A year ago the House of Commons Standards Committee proposed a new addition to MP’s Code of Conduct Viz. “Respect: Members should abide by the Parliamentary Behaviour Code and should demonstrate anti-discriminatory attitudes and behaviours through the promotion of anti-racism, inclusion and diversity”
I opposed the proposal vociferously, if a code is to be taken seriously and enforced, then it is not just a restraint on the freedom of MPs, but also on the choice that can be made available to voters. Though, the desired ‘behaviours’ may appear uncontroversial, the highly charged debate over sex and gender reveals that what constitutes openness to ‘inclusion and diversity’ is, on the contrary, still highly controversial.
In Parliament last week my colleague Mark Francois MP badgered the Defence Secretary over cost overruns and delays to Type 26 frigate programme. He ended with this question “…why does it take BAE Systems 11 years to build a ship the Japs can build in four?”
The Following day Sarah Owen, the MP for Luton North, made a complaint to the speaker regarding what Mr Francois had said the day before. She was clearly angry and demanded to know how “we can discourage all Members of the House from using ethnic slurs”.
Would Mr Francois have been in breach of the proposed code for failing under the new Respect requirement?
I rather think that Sarah Owen would have thought so.
Personally, I would have exonerated Mr Francois. He was not denigrating the Japanese, on the contrary, he was complimenting their comparatively greater efficiency. He was, after all, showing them a measure of ‘respect’. In the end these things are a question of taste and I certainly wouldn’t want the language police to be able to censor that.
As it happens, we managed to see off the proposed new addition to the Code of Conduct. I kicked-up a fuss and so did others. The Committee on Standards withdrew, albeit with rather bad grace -saying that the criticism had been exaggerated and that the proposed addition had been purely aspirational and would not have been enforced.
Alas, some of the other proposals in the same document survived, including that the Commissioner for Standards should police the use that MPs make of social media to ensure that our criticisms are proportionate and not too personal. So, no new -Elon Musk inspired- freedom of expression on Twitter for MPs.
The Committee may have shelved its proposals for now, but I doubt that the agenda and ambitions have gone away for good. Vigilance is the price of Liberty. Policing what we say and how we say it is but a short step from policing our thoughts and how we think.