Dame Laura Cox has quite rightly made waves with her inquiry into systemic bullying and harassment in the House of Commons. Not one to pull punches, she articulated both the problem and solution: the abusive behaviour that has been permitted in the House, and how to answer it.
Crucially, she recommends that the process for dealing with complaints should be one in which Members of Parliament will play no part. This is make or break: no policy in the House can work if it is not truly independent. One of the central reasons that that Respect Policy - which was (correctly) slammed in Dame Laura’s report - failed so spectacularly was because MPs played judge, jury and accused.
The FDA repeatedly advised Andrea Leadsom and her steering group not to make the same mistake for their new policy. But they kept MPs involved. For the ‘most serious’ cases (anything that warrants more than an apology from the MP in question) the sanction will be determined by the Committee on Standards.
The Committee on Standards is made up of seven MPs and seven lay members but the lay members don’t get a vote. They get an ‘indicative’ vote to show what would happen if it counted (a ‘here’s what you could have won’ moment for those old enough to remember Bullseye).
This is the same Committee on Standards that in May voted against allowing the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to even investigate the allegations of bullying about Speaker, John Bercow. If they will block an investigation, what hope do staff have that they will ever agree a serious sanction for an MP?
Those working at the House know the answer, and this was sadly articulated to Dame Laura time and time again. Staff told Dame Laura they believe it will take ‘two or three generations before anything will really change’. No-one should be expected to wait that long. Let’s face it, this is not the first time a scandal has broken about the culture of bullying and harassment in Westminster, but MPs have a duty to make sure this is the last one.
However, in an almost mind-blowingly tone-deaf move last night the Committee on Standards chose to replace the outgoing chair, Sir Kevin Barron, with Kate Green. Green is a well-known ally of the Speaker, and one of the MPs on the Committee who blocked the investigation of him in May. She was ‘elected’ as the chair, unopposed.
Sir Kevin has written an article in The Times this morning calling for increased transparency of the Committee, and to overturn a decision made in July that made their workings more opaque. This does not go far enough. He entirely missed the point of the Dame Laura’s recommendation that the Committee should no longer have any role in dealing with bullying and harassment cases. This is not just a case of tinkering around the edges of the Leadsom policy. This requires a seismic change.
Today MPs have shown, in spectacular fashion, how prepared they are to put party politics above action on this devastating inquiry into their own workplace. Emily Thornberry and Angela Eagle have stated that ‘it isn’t the time to replace the Speaker’, evading the real issue at play. The inquiry is bigger than the Speaker. It is about implementing the recommendations of Dame Laura’s report. But even more disgracefully they have completely demonstrated the attitude of deference that has nurtured this bullying culture. To tell staff that are not important as party politics - that they should keep a stiff upper lip - stinks. Both MPs should hang their heads in shame.
This completely proves what the FDA has been saying for years – MPs cannot be trusted to mark their own homework.