Proposals to grant anonymity to MPs accused of harassment or expenses fraud in a new behaviour code will be seen as politicians trying to cover up their misdoings, the chairman of the standards committee has warned.
Labour’s Sir Kevin Barron said he agreed that confidentiality was important to ensure that people came forward with allegations, but said publishing the name of an MP under investigation would not cause “irreparable damage” to the probe.
The proposals have implications for the media, who will be unable to confirm future claims about MPs being investigated for standards breaches with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
As Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom outlined the new complaints and grievances scheme for MPs and peers, Sir Kevin moved an amendment which sought to ensure the names of individuals under investigation can be published.
The amendment was defeated by 79 votes to 22, majority 57.
Among them was Labour’s Keith Vaz, who is still under investigation for possible breaches of the parliamentary standards code after he was exposed buying cocaine for male escorts by the Sunday Mirror in 2016.
Sir Kevin said: “We perfectly agree the issue about sexual harassment and bullying and harassment needs confidentiality to make sure that people will come forward and will speak out so that actions can be taken.
“We have considered carefully the leader’s argument for making this change and we understand why she has put them forward, but we do not think that they outweigh the reputational damage that may arise if we go ahead with this proposal as it is stated.
“It will be presented as MPs trying to cover up their misdoings.”
Sir Kevin went on: “It’s also good news for anybody who wants to smear a Member of Parliament – they can simply tell the media that the member has broken a rule and is under investigation.
“Since the Parliamentary Commissioner will be effectively gagged she will not be able to confirm or deny this. The rumour will continue and no-one will have the authority to put the record straight.”
The committee did not believe that identifying a member as a person under investigation would cause “irreparable damage to that member’s investigation”, he went on.
Sir Kevin also warned of a continued need for transparency and openness regarding MPs’ expenses.
The Daily Telegraph revealed some of the outrageous expenses claims made by MPs in 2009, which led to a public apology on behalf of MPs from then Prime Minister Gordon Brown and repayments of wrongful claims.
Said Sir Kevin: “There is no doubt if the House today votes for this element of the Leader’s House motion, many people outside will criticise us for rolling back the openness that was agreed back in 2010 in view of the situation with the expenses scandal.”
Leadsom earlier told the Commons that under the new scheme, drawn up following a rash of bullying allegations, those visiting and working in Parliament will be able to do so free from “unacceptable behaviour, bullying and harassment”.
She said: “Today gives us a new start, Westminster has been rocked by allegations of bullying and harassment since last November, but today we can demonstrate our determination to put our house in order and to ensure that in the future everyone will be treated with dignity and respect.”
Former Tory activist Kate Maltby, whose complaint about Damian Green touching her knee led to an inquiry resulting in his removal as Deputy Prime Minister, watched from a side gallery as the code was given cross-party support.
Labour MP Jess Phillips (Birmingham Yardley) said that if the criminal courts could maintain complete anonymity for the victims and complete transparency for those accused then she had “faith” it could be done in Parliament.
“I do worry about how it looks in trying to pull back on transparency,” she said.
“I think, if I’m honest, the anonymity that is being required was a deal done by somebody in a whips office or somebody on some committee that controls one of our political parties.
“I have no evidence to suggest that, I’m enjoying my parliamentary privilege.”
Phillips earlier said she was “exhausted” by the stories she had heard since the abuse and harassment scandal broke in Parliament last October, noting: “I think I’m up to 50 complaints from a variety of people from different political parties about both Members of Parliament and others who work in and around politics as well.”
Green MP Caroline Lucas (Brighton Pavilion) said: “I do share the sneaking suspicion that was voiced by (Ms Phillips) when she said perhaps there were other forces at play here which are leading us to this direction.”
She did not believe the amendment would have undermined the confidentiality around the victim.
Liberal Democrat Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) referred to her own experiences of harassment.
She said: “There have been two occasions in my life as a candidate where I was a victim, albeit not terribly, not enough that I took it to anything formal, but I have myself been a victim of sexual harassment.
“And I know many other members have and many other staff members have in this place, particularly female but not exclusively.
“Number one on my mind was this is hard enough to say, this is hard enough to even admit to, and if there’s any chance at all that I could have been identified, I certainly then would not have gone on to flag it in the right channels.”