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Clerk’s apology sets tone for mending the wounds of UK harassment

When a British public sector institution found itself at the centre of #MeToo claims, its head acted swiftly to apologise to his staff for leaving the impression his organisation did not think it still had issues with bullying, harassment, including sexual harassment.

The House of Commons works much like the Australian Parliament, staffed with public servants who process legislation, provide research, draft committee notes and generally ensure the functions of parliamentary democracy continue even when the political leadership is collapsing.

Last week the BBC’s Newsnight aired its story about a problem faced by women who work in these roles — a story well known to women working behind the scenes in Australia’s democratic institutions too — using disguised identities to get around the inherent difficulty in reporting cases of harassment.

One curious point raised in the broadcast is that a cultural belief that dissuaded women from coming forward is that “clerks need to be tough”. Hannah White from the Institute for Government said it was seen as being very important to be robust and firmly push back when required, but the difficult is when an MP behaves inappropriately: “you’re still expected to just put up with that,” White said.

The report claims complaints are few due to this expectation. None have reached mediation in recent years. The last clerk to push a formal complaint had her complaint upheld by an inquiry, but the committee of MPs could not reach an agreement on sanction, with the result being the MP remains, the clerk was soon gone.

David Natzler, Clerk of the House of Commons, has made a series of statements on the story. First to BBC, and now two to staff. The latter has been published after there was a backlash from staff that the issue wasn’t being taken seriously enough.

Dear Colleague,

The last few days have been an upsetting time for many of us in the House service. Thursday and Friday’s BBC Newsnight programmes and subsequent media reports have carried allegations of bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, of our colleagues by Members.

Some of you have expressed to me and to others your dismay at the tone of our statement to Newsnight and the subsequent email we sent to you on Friday morning and in particular at the implied view that there were no problems to address and that we had all the issues sorted. I assure you that this is not what we believe. But I acknowledge that we got it wrong in giving the impression that we were in denial. I wholeheartedly apologise for that.

There is no doubt in my mind that there are unresolved issues over bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, which need to be addressed. The public testimony of colleagues confirms that.

We lay great emphasis on using the Respect procedures agreed by the House in 2014 because, for the first time, they offered a route which could end in genuine sanctions, ultimately including suspension of a Member from the House. I appreciate that raising a complaint is not easy, especially where you are in continuing contact with the Member concerned. A number of you from various parts of the House service have in fact raised complaints under this process and have had a response under the informal stages of this policy which you as the complainant regard as satisfactory. So I hope that those of you with grounds for complaint will follow the example of those who have used the Respect procedures, drawing on the support of your managers and colleagues.

The policies agreed in 2014 improved the protections offered to staff. But I have listened to the views expressed over the last few days and I recognise that we must look at our policies to see how we can improve them. We acknowledge, for example, that complaints of sexual harassment demand a separate process. So in consultation with you, the TUS and Members, we will revisit and renew the Respect policy.

I am also conscious that these events have upset those of you whose bad experiences may date back some years but which continue to affect you. None of us is immune to that sickening feeling. The Health and Wellbeing Service is there for you and I urge you to use it. I am in addition taking steps to ensure that the independent face to face service we offered to Members’ staff shortly before Christmas will be similarly available to you.

Let me close on a personal note. The only ultimately acceptable outcome will be a workplace culture free of bullying and harassment. I am conscious that revised procedures and processes are no substitute for cultural change. I believe that we are moving in the right direction. The majority of working relations between Members and you are harmonious, mutually respectful and professional, and Members have a high regard for the House service. I also recognise that where things have gone wrong in the past they have not always been properly dealt with. They must, and will, be properly addressed in future.

David Natzler
Clerk of the House

This response raises questions for Australia’s institution leaders too. Was the resolution in the accusation against former minister Jamie Briggs appropriate? Why has there been no similar public statement of support from leaders here? Are they waiting for a similar damning reporting to break in the media to do so? Or do they think the issues are not as bad in Australia?

Others might also question how Australia’s Carol Mills, former secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services would have handled this situation. Mills was considered as part of an international search for the UK top clerk position that Natzler now holds. The Mandarin also wonders, does a leader’s gender make a difference on these matters.

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.