I shall speak very briefly, because so many of the points made during last month’s debate on the Cox report apply to this debate, and so many further points have been made so effectively by Members on both sides of the House today.
As Patrick Grady said earlier, many of Gemma White’s findings, and the evidence with which she was presented, were simultaneously shocking and, sadly, unsurprising. It is with sadness that we must reflect on that, and consider what measures we can take to ensure that those who work for us, those who work with us, and those who support us and allow us to perform our functions as representatives here in Parliament can be sure that they will be treated with respect and dignity, and with the basic decency that we would expect from any other employer in the country.
The basic issue in the Gemma White report is the balance to be struck in terms of the role of individual MPs: the extent to which we are independent Members and employers and the extent to which we are part of a collective. Of course we are effectively 650 small businesses in this place, each operating our own shop, but like all small businesses our offices work best when they work as a team, and well performing teams are built on a strong culture of respect. It is very rare for an effective team to be founded on fear; a team is rarely strengthened by abuse and bullying. That principle clearly applies in our own offices.
I have previously worked for Members of Parliament, although in constituency rather than here in the Palace, so I have seen and know about many of the demands from both sides of that employer-employee relationship. I know the flexibility that is offered so freely by many of our staff, and it is offered so freely because they usually see themselves and us as part of a team—as engaged in a common endeavour, working in the same direction for the benefit of constituents and seeking to achieve the same things. In a good environment that is working properly staff are happy to be flexible. I know I was very happy to go well beyond what I was contracted to do; I never felt pressured to do work, including the kind of work referred to by Gemma White of a personal nature in terms of making sure MPs’ wider parliamentary activities and life are functioning smoothly. But we must also be mindful that, as other Members have said, there is a risk that the flexibility that we value so much can be taken advantage of, and not always consciously. It would be far too easy for us to get into a routine whereby we start to expect things of our staff that are clearly well beyond what they are employed to do and what it is reasonable to expect.
It is important that Members of Parliament are autonomous and, as Gemma White recognises, there is a need for MPs’ office structures to differ to reflect the needs of each different Member, but that should be an autonomy within common standards. We are autonomous, but we are not separate. We as Members cannot allow ourselves to become effectively chiefs of our own fiefdoms—judge, jury and executioner of our own parliamentary office. It would clearly be wrong and entirely unacceptable if behaviour that we would not stand for if any of our constituents came to us complaining about their own employer was allowed to happen here, under our noses and in our own offices and those of our colleagues, on very little basis other than that that is the way things have always been in Parliament. While respecting the autonomy of parliamentary offices, as Gemma White’s report does, we need to ensure that the common standards and the common framework for protecting our employees’ rights, decency and dignity at work are protected, whoever they happen to work for. The only way in which we can move on from the cases raised in this report is to embrace its recommendations and implement them. We need to establish those common standards and practices across the House, regardless of a Member’s or staff member’s length of service, apparent seniority or junior position.
Like those in other public sector workplaces, we need to ensure that there is a properly resourced HR department that can support our staff as well as supporting us as employers. That would go a long way towards providing the support that our teams need and deserve. It would provide an impartial eye, so that any difficulties could be corrected before they became serious problems. Everyone in all parts of the House should come behind this report and invest all the time and effort needed to ensure that we end the culture of harassment and bullying that has clearly been common in a small number of, but still too many, cases in parliamentary offices in recent years. As I have said, we would expect any employer in our constituencies to follow these standards of decency. We need to set that example and to lead.