Commons Speaker John Bercow faced direct criticism from MPs today as the Government ordered an independent inquiry into allegations of bullying against Parliamentary staff.
As Bercow looked on, Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom announced she wanted a full probe into claims that Bercow and others had mistreated the ‘clerks’ who work in Westminster.
The allegations, first aired on BBC’s Newsnight, were “of huge concern” and she would recommend a “short” inquiry that is expected to get underway next Monday, Leadsom said.
The Cabinet minister was responding to an Urgent Question from Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, on the treatment of Parliamentary staff.
The House of Commons Commission, on which Bercow sits, will have the final say in commissioning the new probe next week.
Bercow himself was named by Newsnight as having allegedly shouted at and undermined Kate Emms, his former private secretary, who quit her post with post-traumatic stress disorder. The Speaker strongly denies the allegations.
Tory MP James Duddridge launched a direct attack on the Speaker, accusing him of trying to “suppress” allegations against him and questioned whether it was even “appropriate” for him to chair the session.
“Is it appropriate for Mr speaker to remain in his place when there are allegations against him which he is trying to suppress using taxpayer’s money through sending out letters through Speaker’s Counsel [warning Newsnight of possible legal action]?′
Leadsom ducked the question, but stressed that “we must stamp out bullying wherever we see it”, adding that all staff and MPs “regardless of their position of seniority” should have the same the same protection “and be held to the same high standards”.
She also pointedly heaped praise on the “secretariat” of the new Commons working group on sex harassment and bullying, a staff that includes Emms.
HuffPost understands she has been seconded to the Cabinet Office from Parliament, although her secondment is soon due to end.
Earlier, Tory MP Andrew Bridgen told broadcasters: “The only way to deal with a bully is to stand up to him or her.
“It is why I am now calling here and now for John Bercow to stand down as Speaker.
“When he stood for election as Speaker in 2009, he told MPs that he would serve no more than nine years, that means he should hand over to a new Speaker this summer.”
Leadsom endorsed a new statement from Commons Clerk David Natzler in which he admitted that a fresh review of its ‘Respect’ guidelines was now needed to “improve” protections for staff.
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.
“Following the Newsnight allegations, it is clear that the Respect Policy may not be sufficient to protect House staff.” Leadsom said.
“I’m committed to stamping out all kinds of bullying and harassment in Parliament, in order to create an environment in which everyone feels safe and is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.”
Leadsom added that the new inquiry should hear from “current and former” House staff members about their experiences and whether all Commons staff – not just those who work directly for MPs - should now have access to the same independent complaints system.
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.”
Lucas’s Urgent Question came as 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.
Labour MP Jess Phillips blogged for HuffPost that Westminster had a “culture where some people matter and some people don’t”.
Several MPs insisted that ‘due process’ and ‘natural justice’ should be afford those accused of bullying, with Labour’s Barry Sheerman warning of the danger of a ‘new kind of political McCarthyism’.
But Leadsom insisted that while it was important to ensure fairness for those complained against, “the [Commons] working group [on harassment and bullying] put the complainant at the heart of the procedure”.