At a hustings event for Speaker candidates hosted by the Institute for Government this past Thursday, each candidate was offered an opening two minutes to set out their pitch. Given the current constitutional and political crisis and limitation on time, it was perhaps surprising that they almost universally chose to include commitments to introduce an independent complaints process against MPs.
Is this a sign of progress? Candidates committing to do the right thing before taking up office is nothing new, but it would be churlish to suggest there was a lack of genuine commitment, though perhaps not demonstrated equally under questioning.
Two years ago, as the #MeToo movement swept through the halls of Westminster, I wrote for HuffPost UK about the power dynamic in parliament that had left staff with no effective way to make a complaint and a culture set by both Speaker and the parties that did not welcome accountability or scrutiny.
Two years and three independent reports later, we have a swathe of harrowing evidence of the consequences of this failure. Hundreds of brave individuals – employed in both Houses of Parliament as well as those working directly for MPs – have told a similar story of abuse of power, bullying, harassment and even sexual assault. Each report has been met with horror and universal calls for reform. Each report now gathers dust in the parliamentary libraries.
Today marks the anniversary of the first of those reports, which was also perhaps the most comprehensive. Dame Laura Cox QC spoke to hundreds of staff employed by parliament itself. It was clear from the evidence that the vast majority of MPs were committed public servants who parliamentary staff respect and enjoy supporting – important to remember when all too frequently politicians are lazily all labelled as the same. It was also clear, though, that some abused the unique powerful position they hold and that the lack of accountability and scrutiny of their behaviour had almost encouraged this abuse.
Over decades, it was clear that successive Speakers, political parties and indeed parliament itself had no interest in changing the status quo. It took a scandal to shine a light on the behaviour of those individuals and force reluctant reform.
In the aftermath of Dame Laura’s report, the House Commission, which is chaired by the Speaker and includes in its membership the Leader of the House, rushed to agree all of her recommendations. Welcome as that was, in the following nine months they prevaricated over the central and critical reform: a fully independent complaints process, free from influence of the MPs or their parties.
Nine months of indecision, competing priorities and, I suspect, a hope that time may dull the fervour of those of us who have campaigned for reform. In the meantime, the House did agree, albeit reluctantly, for historical complaints against MPs to be investigated, another of Dame Laura’s recommendations.
A small staff group has now been set up to look at options for an independent process. This may well be a significant step in the right direction, but we have no way of knowing at this stage. At the IfG hustings event Dame Eleanor Laing MP, current Deputy Speaker no less, said she had tried to enquire how this work was being undertaken, who was responsible and when it would report, but was simply unable to get clear answers. If it is to carry the confidence of staff and Parliamentarians across the House, this work must be conducted with full transparency and engagement with the trade unions who represent House staff.
That we are here 12 months after Dame Laura reported is a scandal. The commitments from the candidates for Speaker to quickly deliver an independent process is welcome, but this is not the end of it. We are still waiting on a broader range of sanctions to be introduced, more in fitting with a modern employment context, but this is still being considered by the Committee on Standards more than 18 months after we first raised the issue.
Then there is ownership: who will ensure the system will be resourced, provide clarity on processes, monitor its effectiveness and be accountable if it’s not? We still have no policy for cluster reports, where there may be numerous complaints against an individual but victims who are reluctant to make those formal.
All of these issues need to be addressed if, as everyone repeatedly says, Westminster culture is to change. The Valuing Everyone training, that was introduced to help change behaviours before they become a problem, has been booked or attended by around 60% of House staff but less than a fifth of MPs — and only a handful of Peers. Not a good sign that Parliamentarians have embraced the need for reform.
The current Speaker may have reformed a number of antiquated practices in parliament, but it’s still a long way from a 21st Century workplace and his leadership on these issues was sorely lacking. The public pledges from the current crop of candidates to replace him are, I believe, more than a ray of hope. If they are to deliver, however, they will need to confront the vested interests that created the problem in the first place, and that may be the greatest challenge of all.
Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA