The House of Commons must act now to stop bullying and sexual harassment
A new investigation into abuse of staff directly employed by MPs should lend urgency to the unsatisfactory attempts to make parliament a model employer
The entrenched culture of abuse of parliamentary staff revealed by last month’s report by Dame Laura Cox, the former High Court judge, was shocking enough. It found 200 credible allegations of bullying and sexual harassment.
But that investigation was into the mistreatment only of staff employed by the parliamentary authorities. As we report today, there is now to be a parallel inquiry into the treatment of staff directly employed by MPs.
A source told us: “I expect this to be bigger and more explosive than the Cox report … We know there has been a similar problem for MPs’ staff, too, who have an entirely different employment arrangement.”
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These inquiries are a necessary part of cleaning up Westminster, which ought to be a model of employment rights and respectful conduct. But they are only the start. The next step ought to be to set up systems to make sure people in positions of authority are deterred from behaving badly, and if they do behave badly they are held to account for it swiftly and firmly.
Speaker John Bercow has already missed his chance to show decisive leadership on this question. The House of Commons Commission, which he chairs, has accepted Dame Laura’s recommendations of an “entirely independent process” to handle complaints against MPs and the removal of a cut-off date, so historical allegations can be included.
But Mr Bercow put his own survival ahead of the clean break a new culture needs. Having originally pledged to stand down this year, he has let it be known, through unattributable “friends”, that he intends to do so next year, once Brexit has been resolved. This is far from ideal. If the Commons needs new leadership, it needs it now, and Brexit should have nothing to do with it.
That said, the acceptance of a fully independent body to which staff can turn is welcome. It needs to be set up with a sense of urgency proportional to the reputational damage this problem is causing. Obviously, it should not wait for the second investigation into MPs’ staff.
This new inquiry will raise once again the difficult question of whether assistants ought to be employed directly by MPs, or whether their employment should be managed by the House of Commons collectively. It might be that a good system of independent oversight would make such a change unnecessary.
None of this, however, should be used as an excuse for delaying action on Dame Laura’s recommendations. Nor should it prevent the House authorities from reversing one of the retrograde decisions taken in the midst of the recent outcry, which was to grant anonymity to MPs against whom allegations have been made.
In UK law, the right of anonymity is granted to the victims of sexual offences to make it easier for them to report crimes; it is not generally available to those accused of such crimes, and is contrary to the principle of transparent justice. This deeply mistaken decision must be changed forthwith.
So far, the response of the speaker and the House authorities to the allegations of bullying and sexual harassment has been confused, tardy and never wholly convincing. They need to get it right before the next wave of allegations unfolds.
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