The announcement that Dame Laura Cox, a respected QC with significant experience in the field, was to lead an independent inquiry into bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff would normally be one that would be unequivocally welcomed.
Yet, as the union that represents Clerks in the House of Commons, the group whose testimony to Newsnight prompted the inquiry, we find ourselves qualifying that welcome.
It’s not that we don’t believe Dame Laura is qualified or that she won’t be independent, far from it. It’s just that while Dame Laura might be new to these issues in the House of Commons, our members are not.
The allegations aired in the excellent Newsnight investigation by Chris Cook and Lucinda Day reflect the experience of a number of our members who have tried and failed to pursue allegations of bullying and harassment as well as countless others who have given up trying.
Parliament has many anachronistic traditions, often through some historical or constitutional significance. Self-regulation is one that still exists in many forms, founded in the desire to separate Parliament from the Executive. Understandable, possibly even laudable, but the by-product has been a lack of oversight and the development of culture over many decades that, for some, manifests itself in a belief that they are untouchable.
It is the culture that led to taxpayer-funded redecoration of duck houses and in this context has allowed, encouraged even, behaviour that has no place in any workplace, modern or otherwise. I say encouraged because it is clear that many politicians, prominent backbenchers, ministers, chairs of committees, party whips and the political parties themselves have been well aware of these behaviours. They have witnessed them, turned a blind eye and too often refused to challenge them when they were the only ones with the power to do so. Political expedience triumphed over the welfare of those whose job it was to help make Parliament work.
Over many years now brave individuals - some supported by the FDA and other unions, some on their own - have sought to challenge these behaviours but have been thwarted at almost every turn. After a number of high profile cases ended without satisfactory resolution, a new policy was adopted in 2014 which had the potential for some independent oversight in the most extreme cases. The result of dogged determination and negotiation from unions, this was an improvement on the previous process but far from satisfactory.
It was at this point some politicians cried foul: “How can any new policy deal with historical cases?”
“How can they be investigated under a policy that did not exist at the time of the alleged incident?”
So, the House of Commons wiped the slate clean and in doing so reinforced the point that few were serious about addressing these issues in any meaningful way. Bullying and harassment often follows patterns. In many cases it is systematic low-level undermining of individuals, comments or exchanges that in themselves can be explained away by culture, robust language or just being difficult.
Wipe the slate clean and years of evidence is discarded, unable to be used as part of any complaint. The message to victims is clear: they will have to suffer further years of abuse before a complaint can be lodged. The message to the bullies is even clearer. Is it any wonder that since the new policy was Introduced in 2014, not a single member of staff has taken a complaint through to a formal process?
That is one of the reasons why we stated publicly that our members have no faith in the current process and that any independent inquiry must look at individual cases. Not without difficulty, probably not without challenge by some Parliamentarians, but essential if staff are to have the confidence that something will finally change this time.
Their refusal to concede this point, asking staff to make use of a system so obviously discredited that an independent inquiry has been set up to look at, owes more to Joseph Heller than it does to CIPD.
The inquiry promises closure, its press release says it will “consider what options are available for resolving current or historical allegations,” but the terms of reference are silent on this.
Closure comes with justice, not tea and sympathy, and Dame Laura can’t deliver the true justice that victims deserve if she is starting with one hand tied behind her back.
Dave Penman is General Secretary of the FDA union, which represents leaders across the public sector. He tweets as @FDAGenSec