Lawrence Stephens

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Bullying in the workplace: Are MPs above the law?

November 2022

Chris Bryant MP has claimed physical force was used to persuade him and his colleagues to vote in accordance with party whips during heated debates on the matter of fracking. Mr Bryant said that what he had seen was ‘clear bullying’.

This begs the question, what is bullying?

There is no stand-alone law against bullying in the workplace. The Equality Act 2010 does give legal protection from 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, 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.

If an employee bullied or harassed a pregnant colleague into not wanting to return to work, that employee and their employer could face an Employment Tribunal claim on grounds of discrimination, bullying, harassment and/or victimisation of that pregnant woman. However the same rules would not apply to an MP because of their lack of employment or worker status. Instead, the Houses of Parliament have produced their own code of conduct, with which they are supposed to comply. In effect, MPs (and Peers) regulate themselves.

The Leadsom inquiry, and the Cox report (so-named 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 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 employees and workers who 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 to all staff. That handbook should contain policies and procedures the employer expects staff to adhere to and relevant policies would be those relating to dignity at work, diversity and inclusion, and anti-harassment and bullying policy. The policies should set out the duties of those wishing to report bullying as well as the duties on 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 amount to gross misconduct resulting in summary dismissal. For lesser actions, there are an array of sanctions possible ranging from training to verbal and written warnings.

Employers must take care to properly investigate and adjudicate on allegations of bullying and harassment. If not, they risk employment tribunal claims of discrimination and/or harassment by the victims. If an employee has more than two years’ service, they may also bring claims of constructive dismissal if they resign in response to their employer’s conduct of any investigation, or any inaction.

Contact us if you need help with employment policies or dealing with any grievances against employees.