A culture of misogyny and harassment in parliament has been worsened by the government’s repeated attempts to delay disciplinary action against misbehaving Tory MPs, Keir Starmer has argued, saying that “a fish rots from the head”.
Starmer said real change had to be “led and modelled from the top” when asked about new claims of abusive and sexualised behaviour by MPs following the resignation of the Conservative backbencher Neil Parish for watching pornography in the Commons chamber.
The Labour leader said the instinct of Downing Street in a series of previous misconduct cases had been either to try to ignore the issue or to delay any robust action.
“What we have seen from this government, time and again, is when one of their own gets into a difficulty, into a problem, they’ve done something they shouldn’t have done, whether it’s Owen Paterson, whether it’s the Wakefield MP [Imran Ahmad Khan], or Neil Parish, their first instinct is to push it off into the long grass, hide what’s happening,” Starmer told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday show.
“That is a political problem, because a fish rots from the head, and there needs to be political leadership on this as well. And we haven’t seen that yet from the Conservative party.”
Speaking earlier on the show, Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, rejected the idea that there was a wider issue about standards in Westminster.
“I don’t think there’s a culture of misogyny,” he said. “I think the problem we have is that people are working in a really intense environment. There are long hours, and I think generally, most people know their limits, they know how to act respectfully.
“But there are some instances where people don’t, frankly, act according to the highest standards.”
Starmer rejected this, saying: “Those who are engaged in this sort of activity, whether it’s comments about Angela Rayner or watching porn in the House of Commons, have to take responsibility.”
However, neither Starmer nor Kwarteng had any specific suggestions on how matters could be improved, beyond agreeing that one possibility could be a suggestion by the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, to end the current system by which MPs employ their staff directly.
Kwarteng rejected the idea of all-women shortlists to improve the gender balance of Conservative MPs, saying he had “never been a fan of quotas”.
He also rejected the idea of closing bars in parliament: “No, they shouldn’t all be shut, I don’t think we should have an excessively puritanical severe regime in that regard.”
Also speaking on the Ridge show, the Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, said that as well as examining Hoyle’s idea for the employment of MPs staff, the existing independent complaints system for parliamentary workers should be speeded up.
Hoyle’s idea would mark a significant overhaul of working practices in Westminster.
Writing in the Observer, Hoyle said: “I believe it is time we reviewed our working practices, and particularly whether it is right that individual MPs are the employers of their staff. Should someone else – or an outside body – employ the staff, as long as the MP has the right to choose them?
“In my opinion, it is time to consider radical action, and review structures and processes that could make a difference. Some serious allegations have been made, and we must address them as a matter of urgency. It is imperative we do the right thing by staff and MPs as well.”