acted upon.

Having a policy, of course, is only one part of what needs to be done. It’s also not good enough just to have a policy written down. It’s about the culture and the experience that people have. It’s about ongoing education – and not just assuming that everyone understands where the boundaries are. Unfortunately – as recent events show – not everyone has the same definition of the ‘boundary’ and unless the organisation specifically spells it out – sets the base line – then everything is left open to interpretation.

Perhaps the most insightful quote so far was in Michael Fallon’s resignation statement “The culture has changed over the years. What might have been acceptable 10, 15 years ago is clearly not acceptable now.” Wow!!! Well in places I worked it was certainly not acceptable 10 or 15 years ago. And sadly all this tells us is that the “culture change” has a long way still to go.

The current episode, and it’s still potential fall out, amplifies the case for 50/50 in our Parliament. If we are serious about reflecting our society then we need to see clear actions being taken to make Parliament more representative. We need to change the work practices and we need to change our education practices. Why are we still in the position in 2017 where some people still think this behaviour is okay – and when are we going to get serious about changing it?

50/50 is not just a numbers game for numbers sake but for the decency of our society, and the integrity of our democracy, it’s time for change.