Cox Report: Implementation

I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), for not being able to be present at the start of her speech. I was able to catch up with her remarks, and I think that she spoke on behalf of all of us in the House.

I thank Dame Laura Cox for leading an extremely important inquiry, and for producing such a comprehensive report containing such sensible and achievable recommendations. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), the former Leader of the House, for her work in beginning to implement those recommendations. She was clearly right when she highlighted the need for a significant culture change in this place. I also pay tribute to her for her acknowledgement that it will not happen overnight, but it needs to happen, and to happen without delay. The time that has already passed has been too long for those who work in this building, who work with us and who support us, but who may be subject to behaviour that would be clearly unacceptable not only in this Parliament, but in any other workplace.

Bullying is vile and horrid. Unfortunately, it appears to be becoming more and more of an issue—a visible issue—in wider society. Across society, there seems to be, in many cases, not only a breakdown in what might previously have been thought of as common courtesies, but a breakdown in basic decency. It is a question of fundamental values: how we should treat each other, and what is the correct way in which to work with not just those to whom we are close, but those with whom we have professional contact.

As Members of Parliament, we clearly have a particular role in setting an example of—I was going to say “good behaviour”, but behaviour that is acceptable. We should not be expecting thanks or congratulations merely for not doing things that would be rightly condemned if they were done by anyone in any role in almost any business, any school, or any workplace in any other organisation anywhere in our country.

When we talk about bullying in the context of schoolchildren, we refer to the devastating effect that it has on their mental health and development, but bullying is an issue that affects people at all stages of life, regardless of their backgrounds, and it is increasingly affecting people’s mental health. Technology and social media seem to be increasing the prevalence of bullying, but it is even more noticeable that the reach of that bullying and abuse continues to expand so that, in many instances, victims cannot feel safe, whether in the workplace or at home. If a person cannot feel safe from being abused by someone who—as other Members have said—has an improper power advantage and is abusing that imbalance in the relationship, how can that person be happy and continue to function on not only a professional level but a personal level? So, yes, we in this place must be setting an example to people in the wider country, not showing people how to belittle and undermine others.

As has been said, politics is a very peculiar environment. It clearly attracts people with high passions and people who feel very strongly about their beliefs. It arouses those passions. People get hot under the collar. It makes people’s blood boil. People rarely end up agreeing with each other. But high passions and strongly held views cannot be an excuse for unacceptable bullying and abusive behaviour. It is not acceptable for my children at home and it is not acceptable for those of us who claim to represent our constituents here in the mother of all Parliaments.

If we are to resolve the issue of bullying and harassment in Parliament, the recommendations in Dame Laura’s report must be embraced. The report needs to be implemented wholeheartedly and we must enact a seismic shift in culture. We must develop that culture of respect that we speak of for our society. We must embody a culture of respect in Parliament because everybody who works in Parliament—whether Members of Parliament, staff, Officers of the House, contractors, journalists or anyone else who has reason to work in this place—has a right to be able to go about that work and their lives without fear of abuse or risk of bullying and harassment.

In many ways, we see a parallel now with the stories around the expenses scandal a decade ago, very different though those issues are. Both cases threaten to completely undermine what remaining respect and confidence people have in our democratic structures, institutions and political system. In both cases, it is simply unacceptable to try to appeal to some peculiar culture in Parliament, saying “People outside just don’t understand what it’s like. It’s always been that way.” Whether or not it has always been that way, if it should not be that way, we have to make sure it is not that way, and that means we need to take action now and to make sure that processes are in place so that the victims or potential victims of this behaviour can be protected and those who are guilty of this unacceptable behaviour can be held to account.

As with the expenses scandal, it is clearly inappropriate for Members of Parliament to think that they can mark their own homework. That is why the independent nature of this body is so important. That is such an important recommendation from Dame Laura, so I hope that the Commission will ensure it is implemented swiftly.

This has been a painful and unpleasant experience for Parliament as an institution, but it has been a far more painful and unpleasant experience for those who have been the victims of bullying and harassment here, and whether that is from other MPs or from staff should not matter; they should have that level of protection. And it has been painful, unpleasant and unacceptable regardless of whether it happened before or after this new code of conduct came into place. That is why it is essential that the issues of historical abuse and bullying are properly addressed. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) talked about retrospective regulation, and we must be wary of the risk of retrospective regulation and rules coming in that hold people to a standard they could not reasonably have expected to be held to, but this is not the situation on the whole: most of these cases do not involve some obscure administrative or procedural requirement that we are expecting people to sign up to that we would not have expected them to meet a decade ago. In almost all cases, this is about basic standards of decency, where, regardless of whether the code of conduct was in force at the time, it is perfectly reasonable to expect Members to have abided by those standards. Those who did not should expect to answer for that, and whether what happened was 18 months ago, three years ago or longer, those who have been the victims of abuse, where the evidence is there to support those allegations, should have the right to have their claims heard and, where appropriate, there may be arguments for redress.

We really need these recommendations, including for an independent body and for an effective system to handle historical cases, to be implemented without further unnecessary delay. I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House feels strongly about these issues, as his predecessor did. We all call on the House of Commons Commission to do everything possible to make sure that the changes are introduced, implemented and enforced, so that we can all come behind the report and the recommendations made by Dame Laura, endorsed by the House and so badly needed by so many people who work for us in the Houses of Parliament.