The Commons appears to have fallen short, and abuses of power should not be tolerated
It is plain that an excessively hierarchical, command-and-control and deferential culture is going to take time to alter, but alter it must
Dame Laura Cox’s report into the culture of bullying and harassment at the House of Commons makes for sad, depressing reading. Though confined to the non-political staff of the Commons, rather than MPs’ researchers or journalists, for example, this independent inquiry has found a mass of evidence of a culture that indulges inhuman behaviour, and has done for far too long.
According the report: “The unhappy fact is that the overwhelming majority of contributions, from staff working across the House, reveal widespread, enduring and profound disaffection with a culture that is as embedded as it is shocking. They indicate that bullying, harassment and sexual harassment of members of staff, both by other members of staff and by some MPs, has been known about and tolerated for far too long, despite efforts by some, including recognised trade unions, to persuade the senior administration to take it seriously.”
By “senior administration” is meant the management of the place, with the speaker himself at the apex of the structure. Indeed, John Bercow has himself been accused of bullying behaviour, allegations he stoutly denies. Even so, those close to the speaker have indicated that he will quit next summer, which hardly seems a coincidence. It is reported that he doesn’t wish to be seen to be pushed out, and that he wants to see the process of Brexit through.
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The first is not a motive to be taken seriously. The second is a more substantial reason for Mr Bercow to carry on in his post. The next six months will have few precedents in the Commons, given the magnitude of unfolding events, the complexity of the procedures and the fact, already apparent, that parliament is deadlocked on Brexit, with majorities against every possible option but no consensus forming for anything else.
Headline-grabbing as it is, though, this report is about much more than the fate of Mr Bercow. As one of his more vocal critics in the Commons put it to him, channelling Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, a fish rots from the head, and he has failed to show sufficient leadership on this issue. However, replacing Mr Bercow with, say, a female speaker would not turn the House of Commons into an HR manager’s paradise.
It is plain that an excessively hierarchical, command-and-control and deferential culture is going to take time to alter, but alter it must.
So it is about more than Mr Bercow, and will need more than his suggestion of an independent investigation into the allegations, valuable as that would be. Such investigations will need to be followed swiftly by firm action, a sort of shock-and-awe exercise to remove the senior officials and MPs who have been found to have abused their power. That would certainly make those inclined to bully to think twice.
Although she was careful not to pursue individual allegations as such, Dame Laura does allude to some pitiful examples of what has been going wrong behind that famous facade. MPs, for example, shouting at or belittling staff; swearing at them face to face or over the phone; or being “routinely unpleasant, overbearing or confrontational” towards them and “treating us like servants”. No organisation can prosper under a culture of fear and blame.
The Commons is an institution that is, for obvious reasons, extremely important to the whole nation, yet which appears to have once again fallen badly short of the standards that the rest of the nation tries hard to live up to. Not their finest hour.
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