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Sat, 26 September 2020

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Exclusive: Commons staff furious at new plans to tackle Westminster bullying and harassment

Exclusive: Commons staff furious at new plans to tackle Westminster bullying and harassment
6 min read

Current and former parliamentary staff have lashed out at plans that would allow MPs to debate the suspension or expulsion of another member for bullying and harassment.

Several clerks who served in the House of Commons Service, including those who have accused MPs of bullying, have attacked an “11th hour proposal” that they claim will "give a platform to bullies", while their victims are "silenced".

And they argue that it “runs roughshod” over a landmark inquiry by Dame Laura Cox into bullying and sexual harassment at Westminster, which called for an independent system for dealing with complaints.

This will undermine staff confidence and ride roughshod over the Cox Report. It would represent another closing of ranks by Members which can have no motivation other than self interest.

The House Live revealed that the Commons could as early as next week debate the introduction of an independent panel to determine bullying and harassment complaints against MPs by parliamentary staff. 

The plans, welcomed by campaigners at the time, were announced by the House of Commons Commission in February.

During a subsequent consultation, respondents were asked whether the House should debate a situation in which MPs are asked to implement a sanction of suspension or expulsion of a member following a panel determination.

Despite only two respondents arguing in favour, with thirty arguing that the question should be put without a debate and nine failing to give a clear indication either way, the Commission agreed that MPs should decide on which option to take.

“All staff have ever wanted and campaigned for is an independent complaints process and this is an 11th hour proposal that is actively trying to prevent that from happening,” said one member of parliamentary staff who has previously accused an MP of bullying.

"There is nothing fair about MPs debating the findings of an independent judgement on one of their colleagues while protected by privilege, while staff have no equivalent platform. 

“This will undermine staff confidence and ride roughshod over the Cox Report. It would represent another closing of ranks by Members which can have no motivation other than self-interest.”

'UNDERMINE'

MPs in favour of debating a suspension or expulsion of another member argue the House should consider such a serious matter and insist that they would not go against the rulings of the panel.

At best this is inequitable: at worst it affords a further opportunity to shame and blame victims.

But Jenny McCullogh, a former member of the House of Commons Service who in 2018 came forward to BBC Newsnight with allegations of bullying against former Labour MP Keith Vaz - accusations he denied - rejected this claim.

“What purpose would a debate serve, other than to undermine the complainants, the panel and the whole process?” she asked.

“If MPs retain their imagined entitlement to the last word in these cases, the new complaints system is categorically not the 'entirely independent process' that Dame Laura Cox recommended and that the House of Commons is committed to implementing.”

The Institute for Government's Hannah White, who previously worked as a clerk in the House of Commons, told The House Live: “Allowing a debate would allow an MP who had been found guilty the final word on the subject, with the protection of parliamentary privilege.

"This would be deeply unfair on the complainant, who, unless they were another member, would be silenced. Skewing the process in this way would seriously undermine its perceived fairness and independence."

A former staff member involved with an accusation against an MP said: “By allowing MPs to debate allegations or findings of bullying on the floor of the House, these proposals would give a national platform to bullies whilst condemning their victims to silence. 

“At best this is inequitable: at worst it affords a further opportunity to shame and blame victims. No head teacher would ever invite a known school bully to present their side of the story to a full assembly. Is it any wonder staff resorted to talking to the media about this issue?”

And another parliamentary staff member argued: "I've spoken to victims of sexual harassment and assault by MPs who won't even use the complaints process for fear of the accused using parliamentary privilege or the media to out the victim - this move would disenfranchise those considering coming forward even further. It's a backwards step."

'STRONG SUPPORT'

One MP in favour of debating the rulings said last night: “Unless there was something that was utterly absurd and a manifest injustice, the inclination of the Commons would be to err on the side of the investigator."

They added: "I can’t remember any instance where the House of Commons has overruled the recommendations of the Commission.”

In its summary of the consultation, the Commission, which has among its members the Speaker Lindsay Hoyle and representatives of the main parties in the Commons, noted there was “strong support” from House staff, MPs’ staff and unions for a suspension or expulsion of a member to be put to MPs without a debate.

It said: “Those who thought the question should be decided without debate made arguments relating to fairness, procedural justice and confidentiality, all of which they felt would be compromised if a debate took place.

"A number of respondents expressed the concern that complainants would be deterred if the question was decided with debate."

And the Commission added: “A minority supported a debate with a Commission member present to speak to the report, acknowledging that the House would want to consider such a serious matter and expressing the view that the debate should proceed within strict rules to protect the confidentiality of the parties.”

Despite the overwhelming view of those who responded, the Commission nevertheless said MPs should decide whether they should be allowed to debate the sanctions.

'POLITICISE'

But the FDA union, which represents parliamentary staff, fears that complainants could be identified during a debate and have their claims disputed in public.

MPs argue that the House could sit in private to protect against this taking place. 

In a document seen by The House Live, one of those who responded to the consultation warned: “Any procedure on the floor, debate or no debate, gives a member an opportunity to reopen a complaint investigation and attempt to politicise it.

"No matter how restrictive the proceeding – whether or not it is to be taken forthwith, for example – too much depends on the occupant of the Chair.”

The FDA union fears a repeat of what took place with Lord Lester in late 2018.

Despite three inquiries concluding that the former Lib Dem peer had sexually harassed a member of staff - accusations he denies - a vote was forced in the Lords that effectively blocked his recommended four-year suspension. He later resigned.

On whether the new approach meets the requirements set out by Dame Laura Cox, Jacob Rees-Mogg said on Tuesday night: “Placing decisions of this kind in the hands of an independent expert panel is a fundamental break with the past that reflects our continuing efforts to make parliament a better place to work.

"We should always aim to meet the public's high expectations of our working culture and adopting Dame Laura Cox's recommendation in this way will help us do so."

A source in the Leader’s Office refused to confirm that the plans will be debated by MPs next week, saying any such proceedings would be announced in the usual way at Business Statement on a Thursday morning.

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