House of Commons speaker John Bercow faces fresh bullying allegations after a former private secretary claimed that he was subject to angry outbursts and obscene language when he worked for him.
Angus Sinclair said that Bercow had shouted at him, undermined him in front of other staff, swore and attempted to physically intimidate him, with a mobile phone smashed on the desk in front of him on one occasion.
The former senior official told BBC Newsnight he was paid £86,250 in 2010, after working for Bercow for one year, as part of a deal that required him to sign a non-disclosure agreement about the alleged behaviour.
Sinclair, who spoke earlier this year about a culture of covering up bullying in the House of Commons, has now breached the terms of his agreement. “I thought to myself, it’s in the public interest to know why I left, yes, it breaks that non-disclosure agreement, but it’s the truth,” he said. “There was bullying.”
Bercow has denied the claim. A spokesman for his office said: “Mr Speaker strenuously denies that there is any substance to any of these allegations. He has a superb team of dedicated, effective and long-serving staff – five of whom have worked for him very happily for a combined total of over 40 years.”
However, the latest allegation could prove damaging for Bercow as it comes at a time when the Commons is trying to get to grips with bullying and harassment on its estate.
An independent inquiry into the bullying of House staff is under way and will report back in July. In a speech last week, Commons leader Andrea Leadsom said: “There can be no hiding places, or cover-ups, for anyone abusing their power.”
Earlier this year, she published a report on plans to toughen up protections for staff. Complaints would spark a confidential inquiry by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, with a tougher range of sanctions for those found to have behaved inappropriately.
The Guardian understands that almost 1,500 parliamentary staff will be brought under the umbrella of Westminster’s new official complaints system for harassment and bullying for the first time this summer.
Sinclair, who joined the House of Commons in 2005 as private secretary to fomer speaker Michael Martin, said that he was given compulsory early retirement after around a year of working for Bercow, who became speaker in 2009.
A letter from the Director General of Resources made clear that the payment, part of his severance package, was explicitly dependent on his signing a non-disclosure agreement that would bar him from speaking to the media or raising a complaint. The £86,250 lump sum – more than a year’s pay – was unusual for a retiring staff member.
He told the BBC: “I can only think it was because of the detail of what had happened, you know, the bullying and the manner of my leaving ... What I’d done was sign a cover-up and in a cynical way, I’d been paid to do it, and that’s not a good feeling.”
It follows claims that House managers were informed in 2011 that Kate Emms, Sinclair’s successor in the role, had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after less than a year of working for Bercow. He has denied the claims.
Sinclair told the programme that the speaker was prone to “over the top” anger: “The Speaker responded in a way that I can only say is a form of bullying. And that is to show anger ... I’m not sure he was completely in control of it. The arms would wave around.”
He detailed one outburst: “There was a tirade of how I’d let him down and it was the worst thing... There was a lot of bad language and suddenly his mobile phone, which he’d been holding, was flung on the desk in front of me and broke into a lot of bits.”