UK

Westminster bullying: A 'conflicted' commission

Commission members

Will MPs finally get held to account if they mistreat staff? After the publication of the Dame Laura Cox review, what happens now?

Last week, this report gave us a blueprint for how MPs should be judged and punished if they bully or harass people working for the House of Commons.

The next stage is that the House of Commons Commission, the 11-member governing board of the Commons, will review those conclusions. This panel, made of seven MPs, two senior officials and two non-voting external members, will need to come up with a plan that, ultimately, MPs will need to support.

One group, however, has made its view very clear; most of the clerks themselves are in favour of action.

Clerks 'radicalised'

Last week, the board of the House of Commons Chambers and Committees Team met. This is, in effect, the group that manages most of the clerks. In a message to staff, this middle-tier body said they supported the report: "Our aim now is to secure the support of the political leadership of the House for that change". That's unusually punchy for such a group.

On Monday, a large number of people wrote a public letter calling on the Commission to adopt the report.

A few names jump out at me. The first on the list is a committee clerk.

Why is this significant? He is a still-serving clerk. Alphabetically the first of 29 clerks who have gone public. I cannot overstate how strange this is. Remember, this is a group of people who, until recently, had wigs as part of their standard attire. Going public is a big, bold move for them. They have been radicalised.

'Uncertainty'

So what will happen at the committee meeting on Wednesday? We already know that the speaker, John Bercow, will not be chairing the meeting because he faces bullying allegations. Jane McCall, one of the two external members of the Commission, will take the chair.

We also know that there is a new external member of the commission, Dr Rima Makarem, who will be joining them for the first time. That will provide some added uncertainty for people following this.

And we also know there are commission members who have conflicts of interest:

  • Valerie Vaz (Labour's shadow leader of the House): The sister of Keith Vaz MP. Mr Vaz would be extremely likely to face investigations were there to be an independent process that could review past conduct. He denies bullying. Ms Vaz has faced allegations of bullying herself, which she denies
  • Dame Rosie Winterton (deputy speaker and former Labour chief whip): During our investigations, one thing we came across repeatedly was that clerks were compelled to rely on the whips to handle bullying claims. Any investigation is likely to reveal the extent to which party whips' offices knew about the extent of the problem
  • Sir David Natzler (clerk of the House) and Ian Ailles (director general): Both are criticised in the Cox report

Dame Laura is oblique about who she thinks should resign, but it is hard to read her report and conclude it does not include these last two.

If a commission with so many conflicted members - five of the 11 members, including the Speaker - does not take on the Cox reforms, the mood among the clerks will be fairly bleak.

There is talk of industrial action; a strike within parliament. That, on its own, could cripple the House of Commons - especially if Labour MPs refuse to cross a picket line.

But if politicians do not introduce a normal HR process for Commons staff, the Commons staff will start behaving more like normal employees to fight for their rights.

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