Bullying and Harassment of MPS’ Parliamentary Staff

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:59 pm on 17th July 2019.

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Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Draft Domestic Abuse Bill (Joint) Committee 3:59 pm, 17th July 2019

I join other hon. Members in welcoming Gemma White’s report. The Leader of the House is right that we should never fail to condemn the sort of bullying or harassing behaviour that is so carefully set out in the report. Everything needs to be done to ensure that we do not have a culture that would in any way perpetuate that. It is also right to recognise that, as Gemma White has clearly said, the severe criticisms are levelled at a minority of hon. Members. As in any organisation, however, regardless of whether it is Parliament, a public institution or a private sector company, we need to deal with that behaviour head on.

I cannot believe that many MPs do not want to work in a modern workplace or have the most modern workplace practices. Although some might not have employed people before they came here, many did, so they know what a good workplace is and what good workplace practice is. As Patrick Grady said, we should start at the beginning with our candidate selection process. I have the privilege of being involved in candidate selection for my party and I am impressed by what my party does to look at the qualities of the individuals who are accepted to stand for election. There may be more that we could do, however, to ensure that people have experience of running organisations, because that is what we expect them to do if they are successful in being selected and elected to this place.

Enormous strides have been made—no pun intended with regard to the Leader of the House—in recent months and years, which is in no small way attributable to my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom. She brought a vigour to addressing the issues that was second to none. I pay personal tribute to her and reinforce the tributes from across the House to her tenacity in navigating a minefield of interests to get the independent complaints and grievance scheme in place. We will be forever in her debt for that.

The Leader of the House talked in his opening remarks about his intention to introduce an instrument to ensure that non-recent cases could be heard. I say amen to that; it is vital that it is introduced immediately. My only question is, why delay until the autumn? Why can those non-recent cases not start to be heard from the moment the instrument is laid, so they can be brought forward in the summer when it is perhaps more convenient for people, and so there is no delay to his intention to make sure that everybody can be held to account?

I also note the introduction of the helplines and the training programme, which I have been on. I was very impressed by the quality of the training that was given and of the individuals giving the training. I do not care who someone is; everyone can get something out of the training, however experienced they are. I was the head of graduate recruitment in the firm that I worked for and I recruited many staff over my years in the private sector, but I learned an enormous amount about self-awareness, particularly in a digital age, which has come midway through many of our careers. The use of electronic media can unintentionally create tensions that none of us would want to exist.

There is also the behaviour code and the code of conduct. An enormous amount has been done in this space to address some of the issues that Gemma White raised in her excellent report, so I have only a few questions. I have huge respect for the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House, but I note that the report was commissioned by the House of Commons Commission. Although I believe that they are both members of the Commission, they are not responsible for it. Why, oh why—I have raised this issue before—are we talking again about an issue wholly in the remit of the House of Commons Commission, without the House of Commons Commission leading the debate on it? It asked Gemma White to produce the report and it has responded to it; indeed, as Gemma White clearly points out, it is the organisation most responsible for delivering on the report. As a Member of the House of Commons, I want to know where the accountability is so that we know how the House of Commons Commission has stuck to what Gemma White has set out and that it is being delivered on.

The House of Commons Commission is the most archaic bit of the House of Commons structure, and it is long overdue for reform. Unlike almost any other of our Committees, it is not chaired by an elected representative, or at least by somebody elected to that position; its membership is appointed, and it is not able, it appears, to come to the House of Commons to explain what it is doing. However, it is instrumental in making this a better place of work, a better parliamentary democracy and a better Parliament. Why is how the Commission operates still so opaque?

I can go on to the website and find details of the Commission’s meetings, although that is not always easy—and they are actions taken, rather than minutes of discussion. It is difficult, even for someone such as me who is interested in these issues, to stay abreast of what is going on. Is the biggest elephant in the room the need to understand who is accountable for implementing the Gemma White report? We have, of course, already had a debate about the Cox report, when the Commission had made very slow progress on the implementation of a number of recommendations.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire was right when she was Leader of the House to forever tell us that it is for Members to decide these things. The Commission, however, is the body that enables Members to have a collective thought and collective way of implementing things. Perhaps the current Leader of the House will be able to comment on that when he replies to the debate. I feel strongly that there is still opaqueness about how these things are handled. Why is that important? If we are to achieve the sort of institutional change that the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House and the hon. Member for Glasgow North have spoken about, we must have clarity about accountability. At the moment, that clarity is not there.

We have not yet picked up on the fact that Gemma White did not receive any reports from Members about harassment and bullying by other Members. We should be concerned about that; as a body of 650 people, we will have such instances. Clearly, however, Members still feel that they are not capable of talking even to somebody independent. The Conservative party has a strong Whips Office that has changed radically in the past 10 years. We need to make sure that Members feel that they can talk about these things. I was concerned that Gemma White had no examples of Members wishing to talk to her about bullying and abuse from other Members. We need to address that.

I also wish to pick up on the fact that non-disclosure agreements were discussed and highlighted in the report. Will the Leader of the House discuss that when he responds to the debate? The recommendation is:

IPSA should consider amending the wording of the standard confidentiality clause to make it clear that it does not prevent employees bringing a claim of bullying and harassment.”

I say clearly that all my members of staff already have a standard confidentiality clause. If they were to exit my employment, I would have absolutely no requirement to reinforce or reiterate that, because it continues to stand. It is already there in our employment contracts. Why are we allowing IPSA to assert that it is a requirement on Members to have a further confidentiality clause when people leave their employment? I know from the work of my Select Committee, the Women and Equalities Committee, that this can cause considerable confusion in people’s minds and a feeling that they are being muzzled from ever talking about adverse experiences in an employment setting. That requires a little more thought and consideration before we take it as read that IPSA should view confidentiality clauses and exit contracts, or exit agreements, as being standard, because legally that is not correct.

My final point concerns the independence of Members of Parliament. We jealously guard our independence, and we are right to do so. Our employment relationship with our staff has to be independent of interference from others—that is the right of MPs—but with that right comes a responsibility to act as a sensible and a good employer. Every employee here has the right to expect their MP, whoever they are and whichever party they represent, to act in a responsible manner. I absolutely agree with others who have made the point that that has to be a relationship of which we are in charge. The idea that IPSA would become the employer of my staff, potentially imposing conditions on their employment that are inconsistent with the way in which a particular constituency office is run, would be entirely unacceptable. MPs are right jealously to guard their independence, not because of any personal gain but because, if our democratic Parliament is to work in the way that our constituents expect it to work, we have to have MPs independent of interference from outside.

This is an important debate, and it is important for every Member to engage in it and to understand that treating our staff well is a hygiene factor in being a Member of Parliament, not an added extra. I hope that even Members who are not in the Chamber today can recognise that and make sure that they take part in the training, that they raise awareness among their staff of the helplines that are available, and that they adhere absolutely to the behaviour code and the code of conduct, so that we can be truly proud of this House of Parliament.