The Observer view on the toxic workplace that is Westminster | Observer editorial

Bullying is rife in parliament and MPs should be the last people to condone it

‘A stark reminder of how bad things used to be” is how Laura Cox described parliament in her independent review of bullying and harassment in Westminster. She found evidence of a toxic working culture, with some MPs behaving in appalling ways to junior staff.

That was in 2018. Since then, an independent inquiry has found that John Bercow, who while Commons speaker had overall responsibility for parliamentary culture, was a “serial bully” and a liar. It concluded that his conduct towards staff was so appalling he would have been suspended from the Commons had he still been an MP. Alex Allan, the former independent adviser on ministerial standards, in 2020 found that the former home secretary Priti Patel had bullied civil servants. Allan later resigned when the then prime minister, Boris Johnson, defended her and asserted she had not broken the ministerial code.

Numerous allegations of bullying have surfaced this month in relation to Gavin Williamson: from the former chief whip – to whom he sent expletive-laden messages – from a female parliamentary colleague and from a civil servant who has accused him, among other things, of telling him to “slit his throat”. This weekend, it has emerged that senior civil servants at the Ministry of Justice were offered the opportunity to switch roles to avoid working with Dominic Raab after Rishi Sunak reappointed him as justice secretary. And evidence has been submitted to yet another parliamentary bullying inquiry – the third in just five years – that highlights that in a survey of 600 staff, a quarter said they had experienced or witnessed bullying.

Much has been written about why parliament appears so permissive to toxic behaviour by a minority of MPs. The Commons has been likened to 650 little fiefdoms, each with a small group of staff answerable to an MP, which makes staff reluctant to call out and report bad behaviour. The gossipy culture means they fear being tarred as “difficult” if they complain, making it hard for them to get jobs in the future. The culture of late-night working and socialising can weaken the boundaries between professional and personal relationships.

MPs have tried to address this by establishing an independent complaints and grievance process for staff (as well as for members of both Houses) who have experienced bullying and harassment. But there is a critical factor that has not changed a bit in the years since Cox’s review. Culture is set by those with power at the top of a workplace. And there are far too many ministers and senior MPs who make excuses for unacceptable behaviour by their political allies.

Johnson appointed Chris Pincher chief whip despite being made aware of formal complaints that alleged he sexually harassed two men while he was a minister at the Foreign Office. Senior Conservative MPs argued that there were “balancing requirements” that mitigated Patel’s bullying behaviour. Crispin Blunt MP defended former parliamentarian Imran Ahmad Khan after he was convicted of child sexual assault. Sunak had reportedly been made aware that there were serious allegations about Williamson’s conduct.

It is not just a Conservative problem: the senior Labour MP Margaret Beckett in 2018 said in relation to Bercow’s bullying: “The constitutional future of this country… trumps bad behaviour.”

So long as some parliamentarians remain happy to turn their faces away from evidence of bullying and harassment, for reasons of political expedience, nothing will change. The House of Commons and Whitehall will continue to harbour behaviour that should never be tolerated in the modern workplace, with terrible consequences for the people who work there.

• This article was amended on 18 November 2022 to clarify that the independent complaints and grievance service (ICGS) was established for all members of the parliamentary community, not only parliamentary staff.

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