Lawrence Stephens

We are a *knowledge business

Bullying in the Workplace: Are MPs Above the Law?

November 2022

During the heated debates and vote in the House of Commons on whether to allow fracking to resume in the UK, one MP, Chris Bryant, claims physical force was used to persuade him and his colleagues to vote in accordance with party Whips. Mr Bryant said that what he had seen was ‘clear bullying’.

This begs the question of what MPs and the rest of us can do if we believe we have been a target of bullying.

Contrary to what you may think, there is no stand-alone law against bullying in the workplace. The Equality Act 2010 does give legal protection from, amongst other things, bullying and harassment, but only on grounds they are carried out because the target has one of the nine ‘Protected Characteristics’ listed in the 2010 Act. These are age, race, disability, sexual orientation, marital or civil partnership status, sex and religion or belief, gender reassignment and pregnancy and maternity status.

The 2010 Act applies to employees and workers, but not to volunteers or office holders. A Member of Parliament is an office holder, that is elected for a period of time into the role of representative. They are not employees or workers in law. Note that MPs often have volunteers working with them who are also not entitled to the protections of the 2010 Act. Given that a key role of an MP is to bring into force or challenge legislation, it is a reasonable conclusion to make that they have rendered themselves separate to, or even above the law. If an employee bullied or harassed a pregnant colleague into not wanting to return to work, that employee could face an Employment Tribunal on grounds of discrimination, bullying, harassment and/or victimisation of that pregnant woman. The same rules would not apply to an MP acting in the same way. Instead, the Houses of Parliament produced their own code of conduct, with which they are supposed to comply. In effect then, MPs (and Peers) regulate themselves.

The Leadsom inquiry, and the Cox report (after the murder of Jo Cox) found that that while MPs are in theory able to self-regulate, the reality is this rarely happens. For example, sexual harassment claims have continued to blight the House of Commons with representatives of several major parties being suspended or asked to step down.

So, what of Mr Bryant and his claim of either seeing or being pushed forcibly into the direction in which his party whip wanted him to vote? If true, that’s more likely to be a criminal offence of assault or battery, and MPs are not above criminal law. It will also be in breach of any reasonable code of conduct, but unless the MPs have the appetite to report formally and bring this into a disciplinary arena not much will happen.

For those of us who are employees and workers, and may see, or experience bullying that is not related to the Equality Act Protected Characteristics, there is some redress. Employers should have a staff handbook which should be available online to all staff. In that handbook will be the policies and procedures the employer expects staff to adhere to. That should include a dignity at work, or anti-bullying policy which will set out the duties of those wishing to report bullying and those charged with dealing with allegations. In some extreme cases if an employee has acted inappropriately and has bullied, harassed or victimised a colleague or colleagues –  this can be gross misconduct resulting in summary dismissal. For lesser actions there are an array of sanctions possible going from training, to verbal and written warnings.

Clearly, the best thing to do is check our behaviour, communicate and act respectfully to our colleagues and avoid the need to call on the protection that the law can (or cannot in the case of MPs) bring.