“The process itself was the punishment”

Yesterday I wrote about the accusations against an unnamed Conservative MP. Steve Kneale has written an excellent article today helping us to take our thinking further for church life. I would encourage you to read both articles and if you are part of a church leadership (or leadership of a local or national network or parachurch organisation to put the issues raised on your agenda).

There is one point where I disagree with Steve and that is over the removal of the party whip. As I explained yesterday, I think that the responsibility in this area lies not with the party )the MP does not work for the party) but with the House of Commons itself and with the Speaker to take action.  If you are accused of crime at the workplace, then you are suspended from work. This means that you cannot attend the workplace and you are not expected to carry out your work.  An MP who has lost the whip remains an MP. He can go to the House of Commons, he can hold surgeries with his constituents. Those are the areas where the focus needs to be.

In terms of Westminster, situations like this highlight for me some of the problems with a system where the world has changed but its arcane procedures simply have not caught up.  Let me give two more examples of where the process is not fit for purpose. The first is the example of another MP who was named, charged, tried and convicted. Charlie Elphicke. He had the whip suspended during the investigation. It did not really change anything for the Government as his political alignment had not changed and so he voted with them at the points you would expect him to. What it did affect was internal party politics and so when it came to confidence votes and leadership election issues suddenly the whip was restored to him. 

The other example of what is wrong with the system was shown when Gavin Williamson was the Conservative’s chief whip. Apparently, Gavin would keep a pet tarantula on his desk. Older readers may remember Michael Dodd’s classic book, adapted for TV, House of Cards.[1] The plot focuses on Francis Urquhart, a chief whip who manipulates his way all to the top as Prime Minister. It presents an image of party management as a form of dark arts. For a lot of aspiring politicians at the time, their inspiration came not from Gladstone or Peel, Wilberforce or Atlee but from Urquhart.  Anyway, Williamson was seen to follow this pattern when Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary was accused of sexual harassment. Fallon resigned and the new Defence Secretary was announced, a certain Mr Williamson.

Whipping is primarily about ensuring that the party gets its way in parliament. It is about getting MPs to conform to an agenda.  It relies on a mixture of “old boys network”, the promise of reward (promotions and honours) and the threat of having your political career ended. The system benefits from the whips knowing your darkest secrets and holding on to them to use at a later date. Imagine  if that was how the workplace ran! Imagine if that was how we ran the church? This system is in need of serious reform.

Now, whilst I have spent a couple of paragraphs talking about parliamentary process and intrigue, that’s not really where my focus is this morning. I want to keep talking about church.  The reason I disagree with Steve on that one small point is because I think that the process suggested for dealing with an accused MP is unfit for purpose.

It is important when dealing with allegations and investigations that you use the right processes. It also means that you need to make sure that your processes are fit for purpose. One of the issues that has come up within Anglican circles is that in the cases of church abuse (Fletcher, Smyth etc) and of antisemitism that the process didn’t do its job in terms of bringing justice. At the same time lots of vicars have been put through the same process and it seems that in many cases, the end result is that they are still vicars but very much broken and crushed by the process. As has been said several times,

“The process does not lead to judgement and punishment. The process is the punishment.”

Now, no investigation is going to be pleasant.  It will be hard for a church member not to take part in aspects of church life, it will be hard for a pastor to find himself on the bench. Like it or not, as soon as someone is named and investigated, there is suspicion.  The old proverb “no smoke without fire” is treated as infallible.”

However, those things can be mitigated if the right process is in place and appropriate support is there for the person concerned.  This means that you have to be absolutely clear about what the process is there to do.

 A process within the church where there is a criminal investigation is not about the church determining guilt, it is not about punishing or disciplining. It is about safeguarding. When we talk about safeguarding, then we need to remember that this includes the possible victim, the wider church family and the accused themselves. Are your processes designed to do that?


[1] Please disregard the US version for this explanation. The US version focused on a politician who is a full on thug and criminal. Whilst there is serious criminality in the original, including murder, the primary focus is on menace and manipulation through the normal political channels and conventions.

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