How could the sort of bullying and sexual harassment detailed in Dame Laura Cox’s report on the treatment of House of Commons staff really have gone on for so long? There were policies in place for dealing with complaints, and on paper everything looked as though it was working well to prevent the rise of the ‘serial offenders’ that Cox refers to. This was the very defence initially mounted by the parliamentary authorities themselves when the allegations first came to light in the press earlier this year, but Cox’s report shows how structures and cultures can be very different indeed.
The problem, she writes, was largely one of culture so that even though there were formal mechanisms in place for a member of House staff to complain that an MP, for instance, was bullying them, the risks associated with approaching that formal process were considered too high. Subtler than this was what one person who spoke to the inquiry described as a ‘toxic environment of deference and impunity, which some members have exploited’. MPs would expect not just to have priorities in queues or certain lifts when a vote was on, but also to be able to call staff members ‘useless’, or to make unwanted sexual advances, without any consequences at all.
Toxic cultures can develop unheeded, but those in senior positions do have a choice as to whether they perpetuate them or not. And in this case, the senior leadership of the House of Commons is guilty of allowing the toxic culture to flourish. Cox repeatedly states that this team is not fit for purpose and that many staff argued that any new complaints procedure would probably be pointless. She writes:
‘Having commissioned this inquiry, I fear that the House may fail those it is trying to help and sustain further damages to its reputation and to its credibility as an employer if this reports leads only to another series of initiatives and process changes. A significant number of those members of House staff who came forward regard the status quo as untenable and express the view that “it will take several generations until the senior administration are capable of delivering the necessary changes.
‘On this basis, I find it difficult to envisage how the necessary changes can be successfully delivered, and the confidence of the staff restored, under the current senior House administration. As one contributor put it, “we need to press the reset button, but I’m not sure the senior administration understand that, or even know what it means”.’
As James says, this would bode worse for John Bercow as Speaker were MPs not all-consumed by Brexit. But Cox’s definition of the House administration naturally stretches far further than Bercow’s office, and even if there were a new Speaker, there would still be a lack of understanding and motivation among their senior colleagues. It is far easier to change a few faces at the top, or re-write a few Human Resources policies than it is to change a culture.
Though Cox makes extensive recommendations about a new complaints policy and training for MPs and staff, it is difficult to finish reading the report with a great deal of hope that things are going to improve for those who find themselves victims of bullying or harassment while working in the House of Commons. Again, Brexit has a role here as few in Westminster seem to have sufficient bandwidth to deal with much else, and the impetus for change would be far greater were there not such a big alternative story dominating the newspapers. But even if MPs care little for the difference a change in culture would make for the people having to work in it, they should see a selfish incentive in improving the way staff are treated: as Cox says, the behaviour of those few members who think they can bully and harass with impunity damages the public standing of Parliament as a whole.