10 March 2022

Bullying Bercow is gone – but are staff any safer in Parliament?

By Hattie Turner

With his pomposity and verbose interventions at PMQs, John Bercow seemed like an entertaining and charismatic figure to those outside Westminster. But for anyone who has worked in Parliament, it’s a very different story.

The Independent Expert Panel’s report into Mr Bercow’s conduct describes him as ‘intimidatory’, ‘undermining’ and often in use of ‘threatening conduct’. One researcher who has worked in Parliament for decades told me, ‘Bercow was the worst ever [and] an extremely biased Speaker…There are no words to describe how toxic the place had become under his Speakership.’

Indeed, the report concludes that Bercow’s misconduct was so serious that ‘had he still been a Member of Parliament, we would have determined that he should be expelled by resolution of the House. As it is, we recommend that he should never be permitted a pass to the Parliamentary estate.’

Looking back at Bercow’s first PMQs, in which he politely apologies for interrupting the then Prime Minister, you get a sense of just how far the mask slipped as the years went on. His career has been a real-time demonstration of the corrupting influence of power.

Staff now feel understandably vindicated, but the question remains: how was he allowed to remain Speaker for so long? And while the report will reassure people who work for the House itself, there thousands of researchers like me who are directly employed by MPs – many of them young, ambitious and impressionable – who still don’t feel there are adequate protections against bullying and harassment by people who ought to uphold the highest standards in public life.

As one experienced staffer who works for a Labour MP told me, ‘It took almost ten years for some of the most important House staff to successfully complain about Bercow, we still need to improve support for those MPs’ staff who want to raise a complaint but are at the bottom of the ladder and only here for six to 18 months.’

Throughout Bercow’s tenure, MPs’ staff who wanted to file a complaint about a parliamentarian were advised to speak to their manager…which was often the same person.

Thankfully, things have now improved somewhat. The Members and Peers Staff Association (Mapsa) along with Unite representatives in Parliament and the then Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom MP, set up the first Independent Complaints and Grievances Scheme (ICGS) prior to the 2019 election. This now gives staff a process for dealing with abuse and bullying, meaning the Standards Commissioner has the authority to confidentially investigate complaints. Another long-serving researcher told me, ‘I am pleased we now have a system where victims, even of one of the most powerful people in Parliament, can hold abusers to account. Shame it took so long and not until he was already out of Parliament, but this is a huge step forward.’

Another staffer involved in a parliamentary wellbeing group agreed. ‘The difference now is that mechanisms exist by which these people can at last be held to account. The former Speaker’s actions during and following the Independent Expert Panel review, and his absolute refusal to show any sort of contrition or acknowledgement of the impact of his behaviour on his victims, just goes to show why the ICGS is needed.’

Certainly, the atmosphere does feel different. Even PMQs, which often used to take 45-50 minutes  – mostly thanks to Bercow’s constant interruptions – is now back to the allotted 30 minutes, plenty of praise for the new Speaker’s dignity, warmth and suitability for the role. I understand he has also been more than willing to meet staff representatives to hear any concerns they may have.

The parliamentary bubble may be a Petri dish of gossip, slander, and scandal, but nobody should be giving Bercow the benefit of the doubt – whatever his protestations about the disciplinary process. Not only is the evidence in the report overwhelming, but it tallies with the experiences of just about everyone I’ve spoken to about Bercow.

What was it that drove this nasty, narcissistic behaviour? One of his biographers, Bobby Friedman, has said that Bercow was picked on at school and retaliated by reading out his classmates’ spelling mistakes to humiliate them. In a way, it’s saddening but rather predictable that childhood bullies helped create such a character.

On a brighter note, it does feel to both staff and MPs that we are in a much better place now. And I suspect Bercow’s ego will prevent him entering the estate with a plastic ‘visitor’ lanyard around his neck, so we can all sleep easier knowing he’s unlikely to darken the doors of Parliament again.

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Hattie Turner is a Senior Parliamentary Researcher.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.