I am pleased to announce the publication today of the report on an independent complaints and grievance policy.
In this week of celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage, it is right that we recognise the bravery of those in the suffrage movement and praise the great strides we have taken in our politics and our society over the past 100 years. But we are also all too aware of the unacceptable level of intimidation and aggression being shown towards people in public life, often directed particularly at women, BAME and LGBT+ candidates. Such behaviour clearly deters people from entering politics and threatens our democracy. When dealing with this very real issue, our Parliament must lead by example.
The working group was set up last November by the Prime Minister, with the support of all party leaders, in response to the very troubling allegations of sexual harassment and bullying taking place on the parliamentary estate. We all recognised the need for robust procedures to change the culture in Parliament and for this place to set the best example of a workplace that protects and supports all those working in it.
In my first statement, I said that urgent interim action would be taken, and that was the case. The staff helpline was extended to include staff of peers and others, with face-to-face counselling made available on the estate; party codes of conduct were updated and published online; and since Christmas, interim human resources guidance has been made available to Members’ staff. Nevertheless, it was clear from an early stage that there was a substantial amount to do if we wanted to create a sound working environment that properly supports the more than 15,000 people who work for or with Parliament.
I am hugely grateful to all members of the working group for giving their time, consideration and indeed patience as we worked towards the publication of this report. You were clear, Mr Speaker, that for the House Commission to take up the new scheme, the response had to be cross-party. Although there have been some challenging discussions, I am pleased that that is what we have been able to achieve.
The group took extensive evidence, both in person and in writing, from a wide variety of stakeholders, including parliamentary officials, staff of MPs and peers, unions, academics, authorities on sexual violence and legal professionals. The group also conducted its own survey, which was open to a wide range of people and included a number of passholders who had not previously been asked for their experience of bullying and harassment.
Many people have devoted a considerable amount of time to this matter over the past three months and, after more than 100 hours of discussion, consultation and consideration, we have proposed a set of policies that will fundamentally change the working culture in Parliament. I would like to turn now to those proposals.
First, Parliament will agree a shared behaviour code, which will apply to everyone on the estate or engaged in parliamentary business regardless of location, and will underpin the new policy. It will be consulted on, and will make clear the behavioural expectations of everyone in the parliamentary community. Secondly, the new complaints and grievance procedure will be independent of political parties.
Thirdly, it was acknowledged that sexual harassment and sexual violence are different from other forms of inappropriate behaviour such as bullying and intimidation. Therefore, separate procedures will be agreed for those looking to raise a complaint regarding sexual harassment, and for those with a complaint of bullying. This is an important distinction and, although everyone has acknowledged the severity of complaints of sexual harassment, evidence from staff made it clear that instances of intimidation and bullying are in fact more prevalent. Fourthly, MPs’ staff require proper HR advice—something that has previously been lacking and will go a long way to helping to resolve workplace grievances.
Importantly, the new system will be based on the principles of equality; be confidential and fair to all parties; be in line with the laws of natural justice; and command the confidence of all those who use it. The working group took advice at an early stage that, rather than reinventing the wheel, we should work with, and build on, the many sound processes and systems already in place.
For the benefit of Members, I turn briefly to the process for making a complaint or raising a grievance against a Member of this House. As colleagues will appreciate, the process for raising complaints against other members of the parliamentary community— such as peers, Members’ and peers’ staff, journalists and contractors—will differ according to their particular role. All the procedures are designed for the protection of staff and parliamentarians alike and have fairness at their heart.
It is intended that the House authorities will procure two independent services: one to consider allegations of sexual harassment and violence, and the other to consider workplace bullying and intimidation. Both avenues will provide support and, where needed, will investigate the complaint. Where informal resolution is not possible and the complaint is upheld, it will be referred to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in the case of a Member of this House. The working group proposes that the commissioner’s role will be expanded and reformed. She will have access to legal advice, and will be able to impose a new range of lower-level sanctions that may include a written apology, mandatory training or future behaviour agreements.
The commissioner will be able to review any finding by the independent investigator, and where she does so, she will ensure that her investigations are also strictly confidential, that both the complainant and alleged perpetrator have access to all evidence, and, crucially, that each has the right to representation or to represent themselves. Those measures will ensure fairness.
In the most serious of cases, the commissioner will refer her findings to the Committee on Standards. The Committee will be able to recommend to the House that an individual is suspended, and the House will vote on the recommendation. It is through this route that the existing Recall of MPs Act 2015 could be invoked. The trigger for recall will remain the same as it is now, and there is no plan for changes to primary legislation.
The working group fully recognised the fact that those who work in this place are often in the media spotlight, and that vexatious and malicious complaints are a risk. The new procedures will therefore ensure that checks and balances are in place to guard against such complaints.
I will now briefly outline the next steps. A motion will be brought before the House and a debate will take place in the first two weeks after recess. Any necessary equivalent steps will be taken in the other place. It will then be for the House of Commons Commission to instruct the House authorities to finalise the agreed processes and carry out their implementation.
I am grateful to the Clerk of the House for confirming that the House authorities are ready to begin this work via a series of workstreams that will include, first, developing and consulting on a behaviour code for Parliament; secondly, procuring the two separate services required to support and investigate complaints of sexual harassment or bullying; thirdly, procuring an HR guidance service for Members’ staff; fourthly, developing a staff handbook for Members’ staff; and fifthly, identifying and drafting changes to Standing Orders to finalise necessary amendments to the procedures of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Committee on Standards.
The working group will continue as a steering group to monitor the work of the House authorities. It is our intention for the work to proceed at pace over the next few months. Finally, six months after the start of the new scheme, an appropriate body—covering both Houses and having direct staff representation—will review the operation of the new processes.
In conclusion, the working group was formed to bring about change. It is a right, not a privilege, to be treated with dignity and respect at work. This ambitious report is a major step towards a safer, more professional environment. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members across the House will welcome the report, which I am confident will ensure that our Parliament is among the best in the world, demonstrating our commitment to equality, justice and fairness. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Leader of the House for her statement and for her leadership of the group. We started this task on
Paragraph 28 refers to other processes that individuals may choose, such as a process associated with their employment or the political party in question. The scheme will reserve the right not to investigate incidents investigated elsewhere. Paragraph 31 provides that there will be support services, emotional guidance and other guidance, including advice on processes. Paragraph 32 outlines the confidentiality arrangements.
The informal and formal stages of the new sexual harassment policy and procedure are outlined in paragraphs 50 to 61, in chapter 3. Complaints handled by a specialist trained sexual health advisor are outlined in paragraph 54. There will be a separate process for bullying and harassment policy procedures, which is outlined in paragraphs 62 to 75, in chapter 4. The HR advice service that is to be up and running for the staff of MPs and peers will be procured as discussed in paragraph 74. There will also be cultural change training, as outlined in paragraph 79, because some people may not know what unacceptable or acceptable behaviour is. Chapter 7 outlines possible sanctions, and paragraph 92 sets out the timeframe in which the work will proceed. The estimate for the completion of all workstreams is roughly three months.
Members should note that staff supporting the working group have had to deal with their own work as well as this unusual way of working. I am pleased that a formal secretariat will be set up that is dedicated solely to implementing the recommendations, so staff do not have to cover their other posts and this one.
Dr Helen Mott was a gracious and knowledgeable adviser to the working group. The report says that any legal advice that is requested will be from a senior lawyer, but I would suggest that it should be at QC level. The expertise of ACAS should also be accessed. Our survey response showed a 17% return—lower than expected. However, further work may usefully consider ongoing surveys to test the robustness of the procedures.
The Leader of the Opposition has read the whole report and he, too, passes on his thanks to the staff for their hard work.
This is a much better report than the draft that was available before Christmas, as the Leader of the House has kindly acknowledged previously. My hon. Friend Dawn Butler, who is in her place, was keen to have flowcharts so that we could work out the procedure. There is a reference to that, and they may be forthcoming later. In the report before Christmas, there was no reference to the independent sexual harassment adviser, and that could have been lost. There is a body of work to be done, and I am grateful to the House authorities for ensuring that this work will continue. I know that it will be in capable hands.
Everyone in Parliament must be able to work together co-operatively, respecting the expertise of the House and balancing our responsibilities as elected representatives in a safe, secure and constructive workplace so that everyone, including our constituents and the staff of this House, can benefit from working for the common good in this extraordinary place.
I continue to be grateful to the hon. Lady and to her colleague, Dawn Butler, for their contribution to the formulation of what I think will be a game changer for Parliament. They have both been stalwarts, as have all the other members of the working group. It has been an extraordinary and very concentrated piece of work, and I think we can all be proud of it.
I pay tribute to the staff of the House and of the Cabinet Office, who, as Valerie Vaz says, really gave of their time, with their day job still to be done. I would love to name them all, but I think they know who they are. They have done a fantastic job. I also pay tribute to my own team who support me in the Leader of the House’s office. It is a small but rather excellent team. They are all seated in the Box, so I shall not look at them and embarrass them, but they have done a really superb job.
I add my congratulations and commendations to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and to all the people who have been involved in the preparation of this preliminary report, particularly those who gave evidence, which really put the flesh on the bones. We need to ensure that the parliamentary estate is a complete no-go area for all harassment and bullying and is a safe place to work for everyone who enters into it.
As Members of Parliament, we all live our lives in a very public space. What protections will there be for people against malicious claims that are raised against them? More importantly, once a complaint is in train, how can we ensure that such complaints are dealt with and examined on a timely basis? We all know that some examinations of behaviours in this place can last literally for years and never reach a conclusion. It is only fair to the people who are being investigated that this is executed on a timely basis and adjudicated on in due course.
My right hon. Friend raises two issues that were debated at enormous length within the working group. She will appreciate that much of the evidence that we took demonstrated the importance of putting the complainant at the heart of this procedure, making sure that we created a sufficiently safe space for people to feel that they could come forward with their complaint and not find themselves plastered all over the press. That was absolutely key.
By the opposite token, my right hon. Friend is exactly right: we do live in the media spotlight, so it is very often of great public interest when a complaint is made even if that complaint is subsequently not upheld. Part of the process, for the sake of both complainant and alleged perpetrator, is that the independent investigation will be held confidentially. It will be very important for natural justice that both sides can present their side of the story and that the independent investigator comes to a finding, which the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards can then review, should the alleged perpetrator require her to do so.
I thank the Leader of the House for her statement and congratulate her once again on the solid leadership she has offered to the working group and the immense patience she has demonstrated to get this report over the line. I do not think I have ever been involved in a process that has been subject to such scrutiny, review and rewriting, but we got there. I sincerely want to thank the secretariat, the staff of the Leader of the House and all the other staff who were involved in the report. They had to deal with many competing demands to ensure that we got this very good report.
This is a significant, substantial document, and it has managed to secure all parties’ support. It hopefully signals the beginning of the end of the poisonous patriarchal culture that has characterised so many of the relationships in this House. Victims of sexual harassment will now have a process to bring forward complaints independent of the political parties, which is perhaps the key feature of what has been designed and delivered today.
There is a clear road map for how complaints will be examined, with a range of solid sanctions in place to deal decisively with perpetrators. A shared behaviour code is also significant and to be welcomed, as are the proposals for training for all Members and measures to support staff, especially the HR support available to members of staff for the first time.
I have a couple of questions for the Leader of the House. Will she pledge to keep a cross-party approach, which has been so useful, with staff in place as a key feature of that? Can she tell us what will be available to ensure that everything in this document is implemented in good time?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and I thank him and the Scottish National party for their unstinting support and determination to see this progress. He is right to raise the fact that we put aside any political differences.
I would like particularly to pay tribute to the staff members of the working group, who contributed in a totally constructive way to getting the right solution that is fair to both the complainant and the principles of natural justice. They gave their time unstintingly, and they too had day jobs to be getting on with. They have been superb, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is fully my intention for their contribution to continue to be a core part of the process as we complete the implementation. The report is clear about the areas in which staff representation will be necessary. He can rest assured that we will be working at pace and that the same members of the working group will remain involved, where they are able to do so.
I too would like to congratulate and thank everybody involved in this report, which is an amazing work to have produced over a short time. Every Member comes to this House with a different background. Will my right hon. Friend outline what training will be available to Members and whether it will be compulsory?
Training was another area on which the working group had lengthy discussions. I can see my friends on the working group inwardly groaning—“Not training again.” We discussed the need for extensive training to be made available. Of course, we were not just considering issues around complaints about sexual harassment and bullying. We were also dealing with issues raised by staff members about how to properly recruit someone, how to properly discipline someone, how to deal with conflict in the workplace and how to deal with complications between staff of different teams and people who come into contact with one another who do not necessarily have an employment relationship at all. We looked at many different areas.
There will be a comprehensive package of training on areas such as consent, unconscious bias and how to properly recruit, retain and discipline members of staff. Equally, there will be sanctions. Voluntary training will be made available, and there will be mandatory training from after the next general election. There will also be compulsory training by way of lower-level sanctions that can be imposed by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on Members of the House.
I join other hon. Members in commending the work of the Leader of the House and thank her for the way she has gone about it. Her approach has been very serious and committed but also inclusive, involving—right at the heart of the process and on an equal footing—the shadow Leader of the House and the shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, my hon. Friend Dawn Butler, who have been able to consult and involve us in the process.
The right hon. Lady’s working group has been able to ripple the discussion widely. Of course, we all have an interest in ensuring that grotesque abuses do not happen in this House, that it is a safe and decent place to work and that any wrongdoing is called to account.
People have talked about the balance between a fair system for the complainant and a fair system for the person who is complained about. Obviously that is right. The media spotlight can be very harsh indeed on a Member of Parliament just on the basis of an accusation made, but it can also be very harsh on a complainant, and we have to bear that in mind. Timeliness is very important for an hon. Member against whom a complaint has been made, but it is also important for someone who has complained. I know that that has been at the forefront of the working group’s mind.
I appreciate the fact that the right hon. Lady has said this is a work in progress. She has established a response and a system and set up some processes, but it is very important indeed that she stays on the case, with colleagues across the House, to ensure that this actually works. I thank her for her work.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady. She has, over decades, shown her commitment to equality, fairness and justice in this place. I am glad to hear that she is pleased with the work we have put to paper. I assure her that I am committed to seeing this through, as I know are other members of the working group. It is absolutely our intention to put the complainant at the heart of everything we do. She is exactly right. I have heard separately from a number of people who have come to me with their concerns, knowing I was involved in this process. Often, those complainants’ stories have got into the media, and they have been hounded. That is a terrible situation for them to find themselves in, and we are determined that the new procedure will address that.
I thank my right hon. Friend and the working group for producing a far-reaching and radical document that I hope the House and the other place will proceed with implementing, as they intend to. The report talks about a behaviour code for the whole of Parliament, which is a very comprehensive change. It also talks about a culture change in paragraph 82 and training. That underlines the shortcomings that the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs has advertised exist in our code of conduct, and the report requires changes to the House of Commons code of conduct.
I particularly commend the intention to set up a review body once all this is implemented. If I read the report correctly, that might be a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament, perhaps including lay members. Ultimately there has to be comprehensive oversight of this change and how it integrates with what we already have.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, for his Committee’s contribution. It made a very useful written submission with recommendations on the establishment of a joint committee, with staff representation, to review the workings once this system is up and running. I am very sympathetic to that idea, and the report indicates that we would like to see such a review take place once the new system has been up and running for six months. The behaviour code for all in Parliament, including visitors to this place, is designed to sit alongside existing codes and not to interrupt them. I look forward to working with him in consulting on the behaviour code.
My Plaid Cymru colleague, Liz Saville Roberts—she could not be in the Chamber today, but she is a member of the working group—asked to be associated with my comments. We very much thank the Leader of the House for the way in which she has conducted this incredibly important inquiry.
I welcome this report, which is a potential game changer. The shocking figure that almost one in five people working in Westminster have experienced some form of sexual harassment is testament to the fact that the ongoing political culture is toxic. Does the Leader of the House agree that we need not only the consent training she mentioned, but for it to be mandatory, with sanctions available for Members who might not be persuaded to take it up? Quite frankly, Members who are most likely to be resistant to taking up the training are probably those who need it most.
I am so grateful to the hon. Lady, who has been so diligent in ensuring that we come to the right decision. She is tempting me to go back into some of the debates we had in our sessions. I share her concern. We want to invite all Members across this House—in fact, everybody who works in this place—to properly understand what it is to treat one another with dignity and respect. So the training we have mentioned in consent and unconscious bias, how to recruit and employ people, and what constitutes bullying and harassment are all absolutely vital. They will be available as compulsory sanctions and we will be seeking means to encourage people across the estate to take them up voluntarily where we cannot make them mandatory.
But publication of the name of the accused might bring forth corroborating evidence in what otherwise might be one person’s word against another. Where should that difficult balance lie?
My right hon. Friend will appreciate that this has been an incredibly difficult balancing act. All of us on the working group made it clear that the commitment to protecting the interests of the complainant would be at the heart of this. That means very often that the complainant does not want to and will not come forward with a complaint if they then run the risk of being hounded in the media and, in effect, having a trial in the full glare of the public spotlight. That was one of the core areas we sought to address. That inevitably means that there are compromises and these are matters for the final discussions about procedures, where the right balance should be secured between the public interest to know about a perpetrator and the interests of the complainant to have their privacy and confidentiality respected. It is a difficult area and we will need to find that fine balance. I am sure that it will end up being on a case-by-case basis, with very careful assessment by the independent investigator, who will of course have the right qualifications to be able to make that decision.
Six or seven Members of the US Congress and Senate have announced their retirement after sexual harassment allegations. So far, none has done so in the UK Parliament and no political party has yet required people to either stand down or retire. Does the Leader of the House agree it is important that political parties do not hide behind these very welcome proposals in terms of their responsibilities? Will ongoing complaints be allowed to be retrospectively submitted to the new system?
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that it is important to have ultimate sanctions. It is obviously for individual perpetrators to make a decision about whether to resign or retire, but it is absolutely the intention of the new procedure that they will and can be forced to do so, regardless of who they are and what their role is in this place.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s other point about historical or pre-existing allegations, this was another area the working group spent a considerable amount of time discussing. There is a specific complication with making individuals liable to a procedure that was not in place at the time of the allegation. That complicates this somewhat. However, we will make sure that we are able to deal with the issues of historical allegations, even if they cannot be dealt with specifically by this new procedure.
Yes. The new procedure is designed to cover all the people who work in this place—all pass holders—and indeed those who work in our constituency offices, with the exception for the time being of House staff because they are already subject to the respect policy agreed some time ago, which protects them from issues of bullying and harassment. We have agreed with the House authorities that there will be consultation to consider whether all House staff should also come under this procedure in due course. To be specific, it will include contractors coming to this place, all those with parliamentary passes, Lobby journalists, staff of Members and Peers and those who support all-party parliamentary groups.
I am all for robust debate and even occasionally a witty heckle or two, but one of the worst forms of bullying in a playground is when a bunch of kids gang up on another child. That is sort of what we do every Wednesday afternoon in Prime Minister’s questions, is it not? When somebody we do not like is called, there are groans from Members on the other side of the Chamber, as if to suggest that they are less important than anybody else. We praise somebody from our own side and all too often the Whips on either side deliberately try to shout down people on the other side of the Chamber. If we are really going to tackle bullying, are we not going to have to tackle the whole culture of the way in which we do our business?
I am very sympathetic to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. This procedure seeks to change the culture in this place. We all have our own personal opinions about different activities—what is right and what is wrong—but what is very important is how the complainant feels. By having this independent procedure, it will be possible for an individual to go and talk to somebody to receive support and guidance and, where necessary, to have an investigation if it is felt that something is serious and needs to be addressed. Once we see the impact that that has on people—not necessarily Members of this place; it could be anybody who works on the parliamentary estate—and people start to see that there are consequences, that will change the culture in this place. My ambition is that, over time, we become the best example of how a Parliament treats all its staff and workforce with respect and dignity.
As Chris Bryant knows, I deal with the manifestations of disorder at Prime Minister’s questions and on other occasions to the best of my ability. However, in noting what he has said, I can tell the House that I have raised the concern he has articulated with successive Chief Whips on both sides of the House. To say that the response has not been receptive would be an understatement. I call the Leader of the House.
No. This is just a matter of putting on the record what is a matter of fact. As I say around the country, behaviour at Prime Minister’s questions will change when the Whips on each side want it to change. It is as simple and incontrovertible as that. If they want it to change and they say it must change, it will; if they do not, it will not. I can deal with the manifestations: I do, and I will. Whoever glares at me or waves at me, I could not care less—I will do what is necessary. Others must face up to their responsibilities.
May I most sincerely thank the Leader of the House for her statement? I acknowledge the work that has been put in by the working group, including by my hon. Friend Jo Swinson. I am delighted to hear that these policies will apply to constituency staff, some of whom work very far away from this place. How will this information be disseminated to those staff and will there be an opportunity for them to come to Westminster to be trained up?
First, I thank Jo Swinson for her absolute commitment to the success of the working group. She was also very diligent and very focused. I thought her outing on the “Today” programme this morning was brilliant and also rather funny. Colleagues will notice that there was a little sting in the tail.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether there will be outreach to constituency offices. I assure him that there will be.
I warmly welcome the work done by the Leader of the House on this issue and I thank all hon. Members involved in the development of the report. The right hon. Members for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) and for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) asked about confidentiality and the policing of anonymity. We have an investigative press in this country and people in this Palace talk. So I wonder how the Leader of the House intends to police and regulate the confidentiality of those who are victims and those who have been accused. I am sure there are newspaper editors who would argue that publishing the name of someone who has been accused would be in the public interest. It is important we get detailed information about how that should be policed.
The hon. Gentleman is exactly right, and that goes to the heart of the challenge of ensuring that the complainant’s desire not to be all over the newspapers and social media is respected and upheld. The two services—one dealing with sexual harassment and the other with bullying and intimidation—will be independent and procured by the House authorities on behalf of the House, and they will have strict procedures for confidentiality. As would be expected, should those procedures be breached—for whatever reason—there would be severe consequences. Confidentiality will be a key part of that. Similarly, the working group proposes that the processes of the commissioner for standards should also be strictly confidential, and having met her, I am absolutely sure that she will uphold that need for confidentiality. My expectation is that all those involved in the investigatory process will uphold the need for complainant confidentiality.
I, too, thank the Leader of the House. As the manager of the team, so to speak, she has delivered, together with the other hon. Members involved. I also commend my hon. Friend Emma Little Pengelly for her significant contribution. Will the Leader of the House say whether the mandatory training provided will also deal with non-sexual harassment and give not just MPs but our teams and staff guidelines on how to handle stress and react appropriately in highly pressured situations? How does the investigatory committee envisage that such training will take place?
First, I thank Emma Little Pengelly for her contribution. She had a different perspective on this working group and she has been incredibly constructive all the way through. The hon. Gentleman mentions staff in this place. One key piece of evidence that we took is that staff feel a strong need for proper HR guidance to be made available to them. A number of issues were raised about members of staff who resign simply because they feel that they are not happy or not being treated well, and they do not know where to go. They recognise the risks of talking to the press or to their MP, and rather than cause a fuss they just leave. They are then left feeling dissatisfied and unhappy, and that can affect their job prospects elsewhere because they want to get a good reference and so on. It is important, right across the board, that staff are able to learn about their contractual rights through proper HR guidance, and that training is made available for all those who manage or supervise staff. Many MPs have a chief of staff or someone who manages an intern or an apprentice, and we must make training easily available—online as well as face to face—so that we support the desire among people in this place to professionalise our working environment.
Thank you. The next statement comes as a result of, and in response to, the exceptionally brave, persistent and unstinting pressure brought by Rosie Cooper. That point is known to many, but has just been acknowledged to me in the most glowing terms by the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Social Care. Therefore, when we come to questions, I will allow the hon. Lady some latitude in probing the Minister on a matter with which she has been extraordinarily closely involved.