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Voters have a right to elect racists and misogynists as MPs, according to a Tory former minister.
Sir Desmond Swayne said he hoped his constituents would not choose people with such views, but said the “principle of democracy is undermined” by a proposed reform to the standards system governing the behaviour of MPs.
The Commons Committee on Standards has suggested MPs should abide by the parliamentary behaviour code and “demonstrate anti-discriminatory attitudes and behaviours through the promotion of anti-racism, inclusion and diversity”.
Sir Desmond, MP for New Forest West, told the Commons: “A debate would be very helpful in Government time because some of the aspects of the report, such as the potential extension of the jurisdiction of an official into what happens in the lobbies and in select committees, touches on the principles of the Bill of Rights, that no proceeding in Parliament be questioned in any place or any court other than Parliament itself.
“And indeed the principle of democracy is undermined by the requirement that we may be required to subscribe to behaviours to promote certain attitudes.
“I hope that my constituents never elect a racist or a misogynist, but they have a right to do so.”
Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg replied: “I think he shows there is much to debate on the report and, as I’ve said, I think it’s important that this House does debate these matters.
“I would point out to him that in terms of the floor of the House, there’s no difference in the standing of a debate in Government time and the standing of a debate in backbench business time.
“But the chairman of the Backbench Business Committee is here. He will, I think, be hearing the requests for a debate on this subject loud and clear before his committee meets.
“Obviously I’m open to a discussion with him to make sure time is available.”
Conservative former minister Mark Francois said a proposal to add a new rule to the code of conduct banning MPs from subjecting anyone to unreasonable and excessive personal attack in any medium is “dangerous”.
The MP for Rayleigh and Wickford said the proposal “presumably” included Parliament, and gave an example of a member of a committee pressing a witness for information, and the witness objecting on the grounds of it being an unreasonable and excessive personal attack and threatening to report them.
He raised similar concerns over people reporting MPs if there is a “heated disagreement” in the Commons chamber.
“This seriously impinges on article nine of the Bill of Rights if you take this literally,” he said, adding: “This is actually dangerous and it shouldn’t appear in the final version.”
Labour MP Chris Bryant, who chairs the standards committee, said he disagreed with the interpretation and said article nine is clear that no proceeding in Parliament “should be impeached or questioned in a court of law or any other place”.
He said it may be that this rule isn’t perfectly worded as it is now”, adding that in his opinion “it just seems odd that we would want to argue that we have to continue the right to make unreasonable and excessive attacks on others”.
Other recommendations from the Committee on Standards include:
– A new requirement for MPs to have a written contract for any outside work which makes it explicit that their duties cannot include lobbying ministers, fellow members or public officials.
– Tightening rules to prevent MPs claiming they were acting to prevent a “serious wrong” as a loophole for lobbying.
– Increasing from six to 12 months the period during which lobbying is banned following receipt of a payment from an outside interest.
– Introducing a new “safe harbour” provision so MPs can be protected from investigation for potential breaches of the code of conduct if they seek out and follow the guidance of officials before taking up a role.
The focus on standards in Westminster follows the case of Conservative former minister Owen Paterson, who was found to have breached lobbying rules and faced the prospect of a 30-day suspension from the Commons before quitting as an MP.