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15 October 2018updated 03 Sep 2021 12:15pm

After years of scandal, why is there still bullying in Parliament?

An inquiry condemns Westminster’s responses to bullying and harassment as “reactive”, led by “unwelcome publicity” and “completely hopeless for a place of work”.  

By Anoosh Chakelian

Anyone who has worked in Parliament will know the story, and has done for years. It has been described to me as “the next scandal waiting to happen”, alongside the usual roll call of MPs known for being bad bosses – bullies who churn through staff members, bullies you’re warned not to work for, bullies who put people off working in politics for life.

But of course bullying in Parliament is nothing new. It’s not the next big scandal – it’s a scandal that comes out again and again, every few years. And aside from various tweaks to internal policies here and there, the Westminster authorities have done close to nothing to address it.

In 2012, the issue of bullying in Westminster hit the headlines with Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme Paul Farrelly accused by female clerks on a select committee of bullying and harassment (Farrelly denied the allegations).

The subject returned to the agenda two years later, with a Channel 4 News investigation into sexual harassment and bullying of parliamentary staff in April 2014.

Last October, the “Pestminster” scandal broke off the back of the #metoo wave, exposing sexual harassment and sexual abuse in politics, which brought bullying in the Westminster workplace back into the conversation, compounded by a BBC Newsnight investigation into bullying claims made against the Speaker, John Bercow (that he denies).

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This prompted former High Court judge Laura Cox’s inquiry into House of Commons workplace culture that reported today – suggesting Bercow is part of a problem that can only be fixed by an overhaul of senior personnel.

So what has changed over the years, as Westminster’s worst-kept secret has gradually left its walls?

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Not much. A confidential phoneline – the “harassment hotline” – was set up for staffers to use in Westminster after the 2014 scandal. It was designed for MPs and staffers to report bullying, but was widely considered an unsatisfactory measure.

Before then, there hadn’t been a great deal. Since 2007, there was the “Valuing Others Policy” for House staff conduct, and since 2011, there was a “Respect Policy” (which didn’t even mention sexual harassment) for House staff (not MPs’ staff), revised in 2014, which Cox’s report discredits as “the subject of extensive criticism”:

“It is frankly astonishing that there was no formal or transparent mechanism in place to deal with complaints of bullying and harassment of House staff by MPs until 2011.”

Since the sexual harassment stories broke last year, a cross-party Working Group was put together, chaired by the Leader of the House of Commons, to set up a new complaints system. Some interim measures have been announced, and in February the chamber endorsed its recommendations for a new behaviour code, independent complaints scheme, procedures specifically to deal with sexual harassment reports, a training scheme, and a third-party HR provider.

The six-month review of the new Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme is due in January 2019.

Parliament’s repeated failure to get to grips with its bullying problem is outlined Cox’s inquiry, which describes measures over the years to counter bullying and harassment as “reactive” and “sometimes only after unwelcome publicity” – as with the new Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (two cabinet ministers were brought down due to the most recent scandal):

“This cycle of repeatedly reacting to crises only after they have developed into crises, and sometimes only after unwelcome publicity, is a perilous approach to adopt for any organisation, but it is completely hopeless for a place of work.”

Indeed, some of the 200 people contributing to the inquiry worked in the Commons as long as ten years ago, and many regard “the culture in the House as essentially unchanged over many years”. Some MPs are known to be “serial offenders” – chiming with the long-running list of names most people in the Westminster bubble know to be bullies or sexual predators.

So why is is Parliament so slow on the uptake? The first issue is that MPs’ staff have long been powerless, due to the unusual employment structure in Parliament. HR has basically been non-existent. MPs are their own bosses, and recruit their own staff.

Often, when MPs arrive in Westminster, they have little experience of human resources or recruiting and managing a team. Because they are effectively HR managers themselves, this makes it very difficult for inappropriate behaviour by MPs to be reported – if your MP boss has done something wrong, you essentially have to report your MP to your MP or your party.

Unlike other industries, staffers and MPs don’t have an official union that can help with these issues. MPs’ offices are not legally obliged to recognise the parliamentary staff branch of Unite (which represents hundreds of parliamentary staff working across parties in Westminster and constituency offices), and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) does not formally recognise the branch.

So as employees, because of Parliament’s structure, politicians’ staffers are already on the backfoot.

But compounding this problem is a “culture of fear” about speaking out, according to Cox’s report, which describes people’s “profound fear of complaining about such abuse, irrespective of any procedures that might be put in place”.

These fears are of being disbelieved, unsupported or isolated, losing your job, of being branded a “troublemaker” and struggling to work again in politics. There is also concern that Westminster rewards perceived “resilience” – so tolerating inappropriate behaviour from your senior is seen as a “badge of honour”.

The political world is one of loyalty, allegiances, agendas, networking and secrecy – this toxic cocktail complicates coming forward to complain about your boss or someone powerful in the building. Shockingly in Cox’s report, the willingness of managers to take action against politicians has depended on their seniority. “Be strong with the weak and weak with the strong” was a “long-standing motto”.

It’s this atmosphere that makes victims of bullying unwilling to report, and takes the momentum out of journalistic investigations into bullying in Parliament. The entirely understandable reluctance to be named or go on the record as a complainant is the result of “a culture that has actively sought to cover up such abusive conduct”.

Cox’s inquiry recommends throwing out the status quo (discontinuing the Valuing Others Policy and the revised Respect Policy) and for the new Complaints and Grievance Scheme to take past grievances into account (at the moment its cut-off is June 2017). But Cox doubts a new system will work without a wholesale change in House administration to win the long-lost confidence of staff.

“Little has in fact changed culturally either before or since 2014” goes the report. Let’s hope this sentence will no longer apply next time round.