The findings of Dame Laura Cox’s inquiry into bullying, harassment and sexual harassment in the House of Commons will come as no surprise to those who work there. And yet, the individual stories in her 155-page report still have the power to disturb. As an official at the FDA union, which represents many Commons employees, I frequently speak to members on this subject, and even I was shocked reading the sheer extent of the evidence submitted to Cox.
She hits the nail on the head when she describes “the sense of loyalty” in the House of Commons, that “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”.
Those four words – deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence – encapsulate the culture in the Commons. They are also the exact words I would use to describe parliamentary response to the Cox report.
What of individual MPs? At the time of writing only six had made statements on the report. Out of 650. What about the other 644? What do they have to say? Nothing, apparently.
Cox gives numerous examples of the humiliation and abuse that Commons staff have suffered at the hands of MPs, but she also illustrates the harm caused to staff when their complaints fall on deaf ears.
The inquiry describes concerns being met by looks of embarrassment; excuses made for the MPs in question; comments that bullying is “just the way it is”. Most damningly, the report talks about attempts to dissuade staff from raising complaints due to the impact it would have on their career. Complainants were met with silence and encouraged to stay quiet themselves.
This silence cannot be allowed to continue. MPs must now say something. This is an inquiry about their workplace, about their behaviour, about their power to change the culture in the house for the better. To make the Cox recommendations a reality – to create a fully independent complaints process and allow historical cases to be reopened for investigation – requires parliamentary approval.
MPs who wish to keep their lips sealed ought to take note: staff aren’t staying silent any more. FDA members tell me, just as staff told Cox, that they are proud to work for the House of Commons, but that they will no longer stand for this behaviour.
We are writing to the party leaders today to ask that they support the recommendations made by Cox and commit to implementing them without delay. They need to take responsibility, to make sure that this inquiry is taken seriously by every member of the house, and to make sure this abusive culture is changed for good.
• Amy Leversidge is assistant general secretary of the FDA union