How to tackle bullying in Westminster

What do politicians, civil servants and others need to do to tackle the issue of bullying and harassment and change behaviour in central and local government departments? Sylvia Sage explores

Bullying and harassment in the House of Commons is a serious issue that needs attention. As recently as this May, the media has reported that SNP MP Joanna Cherry is being investigated for bullying after four former staff members complained about her conduct.  

These allegations are the latest in a long line of complaints against MPs by former employees. But MPs and the House of Commons cannot afford to allow this behaviour to persist and undermine employee wellbeing and performance. The signals sent by parliament are critical, for the example they give to the rest of the country.

What’s the issue?
Concern over inappropriate behaviour has grown in the wake of the #metoo movement, which has put a spotlight on discrimination, harassment and bullying in the workplace. In the UK, the issue was brought into focus by the independent inquiry into bullying and harassment in the House of Commons.

The inquiry, by Dame Laura Cox, found the problem was widespread and exacerbated by inadequate procedures to deal with it. Dame Laura Cox’s report revealed a culture that has actively sought to cover up abusive conduct. As worryingly, she also noted the palpable lack of protection for individuals that report such abuse.

Labour MP Jess Phillips has urged urgent action to prevent a ‘Jimmy Savile situation’ developing in Parliament, and reported receiving ‘harrowing reports’ of behaviour by people in the House of Commons from people she knew ‘won’t ever come forward’.

What’s the impact?
Besides the effect on the victims themselves, discrimination, harassment and sexual harassment affect the mental and physical well-being of all employees and create a dysfunctional team environment.  

Highlighting the impact of this issue on staff and morale, one former House of Commons employee said there has been a ‘hemorrhaging of talent from Parliament because of this issue… some of the brightest, most capable people…are no longer there because of the treatment they received’.

Alongside the impact on performance, the House of Commons faces growing legal, reputational and financial risks from allegations and grievances.

So, what can be done?
To help tackle this issue and prevent a crisis, the House of Commons needs to do three things:

One, raise awareness:
Westminster and all its MPs need to begin by raising awareness of the issue and enabling their staff to recognise and report discrimination, bullying and harassment.

Simply put, discrimination is less favourable treatment of another person or persons, and harassment is behaviour that makes someone feel threatened, offended, excluded, or undermined, or creates a hostile or intimidating environment.

Offensive conduct, which should be defined in the HR or Dignity at Work policy, may include jokes, slurs, insults, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule, offensive pictures or interference with work.  

Harassment is illegal when it is related to a protected characteristic and, equally, when enduring it is a condition of employment or when it is severe enough to be considered intimidating, hostile or abusive. Often harassment is not a one-off incident but a pattern of behaviour.

Importantly, it is the impact of such behaviour that matters, even if that impact is not intended.

The House of Commons Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone, responsible for tackling the issue of harassment in Westminster, has suggested a new ‘behaviour code’, which would come with a range of sanctions to deal with those found to have abused staff or colleagues.      

Two, enable defence:
Westminster needs to enable its staff and managers to act in defence of themselves and others.

There are a number of informal and formal steps employees can take. If informal steps are insufficient, more formal action might include keeping a written record, reporting the incident and consulting with HR, an Inclusion Officer, or senior people who will not be tolerant of such ‘bad behaviour’.

MPs and leaders in the House of Commons have a particular responsibility under the Public Sector Equality Duty 2011 to ‘play their part in making society fairer by tackling discrimination and providing equality of opportunity for all.’

As published by the Ministry of Justice on 6th July 2012:  ‘Public authorities are now required, in carrying out their functions, to have due regard to the need to achieve the objectives set out under s149 of the Equality Act 2010 to: (a) eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under the Equality Act 2010;…’

The government’s ministries need to act as role models for the country.

Three, create shared values:
To build a respectful and productive workplace, MPs and the House of Commons must prioritise creating new values which are truly shared and which all live and work by. This would help to initiate the behavioural and cultural changes that need to happen.

The tone needs to be set at the top – leaders, elected or otherwise, are responsible for the culture of an organisation.

Discrimination and harassment within Westminster are a serious issue.  Beyond the impact on the victims, dysfunctional cultures affect the ability of the members of our government to do their best for the country.

Westminster must act to prevent this behaviour being perceived as ‘the accepted norm’.

Sylvia Sage is programme director at Corporate Learning Solutions.

Event Diary

You are invited to this unique annual exhibition that brings together all the disciplines from the emergency services sector who are involved in prevention, response and recovery.