‘Rude and threatening’: the main findings of the John Bercow bullying inquiry

An independent panel upheld multiple complaints against the former Commons Speaker, calling him unreliable and dishonest

An independent inquiry has called the former House of Commons Speaker John Bercow a “serial bully” and liar, saying it would have recommended his expulsion from the Commons had he been an MP.

Bercow has been suspended from the Labour party over the conclusions of the inquiry, which came after his appeal against a report from the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone.

Campaigners and trade unions have hailed the report as a mark of progress for parliament’s complaints procedure, but Bercow called it a “kangaroo court” and said its findings were “amateurish”.

What are the main findings?

The independent panel, chaired by former court of appeal judge Sir Stephen Irwin, upheld 21 out of 35 complaints against him by former staff and colleagues. Four made complaints, of which three had multiple complaints upheld and the fourth was judged to be a witness to bullying behaviour.

The respondent’s conduct was so serious that, had he still been a member of parliament, we would have determined that he should be expelled by resolution of the house. As it is, we recommend that he should never be permitted a pass to the parliamentary estate.

In relation to one complainant in particular, the panel found:

[Bercow] has been widely unreliable and repeatedly dishonest in his evidence. He has attempted to defeat these complaints by false accusations of collusion and by advancing lies.

It found there were denials, lack of any remorse and “repeated publicity in breach of the confidentiality of the process” including in Bercow’s autobiography.

Three senior House of Commons staff made complaints against Bercow, as well as the former Black Rod, David Leakey, who was a witness.

Angus Sinclair

A former naval captain, Sinclair was Speaker’s Secretary under the previous Speaker and continued under Bercow until 2009 when he retired. He made seven allegations of bullying, of which four were upheld.

The report concluded that Sinclair had been verbally abused and berated, with Bercow seeking to humiliate him in front of others. The most egregious display was described by the report as Bercow hurling a mobile phone at Sinclair over a disagreement about his use of the Speaker’s residence during the local elections – though Bercow later apologised.

He ordered me to stay seated, so he was standing over me, and then threw the mobile phone right in front of me on my desk and it burst into hundreds of bits and I could feel them hitting me. It was the most violent, extraordinary display of temper.

In another case, where Bercow was displeased with one of Sinclair’s responses to a press call, Sinclair said he was “berated for doing so and sworn at”.

The Speaker calling him ‘fucking stupid’ and saying that he (the Speaker) did not give a ‘flying fuck’.

In another case, Bercow is said to have cut short a meeting with the CEO of the UK’s Commonwealth Parliamentary Association claiming that Sinclair had not briefed him and criticised him in front of the CEO.

He is also said to have told Sinclair “you fucking fix it that I’m on that panel” to choose the Speaker’s chaplain after it became clear his favoured candidate might not get the post.

Sinclair described Bercow as being “furious beyond the normal reaction … swearing at the complainant, thumping the table and waving his arms, with spittle coming from his mouth”.

Kate Emms

Emms was Sinclair’s successor as Speaker’s Secretary and made seven allegations of bullying and harassment, of which three were upheld. Emms said her treatment in post made her seriously unwell through stress and anxiety, and she finally quit without notice.

Her first complaint, about a work trip to Kenya, came after she warned Bercow he had an item in his hand luggage which would have to be checked in, describing his reaction as “irascible and disproportionately rude and threatening in his body language”, shouting at her in public.

In another meeting, where there was a misunderstanding over a policy line, Emms described Bercow looking at her “as if he wanted to rip my guts out”. She described his response as “loud, insulting, personally abusive and a ‘really direct personal attack’. In the course of this attack, he mimicked Emms.”

Emms said in a statement she was “supremely glad to be vindicated” by the report.

The impacts of the one and only genuinely horrible, undermining and consistently upsetting period of my career has spread into all areas of my life. Stress, anxiety and loss of confidence sent me home on sick leave and affected how I saw myself and how I felt I was seen by family, friends and colleagues.

Lord Lisvane

Lisvane, who was then Sir Robert Rogers, was Clerk of the House until August 2014. He made 18 allegations of bullying and/or harassment against Bercow, of which 14 were upheld and two were concluded to be harassment.

He said there were numerous fallings out over Bercow’s drive for diversity, including times when Bercow accused him of being “duplicitous, manipulative, of lying, and of bullying”. Another complaint detailed occasions describing Lisvane “personally as useless or hopeless, sometimes with profane language such as ‘fucking useless’.” A witness said that Lisvane was seriously undermined “often in front of junior staff”.

He would refer to the complainant as being ‘posh’ and would belittle him in front of others … often mimicking him in a demeaning way or referring to his privileged background.

At another meeting, Lisvane said that in front of others Bercow “suddenly launched an attack on his role as chief executive saying that the Commission made a mistake in appointing him and that he wanted to see his roles separated, with the appointment of a BAME woman as chief executive.

[Bercow] sneered at the complainant, told him how hopeless he was and that he was not prepared to put up with white middle-aged men any more.

In another incident, Lisvane discussed a BBC programme about MPs bullying staff where he suggested the House could not intervene. He described Bercow as going into “rant mode” and saying he wanted to avoid responsibility. The report found “this ‘rant’ was timed by the complainant as lasting 13 minutes”.

Lt Gen David Leakey

Leakey, the former Black Rod, lodged his own complaint against Bercow, which was not upheld. But Leakey said he made the complaint, which he acknowledged had no third-party corroboration, because he was keen to encourage those who had experienced worse to come forward.

But the report referred to him as a witness of a disagreement between Lisvane and Bercow on a security issue, including Bercow saying: “That’s typical of you clerks. The first sign of big trouble and you’ll head for cover and leave me to hold responsibility.”

Leakey is described as recalling the interaction as “extraordinarily rude, unkind and quite brutal”.

I’m sure you’ll find some slippery way of getting out of this. You clerks always do.

Bercow’s response

Bercow has denied all of the allegations of bullying and alleged there has been a coordinated attempt to assassinate his character and that the investigations have failed to follow due process.

The panel found that Bercow “does not accept the findings we have made and does not acknowledge the impact of his behaviour. In our view he has little or no insight into the way he behaved or its consequences. He has sought to minimise the outcome for these complainants.”

In one extraordinary paragraph, the investigator reveals Bercow mimicked Lisvane “on at least 20 occasions” during the course of their conversation.

The former Speaker said that misconduct claims against him had been upheld even when witnesses testified that they had not taken place. He said complainants had opposed his reforms for parliament to make the Commons more inclusive and diverse.

Parliament is supposed to be the highest court in the land. This inquiry, which lasted a ghastly 22 months at great cost to the taxpayer, has failed it dismally. At the end of it, the panel has simply said that I should be denied a parliamentary pass which I have never applied for and do not want. That is the absurdity of its position.

Bercow said he could still attend debates in parliament “with the help of a friendly passholder or go as a member of the public”.

He said the evidence against him “would have been thrown out by any court in the land since it is based on the flimsiest of evidence, rooted in hearsay and baseless rumour, and advanced by old-school dogmatists once intent on resisting change at all costs and now settling some ancient scores with me”.


Jessica Elgot

The GuardianTramp

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