The House of Commons is many things. It is a legislature, making laws which govern the lives of all our citizens; it scrutinises the activities of Government; and it is an architectural masterpiece forming part of a UNESCO world heritage site. But it is also a workplace, where thousands of individuals contribute to supporting this institution at the heart of the nation.
As a place of work, it has not always kept pace with changing attitudes to the modern workplace and it has not always upheld the standards of behaviour which are usual and expected in a professional environment.
Almost two years ago, Dame Laura Cox’s report into the bullying and harassment of House staff in the Commons, found that high levels of deference and elitism had contributed to a culture in which bullying, and harassment were not addressed. Outdated power structures had continued unchecked, and there was little recourse for victims when bullies took advantage of that situation.
The necessary complexity of the governance process in the House of Commons is rarely seen in comparable organisations and this has contributed to challenges and frustrating delays in delivering essential change. However, due to the courage of those who were willing to speak out, significant changes have now been made.
Ultimately, the function of the Cox report was to hold up a discomfiting mirror to the institution, and demand change. It laid bare facts which were impossible to ignore, including a failure of leadership, highlighting the testimonies of hundreds of staff who had experienced awful and traumatic treatment in the workplace. Dealing with this issue has proved tough for parliament but now, significant progress really has been made.
Dame Laura made three key recommendations to deal with the problem of bullying and harassment in the Commons. The first two dealt with removing outdated policies which lacked staff confidence and opening up the complaints process to historic cases which were previously not covered. The third and most complex recommendation focused on making the judgements and sanctions related to complaints completely independent of MPs.
This week, the House took the momentous decision to create an Independent Expert Panel (IEP) to determine complaints of bullying or harassment in relation to MPs submitted under the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS). In cases where the IEP recommends the most extreme sanctions, such as suspension or expulsion of an MP, the House must approve the recommendation via a motion in the Chamber. Any such motion will be taken without debate.
This significant decision means that we have now implemented all three of the recommendations from Dame Laura Cox’s report. I have been painfully aware that without this measure, the level of trust and reassurance provided by the ICGS would be seriously reduced. This week’s decision means our system of reporting unacceptable behaviour is robust and truly independent.
While we celebrate this progress, we recognise that we have much more to do. Rather than catching up with other workplaces, I want the House of Commons to be an exemplary employer, which is why we know we must keep improving – there is a still a great deal more to do. Finding a solution to the problem of making the process completely independent of MPs was complex and has taken longer to achieve than we hoped. Now that we have the structures and processes in place, we need to make sure that they work and that everyone has confidence that they are effective. This is not the end but a milestone, an opportunity to look back and realise just how much has been achieved by the hard work and participation of so many in the House Service, before continuing to ensure we deliver lasting culture change.
John Benger is Clerk of the House and head of the House service