Parliament’s bullying scandal has laid bare the unchecked power of MPs

Politicians work within a hierarchical system where they are arbiters of their own fate – but the hierarchy itself can provide a solution to the harassment problem

Debbie Abrahams, the latest MP caught up in the harassment scandal, was sacked from the Labour frontbench yesterday over workplace bullying claims. Credit: Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment

By Dave Penman

09 May 2018

"Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely" – a phrase often attributed to Lord Acton, a 19th century politician. It has been used in a variety of forms before and since but Acton is the one best known for it.

It's easy to relate to for most people. When power goes unchecked, not only can this be exploited by individuals predisposed to seek those opportunities, but it can in many cases influence patterns of behaviour. This relates to both organisations and individuals, from monopolies to managers.

"With great power comes great responsibility" – that one was Spider-Man’s uncle Ben.

The harassment and bullying scandal that has erupted in Parliament over the last six months has laid bare the unchecked power that MPs still have to regulate their own behaviour. Centuries of hard wiring independence from government, all for sound constitutional reasons, has left them as masters of their own destiny. The expenses scandal was a perfect example of this. Reinforced behaviour and no external scrutiny saw duck houses to real houses being paid for by the public purse.


Despite my many criticisms of politicians from these pages, the vast majority are driven by a deep sense of public duty. It takes a strange type of character to become a politician and a strong sense of self belief is necessary. Some incredible life-changing work takes place in Parliament, often through the dogged determination of MPs who want to make the world a better place. That doesn't, however, necessarily make you a nice person.

You can be a great reformer and an abusive bully – they are not mutually exclusive. As the bullying allegations uncovered by the excellent work of Newsnight's Chris Cook and Lucinda Day have shown, these behaviours cross party boundaries and genders.

Whilst lives may have been changed by the good work of MPs, many have been blighted by systemic bullying, intimidation and harassment meted out by individuals who feel emboldened by a system where they are arbiters of their own fate. It is a system where all roads lead back to the MPs themselves, as they sit on the House Commission that is effectively the employer. Those that have complained in the past have found them unwilling to act and the system that is supposed to protect staff simply becomes a mechanism for further intimidation.

A behavioural code for a contractor can be included in the contract and enforced, but what about a judge who’s independent of government or indeed a minister who is untouchable politically?

The Newsnight expose has led to an independent inquiry but strenuous efforts were made to ensure that individual cases would not be considered. Staff have no confidence in the current system for dealing with complaints, they are precluded from making historical complaints and the inquiry won't look individual cases.

When the scandal first broke, although not directly affected, the civil service decided to look at its own processes to ensure that they were fit for purpose and identify improvements. Sue Owen, the DCMS permanent secretary, has led the work, supported by CSEP.

Are there parallels to Parliament? No organisation can be immune from the risks associated with bullying and harassment. People often talk about the culture of an organisation and its effect on behaviour. That is hard to define and even harder to change, but a transparent and effective process for handling complaints is one of the many ways culture can be influenced. The power dynamic, which is often exploited in bullying and harassment cases, will exist in any organisation with a hierarchical structure, but that hierarchy can also be a part of the solution by delivering effective challenge to behaviours through the decision-making process on complaints.

But what about those outside of that hierarchy? Civil servants deal with many individuals on a daily basis who are not part of the civil service. From contractors to consultants, judges to ministers, civil servants interact with a series of third parties who potentially could bully or harass them and, in many cases, have a degree of power over them. I've spoken to prosecutors left in tears by the actions of judges and know of staff being moved following the behaviour of ministers.

In each case the power dynamic, the ability to make decisions about these individuals or exert authority, will be different. A behavioural code for a contractor can be included in the contract and enforced, but what about a judge who’s independent of government or indeed a minister who is untouchable politically?

This will not be easy and may well be resisted by those who currently have no meaningful check on their power, but our objective is clear. Every member, regardless of where they work, should have confidence to raise a complaint and holding a position of power should not preclude individuals from being properly investigated.

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