Parliament must act now on bullying and harassment
Dame Laura Cox exposed a culture in Westminster that allowed bullying and harassment to thrive. But five months on from her landmark report, staff are still waiting for clarity on a truly independent grievance process, writes the FDA’s Amy Leversidge
It has been nearly five months since Dame Laura Cox published her inquiry, declaring that the House of Commons has a culture of “deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have been long tolerated and concealed”. As far as I, and many FDA members, can see, nothing has changed.
I wrote for this magazine in October urging the House Commission as well as every MP to take responsibility for this shameful indictment of their workplace. Nine days after Dame Laura published her report, the House Commission agreed to implement her recommendations in full and without delay. We were jubilant. At long last, House of Commons staff, including all the brave women and men who spoke publicly and gave evidence to Dame Laura, had been listened to.
But here we are, months later and Dame Laura’s recommendations haven’t been implemented. This didn’t mark the start of a great change in the culture of the House – it has just showed the same culture of acquiescence and silence.
Dame Laura recommended that the new Independent Complaints and Grievance Policy be amended so that there are no restrictions on past cases and that the procedure for complaints of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment against MPs will be “an entirely independent process in which MPs will play no part”.
The FDA has campaigned for this for many years because only a fully independent procedure can work – as we have said time and time again, MPs cannot be trusted to mark their own homework.
If the mountain of evidence provided by Dame Laura wasn’t enough to illustrate why self-regulation in Parliament cannot work, just a fortnight after her report was published, we saw the House of Lords vote to overturn the decision by their own Commissioner for Standards to suspend Lord Lester over sexual harassment claims. This showed starkly why anything less than full independence is doomed to failure.
It is the House Commission who are responsible for the implementation of Dame Laura’s recommendations. The complete lack of progress, information and engagement from the Commission has been staggering, and instead of providing clarity about the implementation of Dame Laura’s recommendations, we are faced with silence and secrecy.
The little information we have so far is sketchy – we understand from the meeting of the House Commission on 25 February that an ‘informal working group’ will determine what a fully independent policy looks like. But we don’t know who will be on the group, how the group will work, how they will engage with the FDA and staff, and, most importantly, we have no information on timescales.
The informal working group needs to understand clearly that it is not their job to re-write Dame Laura’s recommendations or water them down. Their job will be to work out how to implement them, not the whether they should. Nobody is saying that these are easy questions to answer but they are not insurmountable.
Staff have been waiting for nearly five months and many are getting frustrated. They are angry that this is all being kicked into the long grass and fear that we will end up with a watered-down version of independence.
Let’s be clear – there is no halfway house, the policy is either fully independent or it isn’t. We know exactly what was meant by “an entirely independent process in which MPs will play no part” and we will not accept anything less.
In her report Dame Laura was clear – bullying, harassment and sexual harassment diminishes the authority and credibility of Parliament and the failure to act will only inflict further damage upon its reputation. The House Commission must act now.
Amy Leversidge is Assistant General Secretary of the FDA union