Thursday saw the publication of the latest of three separate QC-led inquiries into Westminster’s bullying and harassment problem. The details included in Gemma White’s report – of unwanted sexual advances and mental breakdowns precipitated by relentless criticism and unreasonable demands – still have the capacity to shock even those of us who are well acquainted with the awful behaviour of a minority of MPs.
I saw this behaviour firsthand as a clerk in the House of Commons. The committee member who piled endless work with impossible deadlines on his dedicated staff team until some became physically ill with stress. The cabinet minister who bawled out his civil service team in front of a large audience after a paper required for a legislation committee had gone missing. The backbencher who cornered me in a quiet corridor and shouted at me for having given advice with which he disagreed. All safe in the knowledge there would be no repercussions.
It’s frustrating that nearly two years after #MeToo first hit Westminster we are still in the business of having to establish the urgency of the sexual harassment and bullying allegations – and that the political will to solve it still seems to be lacking.
White’s report establishes beyond question the unique vulnerability of staff employed directly by MPs. But there is also no doubt that the full impact of its revelations has been reduced by the fact they have emerged separately from those in two previous reports.
Its timing is also unfortunate. Landing in the middle of Brexit, a Conservative leadership election and Labour’s antisemitism debate, it seems unlikely to have the media impact that experience tells us is necessary to overcome Westminster’s reactionary inertia.
The required threshold was reached with the MPs’ expenses scandal – which saw individual MPs embarrassed, fined and even jailed for their misdemeanours. But the absence of any visible consequences for any of the alleged perpetrators of bullying and harassment – even following the introduction last year of a new HR scheme – means this crisis has not succeeded in demanding MPs’ attention. And that has left my former colleagues deeply sceptical that anything will change.
The expenses scandal, which I worked through in the House of Commons, also offers another important lesson. For staff who are employed by parliament, as I was, it can be a struggle to get MPs to adhere to administrative rules and standards. Just as some MPs exploit the sharp power imbalance between elected members and unelected staff to subject their staff to bullying and harassment, so others rely on their democratic mandate to argue that normal rules should not apply to them. “Don’t you know who I am?” they cry. Literally, sometimes.
That was why the solution to the expenses scandal was to create an external organisation to administer MPs’ salaries and allowances. So independent staff could hold the line but also help MPs avoid making the careless mistakes for which many felt they had been unfairly pilloried.
And that is also why I fear Gemma White’s main proposed solution to the House’s bullying and harassment problem – the establishment of a new internal HR department to regulate MPs’ employment practices – will not be enough. Parliamentary staff may not have the clout to ensure MPs follow the rules they set. I could make a list right now of those MPs who will argue they should be exempt for one reason or another.
Perhaps withholding staff allowances from MPs who neglect to sign up for “behavioural training” – designed to enlighten those who complained they didn’t realise their treatment of staff was inappropriate – will do the trick. Perhaps monitoring the entrances and exits of MPs’ staff and conducting exit interviews will make the difference. Perhaps.
Or perhaps outsourcing the employment of MPs’ staff to an independent organisation would be a better way to ensure that parliamentarians adhere to the same HR standards they dictate for other workplaces.
You might think that #MeToo would have changed the climate in Westminster sufficiently to discourage perpetrators of bullying and harassment. But Gemma White heard reports of bullying that had occurred this year as well as unresolved “historic cases”. The Commons will vote next week on whether to allow those allegations from before 2017 to be investigated. That vote will be one demonstration of whether the political will is there to change the culture of the House of Commons.
But much more is required. MPs must individually and collectively commit to eradicating Westminster’s bullying and harassment problem. Unless they do so – demonstrably and rapidly – we should all hold them collectively responsible for the behaviour they allow to persist.
Hannah White is deputy director of the Institute for Government
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