OPINION
22/06/2020 14:20 BST

Westminster’s Bullying Problem Should Be Over. But The Government Isn't Helping

After two years of exhausting campaigning to make Parliament safer, the government might be about to undermine us all, writes former Commons clerk Jenny McCullough.

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If you’d been harassed at work and you could report it, get support, have your complaint independently investigated and adjudicated, and be vindicated, with a finding in your favour and an appropriate penalty for the perpetrator, what would you do? 

But what if this process also involved handing people the chance to talk, to a live audience and on television, about whether that penalty should be applied? Your name wouldn’t be mentioned and neither, probably, would the details of your complaint, but still. 

You wouldn’t go anywhere near it, would you?

Yet this is the exact system that Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House of Commons, will ask MPs to establish on Tuesday. His proposals create an Independent Expert Panel to determine the appropriate sanctions and hear appeals in the most serious bullying and harassment cases – an external process that staff and their representatives have long been calling for. But embedded in the proposals is the provision for MPs to debate whether a penalty should be imposed before they take the formal decision to approve it. 

It has been bloody hard work over the last two years, spending solid weekends on phones and laptops, batting away all interruptions, and coping with the wretched feeling attached to asking private people bound by strict codes to go public with us.

This means overriding a consultation that found the majority of respondents opposed to a procedure that effectively gives MPs and their friends – or their political enemies – in the House the final say, protected from any risk of legal action, on accusations of behaviour so grievous that suspension or expulsion is the punishment. 

However, this device will negate the real reforms that are to be introduced at the same time – and undo the campaigning achievements of the least likely political streetfighters you can imagine. That it took so much work by BBC Newsnight to expose the bullying and harassment problem at the House of Commons in the first place is explained in part by the attributes of the people who work there. They are private individuals, in public service but for the most part out of the public eye, and when attention is focused on them it feels as though they’ve done something wrong. 

It was difficult, then, for the former staff and extremely brave current employees, to speak about bullying and harassment. They went ahead in the public interest, ultimately hoping for an independent process for handling complaints. This was what was recommended by Dame Laura Cox at the conclusion of the inquiry secured by the impact of Newsnight’s reporting. It’s the process that the same group of staff and their unions and other supporters have been campaigning for, and it’s what Jacob Rees-Mogg is asking MPs to set up and knock down in the same breath on Tuesday.

As a former Commons clerk, I’m one of those unlikely campaigners. It has been bloody hard work over the last two years, spending solid weekends on phones and laptops, batting away all interruptions, and coping with the wretched feeling attached to asking private people bound by strict codes to go public with us. And withstanding every attempt to dismiss us has been exhausting. 

This has been the long game, and Tuesday should represent the endgame of the procedural part of reform.

Even as our experiences were being minimised, we were also being told that what we were calling for posed a threat to the constitution. By campaigning for an independent complaints system we were seeking to overthrow the principle that only the Commons has the power to judge its own proceedings and the actions of its Members in their functions as MPs.

Radical as we are in demanding that the House update its HR procedures and accept that bullying and harassment – as well as fire, flooding, and falling masonry – are health and safety risks, we aren’t asking Parliament to rip up the Bill of Rights. An independent complaints system protects the reputation of the Commons as much as it safeguards staff. Where offences are so serious as to require suspension or expulsion – sanctions that will affect the electorate – we accept that it is MPs who have final approval. But not that they should have the last word.

I ask myself why I go anywhere near the House of Commons. The answer is that I’ve loved the place and the people, and I’ve been working with the best of them to make the Commons a safer, better-governed place. This has been the long game, and Tuesday should represent the endgame of the procedural part of reform. Culture change will take longer, and will depend on trust in the independence of the complaints process. 

If the House agrees to Rees-Mogg’s proposals, it will hurt me. But it’ll be the current and future staff of the House who will struggle to recover – and the Commons as an institution that will keep on suffering from a condition that is as chronic as it is acute. 

Jenny McCullough is a former House of Commons clerk. Follow her on Twitter at @piratejennywren