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A former MP has been found to have undertaken “sustained and unpleasant bullying” of a former member of House of Commons staff, in what was seen as a crucial test for a new disciplinary process introduced to cover UK legislators in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
The Independent Expert Panel, a body of non-parliamentarians, determined on Thursday that Keith Vaz, a former Europe minister, engaged in “hostile and harmful behaviour . . . We accept that it led to the complainant leaving her career in the House of Commons . . . ” Vaz “should be ashamed of his behaviour”.
The new process, established last year, covers both sexual harassment and bullying. It was established in the wake of the Cox Review, an independent inquiry into parliament’s handling of complaints published in October 2018, which found that parliamentary staff worked in an atmosphere of “deference and silence” that “actively sought to cover up abusive conduct”.
Vaz’s punishment was limited to a recommendation that he never be allowed a pass to access parliament, a perk usually afforded to former MPs.
But the Vaz case had been seen as an important test of the disciplinary process as his conduct was cited by employees in their drive to reform parliament’s complaints procedures.
It is the first of a set of older cases to be adjudicated on that prompted the creation of the new system. Jenny McCullough, the complainant, publicised her allegations.
Investigations into the conduct of John Bercow, the former speaker of the House of Commons who faced accusations of bullying before stepping down, are ongoing.
The case against Vaz was unusual for the number of third-party witnesses to his alleged conduct and the volume of contemporaneous documentation.
There had been concern that the process might founder because Vaz declined to participate in the investigation citing ill health. The panel, however, concluded that he had not proved he was too ill, and stated “there has been no indication that he has any material challenge to the conclusions” on his conduct.
Vaz, in a statement issued on Thursday, said that he had been diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy as “a direct result” of the process.
According to McCullough, Vaz was provoked to bully her when she sought to ask him to be mindful of rules on trips abroad. The panel found evidence of “inappropriate anger” and “demeaning references to the complainant in front of others”.
Vaz accused the complainant of not knowing how effectively to support the committee because she “wasn’t a mother”, made jokes about her background in Northern Ireland and insinuated that he would tell her managers that she was “liable to drink to excess”.
McCullough said: “A parliamentary body has now concluded what I, my friends and former colleagues have long known: that Keith Vaz did enormous harm to me and my career.”
She had been a clerk, and was required to work closely with Vaz in 2007, when she was assigned to work on the home affairs committee, which he chaired. She eventually resigned from her role at the House in 2011.
The Bill of Rights, passed in 1689, shields the Commons from interference by the courts, a legal position that means clerks usually cannot take claims through employment tribunals. As a consequence, prior to the Cox review, there were few checks on the behaviour of parliamentarians whose behaviour was seldom challenged by staff.
Vaz said the process had been unfair, that he had not been offered adequate opportunity to make his own case and that “this matter is now in the hands of solicitors”.