Bullying at Westminster: What you need to know

In the wake of a recent damning review by Dame Laura Cox QC, how can UK politics combat bullying in the House of Commons?

IT IS “difficult to envisage” how the reforms needed to tackle widespread bullying and harassment at Westminster can be delivered under the House of Commons’ current administration, a damning report published on Tuesday (16 October) Dame Laura Cox QC concluded.

Cox, who was appointed by House authorities to investigate claims that MPs and Westminster staff have engaged in such bullying, found this week that a “culture of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence” in parliament had allowed the spread of such abuse.

Since the report’s publication, many with experience in Westminster have already commented that the behaviour it describes was well-known to those who worked within parliament, but the general public may nevertheless be shocked by the latest details. Below, CommonSpace takes you through what you need to know.

MPs enjoy a “God-like status”

Cox’s report found that MPs benefit from a “God-like status” within the Commons, generally safe in the knowledge that they would not be subject to disciplinary action for bullying, harassment or other abusive behaviour, which on occasion has been actively covered up.

Cox has observed that, while a “culture of loyalty” exists at Westminster that may prevent individuals from reporting all instances of bullying, that culture has been “tested to breaking point by a culture, 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.”

Examples of the behaviour described in complaints from staff included being shouted at, belittled and subjected to foul language on an “almost daily basis” and “predatory” behaviour by some male MPs towards female staff.

None of this is new

Though the culture that allowed it has likely existed for far longer, the issue of bullying at Westminster drew public attention in 2012, when Paul Farelly, Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, was accused by female clerks on a select committee of bullying and harassment. Farrelly denied the accusations.

In April 2014, a Channel 4 News investigation was produced, detailing sexual harassment and bullying of Westminster staff.

The former chief executive of Stonewall Ben Summerskill commented at the time that the nature of the parliamentary workplace was to blame for the instances unconvered, saying: “Sexual harassment is part of the culture of Westminster. In the last decade I’ve heard of dozens of cases from men and women… People are vulnerable as they’re often political obsessives and have never worked anywhere else.

“For both sexes the MP can say that if they oblige them, it might help their career enormously. There’s no HR, no structure for people management or supervision.”

In October 2017, the ‘Pestminster’ scandal – fuelled by media claims that a WhatsApp group existed, in which women working in Westminster listed the names of sexually predatory politicians – provoked some to wonder if #MeToo had reached the House of Commons.

Also last year, a BBC Newsnight investigation uncovered several claims of bullying against the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, by two former officials. These claims, which Bercow denies, formed the basis of the inquiry into Westminster’s workplace culture published today.

John Bercow may step down – but not today

This week, it was reported that Bercow has told friends he will step down as Speaker next summer, despite calls that he quit immediately in the wake of the recent inquiry.

In a recent exchange in the House, Tory backbencher and chairwoman of the Commons Women and Equalities Committee Maria Miller told Mr Bercow directly he should step down, saying: "The report is clear that there needs to be a complete change in leadership at the most senior level, including you Mr Speaker, as chief officer, if we are, in Dame Laura's words, to press the reset button."

However, Bercow’s spokesperson told press: "The Speaker was elected by the House in 2017 for the course of the Parliament. In the event he has anything to say on his future plans, he will make an announcement to the House first."

What is to be done?

Following the controversy over the 2014 Channel 4 News investigation, a confidential “harassment hotline” was established for Westminster MPs and staffers to report abusive behaviour, but some have argued this was an unsatisfactory measure – a conclusion that appears to be borne out by Cox’s recent report.

In her report, Cox called for an “entirely independent process” to be set up for dealing with future staff complaints against MPs, in which MPs would play no part.

Beyond such a process, the report argues that a “broad cultural change” is required to restore the confidence of staff and the public at large, and that this transformation would need “a focus and a genuine commitment” by the House leadership.

Elaborating on this in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s World At One, Cox clarified that she was referring to “collective ethos at the top of the organisation”, including the Speaker and the Clerk of the House and the House of Commons Commission.

If these figures were incapable of understanding the need for radical reform, Cox went on, “then they should each of them be considering their positions.”

Responding, A House of Commons spokesperson commented that bullying and harassment had no place in parliament and the wellbeing of staff “will always be our top priority”.

The spokesperson continued: “Urgent work has already been undertaken to improve internal processes – including the introduction of new confidential support services and helplines run by external, independent specialist providers and a clear pathway for the investigation of allegations.

“The findings of this inquiry will be taken into careful account.”

A Women’s Equality Party spokesperson also commented: “Bullying, harassment and sexual harassment are abuses of power. It is shocking but not surprising that most of the complainants were women, in an institution designed by and for men where male MPs still outnumber women by 2:1.

“We welcome Dame Cox’s recommendation that the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme should be amended to include historical allegations, as we have been calling for since the sexual harassment scandal broke.

“We also call for the Recall of MPs Act 2015 to be amended to specifically so MPs found to have sexually harassed people can be recalled by their constituents. The men in power need to know they cannot continue to act with impunity.”

Picture courtesy of the UK Parliament