Dame Laura Cox, the former High Court judge appointed to inquire into the issue of bullying and harassment of House staff, is not driven by any political or personal animus. Indeed, it was to escape any bias for or against anyone in Parliament that the inquiry was established to begin with, and then placed into Cox’s hands by the House of Commons Commission.
There were good reasons for the Commission to seek such impartiality. It is hard for any institution to mark its own homework. Scandals involving the abuse of power – such as officials and MPs allegedly abusing their positions to mistreat Commons employees – require a clear-sighted, authoritative and demonstrably independent outsider to reassure victims, even-handedly assess the facts, and publish their findings without fear or favour.
Judging from Cox’s report, she was a good choice for the role. As well as a grimly illuminating account of the problem, her analysis of how to address it pulls few punches. Her conclusions include direct criticism of those who appointed her, she challenges their failures in blunt terms, and also urges them to overturn specific decisions they have pre-emptively made on how to handle the scandal. And rightly so; inquiries that melt into diplomatic fudges for fear of rocking the boat are worse than useless.
That doesn’t mean the job is done. Far from it. Cox reveals the problem (or at least part of it – her terms of reference did not allow her to investigate the mistreatment of MPs’ staff) and proposes some solutions, but she herself is clear that:
‘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.’
For the avoidance of doubt, she ensures that her report specifies exactly what is meant by terms like “senior House administration”:
‘Throughout this report I have referred variously to ‘the senior administration’, ‘senior managers’, ‘senior levels of management’, ‘the House authorities,’ the House leadership’ or other similar phrases. In doing so, unless the context indicates otherwise, I am referring collectively to all the offices of leadership within the House including, predominantly: the Clerk of the House; the Director General; the Executive Board; the House of Commons Commission; the Speaker’s Office.’
So there it is: step one, clear out the people at the top in order to make the necessary reforms possible. That would be radical, but she couldn’t really be any clearer about it.
Reading the report, one can see why. This is not just a problem of formal rules – though there are criticisms of those, too – but of ‘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’.
And what a culture she found. Bullying and harassment of staff by other staff, including by managers. Bullying and harassment of staff by MPs. And such behaviour by both groups routinely dismissed, ignored, hushed up or minimised by the very managers and leaders who are charged with the responsibility to put a stop to it.
As Cox puts it, ‘leadership and culture are inextricably linked’ – a culture can be established, moulded, tolerated or challenged by those at the top of an organisation, and they have responsibility for its nature. If some of those in senior positions are allegedly involved in harassment and bullying themselves, and others have allowed it to persist, then the prospect of those same people now stamping it out is obviously poor.
Nobody thinks that this issue originated exclusively under the existing leadership of the House. But it isn’t sufficient to simply say “it was here before we arrived”, particularly when the Speaker markets himself as the man who is changing things, dragging Parliament into the 21st century, banishing cobwebs and flinging open musty rooms.
Cox seems sceptical of the practical outcomes of that work. While ‘structural and governance arrangements have changed several times…the organisational culture has apparently remained firmly in place’, for example. She not only notes that: ‘Many of those providing information regard the culture in the House as essentially unchanged over many years’ – an implicit question in itself for a supposedly reforming Speaker – but continues: ‘More worryingly for the House, they regard it as unlikely to change in the future.’
A cultural problem ‘cascading from the top down’ raises obvious questions for the man at the top. Bercow’s reforms are deemed in this report not to have successfully addressed the issue. In some cases, witnesses who spoke to Cox argued they had actively made things worse – she quotes one saying that “the current corporate and customer service agenda” had created “an obsessive, pseudo-corporate, target-driven management style, where there is little room for humanity or empathy.” And the current leadership of the House is accused of failing to respond well to the scandal being exposed – descriptions cited include “a defensive attitude” and “a begrudging attitude that they must grasp the nettle and be seen to be doing something.”
The Speaker is, of course, facing bullying allegations himself (which he denies) but even if you disregard that aspect, as Cox does, it’s hard to see how he can be the man to lead the Commons out of this mire. An independent inquiry has found the institution that he runs to be riven with a serious and unresolved cultural problem, and crippled by an unwillingness and inability among its senior leadership to overcome it.
Politics is an inevitably complicating factor. It was alarming to hear Emily Thornberry tell Sky News this morning that the Opposition wants to keep Bercow in place because of his future role in deciding Brexit amendments, for example. By the same token, Jess Phillips warns that some wish to exploit the report as a weapon to wield in their campaign against the Speaker.
It’s certainly true that whenever the Speaker has been in trouble in the past, his salvation has emerged from a familiar political pattern. His defenders argue that his critics are really just political opponents, or bear personal grudges, while his apologists are then accused in return of serving their own biases. Both groups fight one another to a standstill, and on he goes.
It would be outrageous to allow such a serious issue to be obscured and eventually forgotten in that way. People’s well-being rests on resolving it properly, and this question is step one in doing so.
Those arguing that Bercow and his senior colleagues should stay might be right about the motivations of some of those who welcome Cox’s verdict, but that doesn’t discredit Cox herself. She is above allegations of personal or political bias, which is precisely why she was appointed. What possible motive does she have for reaching these conclusions other than her job, her judgement and the evidence? I’ve yet to hear a good reason to ignore her.
It was interesting to hear Andrea Leadsom tell the Commons this afternoon that the Government will “accept the recommendations of Dame Laura’s report”. Does that include the recommendation that the senior management should be replaced?
As the fight rages on, the Speaker himself has adopted a new policy, apparently to quell demands that he depart: he is calling for an independent inquiry. It seems that we are already in danger of ignoring the independent inquiry that reported only a day ago.
In a late addition to the campaign to make the issue go away, “friends” of the Speaker have briefed out that he will step down next year. That’s something we already knew, which would still be a year later than he had previously promised, and which would still amount to ignoring the inquiry’s proposal. On Cox’s terms, any wait means postponing the start of efforts to address the problem. The BBC has made the ‘story’ its top headline nonetheless – thereby offering an illusion of change apparently designed to distract from the fact that he is refusing to go now.