Isabel Hardman

Party whips are ill-suited to deal with serious allegations like rape

Party whips are ill-suited to deal with serious allegations like rape
Mark Spencer, the Chief Whip (photo: Getty)
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The Tories are still coming under fire for failing to suspend the unnamed MP who was arrested at the weekend on suspicion of rape, sexual assault and coercive control. A group of charities and trade unions are the latest to criticise the decision, saying in a statement released yesterday that 'we are still not confident that [Parliament] is a safe and equal place for women to work'. The group wants Parliament to suspend the MP, and for the whip to be removed while the police investigate the allegations. But while the Tories insist they take all such allegations extremely seriously, they also say the matter is currently in the hands of the police and they will make a decision about the whip once the police decide whether or not to charge the suspect.

The question of whether to suspend the whip is not in fact as important as the other questions swirling around the Conservative whips themselves. The complainant also alleges that she spoke to chief whip Mark Spencer in April about threats from the MP and the alleged assault, but that Spencer failed to do anything about her concerns. He insists the assault allegation didn’t come up in the conversation and that the complainant was advised to contact Parliament’s independent complaints process.

Regardless of the next step in this case, it does highlight the confusing role of the whips in party ecosystems. Their role is to enforce discipline, but because the most important form of discipline to them is loyalty in votes, they do not always discharge pastoral discipline very well at all.

The whips cannot be seen as the only source of party discipline and pastoral care. There is too much at stake for all concerned. If an MP is struggling in his or her personal life, the whips are often the last people they'd want to know about their problems, just in case they weaponise it against them when trying to get their support in a crunch vote. As we have seen with the latest case, complainants in cases do not have confidence the whips will act swiftly when an MP's behaviour is raised with them. And, perhaps most worryingly, whips receive no training on how to deal with serious issues like disclosure of sexual assault.

Often MPs who come under suspicion have been flagged as a pastoral concern in one way or another, and I understand that at least one MP had raised the general behaviour of the suspect in the latest case with the whips more than a year ago. There is no suggestion the whips were aware at that stage of any of the accusations which have since been made.

In the Elphicke case, the then-chief whip Julian Smith suspended the whip immediately, and then came to regret acting so hastily when Elphicke was not charged for a long time, and when he told colleagues that he still had no idea of the allegations made against him. Smith has presumably changed his mind again about this, given Elphicke's conviction, but it's worth remembering that he restored the whip both to the Dover MP and to Andrew Griffiths, who was accused of sending sexually explicit text messages to constituents, so that the pair could take part in the vote of confidence in Theresa May.

What should the whips do to change this? Some take it on themselves to get more involved in the pastoral side of things: former Tory deputy chief whip Anne Milton was one who did a great deal to help both distressed colleagues and complainants. She has now left Parliament.

But even with well-meaning MPs like Milton working in the whips' office, they will never really be fully able to discharge this side of their job as long as they are also trying to cajole colleagues into the right voting lobbies. Whatever the outcome of this latest case, it has surely already highlighted that something needs to change within the party.

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator and author of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.

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