The harassment and bullying scandal that has rocked Westminster over the last nine months was one of those moments where an almost unstoppable momentum for change was created.
The scandal uncovered a culture that would be almost unrecognisable in any modern workplace. Careers - and lives - have been ruined by the actions of a minority of MPs. Heartbreaking stories have emerged of systematic bullying, often with misogynistic undertones and, in some cases, serious allegations of sexual misconduct.
The scandal also laid bare the origins of this behaviour. Power structures in parties that prioritised political expediency over the protection of staff. MPs - and parties - left to govern their own conduct, with no real external challenge or scrutiny. Too much power vested in the Speaker, with no meaningful sense of corporate governance.
Too many MPs, Committee chairs or Whips wilfully ignored these incidents, or felt unable to challenge them. In this environment, misconduct was not only tolerated, but almost encouraged.
As the scandal unfolded, Andrea Leadsom was courageous as Leader of the House in setting out a vision to address this, quickly setting up a cross-party group to investigate and make recommendations.
That group, after much deliberation, will be setting out its proposals for change over the next week. Symptomatic of the inherent conflict of interest in Parliament, the MPs themselves will have to agree it.
The FDA has argued that these proposals are rushed. There are still a number of areas where there is a lack of clarity. Also, crucially, Dame Laura Cox QC was asked to conduct an independent inquiry to investigate the systematic bullying of House staff and provide recommendations. For the last two months, she has been hearing the testimonies of staff who have been subjected to this behaviour. Her report, delayed until September due to the volume of testimony she is receiving, should be a significant contribution to understanding the problems and addressing them for the future. Instead, the steering group has decided to press ahead without the benefit of Dame Laura’s report.
There is much to commended in their proposals. A new behavioural code will be established, covering everyone in the Palace of Westminster including politicians, staff, contractors and even jaded hacks. The code sets a yardstick that everyone can be measured against equally. There will be independent investigations, overseen by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. There will be support and training, critical if culture is to be changed. All of this is to be commended.
But here’s the rub: an independent investigation is one thing; independent decision-making is another. Minor misdemeanours can be dealt with by the Commissioner, but as yet undefined more “serious” ones will be judged by a committee of MPs. All the more ironic is that said committee contains lay members, but they don’t get a vote. In what is viewed as a concession - which in itself gives you an indication of the mindset of some - the lay members may get an “indicative” vote, but only when hearing appeals. Their votes won’t actually count, but at least they get to put their hands in the air. This was the same committee that recently voted 3-2 not to investigate allegations against the Speaker and, it transpired, had the lay members been allowed a vote, the decision would have been different. MPs marking their own homework is how we’ve characterised this and the proposals do not go any way near far enough in addressing this; one of the root causes of the problem in the first place.
Then we come to what has probably been the most problematic issue: historical cases. Let’s take a moment to reflect on where we are currently. Staff employed by MPs have effectively had no process to raise complaints. House staff have had a process called the “Respect” policy. It suffers from the same inherent weaknesses as outlined above and in its four years of operation, not a single complaint has been formally made - clear evidence that staff do not have confidence that a complaint will be dealt with either independently or meaningfully.
In essence, the very people that a process is there to protect have not been able or felt willing to make a formal complaint. One of our key objectives has been to ensure that, as we’ve put it, the slate is not wiped clean for those who have bullied or harassed staff. Not least because this behaviour often occurs over many months or years and those who behave in this way may well have done so to others over a period of time.
We recognise that this is difficult territory - difficult, not impossible. Historical cases can be complex to investigate. Memories fade and potential witnesses may have left. Once a meaningful process is in place for dealing with complaints, there is no reason why this process cannot be used for past cases. To be fair to all parties and to genuinely allow everyone to get closure and move on from the past, there could be a window of opportunity when the new policy is introduced to allow staff members to come forward and raise their complaint about past behaviour.
Andrea Leadsom’s group sought legal advice on this issue, as did we. The advice indicated that historical cases could be dealt with. It wouldn’t be simple, more work would be needed, it was not an unequivocal green light, but it was clear that if there was a will, there was a way. Instead, for no apparent good reason other than “fairness” (fairness to whom we might wonder) the steering group has chosen to restrict this provision and only allow cases from the beginning of this Parliament - June 2017 - to be investigated.
There is no legal impediment to going back further, this is simply a choice. A choice I’m afraid that sides with the perpetrators of bullying and harassment, rather than with the victims. It may be uncomfortable for some members of the steering group to hear their decision characterised like that, but that will be the effect of their decision.
Whatever promises there are of reviews after six months, I have no doubt that this is the time to effect real change. Politics and politicians will have moved on unless another scandal erupts and it shouldn’t take the public airing of ruined lives and careers to shame MPs to act. They should protect the staff that work in the House of Commons because, put simply, it is the right thing to do.
Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA, the union for civil servants