John Bercow’s future as House of Commons Speaker is hanging in the balance after Theresa May urged a full investigation into his alleged bullying of Parliamentary staff.
In an unprecedented intervention, Downing Street made plain the Prime Minister wanted Parliament to probe fresh claims that Bercow had mistreated those who worked for him.
BBC’s Newsnight reported on Tuesday allegations by the Speaker’s former Private Secretary Angus Sinclair that he had been bullied repeatedly in 2009.
Sinclair, who says Bercow was once so angry he smashed up a mobile phone, decided to quit within a year.
He was given a £86,000 pay-off and claims he had to sign a non-disclosure agreement about his departure to ‘cover up’ the abuse.
The allegations follow other claims by another former secretary to the Speaker, Kate Emms, who says she was left with post-traumatic stress disorder after working for Bercow. She too left her post after less than a year.
Bercow strongly denies the claims and on Wednesday commented publicly on the affair in the Commons, pointing out that ‘the great majority’ of his staff had left on good terms.
But after Prime Minister’s Question time, No.10 said for the first time that the Speaker should now be investigated.
The PM’s official spokesman said: “The Prime Minister has been very clear from the start that there is no place for bullying or harassment of any kind in the workplace, including Parliament.
“It’s a matter for Parliament to decide how to proceed but the latest allegations are concerning and should be properly investigated. It’s important to note the Speaker denies the allegations.”
An independent inquiry, chaired by Dame Laura Cox, has already been launched into the culture of bullying at Westminster but to date it has specifically ruled out looking at individual allegations.
Pushed by HuffPost UK, No.10 went further later, setting out three options for Parliament to consider.
“There are ways in which this could be done. The [Dame Laura Cox] inquiry has set out its terms of reference, this is something the chair may wish to consider there,” a spokesman said.
“Or the House authorities, as the employer of Parliamentary staff, could consider the best way for this investigation to be carried out.
“And also the Parliamentary Commissioner is empowered to investigate allegations that a named member has breached the rules of conduct.
“Those are ways in which this could be approached.”
A Labour spokesman added: “These are extremely serious allegations. The details of them need to be investigated.”
Former Cabinet minister Maria Miller, the chair of the Commons Women and Equalities Committee which is investigating non-disclosure agreements, piled on added further pressure by raising the issue on the floor of the House of Commons.
“It’s clear from media coverage of a former senior member of staff in this place has felt unable to speak out about serious alleged wrongdoing because of an agreement signed with the House of Commons when they left,” Miller said.
“Can I ask whether you will be making a personal statement given your involvement in these allegations and that there are further allegations which potentially have the effect of undermining the reputation of this House?”
In his first public remarks on the issue in the Commons chamber, Speaker Bercow responded that most of his staff had been happy to work for him.
“I have a superb team of dedicated, effective and long serving staff, five of whom have served me for a collective total of over 40 years,” he told MPs.
“I’m also happy to confirm that the great majority of people who have left my service have done so on perfectly amicable terms.”
Bercow declared that former and current members of staff were not constrained by any agreements into talking freely to an independent inquiry into the culture of the Commons.
He added that he was “not myself involved and never have been” in the drafting of non-disclosure or severance agreements.
A note written by the Clerk of the Commons on the issue ought now to be made public, Bercow said.
Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom,said: “It is for Dame Laura Cox QC to consider whether the terms of reference of her independent inquiry need to be expanded, to allow for individual investigations to take place.
“I’m sure she will be looking very carefully at how best to respond to these latest developments.”
Earlier, Andrew Bridgen, a Tory MP who has been a long-time critic of Bercow, said it was time for him to step down.
“I think, at a time when we are looking for culture change in the House of Commons with regard to bullying and harassment, I think that’s very difficult if the titular head of that organisation is mired in these allegations,” he told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme.
MPs supportive of Bercow tried to rally round him, with Labour MP Barry Sheerman tweeting his backing.
An independent judge-led inquiry is being conducted into claims of bullying at Westminster, but it will examine the working ‘culture’ in the Commons and not investigate individual cases or reopen past complaints.
Sinclair, who has breached the terms of his agreement to speak to Newsnight, said: “I thought to myself, it’s in the public interest to know why I left.
“Yes, it breaks that non-disclosure agreement, but it’s the truth. There was bullying.”
Tory MP James Duddridge asked last month whether it was ‘appropriate for Mr Speaker to remain in his place’ given his office had issued legal letters warning about the allegations made against him.
Bercow, who has been Speaker since 2009, previously pledged he would end his term in 2018.
However, following the snap election last year he changed his position and said he intended to stay in post until 2022 and the next election.