It seems ironic that the place chosen by Lord Hain to reveal allegations of bullying by Philip Green stands accused of doing nothing when similar behaviour has been taking place on their doorstep for decades.
Hundreds of former and current parliamentary staff know all about harassment in the work place – for decades, it has been tolerated or ignored. One staff association has described working conditions in Westminster as “a toxic culture of deference and silence”. Those with the power regarded off-the-cuff insults, sexual innuendo and occasional groping as normal, simply because they could – no one was prepared to grass on a fellow MP in the white middle-aged boys’ club. This behaviour existed at every level, from the Cabinet to the back benches.
The Speaker, John Bercow, stands accused by at least three former members of staff of bullying, which he strenuously denies. The Commons Standards committee previously decided not to investigate these accusations, on the grounds that they dated back more than seven years. So much for #MeToo in Westminster. Following an outcry, Dame Laura Cox was asked to conduct an inquiry into workplace behaviour in Westminster.
Having taken evidence from hundreds of Commons staff (past and present), Dame Laura’s excoriating findings state that “some individuals should think carefully about whether they are the right people to press the reset button and deliver change”. If that’s not a coded message to Bercow to step down, I don’t know what is.
There are finally signs that enough is enough. Since Dame Laura published her findings, four Tory MPs have resigned from another Commons committee chaired by Bercow – including Maria Miller, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee. Bercow has told friends he wishes to remain in post until next summer, following Brexit. In the current climate, surely that can no longer hold.
The House of Commons Commission has issued a grovelling apology (after demands from staff) and accepted Dame Laura’s report – which recommends an independent body to investigate complaints. She also proposes to end the ban on considering allegations dating back more than seven years. Previously, MPs had voted to investigate complaints themselves, without outside interference – unbelievable! Now, it is hoped that the new system changes can be in place by Christmas. Changing some male MPs attitudes, though, might take longer.
As for the use of Non-Disclosure Agreements which form the nub of the allegations surrounding Philip Green: the House of Commons has spent £2.3m pounds of taxpayers’ money on NDAs since 2013. The prime minister (for all the right reasons) wants to ban the use of “non-ethical” NDAs, when they are being used on her own doorstep. The BBC’s Newsnight discovered last June (following a Freedom of Information request) there have been 53 settlements using NDAs since 2013, eight in 2017.
John Bercow’s former secretary, Angus Sinclair, received an exit package of £86,000 (well above his salary) when he left and signed an NDA. NDAs are not routinely applied to all departing staff – yet in the year 2016-17, 43 people left, but almost half signed them. That seems like a high number. What could be the reason? Surely more transparency should be forthcoming when public funds are involved.
Bullying and inappropriate sexual behaviour is no longer acceptable in the workplace – but paying off the victim using an NDA (as in the alleged cases involving Harvey Weinstein and Philip Green) could allow serial offenders to flourish without the oxygen of publicity or public debate.
Is it equally wrong, though, to pay a perpetrator to leave your business, and remain silent about the reasons? That’s exactly what Google did in the case of Paul Rubin, a key executive who devised Android. According to The New York Times, Mr Rubin received a total of $90m in monthly instalments when he left Google after an allegation of sexual harassment was made against him, which he denies. On his departure, Google publicly thanked Rubin for his hard work and wished him all the best with his next venture. They subsequently invested millions in his new business.
In some respects, Silicon Valley is no different from the Houses of Parliament: for decades, sexual harassment and bullying by those with power and influence has been allowed to flourish as long as it didn’t interfere with business. Post-#MeToo, Google, Uber, Tesla and Space X have all had to remove executives accused of sexually inappropriate behaviour. Google admits it has paid off two senior executives in the last decade, although there was no legal obligation to do so. Where’s the condemnation of inappropriate behaviour? Why has it been swept under the carpet – is it bad for the share price? Following The New York Times revelations, Google revealed 48 people (including 13 senior managers) have left the company in the last two years over sexual harassment claims, with none receiving exit payments.
The problem for Theresa May is that her own workplace is in need of radical reform, and that can only start with a new executive who implements a simple and clear code of conduct. As for Philip Green, shoppers have a choice – but I doubt very much sales will suffer too much. The lure of the cheap dress is as toxic as his alleged behaviour.
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