The breakthrough moment in Newsnight’s investigation into bullying and harassment in Westminster came in February 2018. After months of investigatory work, we noticed a pattern had emerged. While allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and bullying by (a minority of) MPs were made from the outset, it took over three months’ worth of secret meetings with dozens of sources to recognise the overarching crux of the story: the complainants, who were largely apolitical staff employed by the House of Commons, were the ones who faced consequences, and not the alleged perpetrators.
We are now almost two years on from the publication of our initial report and another unfortunate pattern has been unfolding ever since: some MPs have used their public profiles to cast doubt over the credibility of some of those allegations, while investigations into the historic conduct of their parliamentary peers are yet to be concluded. Meanwhile, the House is yet to implement an independent sanctions process, which is free from the interference of MPs, and was one of the key recommendations of an inquiry led by former High Court judge Dame Laura Cox QC in the aftermath of our reporting.
And now Labour frontbencher Diane Abbott has become the latest MP to throw uncertainty over the credibility of allegations made against the former Speaker of the House, John Bercow. She stated it “unlikely” in a tweet – now deleted – that parliament’s former “black rod”, Sir David Leakey, who recently submitted an official complaint against Bercow, could have been bullied by him, because of his military background. Her intervention comes after the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, recently nominated Bercow for a peerage – to the outrage of many Commons staff.
To be clear, Mr Bercow was just one of the MPs whom we named when exposing the bullying and harassment culture that had flourished at the heart of our democracy for decades. Mr Bercow was named for two reasons: first, bullying allegations were made to Newsnight against him directly. He denies those allegations. Secondly, as chair of the House of Commons Commission, the Speaker, along with other MPs on the Commission, had a unique role in overseeing the outcome of such complaints. Staff reported to us that they had little faith that this system protected their interests.
MPs, such as Abbott, would do well to refrain from commenting on allegations that are yet to be independently investigated. Instead, they could refamiliarise themselves with the cultural issues that were exposed by Newsnight, and reiterated by the findings of Dame Laura Cox QC, who described a culture of “deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence” in parliament – then they might be less quick to conclude that such allegations are implausible. In the very worst cases, we found that the inadequate response to the staff who raised issues led to mental health issues and departures from the House. The “best case” scenarios saw people moved from jobs they enjoyed after they complained, forever fearing that they might encounter the person they had accused of being their bully or harasser in the next corridor. Ms Abbott might do well to pay attention to the serious bullying allegations made by Mr Bercow’s former private secretary, Angus Sinclair, a man with over 30 years’ worth of military experience in the Royal Navy.
It was the timing of our report that turned a story about a damaging and archaic culture into a political football. Its publication, ahead of the worst of the parliamentary stalemate over Brexit, saw allegations put on the backburner, with MPs, such as Margaret Beckett, stating publicly how Brexit “trumped bad behaviour”. It is now time for MPs to accept that their politicisation of, and pushback against, bullying and harassment complaints is as much a part of this story as the allegations themselves. If they are to draw conclusions publicly about serious allegations made against a minority of their peers before independent investigations have concluded, then they risk devaluing the entire process – and further alienating House of Commons staff.
Lucinda Day is an investigative journalist who worked on BBC’s Newsnight’s expose on harassment and bullying in Westminster in 2018.