The inquiry by former High Court Judge Dame Laura Cox was set up by the House of Commons Commission in March 2018 to examine past allegations of bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff. Cox said the submissions she received from over 200 members of current and former House staff were ‘disturbing’. She heard allegations against both House staff and Members of Parliament, and of the effects of that misconduct – exacerbated by the inadequacy of procedures to tackle them.
The inquiry’s findings are shocking, and it will face significant hurdles to achieving the ‘fundamental and permanent’ change it says is needed. The first obstacle is that in order to be implemented at all, its recommendations need to be accepted by the House of Commons. Whatever the benefit to their staff, too many MPs feel there is only a downside to tightening up the bullying and harassment procedures to which they are subject.
Second, while the House of Commons Commission that commissioned the inquiry should drive the change, several MPs who sit on it are conflicted on this issue. The Speaker John Bercow has outstanding allegations against him, Valerie Vaz’s brother Keith has been accused of bullying, and Rosie Winterton was Labour Chief Whip during a period when high-profile incidents are alleged to have occurred and been inadequately dealt with (all these allegations have been denied).
Cox’s harshest criticisms are directed at those within the House of Commons administration (including the Commission, the Speaker’s Office and the Executive Board of officials), who should be responsible for addressing its findings. Cox says she "find[s] 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 suggests senior figures ought to be reflecting on their position. Culture change will be impossible to achieve unless staff have confidence in those leading it.
In July 2018, another member of the Commission – the Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom – decided to press ahead with a new Commons bullying and harassment policy – a policy which Cox now argues is ‘fundamentally flawed’ and ‘won’t work’, due to the continued role of MPs in adjudicating on each other. Leadsom’s decision to move forward without waiting for Cox’s report – which we questioned at the time – has fundamentally undermined her credibility on this issue, on which she might otherwise have led. Finally, in other circumstances select committees are an effective means of ensuring that inquiry recommendations are implemented. But, while Maria Miller, the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, has called for the House of Commons administration to take action, it is not clear whether any committee will come forward to oversee the implementation of the report’s findings.
What does the experience of past inquiries tell us can be done to give the inquiry the best chance of seeing its recommendations implemented?
1. The response of the House of Commons administration to the Cox inquiry needs to be systematic and detailed. Obviously, the Commons is not obliged to implement Dame Laura’s findings although the weight of its evidence has created a strong moral imperative.
2. Dame Laura herself should stay involved. Inquiry chairs can be uniquely powerful advocates for their own recommendations beyond the formal end of their mandate. A good example is the role played by Sir Robert Francis following the Mid Staffs inquiry.
3. The House of Commons administration needs to draw extensively on external legal and HR expertise in rectifying the flaws in its existing bullying and harassment policies. For example, best practice includes the need for investigations and the determination of consequences to be independent of those being investigated. It is sadly ironic that the institution which is the origin of many of the laws and regulations which now govern bullying and harassment practice in the rest of the country has fallen so far behind modern practice. Some previous inquiries have followed up their investigations by working with experts to ensure their recommendations are implemented effectively.
Public inquiries too frequently fail to lead to lasting change because nobody is held accountable for the implementation of their recommendations. When those recommendations centre on the lack of clear leadership, there is an even greater risk that the problem will not be successfully addressed with the same leadership in place. The Cox inquiry may not be a traditional public inquiry but its findings and recommendations will sink without trace unless they are taken up by credible leaders with the political will and administrative commitment to see them implemented.
What is worse, if this report does not lead to significant culture change there is a serious risk that staff will continue to be subject to the behaviours and attitudes Cox has identified.