Bullying probe

Bullying probe
From BBC - March 8, 2018

Warning: this report includes strong language

There is a bullying and sexual harassment problem at the House of Commons. Women face greater obstacles holding jobs in the engine room of our democracy than men.

It is a problem that runs from the most obscure of backbench committee rooms through to the most senior of MPs.

The topic raises questions not just about the conduct of members and the processes of the House - but also about John Bercow, the Speaker of the House, himself.

One woman, who has now left the House, told us: "My career at the House of Commons did not end when I was sexually harassed. My career ended when I complained."

Another, still in post, told us there was a "culture of fear" in the House, as people worry that, if something happens, they will not be looked after.

After dozens of interviews with House current and departed staff, it is clear that a large number of staff members - women, in particular - feel they have no protection from the small minority of MPs who might harass, bully or wish to take advantage of them.

After reviewing hundreds of pages of internal parliamentary HR documents, it is clear the House has an unusual approach to managing personnel.

The group of people that Newsnight has focussed on are people who do not get much attention. Whenever the House of Commons works, so does a team of unacknowledged officials who work directly for parliament - not any member or party.

Their job is to keep our democracy fair and open.

This cadre, who work for the House of Commons, have a host of titles such as "secretary" and "inquiry manager". But, to other people in Westminster, most of this group of people are known by the title that is, strictly speaking, held by only the most senior among them: the "clerks".

They quietly advise MPs on committees, and advise the Speaker of the House on procedure. Their role is more important than is commonly appreciated. You can easily spot a few wearing wigs in the chamber on special occasions. They are not civil servants, because they work for the House - not the government.

These officials are easy prey for MPs, in particular, who decide to harass or bully them. It is a place where women, in particular, struggle to stay the course. While some men get bullied, one woman told us that it was a problem that was "90 per cent" women - an assessment that other people in the House agree with.

Since 2011, there has been a process to protect them from MPs - the "Respect" policy has been in place - but staff have no confidence in it. Women are bullied more and harassed more by male MPs. And if these women complain, they are certain their careers will suffer.

Our legislature - the core of our public life - is a place where talented women are more likely to try to move on to other things, where their impact on our public life will almost certainly be smaller.

One woman said: "All I wanted was to do my job without being humiliated. There are no incentives for people to raise issues."

Another said: "I was bullied out of a job I loved. The MPs were one thing, but I felt so badly let down by the people I worked with directly."

The clerks

Clerks occupy a strange space. They work with MPs, whose authority comes from being elected by the public. And if the MPs work on committees, they are there with a double authority: their positions on committees comes from other MPs voting them onto them.

As a result, when there are workplace problems, there is an inequality in their roles.

Hannah White, who worked as a clerk from 2004 to 2014, said "From the day that you start working in the House of Commons ..there can be situations where you are required to deliver difficult messages and in those circumstances it's seen as very important to be robust."

That is the root of this problem. There is culture among clerks that prizes "resilience". You cannot easily deal with an MP who is unreasonable, so the ideal clerk will be able to cope. They will be "thick-skinned" and have a "stiff upper lip".

But, as Ms White says, "The difficulty is when that extends to when a member behaves inappropriately towards you- you are still expected to just put up with that situation."

This is a culture that contains none of the normal feedback mechanisms that correct workplace behaviour. Clerks put up with actions by MPs that would be deemed unacceptable in any other context. And that allows behaviour to escalate from thoughtlessness into something worse.

On trips abroad, women clerks have told us they have been advised not to accept drinks with MPs. Go to bed promptly. Do not let them in your room. Do not enter theirs. And younger women, in particular, are at risk.

The prevalent attitude is that, as a clerk, if you complain about an MP, your career is likely to suffer. Not theirs. You may be referred to courses on dealing with "difficult" people. Women have told us how, even if you have been subjected to significant workplace bullying or sexual harassment, you risk being seen as "sensitive" or a "troublemaker" if you complain.

Our researchpoints to a particular problem:that, if the House accepts there is a real issue, the usual solution is to move the clerk - not the MP.

A current clerk told us: "There is still a fear about people speaking out because there are recent examples where people end up getting moved or leaving the House in relation to raising these things ."

That can be distressing for people who enjoy working with their current team. But it can also mean that people's workplace progression is slowed. It places a particular burden on clerks who have built a specialism that can only be deployed on one committee.

Careers suffering

The problem of women suffering for complaining was a continual refrain from the clerks we interviewed. We spoke to one woman who described being sexually assaulted by an MP in the 1990s, when she was about 20. She was delivering papers to him in his office one evening.

She said: "He manoeuvred me out of his office into the corridor and put his arm around me and kissed me. I can remember trying to fight him off. I was trying to reel back to stop him from reaching me, but it did not stop him. I told my line manager and nothing happened, so I just left it."

This is not an unfamiliar complaint. Women working in the house have told us about being pushed against walls, forcibly kissed, groped and slapped by MPs much more recently.

One woman told us about how she, a keen baker, had made a birthday cake for a colleague. She was applying the icing, when an MP entered the room.

"I was kneeling, putting the finishing touches on the cake. He came in and stood right over me. I remember he was overbearingly close. He said 'right where you belong. On your knees with a face full of chocolate.' It was so humiliating."

The response from her manager was to conclude: "the best course of action would be to move me from that committee. I did not want to move. I enjoyed my job. I stayed, but the behaviour did not stop."

"After that I did everything I could - I was never alone, my colleagues chaperoned me to events, I dressed differently, as I was told I became much blander around MPs...but whatever you do it does not stop that feeling in the pit of your stomach the whole never know who is around the next corner, or who is going to get in a lift with you."

One woman told us: "When I raised a complaint, I knew full well that I'd be the one that would get moved. Despite the fact I loved my job. Raising complaints had a detrimental impact on my career. On reflection, I think it's why I did not go as far as I would have liked to."

Yet another said: "The lesson I took away was that you shut up. You do not speak up if you have a problem where an MP is concerned. Management would deal with things in a discreet way - which meant telling the person who had been harassed or bullied that they had to do something to change or they would be moved."

Newsnight has heard accounts from women who regard themselves as being victims of that culture - and some who think they were beneficiaries.

We have met women who credit their success to being "compliant" and women who credit their lack of advancement to a willingness to make noise.

The Honourable Member for the Wrekin

Mark Pritchard, the Tory MP for the Wrekin, is notorious for shouting at and berating clerks. Many we spoke to rolled their eyes at the mention of his name.

The bulk of the outbursts we have heard about follow something of a pattern. A clerk will stand up to him, he will fly into a rage, and sometimes complain to their management.

The circumstances of a committee trip to California in 2007 are particularly notorious. One witness told us about how he berated a female member of staff." He was not happy with the hotel choice, he wanted to stay elsewhere. He exploded, yelled at her"

Another witness explained: "Pritchard wanted a hotel on Santa Monica beach for the California trip, but the Foreign Office wanted him to stay in downtown LA so travel was not involved. He threw his papers about and said something like 'youf**king useless women'".

When they finally went on that trip, a witness told us that Mr Pritchard told one official: "You stupid young woman, you have not got af**king clue what you are talking about. Who thef**k do you think you are?"

We have been told that Mr Pritchard has also sought to approach clerks' managers to attempt to overturn their decisions and angrily boasted to clerks that their careers were over.

Mr Pritchard himself told us: "I understand, over the past several years the House authorities have addressed numerous complaints about MPs, but they have also informed me they have no record of any complaints against me, and if they had, I would have been notified."

But that brings us back to the core of the issue: staff members are loath to formally complain about any MP.

Managers at the House of Commons would note that, since 2011, there has been a formal process for dealing with complaints by staff against MPs - the so-called "Respect" policy.

But it has faced one stern test - and it came out badly.

The Honourable Member for Newcastle under Lyme

Clerks are unanimous about the virtues of Emily Commander, a former clerk.Views on her range from "a future Clerk of the House" to "the best boss I ever had". We heard praise for ability to deal with the minutiae of a topic, run a team, handle a committee, write a report or deal with MPs.

Newsnight has spoken to witnesses who believe that a single member, Paul Farrelly, the Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, made her continued employment at the House of Commons impossible - a consequence, they say, of years of continued, personal criticism.

One witness recalls him singling Ms Commander out when they were working on the Science and Technology Committee in the early 2000s.A fellow participant in a committee trip to Italy in November 2004 session recalled his behaviour vividly. "He was a complete and utter bully".

"He wound her up like a screw and reduced her to tears. The more he upset her, the more he enjoyed it, the more he kept turning the screw. He was very aggressive. It felt like no one had the ability or authority to intervene. Everybody knew it was wrong."

Mr Farrelly says he has no memory of Ms Commander being a clerk on this committee.

Mr Farrelly left the Science and Technology committee in July 2005 for the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. But the two had to work together again: in late 2010, Ms Commander became clerk of the CMS Committee.

This was a major promotion for her: a committee in the midst of the news. The phone-hacking inquiry was going on. This was the committee to which Rupert Murdoch would soon confess to feeling "humbled" - and where he was hit with a foam pie by a protester.

Ms Commander's promotion reflected the House's high regard for her. The report she produced was regarded as "magisterial" by senior officials.

However documents obtained by Newsnight, show that Ms Commander was forced to step away from the committee for her own health a little more than a year later - a development attributed by her managers to Mr Farrelly's behaviour.

Emails between staff, obtained by Newsnight, show her complaints were of a campaign of continual belittling and undermining, in front of her MPs and in front of her own staff.Eventually, in the words of a colleague, it reached "crisis point". Ms Commander had to step away. One internal document, obtained by Newsnight, contains a summary of her position.

Evidence sifting

The inquiry

The Speaker

Where to now?


Continue reading at BBC »