The House of Commons’s most senior body has approved an independent investigation into claims that MPs bullied Parliamentary staff.
The new inquiry, agreed by the House of Commons Commission, follows allegations on BBC’s Newsnight that senior figures including Speaker John Bercow had mistreated officials known as ‘clerks’.
Speaker Bercow, who normally chairs the Commission, decided to step aside from the meeting on Monday night, given the claims against him.
The inquiry’s independent head has yet to be chosen, although the Commons insisted that their remit will be decided by ‘non-executive’ Commission members rather than MPs themselves.
Commons leader Andrea Leadsom, who first suggested the ‘short’ inquiry, was joined by Lib Dem Tom Brake, Tory Sir Paul Beresford and Labour’s Valerie Vaz and Dame Rosie Winterton and the SNP’s Stewart Hosie for the meeting.
Clerk of the House David Natzler and its Director General Iain Ailles were also present. Non-executive members Dame Janet Gaymer and Jane McCall will now determine the probe’s remit.
A spokesperson for the House of Commons Commission said: “At its regular meeting on Monday 19 March, the House of Commons Commission considered a proposal from the Leader of the House to hold an independent inquiry into the bullying and harassment of House staff.
“As previously announced, the Speaker did not join the meeting until after this discussion had taken place.
“The Commission agreed that an inquiry should be initiated immediately, and tasked its Non-Executive members (who are not Parliamentarians) with appointing an independent expert to lead the inquiry and with developing terms of reference in collaboration with that person.”
One source told HuffPost that none of the parties wanted to back off a possible investigation into Bercow himself, even though he was respected for his wider work as a reforming Speaker. “We want to follow the evidence, wherever it leads,” they said.
Newsnight reported earlier this month that one female clerk suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after she worked for John Bercow and cited witnesses who saw him undermine and shout at her.
Kate Emms, Bercow’s former private secretary, left her post after less than a year and the Commons authorities were told she had PTSD.
Emms was appointed as the Speaker’s secretary in mid-2010. She was signed off sick in early 2011, before resuming work in a new post elsewhere in Parliament in May 2011. She now works in the Cabinet Office.
Sex harassment and bullying allegations swept through Westminster last year, but Newsnight reported that staff “lack confidence” in Bercow’s record on staffing matters and his ability to oversee the reforms needed to the system.
The BBC2 programme reported that Labour MP Paul Farrelly and Tory MP Mark Pritchard had also been accused of bullying.
All three men, Bercow, Farrelly and Pritchard denies the claims made against them.
The head of the civil servants’ union, the First Division Association, said that he welcomed the new inquiry but insisted it had to look into specific allegations against MPs and not just have a broad remit looking at the ‘culture’ of the Commons.
FDA General Secretary Dave Penman said: “When it comes to the treatment of parliamentary staff, MPs have for too long been a law unto themselves. That’s why we cautiously welcome today’s commitment by the House of Commons Commission to hold an inquiry into bullying.
“It is vital that the inquiry can command the confidence of staff who have rightly lost faith in the woefully inadequate system of self-regulation currently governing MP’s behaviour.
“The inquiry needs to be fully independent of the Commission, and it is absolutely essential that it considers past and ongoing individual cases if there is to be any hope of achieving redress for those affected.
“Given that the Leader of the House last week appeared to rule out the inquiry dealing with individual cases, we remain concerned that this issue has still not been explicitly dealt with by the Commission today. However, it is too important to simply kick down the road.
“The inquiry must consult the FDA and other unions as it sets its terms of reference, and we will continue to be unequivocal in our call for full independence and genuine investigation of previous and current cases of bullying and harassment. Anything less risks being seen as a whitewash.”