Parliament’s current leadership is incapable of changing a widespread culture of bullying and harassment, an independent inquiry has found, suggesting officials including the House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, should consider standing down.
The independent report by Dame Laura Cox said there was a tradition of “deference and silence” that “actively sought to cover up abusive conduct” and gave no protection to those reporting bullying or sexual harassment.
Cox was not tasked with responding to individual complaints, including allegations of bullying against Bercow, which he denies.
However, she concluded “the levers of change are regarded as part of the change that is needed” and individuals should consider their positions.
“When reading this report, some people may privately recognise their own behaviours in some of the alleged abusive conduct I have described,” the former judge said. “I would hope that a process of reflection leads them to consider what, if anything, they should now do in the best interests of the house.”
In the 155-page report, Cox quoted several anonymous contributors who said meaningful change would take “several generations”.
“On this basis, I find it difficult to envisage how the necessary changes can be successfully delivered, and the confidence of the staff restored, under the current senior house administration,” she said.
Cox said the terms of reference of the inquiry – commissioned in the aftermath of bullying allegations against Bercow, which have been criticised by the civil service trade union, made her unable to name the individuals against whom “serious allegations of abusive conduct” had been made, sometimes by multiple complainants. There were a number of individuals who were “regarded as bearing some personal responsibility for the criticisms made” of the workplace culture.
Cox said their “continued presence is viewed as unlikely to facilitate the necessary changes” but it would be wrong of her to name the individuals.
However, she said her definition of senior leadership included the Speaker’s office, the clerk of the house, the director general, the executive board and House of Commons commission.
“Some individuals will want to think very carefully about whether they are the right people to press the reset button and to do what is required to deliver that change in the best interests of the house, having regard both to its reputation and its role as an employer of those who are rightly regarded as its most important resource,” Cox said.
The report said the “collective reputation” of MPs was being damaged by the allegations against a small number of people. “I have no doubt that they will regard this as intolerable,” Cox said.
The House of Commons executive board, made up of its most senior staff, convened an emergency meeting on Monday and said it would respond in full to the report after another meeting next week.
The report made for “difficult reading”, the board said. “We fully accept the need for change and, as a leadership team, are determined to learn lessons from the report. We apologise for past failings and are committed to changing our culture for the better,” it said.
As well as bullying allegations, Cox said she had found disturbing reports of sexual harassment by current and former MPs towards female staff, including:
Comments about their appearance, clothing or “physical attributes”.
Being the butt of jokes between MPs, in their presence and often in front of others.
Frequent inappropriate touching, including men patting women’s heads, putting their arms around women, leaving a hand on their knee for an uncomfortably long time, trying to kiss them, grabbing their arms or bottoms, or stroking their breasts or bottoms.
Women being abused in vulgar, gender-related terms if they failed to do something that had been requested.
Women being repeatedly propositioned and similar allegations from some men.
Cox recommended the new independent complaints and grievance scheme be amended to ensure it could be accessed by employees with historical complaintsand MPs should play no part in determining complaints of bullying, harassment or sexual harassment brought by house staff against other MPs.
The QC said many of the complaints she had heard were disturbing and staff “were not people set on revenge or out to malign either individuals or the reputation of the house itself”.
Among current and former staff, there was “an obvious pride and affection for the house and its status,” she said. “But that sense of loyalty has been tested to breaking point by a culture, cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed.”
Cox’s report also criticised the decision by a Commons working group to implement a new code of conduct without waiting for the outcome of her inquiry. She said the 2014 respect policy, on which the new complaints procedure was based, was discredited and distrusted.
Cox said the volume of submissions to her inquiry meant there was no chance she would conclude in time for the complaints procedure to be introduced in June 2019. She said the decision to press on with it regardless was “most unfortunate” and an “unhappy beginning to that process”.
“It is more important to get it right than to get it done in haste, in accordance with self-imposed deadlines,” she said. The procedure is to be reviewed in January 2019.
The investigation was announced by Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the Commons, in March to examine the nature and extent of bullying and harassment in parliament, including how complaints have been handled.
The investigation was prompted by a BBC Newsnight investigation into bullying claims made against Bercow, who has emphatically denied allegations that he bullied his former private secretaries Angus Sinclair and Kate Emms.
Leadsom said she would consider the recommendations of the report, including the criticism of the new complaints process.
“The introduction of the independent complaints and grievance policy agreed earlier this year is the beginning, not the end, of our efforts to lead change in parliament,” she said. “Ongoing culture change is fundamental to our approach.”
Valerie Vaz, the shadow leader of the Commons, said parts of the report were truly shocking and Labour would examine it. “We will continue to work on a cross-party basis to tackle this and ensure new procedures are as robust and effective as possible in order to protect everyone working in and visiting the House of Commons,” she said.
A Commons spokesperson said staff wellbeing was “a top priority” and it would take the findings into “careful account”, but made no commitment to further changes.
“Urgent work has already been undertaken to improve internal processes – including the introduction of new confidential support services and helplines run by external, independent specialist providers and a clear pathway for the investigation of allegations,” they said.
FDA, the civil servants’ union, praised the report’s conclusions, particularly the recommendation that historical cases be taken into account. “These are not the first stories of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. Urgent action is required to ensure that they are the last,” said Amy Leversidge, its assistant general secretary.