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House of Assembly forced to ask UK how to deal with harassment claim against MP

Rolfe Commissiong

The House of Assembly got guidance from the UK on how to handle a harassment complaint against former MP Rolfe Commissiong because it had no "codes or standards“ of its own, The Royal Gazette can reveal.

But the advice given and other records held by the Legislature about Mr Commissiong will remain under wraps after a decision by Gitanjali Gutierrez, the Information Commissioner.

Ms Gutierrez carried out a review after the Legislature refused to release records it held about the former Progressive Labour Party politician to The Royal Gazette under public access to information legislation.

She concluded that keeping the records secret was justified.

Ms Gutierrez said some records were withheld because of parliamentary privilege and privacy concerns and that others were not covered under the Pati Act.

Mr Commissiong, who was the MP for Pembroke South East for eight years, said in August 2020 that he would not stand in that year’s General Election after an incident from two years earlier, when he made a comment he “shouldn’t have” to a woman, was made public.

His announcement came after David Burt, the Premier, was asked at a press conference about reports of a complaint lodged with a senior civil servant and Dennis Lister, the Speaker of the House of Assembly, against a PLP MP “alleging harassment”.

Mr Burt said that he became aware of “these complaints” no earlier that August 19, 2020 – which sparked questions about why he was not told sooner.

The Royal Gazette asked the Legislature the next month for all communications it held regarding Mr Commissiong and any complaints made about him, including communications between the Speaker and anyone else.

The only record released under Pati was a letter dated January 30, 2020 from Mr Commissiong to the unnamed woman, which was copied to Mr Lister and Shernette Wolffe, the Clerk to the Legislature.

The Legislature’s Pati official said other relevant records were exempt because they contained personal information and information received in confidence and that it was not in the public interest to release them.

The Clerk to the Legislature also argued during the ICO review that the records should not be disclosed because they related “primarily to the steps undertaken on behalf of the House of Assembly” in accordance with its power to punish MPs for “disorderly and disrespectful acts”.

Ms Wolffe highlighted a section of the Pati Act which made records exempt if their disclosure would or could infringe parliamentary privilege.

Ms Gutierrez’s decision said: “The Clerk of the Legislature went on to explain that the penal jurisdiction of the UK’s House of Commons was extended by the adoption of the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament.

“Further, the post of an independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards was created, which oversees an Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme.”

Ms Gutierrez said Ms Wolffe "admitted that, at the time of the submissions, the House of Assembly in Bermuda had not implemented any codes or standards which relate to a sexual misconduct, bullying or harassment policy, applicable to the parliamentary estate in constituency offices or while undertaking parliamentary work, similar to that in the UK“.

She added: “Nevertheless, the ICGS provided guidance for the House of Assembly on the handling of the complaints.

“The Clerk of the Legislature emphasised that any proceedings pursuant to the House of Assembly’s penal jurisdiction were exercised by the House of Assembly and not the Clerk of the Legislature.”

Ms Gutierrez clarified yesterday that her summary of Ms Wolffe’s submissions referred to “the complaint at issue in this decision”.

Ms Wolffe said: “At this point in time, I don’t think I have anything else to say.”

Mr Burt said in August 2020 that the PLP had “put in place a policy, a code of conduct, which specifically prohibits or has strong action against harassment”.

He added that he was not immediately made aware of a complaint against Mr Commissiong.

Mr Burt said: “It is not something that was known to me prior. If it was something known to me prior, we would have acted.”

A code of conduct for all MPs and senators has been discussed for years but was only tabled in the House and adopted by Parliament in November last year.

The code said Parliamentarians “shall not intimidate, bully or sexually harass another person and shall adhere to the written policy statement against bullying and sexual harassment adopted by the Legislature”.

Mr Lister could not be contacted for comment yesterday.

A Government spokeswoman said: “The Premier was not consulted or advised on the processes employed by the Legislature in this matter.

“The Legislature is a separate branch of Government under Bermuda’s Constitution.”

NOTE: This article has been amended to include a quote from a Government spokeswoman on behalf of the Premier.

To read the Information Commissioner’s decision and the new Code of Conduct for MPs and senators click on the PDFs under Related Media.

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