‘Culture of deference’ allows Commons bullying to thrive, inquiry finds

A Westminster culture of “deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence” has allowed the bullying and harassment of staff in the House of Commons to thrive, an official report has found.

Dame Laura Cox QC, appointed by House authorities to investigate claims of abusive behaviour by MPs and staff, said there were “urgent and serious problems” in procedures for dealing with such issues.

In a damning report she said it was “difficult to envisage” how the reforms needed could be delivered under the current senior House administration.

Dame Laura called for the establishment of an “entirely independent process” for dealing with staff complaints against MPs in which MPs themselves play no part.

Her report painted a picture of a Commons where MPs enjoyed a “God-like status”, knowing they would never be subject to disciplinary action, and where abusive behaviour was actively covered up.

Complaints ranged from staff being shouted and sworn at and belittled on an “almost daily” basis to the “predatory” behaviour of some male MPs towards female staff.

They included frequent propositioning and “inappropriate touching” – including “trying to kiss them, grabbing their arms or bottoms or stroking their breasts or bottoms” – in an atmosphere fuelled by ready access to alcohol.

Dame Laura said while there was an “expectation of loyalty” among staff towards the institution they worked for, the standing of the House was being diminished by the failure of its senior leadership to deal with the issue.

“That sense of loyalty has been tested to breaking point by a culture, cascading from the top down, 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,” she said.

“This is not to demonise the entire institution, but unacceptable behaviour by some, whether elected Members or House staff, inflicts damage on everyone and undermines the legitimacy and authority of the House of Commons. Parliament is diminished.”

Dame Laura, a former High Court judge, was appointed by the House of Commons Commission to conduct an inquiry after BBC2’s Newsnight highlighted a series of allegations of bullying and harassment by MPs, including claims that Speaker John Bercow bullied his former private secretary, which he denied.

Her report said a “broad cultural change” was needed to restore the confidence of staff and the wider public, which would require “a focus and a genuine commitment” by the House leadership.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s World At One, Dame Laura said she was referring to the “collective ethos at the top of the organisation” including the offices of the Speaker and the Clerk of the House and the House of Commons Commission.

Those involved needed to ask themselves whether they understood the need for radical reform, were capable of delivering it, and whether the staff would have confidence in their ability to do so.

“If they can’t answer ‘Yes’ honestly to all those questions, then they should each of them be considering their positions,” she said.

In line with her terms of reference, she did not name any individuals involved in alleged abuse or the staff members who gave evidence to her inquiry.

However she said: “When reading this report some people may privately recognise their own behaviours in some of the alleged abusive conduct I have described.

“I would hope that a process of reflection leads them to consider what, if anything, they should now do in the best interests of the House.”

A spokesman for the Commons said bullying and harassment had no place in the organisation and the well-being of staff “will always be our top priority”.

“Urgent work has already been undertaken to improve internal processes – including the introduction of new confidential support services and helplines run by external, independent specialist providers and a clear pathway for the investigation of allegations,” the spokesman said.

“The findings of this inquiry will be taken into careful account.”