Westminster bullying and harassment scandal: One year on
This Friday — International Women’s Day — marks one year since Newsnight ran its devastating investigation into bullying, harassment and sexual harassment in the House of Commons. Chris Cook and Lucinda Day’s exposé not only revealed the appalling treatment of staff by MPs, but demonstrated how this abuse is made worse by the House’s failure to deal with the bullies and harassers.
The investigation could be summed up by a quote from a former House of Commons staff member: "My career at the House of Commons didn't end when I was sexually harassed. My career ended when I complained."
I went on Newsnight the next evening and said that their investigation’s findings echoed the FDA’s experiences representing our members in the House.
Abuse of staff has been allowed to continue unchallenged because of the ineffective procedures to deal with complaints. The problem is that MPs regulate each other’s behaviour and party politics always takes precedence. I have said it once and I will say it again: MPs cannot be trusted to mark their own homework.
The Newsnight investigation triggered an inquiry by Dame Laura Cox, QC, who reported her findings in October 2018. She found that there is a culture ‘of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed’.
Dame Laura’s report revealed that women are doubly impacted because of their gender. In the first instance, women were far more likely to be bullied, harassed and sexually harassed than men. Then, when they tried to complain, their complaints were trivialised and minimised because they are women.
Dame Laura made three recommendations. Firstly, that the failed Respect Policy be abandoned;; secondly, that the complaints procedure for bullying, harassment and sexual harassment must be an entirely independent process with MPs playing no part; and, finally, that there should be no restriction on staff bringing past complaints to the new procedure. In short, the slate should not be wiped clean for abusers.
These are the exact recommendations that the FDA has called on for years , and exactly what the House needs to do to change this toxic culture. Nine days after Dame Laura published her report, following extensive lobbying from the FDA, the House of Commons Commission (the employer in the House of Commons) agreed to implement all her recommendations in full.
The prevalence of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment is a stain on the reputation of Parliament and diminishes its authority to speak out about harassment in every other workplace.
Frustratingly, it’s now been five months since Dame Laura’s report and we are no further along. Last week, I wrote an article in the House Magazine to say that House of Commons staff will not accept anything less than Dame Laura’s recommendations implemented in full.
Clearly there are some in the House that would rather this all went away and who wish we would drop the subject. On International Women’s Day our message is clear: we’re not going anywhere.
Amy Leversidge is Assistant General Secretary of the FDA.