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House of Commons: White report and progress


House of Commons Commission, Gemma White report, bullying, sexual harassment, MPs staff, statement, debate,Hansard,‘The problem of bullying and harassment is sufficiently widespread to require an urgent collective response.’

In 2017, the House of Commons Commission appointed Dame Laura Cox to carry out an enquiry into bullying and harassment in the Commons Service.  The ensuing Laura Cox report was published on 15 October 2018.

Since the problem was clearly not unique to the Commons Service, additional inquiries were commissioned – and the report by Gemma White QC on bullying and harassment of past and present staff of MPs has now been published.

White’s key conclusions are that:

Some staff of Members of Parliament are subject to an unacceptable risk of bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, at work;

Most Members of Parliament treat their staff with dignity and respect but the problem of bullying and harassment is sufficiently widespread to require an urgent collective response;

Recent steps taken by the House of Commons to address bullying and harassment ‘across the Parliamentary community’ do not engage sufficiently with the particular issues faced by Members’ staff, who are in a uniquely vulnerable position because they are directly employed by Members of Parliament;

Many describe the idea of complaining about bullying and harassment under the new complaints procedure as “career suicide”;

They also often have strong party and personal loyalties which constitute significant barriers to making a complaint;

To date, the group of MPs’ staff who would be most likely to bring a complaint under the new Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, namely former staff of MPs, have been denied the right to do so.

This limitation must be removed so that they have the opportunity to hold MPs to account.

They must also be permitted to complain about events which took place before June 2017 (the current cut-off date) as recommended by Dame Laura Cox;

Since few staff will complain in any event, other methods of tackling workplace bullying and harassment must be employed.

Voluntary training is not the answer: only 34 out of 650 MPs and 135 out of 3200 MPs’ staff have attended or booked onto the Valuing Everyone training designed to support the new Behaviour Code introduced in July 2018;

There must be a fundamental shift away from regarding Members of Parliament as “650 small businesses” with near complete freedom to operate in relation to their staff.

Members of Parliament must be required to adopt and follow employment practices and procedures which are aligned with those followed in other public sector workplaces.

This shift must be supported by a properly resourced and staffed department within the House of Commons.

It should develop and implement a coherent and robust approach to Members’ employment practice and provide support to Members and their staff.

Any necessary enforcement mechanisms – such as imposing conditions related to good employment practice on MPs’ entitlement to staffing expenditure – should be considered by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority [IPSA] in conjunction with the new department.

Public undermining and criticism and shouting and/or swearing at employees (and throwing objects) were by far the most prevalent misbehaviour reported.

Contributors reported excessive workloads; MPs setting their staff up to fail; being required to undertake non-Parliamentary  work for the MP – both political work and personal/domestic tasks; having to cope with private criticism of colleagues; blurred boundaries; unreasonable contact; problems with contractual leave entitlement; money issues; and discrimination.

Reports of bullying and harassment by colleagues were of similar behaviour, but in significantly smaller numbers. Complaints in this category were generally made about the behaviour of an office manager.

Sexual harassment featured sufficiently significantly in the contributions which were made to merit separate consideration.

The behaviour described ranged from “jokes” regarded as acceptable workplace banter by those making them – and in one case the MP to whom the member of staff complained, all the way through to conduct which can only be described as very serious sexual assault.

Most, but not all, who spoke about experiencing this type of behaviour were women and most, but not all, of those described as engaging in it were men.

A number of contributors referred to not being able to make a formal complaint about sexual advances, sexual and sexist comments because they had signed a non-disclosure agreement.

In some cases, the contributors were referring to an agreement they had signed on termination of their employment with an MP. In other cases, they were referring to a confidentiality clause contained in their standard IPSA contract of employment.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (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.

To read the full report, click here.

The House of Commons Commission made a statement on the report on 11 July and said the Commission would look at Gemma White’s recommendations when it met on 15 July 2019: the ensuing statement was made public on 16 July.

It said bullying and harassment of MPs’ staff was totally unacceptable, and the Commission reiterated its support to anyone in the parliamentary community who has suffered in this way.

And it said the Commission had already put in place a number of measures before and since Dame Laura Cox QC published her report into bullying and harassment of House staff last October.

These included:

An Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS), introduced last July, along with a new Parliamentary Behaviour Code, which can be used by everyone in Parliament, whether staff, members of either House, or visitors.

Plans had been approved by the Commission to extend the ICGS to cover non-recent cases of bullying and harassment. Subject to agreement by the House after a debate held 17 July, this will come into force in the autumn.

Work is underway to make recommendations on not involving MPs when determining bullying and harassment cases.

And the Commission has agreed the following:

To begin consulting unions, IPSA and MPs immediately to see what the implementation issues in the creation of a new HR department might be to provide better support to MPs and to staff;

To consult on how data regarding the employment of staff could be collated and used to improve employment practices; and

To urge MPs to approve the Leader’s motion to open the ICGS to non-recent cases and to former members of the parliamentary community at the 17 July debate in the House of Commons.

The Commission also said that the ‘Valuing Everyone’ training has been introduced to ensure everyone working in Parliament is able to recognise bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct – and feels confident taking action to tackle and prevent it, and that the Commission will look at further ways to ensure that all MPs and their staff undertake the training as quickly as possible.

Further announcements on this matter will be made by the Commission following it’s next meeting, on 9 September.

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