I wish to begin by apologising for not bobbing earlier; I was enjoying the speech from my hon. Friend Mike Wood so much and reflecting upon it that I forgot to get to my feet. It is a pleasure to follow Justin Madders, and I was obviously so engaged with what he was saying that I wanted to join in.
I can almost encapsulate the essence of my contribution in one or two sentences. I simply want to reach out to the staff who work on the estate or in offices around the country and say, “We are on your side. Clearly, bad things have happened. We understand and appreciate now, at least to some extent, the scale of the problem. And you do not need to fear that it will be limiting to your career or ‘career suicide’, to use the term used in the report, if you report terrible behaviour by your boss, who happens to be an MP.”
My hon. Friend Maria Caulfield said that being an MP is held in very low regard by members of the public, but there is an unusual double-edged sword here, because although the public in many ways do not respect the role of an MP, a lot of people hold the job in such reverence that it gives us power, which should be used appropriately. For example, there are 150,000 doctors in the country, and I guess that vacancies for doctors are probably coming up every day of every week, but there are only 650 MPs and the opportunity to become one does not come around very often. Therefore, many people—we encounter them on the estate all the time—treat us with a degree of reverence that is completely inappropriate. Initially, I was surprised and delighted by it, but now I am slightly embarrassed by it. So I can completely see that a small number of MPs might let that feeling of power go to their heads and exercise it in a completely inappropriate way when it comes to their staff or other people—and we see that in the report.
Let us remember that the number of people who contributed to the report—220 people—feels relatively small, given that we have heard that figure of 3,200 staff, but it says in the report that more than half those people had significant mental or physical illness as a result of the behaviour that they experienced. That is 110 people, just from that small sample, who have experienced totally dreadful behaviour. I do not see how we could be in a position to do anything but treat this issue urgently and get on and address it.
With regard to the training, I seem to have made a bit of a mistake: when I said that only 34 MPs and 135 members of staff had taken part in that training, I did not realise that the opportunity to take part came about relatively recently. I was reminded of the fact that when I became a councillor in 1999—as a young, I think, very well brought up lad—I went to the council and was totally shocked by the way councillors berated and belittled members of staff. I just could not understand how they could treat them so poorly, yet it felt like that was just the way that relationship worked: the councillors had the upper hand, and it was perfectly acceptable for them to be rude in public to staff at the council. That clearly was not acceptable, and fortunately, three years later, the council was placed in special measures and it became mandatory for councillors to attend training.
One problem we have with training is that those people who need it least are the people most likely to take it up. Those people in the council who actually would have benefited from the training were completely aghast and self-righteous—“Why should I be made to attend any training?”—but the Government said, “This is mandatory. You don’t get out of special measures unless you attend training,” so those who needed it were forced to have it and the council moved quickly to a much more comfortable position. I hope that we do not end up in a position where we need to make training mandatory, but that MPs just accept that we have a problem and that it would be a good idea if we sought to address it.
Personally, I still found it a shock coming here. I had run teams and managed budgets—all those sorts of skills that would be necessary do a good job of running a team in Parliament—but I distinctly remember how completely overwhelmed I was in my first weeks as an MP. There was information coming from all directions; I was trying to understand parliamentary procedure; and emails were coming in by the hundreds and thousands. I felt almost a sense of panic. I just wanted to understand my role as an MP, and my role as a manager was secondary.
When I attended the parliamentary assessment board to get on the candidates list, that was not exactly the skillset being tested. The board wanted to know that someone was a committed Conservative, that they understood policy and that they could make a reasonable job of representing the Conservative party publicly; it was not so focused on whether someone could manage a budget and staff and handle HR procedures. It is therefore completely appropriate that we have a beefed-up HR department and that there is the opportunity for us all to access the excellent support that already exists but perhaps not at a scale that is appropriate for 650 MPs.
I have one other thing to say. I agreed with almost everything that Patrick Grady said, with one exception, which was when he said that we should not have tables saved for us in Portcullis House with something that says “Reserved for MPs”. I completely understand his point, but on an estate where meeting rooms are at an absolute premium and with 650 of us looking to have meetings perhaps two or three times a day, sometimes the only way that I find the space to have a meeting is to meet people in Portcullis House and sit at one of those tables. I do not feel in any way that that sets me at a level above; it is just a practical thing. Give us some more meeting rooms and I say, “Let’s have equal access to tea, coffee and cake in future.”
I wish to conclude where I began, by saying to the staff, “We are wholeheartedly on your side. Do not suffer. If you have any problems with your boss, come and talk to one of the people who have contributed to this debate, because we are on your side.” I have no doubt that the Leader of the House will make that apparent.