The response to Newsnight’s revelations of a bullying culture in Parliament, with MPs accused of shockingly inappropriate behaviour against the staff that work there, has been as disappointing as it is predictable. The next day’s headlines - and there were many - singled out Commons Speaker John Bercow for particular attention among those that were named in the report.
The Speaker occupies a powerful position in Parliament, and Bercow is one of the more controversial figures to hold the position. Seen by many as a reformer, he has also courted controversy and not a little media attention. The response to the accusations therefore fell along predictable lines – either qualifying any criticism with exclamations of surprise because of his reforming zeal, or, of course, instantly jumping on the bandwagon as opportunities to settle old scores were seized.
Except, of course, that Bercow’s future isn’t the point - neither is the future of the other MPs named in the report. Most reputable journalists, never mind ones of the quality of Newsnight’s Chris Cook and Lucinda Day, know that naming any individuals, especially one as powerful as a Member of Parliament, requires corroboration and evidence. This is not only to satisfy their own high standards of journalistic integrity, but perhaps more importantly, to satisfy the learned friends who will scrutinise every word.
During Newsnight’s investigation, Cook and Day spoke to dozens of staff who described to them a culture of bullying, harassment and intimidation that most of us would find extraordinary in any modern workplace. That culture has been fostered over decades if not centuries, and is the product of constitutional independence, our adversarial political system, the pervasive party-political power structures and the compact between political parties, politicians and the media that has long drawn a cloak of secrecy over the behaviour of MPs.
The names of parliamentarians that have surfaced as part of the Newsnight investigation - and those whose names are whispered as possibly the next to be outed in the harassment scandal - will come as no surprise to many lobby correspondents too. The behaviour described in Newsnight’s report will undoubtedly have been witnessed by other MPs, and known to many journalists – undermining the howls of outrage as politicians and reporters feign shock and call for action, or qualify their criticism with surprise and claims of never having experienced such behaviour directly.
The political news cycle is short, and, with an excessive focus on individuals, there is a real danger that the bandwagon will move on without meaningful reform
Parliament has become a modern-day Lord of the Flies: free from scrutiny and the consequences that would normally flow from actions of this nature. For some MPs it has set a standard of behavioural norms so low that many - perpetrators and victims alike - barely recognise what has happened as exceptional. Our members would be the first to say that this does not represent their experience of the majority of MPs, who are committed public servants doing an invaluable and, on many occasions, thankless task. But neither is this a one-off, or restricted to the individuals named in the Newsnight report.
The power of parliamentarians, whether as employers of their own staff or regulators of their own standards, needs to be balanced by an effective and independent process for dealing with complaints. Writing for HuffPost in November, I called for parliamentarians to be stripped of the power to regulate themselves when it comes to matters of conduct. Commons leader Andrea Leadsom’s recent cross-party report was a good start but, typically, the decision to include the staff who actually work for the House was taken late in the day, and the unions who represent them were given limited opportunity to contribute to its deliberations, conclusions or follow-up work.
Had Newsnight not revealed the testimony of dozens of individuals to regular bullying and intimidation, most of the media would have moved on, starved of the next salacious headline. Yet, despite this testimony, the focus is once again on noteworthy individual MPs rather than on the changes that would really help the committed public servants who support them.
If Leadsom’s good intentions are to be turned in to concrete action, it is the MPs themselves who have to voluntarily give up power - and there’s the rub. MPs are not like any other employee, but we need to hold them to account and set standards of behaviour that reflect a modern employment context. It cannot be right that behaviour which would result in dismissal for employees of the House, would not have the same consequences for an elected member. This is a constitutionally difficult dilemma, yes - but it’s not impossible to resolve.
Real reform can only happen if the power of investigation and sanction is taken from MPs or any body that purports to represent them. If staff are to have confidence in any process, the powers of investigation and decision-making need to be and seen to be independent of those who have a vested interest in their outcome. Leadsom’s report promises much by way of an independent investigation system for complaints. While this is a laudable intention, our experience as a union dealing with employment issues right across the public sector shows time and again that investigations need to be properly resourced, so that they can conclude quickly. Investigations also need the ability to require cooperation from protagonists, as they would in any other employment context. Those who have the most to lose in any outcome are adept at avoiding scrutiny, and, given the chance, they can bog down an investigation in endless bureaucracy.
Leadsom’s report seeks to strengthen the current system, but it still includes a role for a “committee of the House” to make the final call in the most serious of cases. Despite all of the evidence of how self-regulation has failed, it seems that the report still cannot countenance decision-making being taken away from MPs and, by proxy, the political parties themselves, which have a tendency to close ranks and defend their own self-interest when push comes to shove.
The political news cycle is short, and, with an excessive focus on individuals, there is a real danger that the bandwagon will move on without meaningful reform that would protect those who have been left vulnerable by a system that continues to let MPs mark their own homework. If politicians are serious about cracking down on this kind of behaviour, they need to put aside party interests and agree to let go of their role as ultimate arbiters of justice. How many promising careers of bright, talented House of Commons staff will have to be cut short before that happens?
Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA union, which represents leaders across the public sector. He tweets as @FDAGenSec