Belfast Telegraph

If there is no bullying in parliament, why pay out £2.4m in hush money?


By Chris Moncrieff

Crudely, you could call it hush money - a term usually associated with criminal gangs. But in the past five years the House of Commons, no less, has paid out some £2.4m in so-called "gagging orders" in relation to members of staff who have left its employment.

The object appears to be to ban these people from divulging to the media (or anyone else) the goings-on in the Commons, which Westminster authorities would prefer to keep under wraps.

These orders are designed to prevent people disclosing instances of bullying or harassment at Westminster and other matters the authorities feared would give parliament a bad name.

In one case, it was reported that Angus Sinclair, formerly the Speaker's secretary, was paid £86,000 - more than a year of pay - as part of a settlement that entailed him signing a non-disclosure agreement. He felt he was being paid off to stay quiet about being bullied by Commons Speaker John Bercow. This was an allegation the Speaker denied.

A total of £2.4m is rather more than just a drop in the ocean and there are already demands that this practice becomes "a thing of the past".

I remember a case where an employee was sacked some years ago, and then threatened to make public lurid stories about alleged bad behaviour at Westminster.

The powers-that-be panicked and feebly offered to take him back, but working in a different place from before. But the man said he wanted his old job back - or else.

Once more the cowardly authorities caved in and the man was reinstated in his old job.

It is no good parliamentarians preaching about the need for "transparency" when they are prepared, scandalously, to pay out large sums to give the impression that Westminster is a haven of unalloyed virtue.

I am not surprised that senior ministers engaged in the tortuous Brexit negotiations have been venting their frustration at big multinationals like Airbus issuing dire threats depending on the outcome of the talks.

Airbus, which employs 14,000 people, has warned it will up sticks and move elsewhere if there is a "no deal" outcome.

This kind of ultimatum, which helps nobody, is the last thing ministers want as they grapple on behalf of the UK with a stubborn, obdurate and grasping Brussels negotiating team.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has been commendably forthright in his criticism of Airbus, saying: "It was completely inappropriate for businesses to be making these kinds of threats for one very simple reason: we are at an absolutely critical moment in the Brexit discussions and what that means is that we need to get behind Theresa May to deliver the best possible Brexit - a clean Brexit. The more we undermine Theresa May, the more likely we are to end up with a fudge, which would be an absolute disaster for everyone."

Hear, hear. The task is already hard enough for the negotiating ministers without the big corporations making it worse.

If ever a Cabinet minister has found himself between a rock and a hard place, it is the boisterous Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson over the issue of a third runway for Heathrow.

The Cabinet says it is not only desirable, but essential for the sake of the UK's economy that this project goes ahead. But Johnson's constituents in West London alongside the airport are up in arms, claiming an extra runway will blight their homes even more than at present. Johnson has a duty to follow the Cabinet line and also a duty to his constituents.

So, what does he do? Well, he developed a variant of the "diplomatic illness" by organising, with the apparent connivance of the Cabinet itself, an official overseas trip for him. An easy way out? It certainly was, but preferable to either having to resign as a Cabinet minister, or conversely face the wrath of his constituents.

In short, there are no lengths to which wily politicians will not go to save their skins.

Was it simply too bad to be true? Pugnacious Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson is reported to have issued a stark ultimatum to the Prime Minister, that unless he can have an extra £2bn a year for defence he and his cronies will do their best to vote down the Budget.

What is more, Williamson, who masterminded Theresa May's campaign for the Tory leadership on the departure of David Cameron, is said to have told service chiefs: "I made her and I can break her."

These are astonishingly threatening words, even from so brash and belligerent a character as Williamson. Now, however, it is being said on Williamson's behalf that he does not recognise any of these statements.

Even so, there are genuine fears in Tory ranks that defence is being under-funded and Chancellor Philip Hammond may now wish to bear that in mind when he prepares his Budget.

But there is also a mantra among cynical Westminster journalists: "Never believe a political story until it has been officially denied." So, we may not be out of the woods just yet.

Belfast Telegraph

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