Labour MP Keith Vaz bullied clerks who sought to uphold the rules and process of the Commons, Newsnight has learned.
One clerk claims Mr Vaz, who in 2016 quit as the head of a select committee after a tabloid reported he had hired prostitutes, told her she was bad at her job because she was “not a mother”.
Accounts of his behaviour were recorded in the clerk’s appraisals but no one in the Commons intervened to protect her.
Mr Vaz denies breaching any of the rules of the House and denies bullying.
Jenny McCullough served as a clerk in the House of Commons from 2002 to 2011. She has claimed Mr Vaz repeatedly bullied and undermined her position in the House while he was chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee.
Northern Irish background
Other clerks have told Newsnight that this was part of a pattern of behaviour. They said that the Leicester East MP was prone to bullying clerks, particularly those who tried to stand up for the standards of the House.
Ms McCullough alleges that Mr Vaz said she was a poor clerk because she was “not a mother”. He also made jokes about whether Ms McCullough was a security threat, on account of her Northern Irish background and accent.
Mr Vaz was chairman of the home affairs committee from 2007 until his resignation in 2016 – the Sunday Mirror reported he was caught hiring prostitutes and showing willing to pay for drugs. An inquiry into that is ongoing.
Ms McCullough’s relationship with Mr Vaz deteriorated rapidly on an official committee trip to Russia and Ukraine in 2008, when Ms McCullough raised concerns with Mr Vaz about his compliance with the rules and protocols of the House.
The rules and standards around these trips demand, for example, that MPs arrange an itinerary before leaving that can be signed off. They also demand that hospitality is either arranged by the committee as part of the programme or appropriately declared.
Newsnight has seen emails from Ms McCullough to her manager relating her concerns.
For example, she was worried about who was paying for a dinner on the trip. “The chairman refused to tell me who we would be meeting or what the arrangements were beyond that we would be dining with Ivan, a friend of his who was (or used to be, I couldn’t find out) a ‘senator’,” she wrote.
But when she arrived, she discovered that it was what she called a “large” and “opulent” dinner, thrown in the MPs’ honour. She did not know who the guests at the dinner were.
She emailed her manager saying: “We didn’t pay – I didn’t know who did.”
Ms McCullough says that when she stood up to Mr Vaz about her concerns he launched into a “tirade” against her in a hotel lobby.
“He then demanded to know what age I was. He told me that I didn’t know how the House worked and that I didn’t respect the authority of members – that I had an attitude problem.”
She said this was when Mr Vaz told her she was bad at her job because she was not a mother.
When they returned, Ms McCullough’s colleagues recall Mr Vaz’s criticism of Ms McCullough being unrelenting and personal.
Ms McCullough told Newsnight that she was eventually asked to stop coming to team meetings, because his reaction to her presence was too disruptive, and prevented any work from being done by the team.
She was eventually moved to another job elsewhere in the House. But, not feeling protected at work, later chose to leave.
Her problems with Mr Vaz were known to the House of Commons management.
Her annual appraisal for the year 2008 stated that “Jenny had excellent relations with Home Office officials and other witnesses, and with all the committee apart from the chairman, who chose to try to bully her. Jenny understandably and properly stood her ground, which the chairman resented.”
A representative for Mr Vaz told Newsnight that he denied any bullying, and said: “No complaint or allegation of this nature has ever been brought to his attention.
“Our client had considered that he and Ms McCullough had previously had a good working relationship, and had always considered her to be very effective as a clerk.”
He particularly denied making light of Ms McCullough’s origins or motherhood.
After Ms McCullough left the House, she complained about the way that she had been treated.
She told Newsnight: “I didn’t feel able to complain about Keith Vaz because I was afraid of him. When I was on the home affairs committee I saw that he had friends in the police and friends in the law.
“He said that one of the principal clerks was a friend and by the time I was leaving the house he had a friend in the Speaker. I thought it could only end badly for me.”
The House of Commons told Newsnight: “We are aware that in the past the House has not had a robust process in place to deal with instances of bullying and harassment.
“We are confident that our new Independent Complaints and Grievance Policy will mean that allegations can be dealt with effectively and sensitively.”