Much has been said this week about bullying and the abysmal culture of our political parties which, in my opinion, continue to betray the trust of our voters. Over the past few years and under the outgoing Speaker Trevor Mallard there have been a lot of press releases to indicate that the broader work culture in the halls of Parliament is being changed for the better.
While this does sound like the right thing to do, it is - in my experience - a PR exercise to placate some of the backlash from the public in recent years. If there was any serious intent or effort to make a genuine change in Parliamentary culture, the current Speaker and the powers that be would have included member-to-member bullying in its terms of reference, if not initially then at least in response to the Francis Report which flagged this as a serious issue after interviewing MPs who spend upwards of 30-35 hours on the Parliamentary precinct over the three or more days we are based in Parliament on sitting weeks.
What makes this worse is the unusual legal relationship where the MPs are not employed directly by the party or Parliamentary Service, but by their own constituents who would be appalled if they saw even half of what their elected representatives have to bear in terms of harassment from inside the Parliament without anyone specific taking legal or moral responsibility for addressing these concerns.
For those who need an example, Louisa Wall talked in her valedictory speech about how she was bullied by a senior Labour Party MP early in her career and despite being one of our most outspoken MPs she found out that she had no agency in the halls of Parliament when it came to her own wellbeing. If any of my more recent colleagues could speak freely, I am sure the list of similar stories with no support for MPs being bullied and no consequences for MPs bullying their colleagues would easily fill a book or two.
Crucial to addressing the bullying issue in Parliament is the role of the Parliamentary Service - which is supposed to be an independent and neutral organisation to provide support to MPs. Their own mandate states that "due to the nature of the organisation, Parliamentary Service staff must uphold the highest standards of integrity and trust. We take pride in the fact that we assist members of Parliament to carry out their roles. As well as displaying high levels of integrity, the Service looks for people with political acumen, exceptional customer service skills and an ability to work collaboratively".
In my opinion, if only this was true.
The above member-to-member and party-to-member bullying rampant in Parliament is - I believe - promoted and facilitated by this very organisation by working behind the scenes with the whips office, the offices of the leaders of various parties, along with the Office of the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister's Office.
The Parliamentary Service's lack of accountability to both the MP and their constituents and the meddling of political parties in a triangular relationship where they end up being the fourth wheel is cause for much concern, in my view. With the way the current Parliamentary Service is run, you can go weeks and months before getting a reply to urgent issues and when they do have an answer it is seldom in writing and often from behind the desk of the party whips who - in my opinion, and based on what I have seen in my time in Parliament - use the Parliamentary Service to bully and harass their MPs "to keep them in line".
The Parliamentary Service, established in 1985, is headed by a chief executive in a supposedly non-political role, accountable to the Speaker for the running of the service. In order for our democracy to be strong, it is important that the Parliamentary Service is led by people not interested in their own long-term careers but by public servants interested in upholding one of the most crucial offices in the country.
If this was a "real-world" organisation run like any publicly owned or privately operated company it would be, in my opinion, long defunct.
The CEO, as well as the deputy CEO along with the rest of the leadership team, would be long gone and replaced with people who would not only understand what the role entails but also have significant experience in dealing with their own parliamentary staff as well as MPs.
As things stand, parliamentary staffers are leaving in droves – some haven't had their expectation settings done for almost two years, others haven't had annual reviews for nine months and have been consistently underpaid.
Where concerns have been raised with Parliamentary Service about staff or MP colleagues showing unacceptable behaviours in some cases there does not appear to have ever been any investigation or an intent to investigate. If anything, in my experience, when an MP raises serious concerns the Parliamentary Service steps back, stonewalls the conversation, ghosts the MP and throws them to the whip's office to be gaslighted and victimised further so that the party can use the information to threaten you about your long-term career prospects.
Politicians especially at top of our current system and from parties across the political spectrum often talk about "changing the system" and "kindness", but as the saying goes "charity must start at home".
• Dr Gaurav Sharma is the Labour MP for Hamilton West. He has been in Parliament since winning the seat from National's Tim Macindoe in 2020.