I worked for the House of Commons for 12 years, and have contributed to the Cox Inquiry and the BBC Newsnight reports about harassment and bullying in Parliament.
When the Cox Report described the House of Commons as having “a culture, cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence” it sparked some outrage, but little surprise. That politicians have abused their privilege, as they did in the expenses scandal, and that senior public servants were powerless and/or unwilling to do anything about it, has shocked no one. It was ever thus.
For those of us who have worked in Parliament and have witnessed, and been subject to, these abuses, the Cox Report has confirmed what we have always known and have been trying to vocalise for a long time.
Parliament does a good job of normalising all sorts of anachronistic rituals, and poor conduct and bad behaviour by politicians and senior public servants has become another.
We have long expected no better, and so it lurks in plain sight. Some commentators have almost prided themselves in their lack of surprise about the findings of this report – because who wants to appear naive – but those of us that experienced bullying and harassment in Parliament and worked in that culture of deference, subservience and silence, cynicism acts as little comfort.
During my time in the House of Commons I reported two harassment cases: one against a manager and one against a Member of Parliament. Both complaints were upheld, but no sanctions were brought against either.
I know dozens of former colleagues and friends who have been bullied, assaulted and abused during their time working for the House, all of whom submitted their stories to the Cox Inquiry but many are still too traumatised to talk about it publicly. Many of them, like me, left the House because they did not feel safe and they had no trust in, or support from, House management after reporting abuse or harassment.
There has been a haemorrhage of talent from Parliament because of this issue alone and some of the brightest, most capable people I worked with are no longer there because of the treatment they received. This is not only bad for public service, but it turns the patriarchy into a self-fulfilling prophesy in one of the most high profile organisations in the country.
The Cox Report should be a pivotal moment in Parliament’s evolution into a modern workplace and those of us that contributed to the inquiry felt relieved and vindicated that we had finally been believed when we read the report and recommendations. But there is already talk that the report could get kicked into the long grass and the tribal warfare surrounding the Speaker, and Brexit, have meant that this issue that has affected so many lives and careers, is in danger of being drowned by politics again.
Margaret Becket said that Brexit “trumps bad behaviour”, which begs the question – what else would trump bad behaviour? Is there a list of constitutional crises of varying severity that would be more important than victims of abuse?
The moral compass inside the House of Commons has been stuck pointing at its own navel for centuries. The notion that nobody quite understands the unique challenges of the political environment, and just how terribly important and stressful it all is, has consistently been used as an excuse for abuses of power and privilege and lack of transparency. But there are people who know about the challenges of the political environment – the staff of the House – who write the reports, who do the research, who martial proceedings, who cook the food and empty the bins. Some of them are even experts on Brexit. They know all about that environment, they work tirelessly and invisibly in public service and continue to provide a world class service, even to their abusers.
Laura Cox wrote in her report: "I find it difficult to envisage how the necessary changes can be successfully delivered, and the confidence of the staff restored, under the current senior House Administration" and I have a similar lack of faith in the current top tier of the House of Commons. My experience of senior management in the House was that they were generally oblivious to pressures put on staff by Members, and were often unapproachable, and sometimes blatantly dismissive of concerns raised about bullying until they reached crisis point.
The House of Commons Commission will have a large role in what happens next. The Commission is made up of some of these senior managers along with the Speaker who, when he was just a regular backbencher, once screamed at me and called me a "little girl" simply because he had been unable to find an envelope (which was exactly where I said it was, for the record).
These are not people who even know what the problem looks like, let alone capable of examining whether they are part of that problem. They are not trained in HR, they have limited experience of other workplaces where employees are not protected by parliamentary privilege and while their procedural knowledge may be exemplary, they are part of a self-serving culture that has normalised abusive behaviour and ‘othered’ those that have dared to speak out.
Unlike the expenses scandal, this story has relied on the personal testimonies of people who have been bullied, abused and harassed. It is not the same as finding a box of receipts and doing the sums. This is the story of people putting their careers on the line, of people dredging up painful, traumatic memories and people who have been repeatedly dismissed and disbelieved finally feeling that their truth is being heard.
The staff of the House are incredibly discreet and professional and have always run the risk of becoming victims of their own stoicism. If the House of Commons pulls the strings of self-regulation and buries their truth, it will once again be reducing them to the human collateral of a toxic tradition.
Libby Bradshaw worked for 12 years in the House of Commons from 2000-2012