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Wed, 23 September 2020

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Victory for campaigners as MPs will not debate bullying and harassment sanctions

Victory for campaigners as MPs will not debate bullying and harassment sanctions
6 min read

MPs will not debate the most serious sanctions against a member determined by an independent panel after a widespread backlash to the plans by parliamentary staff and unions.

The Commons backed an amendment from Labour MP Chris Bryant by 243 to 238 that prevents the House from discussing a ruling of suspension or expulsion of a member following a complaint of bullying or harassment.

“This is an historic moment for the House of Commons," said Amy Leversidge, the assistant general secretary of the FDA union, which represents parliamentary staff. 

"It is an astounding achievement for all the brave women and men who spoke out publicly to try and make Parliament a better place to work – they can say this evening that they have truly made a difference."

A row broke out this week over plans for MPs to discuss the most severe punishments passed down by a new independent expert panel on bullying and harassment.

Several clerks who served in the House of Commons Service attacked an “11th hour proposal” that they claimed would have given "a platform to bullies", while their victims were "silenced".

It is an astounding achievement for all the brave women and men who spoke out publicly to try and make Parliament a better place to work

Dame Laura Cox, the high court judge who conducted an inquiry into bullying and harassment in Westminster, warned this afternoon about undermining trust and the reputation of the House as a result of overlooking concerns of staff.

"Much has been done and is still being done to implement my recommendations, all of which were accepted, and this is greatly to be welcomed," she said.

"However, the nature of the communications I have received in respect of this matter indicate to me the high level of concern and distrust still in existence among the House staff."

JACOB REES-MOGG

Following the outcry, Jacob Rees-Mogg put forward proposals that would severely curtail what could be discussed during a debate.

Under his proposals, a complainant could not be named, details of the investigation could not be discussed, and the findings and determination of the independent expert panel could not be called into question.

“The motion will ensure that any debate that does occur, which is something of a misnomer in this instance, is merely a short factual exposition of the process, not the circumstances involved,” he argued.

The Commons Leader insisted it was an important constitutional point that MPs should sign off on disenfranchising the voters of the accused member, and said it would be up to the House if it wished to avail itself of debating such sanctions, rather than the Government.

He also said he was not "entirely unsympathetic" to the amendment put forward by Chris Bryant.

Presenting the proposals, Rees-Mogg said he had been “appalled” by some of the experiences members of staff have shared with him in recent months.

“I have had people come to see me who have been treated in a way that makes my skin crawl, that you cannot believe that senior people would have behaved to people subordinate to them in such a way in any workplace, let alone in the House of Commons which ought to be a model of good behaviour,” he told MPs.

I have concerns about a bully pulpit being used in this Chamber in effect.

But MPs from across the House expressed concerns that holding a debate on such sanctions would curtail victims from coming forward.

Labour MP Meg Hillier said: “I have concerns about a bully pulpit being used in this Chamber in effect. Even if people aren’t named there will be gossip, there will be innuendo about who may be being referred to.”

She criticised John Bercow, the former Speaker, for naming former members of Commons staff in his memoir. 

“If people of positions of power do that, then what confidence will people have if we still have an open debate in this Chamber, even if people can’t be named?” she asked.

Sir Bernard Jenkin, the chair of the Liaison Committee, was among the Conservative MPs to support Bryant’s amendment.

“Unless we understand how we MPs have forfeited the trust of victims, then we are failing to learn the lessons of our past, and failing to honour our obligations to put matters right,” he said.

Former Commons leader Andrea Leadsom and former attorney general Jeremy Wright were also among those to express support for MPs not having a debate on suspension or expulsion sanctions.

During his speech, Bryant said: “Many complainants would be frightened that they would be re-victimised… that they would be put through a second ordeal.

“Even words that the Speaker might allow, because they didn’t understand that this was a subtle way of getting a dig in, could be terribly, terribly wounding to an individual who had made a complaint. It is terribly easy in this small world to reveal what is meant to be confidential.”

In the event, Bryant's amendment passed by just five votes.

Unless we understand how we MPs have forfeited the trust of victims, then we are failing to learn the lessons of our past, and failing to honour our obligations to put matters right

Some Conservative MPs, including Alberto Costa and Sir Edward Leigh, expressed concerns about the composition of the eight-person independent expert panel, which will contain no past and present MPs. 

Costa cited fears over a lack of recourse for MPs over any vexatious claims.

BACKGROUND

The new independent system for dealing with complaints is the third key recommendation of Dame Laura Cox’s landmark 2018 inquiry into bullying and harassment in Parliament.

The high court judge also called for existing complaints procedures to be removed and for historical allegations to be included. In her report, she criticised a culture of “deference and silence” that “actively sought to cover up abusive conduct” by MPs. 

During a subsequent consultation on the panel, 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 three respondents arguing in favour, with around 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.

SNP MP Pete Wishart, who sits on the Commission, today said it was “almost split down the middle” as to whether MPs should debate sanctions, and thus decided to pass on the decision to the House.

A spokeswoman for the House of Commons Commission said: “The Commission carefully considered the responses to the consultation paper and felt this was an issue on which Members would hold a range of views. It therefore decided it should be for the House to decide this particular aspect of the proposals."

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