Bullying and Harassment: Cox Report debate

Gillian Keegan: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), and I congratulate her on her new role as Chair of the Committee on Standards. Having served as a member of Parliament for only a year and a half, I did wonder whether it was appropriate for me to speak in this debate. I personally have not witnessed many of the things described in the report. However, I do have prior experience of managing thousands of people from different backgrounds and cultures in large companies for more than 27 years, so I might be able to provide some useful insights into industry best practice. I completely agree with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that many companies have gone through this culture change, and that we can learn a lot from them.

As a new MP, however, I can safely say that Parliament is very different from any workplace I have ever seen, and it has a very distinct culture. Parliament is effectively a common workplace for what are in reality 650 separate small businesses, each with their own leadership and teams. This is unusual, and it is probably one of the reasons why this issue has not been effectively tackled earlier. There is no real central control, and certainly no central HR support. The reputation of Parliament is vital, because we have the responsibility to pass legislation—not least, employment law itself. Dame Laura Cox’s report shows us beyond all doubt that our present approach is not working. It is letting staff down, and we need to change.

So, what does good look like in the workplace and how can we achieve it? Based on my experience, and on the valuable insights I have received from professional organisations such as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, I believe that we need to approach our “get well” strategy under two headings: preventing bullying and harassment from happening in the first place; and dealing with them decisively when they do happen. Our prevention approach needs to start at the top, by which I mean all of us elected representatives as well as senior managers in the House of Commons administration. We need to show that we are serious about tackling this issue, and that means that we as Members of Parliament should lead by example and personally demonstrate the right behaviours and attend training programmes and awareness raising events. Best practice would include monitoring attendance at such ​events and even publishing a list of those MPs who are and are not attending them or, as happens in the workplace, completing online educational work modules. That is usual practice in other industries. If we conduct ourselves in this way, we can start to shift the culture away from where it is now towards a more inclusive diverse and respectful workplace.

Turning to the subject of what to do when it is alleged that bullying or harassment may have taken place, we should again follow best practice, with a simple, well understood, consistent, confidential, independent and, above all, fast escalation process. There are some existing policies in this area, but the Cox report clearly states that they are overly complex and do not enjoy the confidence of our colleagues working in Parliament. In order to cleanse the system, we need to show that we take the issue seriously, acting when required with full transparency, and we must be seen to do that.

Alex Burghart: Given my hon. Friend’s extensive experience in business, what does she think the House should do about historical allegations? What lessons can be learned from the private sector?

Gillian Keegan: I had this conversation with someone at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and I asked what they do in business, and he said that there is no time limit for sexual harassment, but that they impose some kind of time limit on bullying and harassment, because cultures and expectations have changed over time. I am not suggesting that for this place, but that is what somebody at the CIPD advised, and we could examine what different industries do, because most people have already faced this issue.

Chris Bryant: The most basic thing that every serious company does is ensure that there is a proper HR function to provide support whenever it is needed. When new Members come into the House, some may have employed hundreds of people, but some may have never employed another person and may be desperate for more support. Should we not put far more energy into that if we are to prevent such problems?

Gillian Keegan: I completely agree. It is unfair to expect a simple, well understood, consistent and fair process if we have not trained people about that expectation. In business, people would be given induction training on the standards and then top-up training every year, and whether the top-up training had been done would be publicised.

Dame Laura Cox’s report runs to 155 pages and I agree with all its points. The answer, however, is perhaps simpler than the length of the report suggests. This is about prevention and cure. It is about being seen to take action. It is about each and every one of us demonstrating the correct behaviours and showing, by example, our commitment to make this great institution a modern, respectful, inclusive workplace fit for the 21st century. It is not about trying to scapegoat individuals or outsource the solution to a Committee or indulging in a trial by media. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if we tried to suggest that others are responsible for our collective failings, we will certainly demonstrate that we have not at all grasped the systemic nature of the problem we face.​

Let us remember that we are all collectively responsible for this system, and we must work together to improve it. Even though, as the report is keen to point out, the vast majority of MPs are courteous and entirely respectful of staff, our reputations sink or swim together. If each and every one of us takes steps to implement Dame Laura’s report, and if we report on progress at regular intervals, we will begin the journey to better support our staff and to recover our reputation, which goes to the heart of the credibility of this place.