Harassment and bullying complaints against MPs require a new independent systemby Hannah White / September 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
John Bercow has just a few weeks left to address a crucial issue that has over-shadowed his speakership—the bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff by MPs.
There now seems little chance that the multiple bullying allegations against the speaker himself—which he denies—will ever be investigated. The possibility of an investigation by the parliamentary commissioner for standards was ruled out by MPs on the Commons Standards Committee on a technicality, because the allegations dated back some years. Even though those rules have just been changed, the commissioner will no longer have the power to look into the allegations once Bercow ceases to be an MP.
Nonetheless, as Chair of the House of Commons Commission—the body of MPs responsible for running the Commons—the speaker could still use his remaining days to see through wider reforms which would significantly benefit its staff.
After allegations of bullying and harassment by MPs of House staff first emerged in March 2018, following an investigation by Newsnight, the former High Court Judge Laura Cox was asked to investigate. In October 2018 she reported, making three key recommendations to address the culture she had found “cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed.”
A few days after Cox reported, the House of Commons Commission, chaired by the speaker, endorsed her three recommendations. Yet, nearly a year later, only two of the three have been implemented—the abolition of earlier flawed bullying policies in which staff had no confidence and allowing older allegations to be investigated. Her key recommendation, that a process should be put in place for determining complaints against MPs that is entirely independent of MPs, is yet to be implemented. After a long period of inaction, a small group of staff was recently asked to draw up proposals for how this might work, but there is no sign of the political will to implement them.
We need an independent system because MPs find it impossible to sit in judgment on their peers without allowing politics to get in the way. When allegations were made against the speaker himself, Margaret Beckett responded that Brexit issues “trump bad behaviour.” Even as a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life she was prepared to ignore bullying accusations because she thought the speaker’s decisions would help her deliver her political priority—opposing Brexit. She is not alone, although perhaps more honest than other MPs, in finding it impossible to judge standards of personal behaviour when politics are in play.
When Bercow announced his forthcoming resignation this week he received 90 minutes of plaudits in the House of Commons from fellow MPs. These will have rung hollow for staff who have been watching and waiting for politicians to follow Cox’s recommendation and remove themselves from sitting in judgment on their fellow members.
While staff may welcome the way Bercow has championed the Commons—the institution to which they devote their working lives—they feel let down by MPs who are prepared to overlook behaviour which can blight lives and destroy careers. That is why over 60 wrote an open letter to the Times this week asking all candidates putting themselves forward to replace Bercow to commit to getting an independent process in place within six months of taking office.
In the meantime, while he remains speaker, Bercow should devote the time he has left—especially while the Commons is prorogued—to driving the implementation of an independent process. The impending general election makes this even more urgent—the start of a new parliament will provide a golden opportunity to establish a new system, communicate it to newly elected and re-elected MPs and give staff the protections they deserve.