The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. People may sometimes feel that they are being amusing or engaging in banter, but they have no idea of the effect that that is having on the individual. Many sexual harassment cases over the years will have the same characteristic. That is why training is important, because we all must understand that some of the things we say we can have a negative effect on people.
This behaviour has been happening for a long time, and perpetrators have been getting away with it, enabling them to carry on the cycle of abuse with the next member of staff, a problem that we absolutely must end. It is unsurprising that one contributor to the report states that staff have come to believe that there has been
“general disregard for the dignity, wellbeing and employment rights of MPs’
I agree with that, and Gemma White agrees with that. She concludes that
“bullying and harassment in MPs’
offices is widespread and cultural”,
and it would be impossible for anyone who reads her report to conclude otherwise.
As has already been said, a minority of Members are involved in this kind of activity, but it is important to say at this point that Gemma White explicitly stated:
“Some Members were the subject of contributions from a number of different contributors.”
In some cases, we are talking not about isolated incidents, but about the same MP repeating a pattern of abusive behaviour with successive members of staff. The fact that this is just a minority must not stop us treating the matter with the utmost urgency. If the same names keep cropping up in reports, without any acknowledgment of wrongdoing or any action to put things right, we know that something is not working.
The majority of us, of course, are perfectly able to be fair and reasonable employers, but that is not an excuse for a small number who behave inappropriately. People have got away with that for too long, because we have not had the right procedures in place. We must now collectively find a way to deal with the situation, or we will all be responsible for what goes on in this place.
There is no place for bullying and harassment in any workplace, but we should be the exemplar of best practice. We should be the place that people look to for positive behaviours. We should set the standards for others to emulate. If we cannot get our own house in order, how can we effectively challenge the employment practices of others? We are failing badly to get our own house in order, because we have here another publication with yet more cases of bullying and harassment, but we have not properly implemented the recommendations from the last one.
We must stop dragging our feet. We must at least implement changes to employment practices to give our staff the same protections that we would expect from every other employer and that we would expect our constituents to have. We must ensure that the necessary steps are taken so that staff can report incidents without any fear of reprisal or retribution, because many who took part in the inquiry were clear that they felt unable to raise a complaint against their MP because, until July of last year, those complaints had to be made directly to that MP. In many cases, they were complaining to the boss about the boss’s behaviour, so who could blame them for concluding that there would be literally no point in doing so because the same person being complained about would be the judge and jury over that particular complaint?
Staff now have access to an independent complaints and grievance scheme, but it is clear that, even though the new system is in place, they still do not have confidence that it would not be career suicide to refer complaints to it. Indeed, Gemma White concludes that, even now, it is
“unlikely that the majority of bullying and harassment suffered by MPs’
staff will be reported under the ICGS.”
We must consider that seriously today.
Staff are simply not convinced of the process’s independence, so it is vital that we move to a fully independent process in which MPs are not able to sit in judgment on their colleagues in any way, shape or form. No longer should an employer be a judge in his or her cause. It really is not good enough for the Commission to recommend the non-involvement of Members in determining bullying and harassment cases. We have to move away from it altogether.
It is not good enough that there is a complete lack of clarity on the sanctions that can be imposed on an MP. The Women and Equalities Committee heard at the beginning of this month, in evidence on a gender-sensitive Parliament, that sanctions against MPs appear to amount only to an informal quiet word with a dozen or so offenders. If that is all that happens, who can blame staff for feeling that there is not much point in going through the system?