12 March 2018

The House of Commons must hand over the investigation of bullying and harassment to an independent body, argues Dr Hannah White.

MPs – including those who participated in the Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom’s recent working group on harassment – maintain that they must retain a role in determining any sanctions from harassment cases. They say that MPs are elected by the people and should only be sanctioned by the people – via an election – or by their peers in Parliament.    

They are wrong. MPs are already subject to sanction by non-electoral means in a number of areas. The Electoral Commission, for example, oversees what MPs can do when they campaign for office – oversight that includes not just what they spend but what they say. 

The expenses scandal shows the way

There used to be a sacrosanct principle that MPs should be responsible for managing their own affairs. In one court case after the expenses scandal, MPs argued that the claiming of expenses was a ‘parliamentary proceeding’ and therefore protected from examination by the courts. That argument was thrown out – as was the wider principle with the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA).

A recent BBC inquiry by Newsnight’s Chris Cook and Lucinda Day demonstrates that a similar independent approach at Westminster is needed to handling issues of bullying and harassment. And it is vital that both the investigation of complaints and decisions on sanctions should be taken independently – without the involvement of MPs. 

The reason is obvious. Political parties take it upon themselves to withdraw the whip from MPs whom they judge to have behaved inappropriately. But the parties are too conflicted to be responsible for sanctioning their own MPs over harassment. When decisions may affect the outcome of votes – a situation all the more likely with today’s minority government – they can never be properly objective.

Let the punishment fit the crime

The expenses scandal led to the creation of criminal offences relating to MPs' use of their expenses. It led, too, to a system of rules policed by IPSA, covering subjects that include whom MPs can employ. All this was surely an acknowledgement that while MPs are individual employers, they employ their staff using public funds, the use of which should be subject to independent oversight.

So MPs can already be sanctioned if they misbehave in certain ways. The misuse of power to bully and harass staff – whether those they employ directly or those employed by the House with whom they interact – should be no different.

But to command the confidence of staff and the trust of the electorate, the entire process of investigation and sanction for bullying and harassment should be handed to an independent body – that could be IPSA (which would be efficient) or another body created specifically for the purpose.

Guilty MPs could be punished in a range of ways that fell short of actually depriving them of public office (although that would still be possible for the most serious cases or repeat offenders under the Recall of MPs Act 2015). The realistic prospect of sanction – for example, public opprobrium, a fine, or disqualification from serving on a select committee – would do much to deter the sort of behaviour recently brought to light. 


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