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Thu, 2 July 2020

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New plans to tackle Westminster bullying and harassment will deter people like me from speaking out

New plans to tackle Westminster bullying and harassment will deter people like me from speaking out

MPs will today vote on a new independent expert panel on bullying and harassment complaints

4 min read

Bullying and harassment usually occurs because of a power imbalance - allowing MPs to debate sanctions in the House of Commons tips the scales even further in their favour

Today the House of Commons will decide whether to allow debates on serious complaints of bullying and harassment upheld against individual MPs. 

The proposal openly defies the 2018 recommendation made by Dame Laura Cox that MPs should take “no part” in disciplining each other in such cases. 

Indeed, it allows an entire chamber full of MPs – including the perpetrator – back into the process, whilst condemning the complainant to look on in horrified silence as their personal history is treated as a subject for some light adversarial verbal ping pong before a gallery full of spectators. 

Dame Laura Cox was clear, and both recent history and common sense tell us she was right. Why, then, insist on a debate? 

It’s like allowing a school assembly to discuss a known bully whilst that very bully sits on the stage and the victim is consigned to the playground. 

One of the principal voices clamouring for its reintroduction is the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, which has claimed that excluding MPs from the disciplinary process “flies in the face of all normal laws of natural justice”. 

Under the proposed Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, the MP against whom an allegation is made is not excluded. 

The investigatory process furnishes them with ample opportunity both to plead and appeal their case, and its very independence should be a comfort to them. 

There is nothing unjust about asking an impartial arbiter to determine what has happened and what action, if any, needs to be taken in response.

On the other hand, allowing a debate on the matter grants 642 of the MP’s colleagues, friends, political allies, adversaries and the viewing public a role in what is, essentially, an employment matter. 

It’s like allowing a school assembly to discuss a known bully whilst that very bully sits on the stage and the victim is consigned to the playground. 

Whether or not that poor unfortunate is named, everyone in the room knows precisely where they stand. At best such a circus serves no useful purpose: at worst it destroys the victim.

Thankfully, these are by no means the normal laws that ordinary people are subjected to in this country and there is nothing natural about such a justice.

Indeed, the current proposals are so obviously inequitable that some attempt has been made to mitigate the harm such a provision inevitably will do to victims. 

The motion now provides that MPs speaking in the debate won’t be allowed to name the complainant, delve into case details or question the finding.

What victim would ever speak out if they knew that this would be the result?

These measures solve nothing. I know because this happened to me: in the debate in question I was not named and neither the details of my case nor the finding was mentioned. 

None of this made it any easier for me to sit through the MP in question using a national platform and the full body armour of parliamentary privilege to bemoan the unfairness of it all and the terrible impact it had on his family. (Maybe he was right, but how could anyone ever judge, having only heard one side of the story?)

Bullying and harassment usually occurs because of a power imbalance. Muzzling complainants whilst allowing perpetrators the privilege of speech in a room full of people predisposed to be on their side tips the scales even further. 

The House of Commons is the place where wars are launched, lockdowns are triggered, and our future relationship with the European Union is determined. The MP that I had a bullying complaint against was permitted to harness the full might of that parliamentary machinery to air his sense of grievance. 

This gave his feelings the status also accorded to the triggering of Article 50 or debates about the status of refugee children. By comparison, my own experience seemed tiny and beneath notice. 

What victim would ever speak out if they knew that this would be the result?

Emily Commander is a former Commons clerk

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