More change is coming to the culture at Westminster
The culture of the Commons may be constantly evolving, but the issue of how MPs treat their own staff will be more difficult to police, writes Tony Grew
It may be an ancient institution, but the cultural norms in parliament are in constant flux. What was acceptable in the 80s is now frowned upon. The Commons in particular has undergone profound change since the expenses scandal a decade ago. IPSA now polices expenses claims, and MPs are all too aware of the negative publicity that can come with an ill-judged receipt.
Other changes in Commons culture reflect wider trends in society. Ten years ago, it was not uncommon for some MPs to have wine at lunch, or to be seen in the bars in the afternoon. That is much rarer now, as it is for most businesses. The lunchtime pint is a thing of the past.
One area where the Commons is struggling to catch up is bullying and harassment. The clerk of the House John Benger, giving evidence to the women and equalities committee last week, said: "Like many colleagues, I have been at the wrong side of it from members over the years – though not very often. When these things happen, it is incredibly stressful and depressing. It diminishes your confidence, it can induce sleeplessness and it makes you act in very odd ways. It is a huge problem."
The fact that the clerk is willing to admit he has been subject to bullying by MPs is a welcome change in attitude. There was more positive news from the House of Commons commission. They have decided that non-recent cases of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct will be considered by the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme. If the House approves, expert independent investigators will be recruited, and the intention is to open the scheme to non-recent cases from October.
At the women and equalities committee evidence session, it emerged that there have been 550 calls to the helplines on bullying and sexual harassment in nine months and as a result there are now 35 investigations underway. Ian Ailles, director general of the House of Commons, told the committee he has had "informal chats" with more than a dozen MPs after complaints about their behaviour. Not all the complaints are about MPs – Mr Benger told the MPs the majority were "staff on staff" – but the number of complaints is still unacceptably high. One might question the sanity of any MP who sets out to bully or harass staff given the catastrophic career risks involved. In some cases, they may not be aware their behaviour has crossed a line.
The culture of the Commons may be constantly changing, but the issue of how MPs treat their own staff will be more difficult to police than their treatment of House staff. The fact remains that MPs are solely responsible for who they employ and how they treat them. The same tangled issues of personal ambition, party loyalty and a fear of being seen as 'difficult' continue to hold MPs’ staff back when it comes to reporting bad behaviour from their member.
'One might question the sanity of any MP who sets out to bully or harass staff given the catastrophic career risks involved'
The Speaker is reported to have some innovations of his own. They are said to include a ban on alcohol sales in the parliamentary estate before 6pm. Such a suggestion would have been rejected out of hand a decade ago. Now it feels correct, though it could be argued that it should extend to the serving of alcohol at afternoon receptions too. A source told a Sunday newspaper: "A lot of these incidents can be linked to members enjoying a liquid lunch and then behaving inappropriately when they return to their offices."
The Speaker – who it is said has decided he will be staying on for a while, possibly until Christmas – may also recommend that CCTV be installed in MPs offices to protect staff. That might be a step too far for some, though there is an argument to be made that in fact MPs themselves could have some protection by being constantly under surveillance.
These suggestions have been floated in advance of the report by Gemma White QC into harassment and bullying by MPs of their staff and others in the Commons not covered by the Cox Report. She is expected to deliver her findings before the House rises for summer recess.
Whatever her recommendations, they will lead to further culture change at Westminster. We could see a House of Commons in the near future where every interaction is on camera, where researchers carry with them at all times GPS enabled trackers, the better to pinpoint any sexual harassment. For some, that will provide reassurance enough that the Commons is serious about stamping out abuse. Yet something precious will be lost.
The same could be said of wider society, a country where people use their phone to film a fight rather than intervene to stop it, where every interaction is reported on social media. The Commons may just be reflecting once again the society it represents.
When one thinks of a rebel, Philip Hammond doesn't immediately spring to mind. However, the Chancellor is a changed man. Demob happy, he approached what is widely expected to be his last Treasury questions in charge with aplomb. He's certainly not going anywhere and his shadow's gift of a guide to London’s rebel walks may be more appropriate than John McDonnell may have envisaged. "I believe that a no-deal exit would be bad for the UK, bad for the British economy and bad for the British people," he told the House. We look forward to his backbench interventions come September.
We are lucky to have Carolyn Harris. The Swansea MP is a motherly figure in the House, always ready with a hug and a kiss for colleagues from all sides. That affection was returned in spades last week when she thanked MPs for supporting her campaign on children's funeral fund. Hansard marks that rare Commons occurrence – applause. The Speaker was right when he said that "the sheer passion, sincerity and integrity with which she has spoken and conducted herself are an example to us all". Because of her, bereaved families will have one less worry in their darkest moments.
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