Bullying and harassment victims raise alarm over UK parliament standards shake-up

Bullying and harassment victims condemned a move by the U.K. government to overhaul the standards process, calling it a “slap in the face.”

The government has thrown its weight behind allies of a senior Conservative MP who are trying to prevent his suspension from parliament for breaking lobbying rules.

Owen Paterson, a former Cabinet minister, used his position as an MP to lobby on behalf of two companies that paid him as a consultant, an inquiry by the Commons standards commissioner found.

Paterson — whose wife took her own life last year — strongly pushed back against the watchdog’s findings, saying the investigation by the standards commissioner had gone “against the basic standard of procedural fairness.”

Now, Conservative MPs will try to fend off his 30-day suspension and set up a committee of MPs to consider changes to the process for investigating MPs.

Current and former parliamentary and party staff raised concerns with POLITICO about the knock-on effect for the independent complaints and grievance system (ICGS), the body investigating allegations of bullying and harassment against MPs and other parliament employees.

At present, investigations by the ICGS are reviewed by the standards commissioner, with the most serious cases referred to an independent panel to decide on sanctions. Under the changes proposed today, the commissioner’s findings could be opened up to appeal by MPs.

One former parliamentary worker who was bullied by a senior MP said: “It’ll give license to anyone who doesn’t like an individual decision to undermine the whole system, as well as whoever is the commissioner.”

An ex-researcher who also had a bullying complaint upheld against an MP said: “It’s a slap in the face… The idea of my boss scurrying around and speaking to other MPs about me, defaming me and saying I’m a fantasist is just awful.”

They both said they would have doubts about raising a complaint under a system subject to review by MPs. 

A former Tory staffer described it as “unbelievable hypocrisy” for Conservatives to have voted against applying tougher sanctions to Rob Roberts — an MP who sexually harassed members of staff — on the basis that it was retrospective “given that this is exactly what they are seeking to do today.”

Hannah White, deputy director of the Institute for Government, said: “This demonstrates exactly why staff were so anxious to remove MPs from the process of investigating bullying and harassment cases and not to allow a debate on findings and sanctions.”

She added MPs “cannot be objective when judging the behavior of their friends and political allies.”

A government official denied that the overhaul would have a chilling effect on those seeking to raise complaints. 

They described Jacob Rees-Mogg, who as leader of the House oversees parliament’s procedure and management, as “a huge defender” of the independent complaints process.

Rees-Mogg believes the standards watchdog “has much to learn” from the ICGS, the official said, as “a fairer system which the House seems to have greater trust in.”

A No. 10 spokesperson said “the Commons should seek cross-party agreement” on a new appeals process to look at decisions by the standards committee and the commissioner, which “could include judicial and lay member representation on the appeals panel.”

They added: “This isn’t about one case but providing MPs from all political parties with the right to a fair hearing.”

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