Speaker John Bercow and other MPs are facing fresh pressure over bullying allegations after the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas was granted an Urgent Commons question on independent safeguards for staff in Parliament.
Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom has been asked to reply to Lucas’s emergency question, which follows a raft of claims that officials working in Westminster have been subjected to mistreatment by MPs.
Bercow himself was named by the BBC’s Newsnight last week as having allegedly bullied a member of his staff, who then took time off work with post-traumatic stress disorder. The Speaker strongly denies the allegations.
Other MPs, including Labour’s Paul Farrelly and Tory Mark Pritchard, were also accused of mistreating Commons “clerks”, who work in Parliament. Both men deny the claims.
Lucas had asked for deputy speakers to consider her request rather than the Speaker himself.
But a spokesperson for the Commons told HuffPost: “All of today’s UQs and Statements were granted by Mr. Speaker.”
In her Urgent Question, a copy of which has been obtained by HuffPost UK, Lucas is expected to ask Leadsom:
“Will she convene an urgent meeting of the cross party Independent Complaints and Grievances Working Group to immediately discuss bringing all parliamentary staff currently covered by the Respect policy, including clerks, under the new procedures; will she clarify that historic complaints of bullying will be permitted to be heard under the new procedures and that in both bullying and sexual misconduct cases there will be a presumption in favour of investigation?”
Lucas’s move came as Tory MP Andrew Bridgen confirmed he would be tabling an Early Day Motion to demand an independent investigation into the allegations of bullying against Bercow.
Bridgen dropped an earlier plan to demand a motion of no confidence in the Speaker, a highly unusual proposal, after a lack of cross-party backing.
But he could get support for calls for an independent investigation, as part of a wider call to give all Commons staff more protection.
Newsnight’s Chris Cook also revealed on Monday a new letter from David Natzler, the Clerk of the House, admitting that there are “unresolved issues” on procedures for staff who complain about bullying and harassment.
Last week, the House authorities defended a revised ‘Respect’ policy for employees that had updated the procedures.
But it had dismissed Newsnight’s wider claims, saying it was “a grotesque exaggeration to suggest that members of the House of Commons service work in a ‘culture of fear’ in relation to dealing with bullying and harassment by MPs.”
It also emerged that further complaints about Farrelly’s conduct that dated from 2004 to 2010 were deemed unsuitable for investigation as the Commons had operated on different employment procedures at the time.
In his new letter, Natzler wrote: “Some of you have expressed to me and to others your dismay at the tone of our statement to Newsnight and the subsequent email we sent to you on Friday morning.”
“I acknowledge we got it wrong in giving the impression we were in denial.”
“The policies agreed in 2014 improved the protections offered to staff. But I have listened to the views expressed over the last few days and I recognise that we must look at our policies to see how we can improve them.”
Kate Emms, Bercow’s former private secretary, left her post after less than a year and the Commons authorities were told she had PTSD.
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 Speaker’s spokesperson said last week: “The Speaker completely and utterly refutes the allegation that he behaved in such a manner, either eight years ago, or at any other time. Any suggestion to the contrary is simply untrue.”
But Lucas told HuffPost that it was time that the new Parliamentary working group tasked with combatting harassment had its remit broadened to cover all staff, not just those who work directly in MPs’ offices.
“All staff working in Parliament should be covered by the new independent complaints and grievances procedure,” she said.
“As things stand we have a two-tier system, leaving those directly employed by Parliament covered only by the 2014 Respect policy, which is widely understood to not have their confidence.
“It’s clear that all of those working in these buildings should be afforded equal protection - and I’m demanding that changes are made to urgently move all workers onto the new system.
“It’s also crucial that historic complaints of bullying are heard under the new procedures too - and that decisions on sanctions are not in the hands of MPs.
“Parliament must be a safe workplace - where there is zero tolerance of bullying and harassment. I hope the changes are made swiftly to end this discrepancy in protections of staff, and to best protect them in the future.”
Labour MP Jess Phillips blogged for HuffPost that Westminster had a “culture where some people matter and some people don’t”.
Commons Leader Leadsom unveiled plans for an overhaul of the system earlier this year.
Following Labour’s intervention, the procedures were extended to cover not just sexual harassment but also bullying claims.
It emerged at the weekend that Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Debbie Abrahams had been removed from her post following claims of a “workplace issue”.
She countered that she herself had been bullied by some in Jeremy Corbyn’s office.