An independent inquiry into bullying and harassment at Westminster risks giving guilty MPs a “clean slate” for past misconduct, the senior civil servants’ union has warned.
The First Division Association (FDA) hit out after it emerged that the new probe will not look into allegations against individuals, including claims that Commons Speaker John Bercow mistreated his staff.
The inquiry’s terms of reference were announced on Monday by ‘non-executive’ members of the House of Commons Commission that oversees Parliament’s management and internal issues.
It will be led by former judge Dame Laura Cox QC. Dame Laura, who will act alone, will conduct her review in private and deliver an interim report before Parliament’s summer recess.
But while she will “consider all allegations and information presented” to her, the probe “will not conduct an investigation into any individual complaints or reopen past cases”, her spokesman said.
“It is an inquiry, not an investigation,” according to a media statement on Dame Laura’s behalf.
The inquiry was set up after BBC’s Newsnight reported that Speaker Bercow, plus Labour MP Paul Farrelly and Tory MP Mark Pritchard, had bullied Parliamentary ‘clerks’, officials who work in the Commons and Lords.
Newsnight reported last month that one female clerk suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after she worked for Bercow and cited witnesses who saw him undermine and shout at her.
The FDA union, which represents Parliamentary clerks as well as other senior Whitehall civil servants, was scathing about the decision to look only into the ‘culture’ at Westminster rather than specific accusations.
FDA Assistant General Secretary Amy Leversidge said that while she welcomed the inquiry as an important first step, “our fear is that the inquiry is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past if it does not consider previous and existing cases”.
“The failure to consider existing and past complaints by the inquiry will potentially result in a ‘clean slate’ for the perpetrators of bullying and harassment, rather than the promised closure for staff,” she said.
The FDA seized on Dame Laura’s announcement that no existing route of complaints by staff will be affected by the inquiry, a sign that the current ‘Respect’ policy used by the Commons will continue.
“Since the inquiry was set up with the intention to investigate the failings of the current Respect Policy it is evidently clear that directing staff to continue to use that policy is inappropriate. This was a significant issue of concern when the Respect Policy was introduced and one of the reasons why staff have no confidence in the current system.
“The FDA urged the inquiry team to consider these fundamental issues before publishing their terms of reference and are frustrated that once again a ‘year zero’ approach could be adopted if any new policy is introduced.”
Dame Laura wrote to all current and former Parliamentary staff on Monday urging them to come forward in confidence to tell of their experiences.
She stressed that no Parliamentarian will be involved in the conduct of the inquiry.
Dame Janet Gaymer, one of the two non-executive members of the Commons Commission who decided the terms of reference, said a final report would be delivered by the autumn.
“In appointing someone of the calibre and expertise of Dame Laura Cox, we are demonstrating our intention that those working for the House of Commons can be confident that the appropriate processes are in place to ensure that they are treated appropriately and fairly at all times,” she said.
“It is vitally important that this Inquiry is wholly independent of any political or parliamentary influence so that everyone can be assured that it is conducted fairly and with the sole purpose of protecting those employed by the House”.
Kate Emms, Bercow’s former private secretary, left her post after less than a year and the Commons authorities were told she had PTSD.
Another clerk, Emily Commander, has since gone public about her own complaint, made against Farrelly in 2012 but which was never resolved. She is currently on a “career break” from the Commons.