October 27, 2020

Westminster sets pace with Cox inquiry into parliamentary ‘bullying’

Our Parliament is based very firmly on the Westminster model, an enduring reminder of our colonial past. But as no effort has so far been taken to replace it, we might as well make use of its hundreds more years of experience than we have had and, at least sometimes, take heed of it when we should.

I talk, of course, about the UK House of Commons’ investigation into allegations of bullying in the House of Commons.

We have inherited not only Order Papers, Question Time, the curious but endearing insistence on addressing Members during debates as Honourable, even the seating arrangements, right down to the colour of the leather benches.

It appears we too have inherited a toxic environment which was exposed in the British press not so long ago, with the biggest bully apparently being the current Speaker, John Bercow, a claim that was endorsed by his former private secretary.

The UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that civil servants at Westminster had been “pushed to breaking point” This was a quote from an interview with a union leader who also said her organisation would “support members” if they decided to stage a walkout.

According to the Economist, the report revealed that the House of Commons is characterised by a “clear lack of accountability” and a “general unwillingness to challenge things robustly”. Some at the top of the hierarchy take advantage, with senior staff humiliating juniors and MPs treating staff “like servants”.

House of Commons is characterised by a “clear lack of accountability” and a “general unwillingness to challenge things robustly”

It seems not only are staff regularly bullied in the UK House of Commons. Some Members also report being subjected to abuse by the more powerful, including sexual harassment. It appears the glorious building, and proud tradition, of Westminster has for decades hidden a culture of harassment, humiliation and a lack of effective channels for grievances.

As the tragic suicide of South Africa’s parliamentary manager in International Relations Lennox Garane has exposed at last, it seems we have inherited more than a series of political traditions from our UK counterpart. That appears to have been accompanied by a culture of disrespect and impunity.

Like the British, we too have established an inquiry to investigate bullying or harassment of parliamentary staff, although Westminster did not wait to be prompted by what Garane described as a “protest suicide” in order to move into action. It appears that what we don’t seem to have inherited in the South African Parliament is the British ability to act with speed and conviction.

We also have departed from our Westminster roots in focusing on Garane’s suicide as a security issue instead of an HR issue. Cox went directly to investigate allegations of bullying, abuse and non-accountability in Westminster and in a statement after her findings were released said the institution “owes a duty of care to the staff it employs. Fulfilling this duty should be a matter of HR not politics”.

Even though the Garane family has publicly attributed their father, brother, husband’s suicide to the South African Parliament’s abusive treatment of its staff, suggesting an urgency that the British would have speedily acted on, we still await the report on the findings of our own investigation.

Former high court judge Dame Laura Cox QC was employed to lead an independent inquiry into the alleged bullying and harassment in the House of Commons staff. Her findings, released on October 15, were damning and raised a stir when they were made public.

The report was immediately followed by an open letter confirming the Cox findings, coordinated by senior House of Commons staff and signed by 80 signatories who waived their right to anonymity to call for urgent change. The letter stated, “The signatories of this letter have one thing in common. We have personally experienced, or seen first-hand, bullying or harassment by members of parliament go unchallenged...Dame Laura Cox’s report has exposed Westminster’s open secret – a minority of parliamentarians have been allowed to get away with this behaviour for years.”

A statement from Dame Cox herself said after the report was released: “Our House of Commons is at the core of our democratic system and has been seen as a model around the world ... We want a parliament that we can be proud of,” she said. Instead, she concluded, “Parliament has been diminished”.

“Abusive conduct of this kind is pervasive and no workplace is immune, but the culture in which it has been able to take hold in the House of Commons and the ineffective mechanisms for dealing with it make this a particularly serious case.

“The nature and extent of the allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment, made against other members of House staff as well as against some Members of Parliament, are disturbing, and the effects of such misconduct have been exacerbated by the inadequate procedures in place to tackle them.”

The Cox statement is worth quoting at length, given its relevance to our own Parliament’s situation. Speaking after completing her investigation Dame Cox also said: “Throughout this inquiry I have been struck by the professionalism, care and thoughtfulness of those who contributed. These were not people set on revenge or out to malign either individuals or the reputation of the House itself. Those present or former members of staff who came forward care very deeply that the place regarded as the heart of our democracy is failing to live up to the standards to be expected of any 21st century workplace.

“And ‘workplace’ is the appropriate term. While some contributors were at pains to point out that the House is a ‘unique institution,’ ultimately, it is a place of work. Admittedly it has some unusual features, but it is a place where over 2,000 people are employed and to whom their employers owe a duty of care.

“Amongst current and former staff alike there is an obvious pride and affection for the House and its status. Working there is, for many, a privilege – whether as a member of House staff or as an elected Member of Parliament ‑ and there is an expectation of loyalty to the institution they serve. But that sense of loyalty 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.”

The problems were not insurmountable, she found, but needed to be tackled properly, once and for all. She went on to express concern that “Delivering fundamental and permanent change will require a genuine commitment on the part of the leadership of the House.

“The inescapable conclusion from the views expressed during this inquiry is that it will be extremely difficult to build confidence that there will be fundamental change when the levers of change are regarded as part of the change that is needed.”

Her report was presented to the House for its consideration, as will ours, in due course, in accordance with the Westminster tradition. Cox listed concrete proposals, starting with the urgent introduction of an Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, which was due to take place in January 2019, but which she recommended should not be held up any longer.

She referred to procedures currently in use for following up grievances, known as the “Valuing Others Policy” and the “Revised Respect Policy”, and declared they should both be abandoned as soon as possible. Clearly they were long-standing practices that had proved ineffectual, and she suggested members of House staff wishing to complain about bullying, harassment or sexual harassment should no longer be required to use them.

She also suggested that steps should be taken to ensure that complaints of bullying, harassment or sexual harassment brought by House staff against Members of Parliament “will be an entirely independent process, in which Members of Parliament will play no part”.

The British public is relieved. Their media is placated. South Africa, please don’t let us miss this opportunity to revise Parliament’s institutional culture to entrench instead a conerstone of our democracy that lives up to the standards we set in 1994.

Moira Levy

Last modified on Monday, 22 October 2018 16:56

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Notes from the House is an independent online publication that tracks and monitors Parliament’s role in fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities to improve the lives of South African citizens. Published by Moira Levy with the support of the Claude Leon Foundation.

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