EXCL: Top Commons official defends Speaker over bullying claims

Posted On: 
21st February 2019

Sir David Natzler has defended Speaker John Bercow against accusations of bullying, arguing “you can’t believe everything you read in the newspapers”.

Sir David Natzler is stepping down as Clerk of the House of Commons on March 1st
Credit: 
Baldo Sciacca

The outgoing clerk of the House of Commons said Parliament is not a “benign environment” and claimed that “it doesn’t mean you have been a bully” if someone alleges that you are.

John Bercow faced accusations of bullying two former private secretaries in a BBC Newsnight investigation into the culture of the Commons. He denies the allegations.

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In an interview with The House magazine, Mr Natzler also argued officials would have become aware of accusations of bullying and harassment internally, arguing: “We didn’t actually need the Newsnight programme”.

An inquiry was launched by the Commons following Newsnight’s investigation.

In October, the inquiry, led by High Court judge Dame Laura Cox, concluded that “a culture… 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”.

Dame Laura also said that the culture of the institution was unlikely to change with the existing senior management – in what was interpreted as a thinly veiled call for the Speaker to step down.

When asked whether the Commons could be seen to be taking accusations of bullying and harassment seriously while the Speaker remains as Chair, Mr Natzler replied:

“Well, there’s accusations and accusations. If he had been found to have done something wrong and was irremovable in some way, that would be damaging to the organisation.

“But I’m afraid this isn’t a benign environment, and you have to differentiate between people who are accused by the press or anybody else of stuff and people who have been found to have done something wrong.

“The old-fashioned phrase, you can’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.”

When asked if he was referring to the accusations against the Speaker, he answered:

“Any accusation can be made. You could be accused of bullying, but it doesn’t mean you’ve been a bully. It’s as simple as that.

“Everyone has the right to have their side of the story heard if they’re going to be told that they’ve done something wrong.

“So that applies to accusations whether it’s against the Speaker or me or the youngest member of staff.

“They all are entitled to a fair hearing and to one person putting their view forward and then another and witnesses and so on. That hasn’t happened.”

The bullying accusations against Speaker Bercow date between 2009 and 2011. Dame Laura recommended in her report that parliament’s disciplinary body should be able to consider historical allegations. 

NEWSNIGHT

Mr Natzler said that Dame Laura’s inquiry, which spoke to 200 past and present members of staff, was “spot on” in concluding that a “culture of excessive deference” persisted in the Commons.

“I’m not sure we would have seen it otherwise and on my own behalf personally, I totally accepted that I had not seen that or grasped it and nor had my predecessors because many of the cases she was writing about – although anonymous – were fairly well known to us and date back quite some years.

“That is something that has been there, excessive deference and an unwillingness to confront some unacceptable truths.”

But Mr Natzler argued that management would have become aware of the accusations without the investigation by BBC Newsnight.

“We didn’t actually need the Newsnight programme, we have our own staff surveys and they showed, from memory, shortly after the Newsnight programme, an upsetting proportion of staff saying they had personally experienced bullying or harassment over the past year, which is something that we ask in our survey, as most organisations do.

"Seventy per cent or more of those cases were staff-on-staff, they were nothing to do with members. So, we knew there was a problem.”

When asked whether it was a good thing that the investigation by Newsnight had taken place, he said:

“Like the BBC, who had suffered very severely in the wake of the Jimmy Savile inquiry where it was discovered that there was a culture of impunity for their celebrity presenters engaging in illegal sexual relations with children, I imagine it must have been quite upsetting for the BBC and they might have found it about it otherwise – I don’t know.

“Although we’ve nothing as grave as that, it is a good thing that a public organisation is subject to public scrutiny in this way. In that sense, it wasn’t a good thing or a bad thing – it was one way forward and it was a bit of investigative journalism that had a significant impact, no doubt about that.”

Mr Natzler, who steps down on 1 March, also accepted responsibility for the culture of Parliament and said “there probably still is bullying and harassment”.

“Whether the rate of it is worse than in other public sector organisations is worth questioning – I think we know the answer on that – but I’d rather it was zero. The whole thing is unacceptable if it is bullying and harassment that’s going on,” he said.

Elsewhere in the interview, Mr Natzler called on Speaker Bercow to clarify his ruling over allowing Dominic Grieve’s amendment to a government motion to be voted on last month.

John Benger will succeed Mr Natzler as Clerk of the House of Commons next month.