I beg to move,
That this House
endorses the recommendations of the Working Group on an Independent Complaints and Grievance Policy;
and asks the House of Commons Commission to authorise House officials, reporting regularly to a steering group of Members and others, to undertake the work necessary to establish:
(1) a Behaviour Code for Parliament that covers bullying and harassment, and sexual harassment, and applies to all persons working for or with Parliament, or who are lawfully on the parliamentary estate;
(2) an independent complaints and grievance scheme to underpin the Code, together with associated policies, appropriate sanctions and the contractual arrangements necessary for delivering the scheme;
(3) particular procedures to deal with reports of sexual harassment, including the provision of a specialist Independent Sexual Violence Advocate;
(4) a system of training to support the Code;
(5) a human resources support service for staff employed by Members of Parliament or jointly by political parties, delivered by a third-party provider, and a handbook for these staff; and to identify any amendments that may be necessary to Standing Orders and the Code of Conduct, for the approval of the House.
The working group was convened by the Prime Minister last November—supported by all party leaders—to address the serious allegations of abuse and harassment in Parliament. I announced the publication of the group’s report before the February recess, and I hope that Members have now had the time to consider the report’s recommendations in more detail.
We are all agreed that there is no place for harassment, abuse or misconduct in Parliament. We need to ensure that there are robust procedures in place so that everyone is able to work with the dignity and protection that they deserve. I believe the working group’s proposals do just that.
During its work, 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, trade 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 work, and after more than 100 hours of discussion, consultation and consideration, I believe we have a set of proposals for the House to consider today that will fundamentally change the working culture in Parliament for the better.
I would like to turn now to these proposals, and I will briefly set them out for the House. They are as follows. First, Parliament will agree a shared behaviour code. This will apply to everyone on the estate, or engaged in parliamentary business regardless of location, and will underpin the new policy. It will make clear the expectations for the behaviour of everyone in the parliamentary community, and will be consulted on on that basis. 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 those with a complaint of bullying. This is an important distinction, and while everyone has acknowledged the significance of complaints of sexual harassment, evidence from staff made it clear that instances of intimidation and bullying are in fact more prevalent. Fourthly, therefore, MPs’ staff require proper human resources advice—something that has previously been lacking, and that will go a long way to helping prevent and resolve workplace grievances.
Importantly, the new system will be based on the principles of equality. It will be confidential and fair to all parties. It will be in line with the laws of natural justice, and it will 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.
Today, we are bringing forward a motion that will enable the House Commission to authorise House officials to take forward the group’s recommendations and implement our proposals in full. This is a big step towards creating a more professional environment and a Parliament that is among the best in the world in treating people with dignity and respect at work.
I commend the Leader of the House for all her work on this important report. She will agree that Parliament should be a beacon of best practice, rather than running to play catch-up. Will she confirm that that means we need to make sure that these procedures relate to everybody on this estate? That includes, crucially, making sure that they extend to our constituency offices—to visitors to constituency offices—as soon as possible. I know we debated that in the group, but will she reassure us that this is a real priority for her going forward?
I certainly pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who was an assiduous contributor to all the work of the working group, and I thank her sincerely for her dedication to it. Of course, we recall the happy hours spent debating that very point, and we concluded in the end that it is a priority to ensure that the behaviour code—the protection—extends to all those who come into contact with Members of Parliament. But we concluded that, in the immediate future, we should focus on bedding in a new complaints procedure that will deal with the Palace of Westminster and our work as part of our parliamentary duties, and that once that is bedded down, we should have a review six months into its operation of how we should deal with others who come into contact with MPs, where there is that tricky grey area of where someone’s public life is and where someone’s private life is. I hope the hon. Lady is reassured by my once again making a commitment that we must look at that. She is exactly right.
I really appreciate the right hon. Lady giving way. On the definitions of bullying, why is the older version of the definition used, as opposed to the most recent version, which takes away the issue around intentionality? Often, perpetrators hide behind that.
The work on the detailed procedures, including definitions, will be finalised once the work of the House authorities gets under way to put these proposals in place. If the hon. Lady wants to propose a different definition, I will be very pleased to look at it, and I will certainly take into account all views in that regard. I am committed to ensuring that work proceeds at pace over the next few months, and I am pleased to report that the House authorities have already begun preliminary work on several of the workstreams needed to implement these policies.
Members will also want to know that the following four interim steps have already been taken to improve the services available. I have mentioned them previously, because we wanted to ensure that we had immediate steps following the serious allegations we all heard about in November. First, enhanced support arrangements have already been provided through the extension of the employee assistance programme helpline run by Health Assured. Secondly, face-to-face counselling sessions can be offered where appropriate. Thirdly, an interim service providing HR advice for Members’ staff was launched in January. Fourthly, political parties have all updated their behaviour codes and published them on the parliamentary intranet. This demonstrates that we have already taken urgent action, but of course the new procedures will go much further.
For the benefit of Members not present at my previous statement, I will 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 each differ according to their particular role. All 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 the alleged perpetrator have access to all evidence, and, crucially, that each has the right to representation or to represent themselves. These measures will ensure fairness.
In the most serious cases, the commissioner will refer her findings to the Committee on Standards. The Committee can 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 procedures under the Recall of MPs Act 2015 could be invoked. The trigger for recall remains the same as it is now, and there is no plan for changes to primary legislation. The working group 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 checks and balances are in place to guard against such complaints, while making sure complainants can come forward in a safe and confidential manner.
I will turn now in more detail to the individual workstreams needed to implement the new procedures. We expect six major workstreams to be established, and I would like to address these individually. It is the intention that most of the workstreams will be completed in three months or less.
First, and very importantly, a new behaviour code for Parliament will be developed. This was a key recommendation of the working group report. It will ensure that we are all aware of and able to promote the highest standards that are expected in the parliamentary community. It will cover all those working in both Westminster and constituency offices, and all pass holders. With the approval of the House, we will consult on this new behaviour code: it is important that those who would be subject to the code have the opportunity to contribute to its development. The code must be something that binds us all. It will underpin the new scheme, which will be able to receive, investigate and resolve allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. It will also be the cornerstone of a cultural change to uphold dignity at work for all those who work with or for Parliament. It is our intention that the behaviour code will be brought forward within three months.
Secondly, there will be an implementation workstream around the bullying and harassment procedure. This will develop detailed policies and procedures, and commission the services of a new reporting helpline and a workplace dispute resolution service. The new helpline will signpost to available services, and ultimately the new services will be able to investigate independently allegations of bullying and intimidation. Dedicated emotional and practical support for all those involved in a complaint will be an important aspect of the new services.
Thirdly, there will be a separate workstream commissioning a new independent specialist service around sexual harassment and violence. A single point of ongoing support will be provided for complainants by an independent sexual violence adviser. Investigations of misconduct will be able to be conducted by an independent investigator with a specialist qualification in understanding sexual harassment.
I thank the Leader of the House for being generous with her time. May I just caution her once again about the issue of mediation when it comes to bullying and sexual harassment, because of the inequalities of power? We want to ensure that there are clear processes that enable equality of power. Often, mediation has the reverse effect.
I hope I can reassure the hon. Lady that the issue she raises was at the core of all the evidence we took and all the discussions we had, and of the determination of the working group to address the issue of imbalance of power to make sure that the interest of the complainant is at the heart of the whole procedure, so it is very much complainant-led and ensures that people feel safe and are able to come forward in a safe space without the fear of being intimidated further. I think I can reassure the hon. Lady on that point, but of course I am very happy to speak to her separately if she wants further reassurance.
Fourthly, new training is already available to help people understand more clearly what types of behaviour might be considered bullying or harassment and the impact that this can have on individuals. This is the first step towards implementing the working group’s recommendation that the new independent grievance and complaints policy needs to be supported by a comprehensive training programme. Training will be a significant workstream and will also include learning opportunities for Members and their offices in their role as employers. The House authorities have also established a new induction programme for Members’ staff, with the first session being run this week in response to the working group’s request.
Other individual areas of work, including on the fifth workstream, are already under way. This includes work to prepare for a third party supplier of HR advice for Members’ staff to replace the interim service launched in January. This will be supported by a new Members’ staff book. A first draft has already been compiled by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the House authorities.
Finally, the working group has been clear that in order to implement a number of the group’s proposals, the sixth workstream will develop the remit and processes of the Parliamentary Commissioners and the Standards Committees in both Houses. This workstream will necessarily involve separate but parallel processes in both Houses, liaising with each other as necessary. At the end of these processes, changes will also be likely to be needed to the existing parliamentary codes, not least to reflect the new behaviour code.
Regarding the amendment on the Order Paper, I welcome its clarity. I assure right hon. and hon. Members that as well as having recently met the new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and having recently scheduled a meeting with the Standards Committee, I can absolutely give the assurance that consultation with the commissioners and the Standards Committees will continue and will form a key part of the next stage of our work.
It is important that the development of these workstreams is underpinned by fairness, confidentiality and a recognition of the unique environment in which these procedures are being implemented. The new arrangements must therefore be monitored, reviewed and embedded as part of a wider change in culture. I would like to pay particular tribute in this regard to the Political and Constitutional Affairs Committee for its excellent recommendations to the working group. Unfortunately, the Committee’s letter was omitted from the list of written submissions in annex B of the report—for that I apologise. One of the suggestions made in its submission was about the importance of review and scrutiny of the working group’s proposals. It is our intention that once the proposals have been implemented, a cross-House body or group should review the implementation and operation of the new processes, and in the meantime a steering group, whose membership will be based on the composition of the working group, will oversee the implementation period.
In conclusion, I am confident that the measures that the working group has recommended will provide the basis for the significant and sustainable change to which we all aspire: a Parliament that provides dignity at work for all. We need to make sure that our Parliament is among the best in the world, demonstrating our commitment to equality, justice and fairness. I hope that the House will endorse the working group’s recommendations today.
I thank the Leader of the House for opening the debate. This is the fourth time that the matter has been before the House and it is good that we can continue to debate this important topic in this way. We have had three statements and now this motion. If we cast our minds back, our first meeting was on Monday
All the motion does is set out the work that the House authorities have to undertake. There needs to be time to look at how to put the processes and procedures in place, and, of course, a working group cannot do that. To pick up the point made by my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell, who worked in this sector, she will have an opportunity to feed in to the full-time, permanent person who will be dealing with this.
The Leader of the House outlined in detail exactly the work that needs to be done, so I will confine myself briefly to two areas: training and the steering group. On training, I do not consider any training programme to be onerous. It is not a judgment on people’s views, but just ensures that everyone is in the same place. It will be useful for all Members to be updated with the latest practices and acceptable behaviour in a modern workplace.
Can we not ensure that training is mandatory and face-to-face, and that it is brought in this year, so that we do not have to wait until the next Parliament?
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. That is exactly what I would want to see from any training programme. As the Leader of the House outlined, we expect something to be put in place after three months, when the permanent person has looked at all the details of what they have to do.
Secondly, the steering group will monitor the work that has been done. As the Leader of the House knows, the working group was set up on an ad hoc basis. A few people have been asked to and were allowed to join the group, but in my view, the steering group should be a bit more representative and perhaps include other groups and unions. I would support the inclusion of the House trade union side to widen the representation slightly, but perhaps the numbers on the steering group need to be reduced.
Most importantly, a number of new initiatives were set up. When events first hit us in November, Mr Speaker acted very swiftly and extended the helpline so that it was a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week helpline from Health Assured. It would be useful to have the figures on how that is being used, perhaps at the next Commission meeting, because it will then have been six months since it was extended to every single person working on the Estate.
I do not underestimate the amount of work that the House authorities need to do. Although it is useful to get updates from time to time, they need to be left to get on with the work, consulting my right hon. Friend Sir Kevin Barron and his Committee, the Select Committee on Standards; Mr Jenkin and his Committee, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee; and all other hon. Members who feel that they have something to offer. Only when processes are in place and being used will we know if they are robust and command the support of those who seek to use them.
The Opposition support the motion as tabled and amended and look forward to being updated. We thank the staff for taking on this task, so that we have a truly modern Parliament, where everyone knows the boundaries of acceptable behaviour in a safe and secure workplace.
It is just a few months since Parliament faced a wave of allegations of bullying and sexual harassment, in an atmosphere in which it was at times hard to distinguish real and serious cases from the proliferation of accusations and rumours. It exposed the lack of a credible, transparent and robust system for addressing legitimate complaints and grievances about bullying and sexual harassment. It led to the establishment of the working group and its report, which I fully support. The report is carefully drafted and reflects a great deal of thought and discussion.
The working group has proposed first, the adoption of a new shared behaviour code for all who work in Parliament and its Members; and secondly, the introduction of a new independent complaints and grievance policy to underpin the behaviour code. This, not surprisingly, concentrates on creating new rules and new procedures for investigating incidents and complaints, not least to try to address the present hotch-potch of arrangements for different categories of people and the glaring gaps in the system, such as the oversight of how we MPs employ and care for our staff.
The working group has rightly spent a lot of its time discussing and defining what constitutes the bad behaviour that must be called out. But there is also a need to address how Parliament arrived at this situation—how a culture of tolerance towards bullying and sexual harassment has become embedded and was left substantially unchallenged until now. Very few people who come into political life and to work in Parliament—at whatever level and whatever capacity in this building—are bad people, and most are appalled by the culture that has been exposed.
So how have we let this happen? After all, MPs are already subject to the House of Commons code of conduct. As employers, we are already covered by employment law, and there is the Respect policy to protect staff of the House. It is clear, however, that there needs to be a wider and continuing discussion about the positive attitudes and kinds of behaviour that we want to promote in Parliament and in public life, and what the values and principles are upon which those positive attitudes and behaviours should be based.
The remit of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which I chair, includes oversight of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the ministerial code, the civil service code and the special advisers’ code. More broadly, much of PACAC’s work is concerned with leadership and governance in the civil service and public bodies, so we have done a lot of work on this area.
In December, PACAC submitted evidence to the working group, drawing on the work that PACAC has carried out in other areas. This was in the form of a letter to the Leader of the House, which she kindly acknowledged, although it was not included among the record of written submissions received by the group. I know that it was substantially discussed, and I am grateful to Valerie Vaz, the spokesman for the Opposition, for drawing attention to it, too.
Some of the reasons for our failures are practical and procedural, and the working group has made great strides to address these. However, it is also clear that there is confusion among MPs and others about what behaviour should be subject to public scrutiny and what should be regarded as entirely private. As we argued in our submission to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards’ review of the House of Commons code of conduct last year, this confusion is not resolved by our current Commons code—far from it. PACAC set out the fundamental ambiguity about whether our Commons code of conduct was intended to function as a set of principles governing the whole of Members’ behaviour, which would naturally extend, to a degree, into the private sphere of MPs’ conduct, or simply as a set of regulations, mostly about financial disclosures, relating only to an MP’s public role. The 2015 code states that it does not seek to regulate what Members do in their private and personal lives, yet it is clear from the recent controversies that it is not always possible to keep the two as separate as many of us would like.
The risk now is that the new behaviour code will again be mainly concerned with rules and regulations and new enforcement procedures, but if that is just patched on to the present system, which has manifestly failed on at least one of its main objectives—to promote public confidence in the standards we observe in Parliament—we should not be surprised if problems continue to arise. The working group is right to promote a system of training to support the new code—there might be problems with persuading some colleagues that they should be subject to the training, as I will come to; it is easy to put such a thing in a document, but there might be practicalities when it comes to persuading colleagues to participate—but what about extending that to training about what the seven principles of public life actually mean in the lives of all public figures in this place?
I cannot wait to find out whether the hon. Gentleman agrees that in order to persuade colleagues to undertake training some kind of sanctions might concentrate people’s minds—for example, having pay docked, or something similar.
I am so much more in favour of persuasion than coercion. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. We could force MPs to attend a training session, but what kind of attitude would they have towards that training if they did not want to do it? Let us take a step back and think about how we want to do this. I agree with the hon. Lady, however, that unless we promote conversation and understanding about the principles and values that should guide behaviour, the risk is that confusion about what is acceptable will persist.
Rules and regulations are, of course, important, but PACAC’s work has shown so often that when rules are not underpinned by clear principles and values that are understood, discussed and talked about, the outcome is a preoccupation with compliance with the rules rather than with upholding what reflects the values and principles we want upheld. The road to damnation is all too congested these days with people arguing how their conduct was “within the rules”.
I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s comments. He is talking about what we can do to improve the culture in this place, and I wholeheartedly endorse his suggestion of training on the seven principles of public life, although I actually think that we probably do need some sanctions and mandatory training. Does he think we need a different way of looking at this? It would be arrogant of someone to take the view that they did not need training, as if we stop learning at 18, when we leave full-time education, rather than continually aiming to find out more and work out how to do our job and fulfil our responsibilities better—and that includes continual learning and, yes, continual training.
I could not agree more with the hon. Lady, and I so much want her to win this argument and win hearts and minds, rather than have to resort to coercion, which would be so counter-productive.
To avoid just being preoccupied with compliance in the future, both the regulations and the principles and values that we want behaviour to reflect must be clearly set out and adjudicated. Perhaps only a breach of the rules should attract sanction, but nevertheless there needs to be some authority—we suggest, in respect of MPs, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards—who would at least call out people who are failing to live up to the principles and values we have all signed up to. We also argued in our submission that the rules should be adjudicated by a separate person with appropriate legal expertise—the appointment of legal advice to the commissioner is a really good step in that direction, because the role of the commissioner as a thought leader is perhaps more important than her role as an adjudicator of rules.
The working group recognises the need for comprehensive training for MPs, peers and staff to help them to understand and prevent harassment and sexual abuse and to assist professional practice and Members in their position as employers. It is essential, however, that the work to embed the values outlined in the behaviour code throughout the parliamentary community be led by leaders, including MPs and peers themselves, and not delegated to support staff, who will not have the authority to carry out the kind of training that Caroline Lucas referred to earlier. The culture of an organisation is the responsibility of its leaders. We parliamentarians must be the champions of change, or it will not happen, and we must be held accountable for its success. We cannot delegate this vital governance function to anyone else, and nor will Parliament secure public trust if we seem incapable of exercising effective governance.
What concerns, if any, does the hon. Gentleman have about the role of the Standards Committee in identifying what is a relevant sanction? Does he share my concern that the Committee, being partly made up of MPs, might be open to the accusation of MPs marking their own homework, if essentially it will be MPs making the final decision on whether a colleague is expelled for long enough to lead down the road to recall?
All these ideas for what sanctions should be available are good ideas, but the accusation of marking our own homework is an unavoidable consequence of the constitutional position of this House and the other place. The advice on the basis of which we mark our own homework must, however, be much more explicit, which is why the provision of legal advice to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is important. In the end, adjudication on far clearer legal principles by someone with juridical experience of judging evidence and rules, such as a retired judge, is preferable to this rather vague arrangement at the moment. That is not to criticise any past or present commissioner; it is just that we ask that person to take on an enormous responsibility—adjudicating rules and evidence—for which they might not have had much training or experience. It is only “one” of the qualifications of the job, as opposed to “the” qualification in respect of a legal adviser or separate adjudicator. I hope that that answers the hon. Lady’s question.
On the introduction of an independent complaints and grievance policy to underpin the behaviour code, I am delighted that the working group has recognised the need to change procedures to ensure that all levels of inappropriate behaviour can be addressed proportionately and effectively. It has also recognised the need to ensure that appropriate support be available for both complainants and alleged perpetrators and, crucially, the need for a human resources service for MPs’ and peers’ staff. I would like to endorse these conclusions, the latter of which was also included in the PACAC submission to the working group.
Like the expenses failure in 2009, the recent scandal is largely about a failure of our own governance, and this stems, to a significant degree, from a failure by Parliament to establish means by which we can be more mindful of ourselves as an institution. As always, in reaction there is a cry for tougher, more comprehensive rules and tougher sanctions against those who break them, and this is undoubtedly important. Good governance is also, however, about much more than this, and we now have an opportunity to have a much more positive conversation about the values we want to promote and which we expect public leaders to live by. I hope that the proposed behaviour code will clearly set out those principles and values, and that the review and scrutiny of the new system’s success will assess how successfully they are being embedded in our attitude and our behaviour.
This reform also needs to be properly integrated into a reformed House of Commons code of conduct. I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has said that there will be changes in the code as a consequence. She emphasised that the working group had agreed that there should be a review of these recommendations once they are implemented, and I am grateful for that. PACAC recommends that the review should be overseen by a Joint Committee of both Houses, which should also include representatives of unions and employees’ organisations such as the working group. Its work should also cover the codes of conduct of both Houses. I fear that if such a review is not conducted and we fail to integrate the new arrangements fully with the existing arrangements in both Houses, we will not have established the stable and robust system for the future that we all wish to see.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Jenkin. I always seem to follow him during debates such as this, and that is probably as it should be, given his thoughtful contributions. I shall pick up a couple of the issues that he highlighted in what was, again, a very thoughtful speech.
I thank the Leader of the House for her opening contribution, and congratulate her on the stout leadership that she offered throughout the deliberations of the working group. She mentioned 100 hours; looking at my colleagues behind me, I have to say that they may not have been the most peaceful 100 hours—there was a little bit of fractious debate on some of the issues—but this is nevertheless a solid, cross-party piece of work. I do not think that, during my 17 years in the House, I have been involved in a piece of work that has been so considered, so reviewed and so comprehensively examined. That is a tribute to the diligence of all the members of the working group, many of whom are in the Chamber today. It was a privilege to be part of that group, and I hope that I played some small part in designing its hugely important report.
I join the Leader of the House in thanking the many witnesses who appeared before the group, and the staff who played such a vital role in helping to provide the testimony and evidence. I particularly thank the members of the secretariat, some of whom are in the Box this afternoon, for making sense of all the fractious debate and the various goings-on and producing what I think is a very readable report which addresses all the issues that were raised.
This was also a new way of working. I think that the most innovative and useful feature was the presence of staff members in the working group. Indeed, it was probably a first. Staff had equality of membership with MPs, which, in my view, gives the report added legitimacy, and will go a long way towards ensuring that the staff can have confidence in it. I hope that we can do more of that type of work in the future, involving the staff of the House. When it comes to such critical work, particularly work on House issues, we need to hear their voices. As we discovered when preparing the report, they have solid contributions to make to discussions about the way in which the House functions.
This report is a significant and ambitious piece of work which will, hopefully, help to redefine the culture in our Westminster workplace. I think that the most important part is the first sentence of the first paragraph, which states:
“All those who work for or with Parliament have a right to dignity at work”.
Some may feel that that does not need to be said, but it underpins everything else in the report, and I believe that it cannot be reiterated often enough.
Some 15,000 people work in and around the parliamentary estate, including us weird and demanding Members of Parliament, the even stranger Members of the House of Lords, and the staff who support us so that we can make our grandstanding speeches and try to impress our constituents. The estate is full of very diverse and, I think we must concede, some weird and strange people. One thing, however, should unite everyone on the estate, and that is the conviction that all who work here have a right to expect to work in an environment that is free from bullying and harassment, especially sexual harassment. There should be zero tolerance of any inappropriate behaviour.
The report was not created in a vacuum; it was a response to some very serious allegations that emerged at the end of last year. The leaders of all our parties got together and decided that those allegations had to be addressed, and that something had to be done in Parliament about such a crucial issue. That was what sanctioned the work that we did. However, it was also a response to the wider societal debate about the many revelations that have followed the Weinstein revelations in Hollywood.
We are, I believe, at a critical juncture in the debate about harassment in the workplace. We have an historic opportunity to redefine what is and what is not acceptable, and to make an important contribution and commitment to dignity at work. It is essential for Parliament to lead the way, because Parliament is the forum of our national debate and the centre of our democracy. We would be shirking our responsibility if we did not issue the strongest possible statement that such behaviour is unacceptable in this place, as it should be unacceptable in any workplace in the United Kingdom. If we did not lead the way and establish procedures and processes to deal with our own issues, we would be letting down the people whom we serve throughout the country. We should set the example, and I believe that this document does that. It sets out, very clearly, our commitment to putting our own house in order.
The working group gained a sense of the scale of the problem in our own workplace after commissioning a short survey, asking people working in Parliament about their experiences of bullying and harassment. There was a solid response from staff throughout the estate, some 1,377 of whom replied. The results of that survey, together with the results of surveys conducted by Unite and the Members and Peers Staff Association, gave us a pretty strong impression of some of the unsavoury activities that had been taking place. Indeed, some of the findings were quite shocking. What those surveys revealed was that bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, had been a feature of the lives of many people who work in Parliament. Of the respondents, 39% reported experiences of non-sexual harassment or bullying in the last year, and 19% reported experiences of sexual harassment or witnessing sexually inappropriate behaviour.
I have only just received—along with, I am sure, every other Member—an e-mail from the Young Women’s Trust. It is an important e-mail, but, unfortunately, I saw it too late to be able to include it in the formal part of my speech. Figures that it included made it clear that the issues in young women’s workplaces throughout the country are not very different from the issues that we identified in the House of Commons.
The proposal is for a new shared code of behaviour that will underpin the new complaints and grievance policy. We will have a new, transparent, robust and credible complaints and grievance system that protects the confidentiality of proceedings and applies natural justice at its core, and it will be independent of the political parties, which is a key feature. Concerns have been raised about the political parties’ abilities to deal with these issues. I do not point the finger at any particular party; all our parties are bad at doing this stuff. We have several unresolved cases of people who have been charged with all sorts of activities but where that has still not been heard properly. There is a lack of confidence about political parties’ abilities to take these issues up, because of fear that the parties will try to defend and protect their own political interests. An independent route is therefore essential. A party route will still be available for people who feel that is more appropriate for them, but I hope that, in time, the independent route will be routinely used.
Another attractive and helpful feature is the proposal that all our staff secure HR support. I have been in this place quite a long time and I was shocked that that facility was not available for members of staff. Given that we are going to go forward with new codes of behaviour and new procedures for resolving grievance, it is essential that that support is given to staff. That is an important innovation that I am certain will be warmly received by members of staff throughout the House.
Concerns about sexual harassment are what led to this group being set up, and, importantly, in our report we recognise that sexual harassment is qualitatively different from other forms of inappropriate behaviour and therefore requires different definitions, procedures and approaches. This new confidential scheme will provide practical and emotional support to any complainant, and respect absolutely that complainants have confidentiality and have no obligation to report criminal offences to the police, although they will be supported if they feel that is appropriate and it is their choice to do so. All reports will be handled by a specialist, trained independent sexual violence adviser, who will be a single point of contact throughout the proceedings. The way this has been designed will give confidence to anybody who wants to come forward that they will have respect and confidentiality, and that there will be a proper road map for how the complaint will be conducted and progressed.
Sanctions are important, too—we have already heard a few issues about that. I was disappointed when a draft report was leaked to the press over Christmas and the press sought to portray it as if Members would only have to make an apology or would just get a slap on the wrist if they were found to be transgressors or guilty in any respect, but it was never anything of the sort. We have put forward a whole range of sanctions that will be in place, from just an apology where that might be all that is necessary to resolve a dispute, all the way up to the possibility of recall of an MP and the expulsion of a Member of the House of Lords. The full list of sanctions is included in the report.
Lastly, I want to talk about the culture of the House, as this issue came up time and again in our deliberations. I hate the culture of this House. I have never been fond of being in the House of Commons; some of my friends think it is a fantastic place to work and do their business, but I always find it a little bit uncomfortable. Perhaps it is the Scottish nationalist in me that grates a little bit, but this House has a peculiar historical culture that practically oozes patriarchy and abuse of power. I had a female friend in the House a few months ago who is very conscious of these issues and she told me that the portraits in this place seem to harass us because of the way the images are set up. The historical patriarchy we have in this place is embedded in the defining features of this House. Our workplace is a weird bastion of privilege. We call friends like mine who visited the House “Strangers” and legislation is designed on a sea of booze in the many bars we have around the perimeter of this Chamber.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the sea of alcohol in this place. I was at an event that started at 1 o’clock this afternoon and wine was being served. Does he consider that appropriate within this building?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that, because I want to come on to some compelling evidence that we secured during our inquiry. It came from Sarah Childs, who authored the “Good Parliament” report, which I know my hon. Friend will be familiar with. It is a fantastic report that got to the heart of how this place does business and the culture and environment we work in, and makes some practical suggestions for addressing it. We work here till after midnight some nights, and I do not mind doing that. It is what we do as parliamentarians, but no one should suggest that it is good practice or that it allows us to get home to our families or to have a proper work-life balance. That would be nonsense. We do the work because we are committed to doing it, but no one can convince me that this is good practice. That brings me back to the question of setting an example. We should be leading the way in good, normal working practice. We do it in Scotland, where we have designed our Parliament around a normal working day, and if it can be done there, we can do it here too. I hope that we will continue to engage with the work that Sarah Childs has undertaken. I cannot commend her report highly enough when it comes to having a look at the culture and environment of this place.
The hon. Gentleman is making some powerful points. We are all here to do an important and responsible job, making the laws that set the parameters for people right across the United Kingdom. We can talk about the culture here, and about the environment and the bars, but does he agree that personal responsibility lies at the heart of this issue? Does he agree that individuals in all the parties should know better, that they should take personal responsibility and that they should act in an appropriate and respectful way towards everybody, regardless of the working hours, the bars and the restaurants?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but I almost take that as a personal chastisement. I am sure that hon. Members will know that I sometimes enjoy a pint of the guest ale in the Strangers Bar, but she is absolutely right to say that this is all about personal behaviour. However, we have an unusual workplace where this is allowed. I do not know of any workplace in my constituency that has six bars as a normal feature. I think we have to recognise that the way in which this place has been designed—I am not just talking about the bars—can lead to difficulties, as we have begun to see in the past few years. The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex talked about how we had got to this point historically, and perhaps it has a little bit to do with how the House has been designed and constructed, as well as the way in which we do our business. It is worth looking at all those things.
The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex talked about training. The working group spent hours discussing that issue, and I think we reached a point at which consensus emerged on how it should appear in the report. I take the view that there should be compulsory training, and I supported the idea that there should be a kitemark for Members of Parliament who had been through such training. Members of staff looking around to see who they might work for would see the kitemark and know that that Member had been through the training. They would then have an expectation of a better workplace environment with that Member, compared with what they could expect from someone who rejected training out of hand and who there might be issues with. I thought that that was a good suggestion, although I could not convince the Leader of the House on that one. It was a proposal that came from some of the staff representatives on the group, and I think that we have to do this as a way forward.
Training will be mandatory for new Members of Parliament when they come into this place. The point was also made that most Members of Parliament have never been employers before. I was never an employer, and I think that that applies to most of us on the Opposition Benches who are perhaps from a more modest background, although perhaps less so to the denizens of business on the other side. I did not know how to manage staff when I first came here. I had to learn from experience and do it on the job. It would be helpful and useful to be given that training, not only on issues to do with equality but on how to be a good employer. There would be nothing wrong with that, and I welcome the recommendation that in the next Parliament, Members will be obliged to go through training.
The people who rush to do the training will be those of us who are interested in equality issues. I have no issue with taking training, and I look forward to doing it, but the real question is how we are going to drag the old dinosaurs into it. There will be those who have a more traditional view of the workplace environment, which might influence their approach to employing members of staff. Perhaps the kitemark could be a way of distinguishing those who were prepared to undergo equality training from those who were not.
I hope to be able to encourage the hon. Gentleman, because I know that we went through so many drafts of the report. The proposal on the good employer standard is in paragraph 81 and also in paragraph 79. I was very happy that we reached the point of stating:
“Until such time as training is mandatory, records of those who have completed the recommended training will be publicly available.”
I think that that will help to focus minds before the training becomes compulsory.
I agree. The kitemark suggestion is perhaps slightly different from what was eventually agreed, but of course I accept that, and it is a welcome addition to the report.
As you can probably sense, Mr Speaker, this is an important report, and it was certainly worth spending all those 100 hours on it over the past few months. I see it as being more than just a report of this House; it could be a blueprint for complex workplaces across the country. It could be the start of a permanent change in the culture of this place. There is no going back.
I am fascinated by the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about training and agree with about 99% of what he says. Will he comment further on how often people should renew training once it has been taken? Workplaces and legislation can change fast, and what was considered acceptable maybe 10 years or 15 years ago is no longer accepted, so I would be interested in his comments.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, because the working group did not consider that. She is right that, such is the fast-changing nature of the workplace environment, people should be required to redo the training, because innovations do happen. I am looking around at colleagues from the working group and I cannot see any real objection to that suggestion, so the Leader of the House might consider it as we move forward and as the report evolves.
That is a useful contribution. My workplace background was in a rock band, so I am not all that familiar with some of the things have been going on in industry, but I will obviously take lessons from the hon. Gentleman, who seems to know what he is talking about.
This report is a helpful and worthwhile document. There is no going back now in the quest for equality. We reached a defining point last year when all these issues started to emerge, and we had a range of online societal campaigns among those who decided that they had had enough. I hope that this little report will perhaps mark the beginning of the end of some of the horrible, appalling practices that we have seen in this House over the years.
It is a pleasure to follow Pete Wishart, who is in a more reflective mood than the one he sometimes displays in the House, as befits this serious subject matter. He dealt with the topic seriously, so it is a great pleasure to follow his comments. I add my support to the motion moved by the Leader of the House and the report and proposals that back it up.
Several colleagues have referenced the events of last year that triggered this piece of work and set of proposals, but I want to put something on the record. Shortly after I became Government Chief Whip in 2015, there were several issues in the House, so I started this area of work with all the parties in the House to see whether we could improve how the House dealt with such issues. Parties obviously have their own processes, but for various reasons they do not command the confidence of Members. Conservative Members certainly were not entirely comfortable with processes that were controlled by political parties, and that view was also expressed by people who work in the House and those outside.
Even if a party-run process is fantastic, it simply would not command confidence, and it was clear in the views expressed to me by colleagues, from my conversations with Members from other parties and from the representatives of our staff who came to see me that a House process covering all Members of Parliament on a cross-party basis would be the best way to proceed. We started to set some of those processes in train, and it was to my disappointment that the European Union referendum intervened and terminated the career of David Cameron and, indeed, my career in government and that we were unable to bring those processes to fruition.
I was therefore very pleased—although not about why the Leader of the House had to put these processes in place—that she responded so strongly to the events that took place last year, both in Parliament and outside it. I was very pleased that the processes were put in train on a cross-party basis and that all parties took part. I am also pleased that we have come up with such a comprehensive report, which I have taken the trouble to study. I think that it will be a step forward.
Before I move on, I put on the record my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, who served as my deputy when I was Government Chief Whip. She would be too modest to say this herself, but while working with me, she led on many of these issues in that office. Government and, I think, Opposition colleagues know that she takes these matters very seriously. When she responded at the Dispatch Box to an urgent question—I think it was the one in response to the events at the Presidents Club—she made it very clear what her views were and how strongly she feels about these matters. I wanted to ensure that my thanks to her were on the record for the work she did as Deputy Chief Whip.
Although it is clear from the things that have been talked about publicly and from the responses to the survey that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire mentioned that bullying and harassment can affect all members of staff, it affects female members of staff more severely than others. If we are to get more women to be Members of Parliament and to work in this House and be treated as equals, it is incredibly important to deal with this issue. Having taken up a position as co-chair of Women2Win, which tries to get more women to be Conservative Members of Parliament, I strongly support our taking further steps in this area, because it will encourage more women to be Members of Parliament.
I want to say a word or two about fairness. When the report was produced, there was some comment outside the House about the proposals meaning that the investigation of disciplinary matters would take place in private, without everything being published. That is like most workplaces. In most workplaces, when somebody makes a complaint about another employee, those matters are not published in national newspapers. I have always thought in this House—this was true when we were going through the difficulties with expenses—that a very good test is for Members of Parliament to be judged at least by the standards that we expect of everybody else. A good test is that the processes that we use to look at complaints about bullying and harassment should be the same sort of processes that exist in modern, up to the minute, leading workplaces. In those workplaces, one would not expect everything to be published in a national newspaper.
I welcome that the report refers to the need to recognise that sometimes when there are examples of bullying and harassment, there are patterns of behaviour and we need to ensure that other people have the confidence to come forward. Sometimes, it is only when people are aware that there is an issue with someone’s behaviour that they are willing to come forward. The report reflects that, but it is a difficult balance to get right, when we want to protect confidentiality to protect those who might be unfairly accused.
It is also the fact, which I think has been recognised publicly, that Members of Parliament do not employ large numbers of staff. If a complaint is made against a Member of Parliament and they are identified, it would not be difficult for newspapers to identify which of their members of staff had probably made the complaint. Having a disciplinary process take place in the full glare of publicity is not helpful for the Member of Parliament or for the complainant. The balance that is struck in the report is welcome.
I want to respond to what Caroline Lucas said about the Standards Committee. Her issue about MPs marking our own homework would have been a reasonable point before lay members were added to the Committee on Standards, but the fact that lay members are on that Committee should give the public confidence that the MPs on it cannot just decide things on the basis of standards they consider appropriate. The lay members bring a very valuable outside perspective to the Committee.
I am on slightly thin ice here, because I am not 100% sure of my facts, but I am fairly sure that the lay members do not vote. Although I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that having them there is a great step forward, I still have concerns that MPs will be seen to be voting on their colleagues, even if we have had a perfectly independent and good procedure up until that point. I still think that is a weakness.
We just need to think through how this works. The ultimate sanction of either expelling a MP or suspending them for a period where the recall provisions would kick in would be a decision for the House, not for the Committee on Standards—the whole House would be voting on it. Obviously, the House would be furnished with the report from the parliamentary commissioner and the report from the Committee on Standards. The valuable change we made when we introduced lay members was making MPs aware that, even if the MPs on the Committee had taken a certain view, the lay members can have their views expressed in the report of the Committee.
I see the Chairman of the Committee nodding, so I have got that right. That provision gives both the wider House and members of the public confidence that the information put before the House is not just the views of MPs; it is also the views of lay members of the Committee. That brings a useful check on our views about what is and is not appropriate behaviour.
My right hon. Friend is right to say that having the lay members present when decisions are made gives the Committee on Standards more authority, but there is something odd about the Committee adjudicating on rules and evidence—that should be done by a lawyer. These decisions would have much more authority if they were handed to the Committee by someone with the right juridical experience and standing, and the Committee was told, “This is the judgment. If you overturn this, you are overturning a respectable legal opinion. On your own head be it.”
I listen carefully to what my hon. Friend says and put a fair bit of weight on it, given that he chairs the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, but I do not entirely agree with that. I have taken the trouble over the years to read the reports of the Committee on Standards, particularly the serious ones, and the reports of the parliamentary commissioner. The thing that has always struck me—I do not know whether other Members have thought this—is the thoroughness with which the parliamentary commissioner has looked into serious allegations. I have often thought to myself, “If you were ever tempted not to uphold the very high standards of behaviour, you really would not want to be subject to that level of scrutiny, because it is fairly exacting.”
I do not know whether Members have looked at these reports, but I can tell them that the parliamentary commissioner goes into things in considerable detail. The reports that are put before the Committee on Standards by the parliamentary commissioner are very thorough and detailed. There is a perception outside the House about the view that MPs on that Committee take, but when I have read its reports I have always felt they have been very balanced, tough and fair. When one reads them, one finds that it is not clear that there is any bias coming into them from the party views of the MPs. I have always thought that system is a pretty good one. As I have said, the only gap in it was rectified by the addition of lay members, who bring that useful outside perspective and check. But I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said and I am sure it will be reflected upon by the House more widely.
We have had one case in which the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Committee on Standards reached one view, but when the same issue was then challenged in the courts a judge took a much harsher view. That completely undermines the authority of the system we have, and we need a much more legalistic approach to the adjudication of rules and evidence, whatever punishments the Committee may have decided to hand out.
I hear what my hon. Friend says. I do not entirely agree with him, but I do not wish to deviate from this debate into a wider discussion of standards.
My final point is about training and culture. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire made a sensible point about MPs’ backgrounds, but I wish to pick up on his slightly prejudicial comment that assumed that everybody on the Government Benches has a privileged background, which is entirely not true. I will not bore him with the fact that I was the first person in my family to go to university, my father was a labourer and we had certainly not had any Members of Parliament in the family before—I just want to challenge the hon. Gentleman’s prejudices—but he made a sensible point: MPs have a very varied set of backgrounds. Some have run their own businesses and employed significant numbers of people. Some, like me, have worked in a business for others, and I have experience of managing teams. Others will come to the House having never managed anybody before in their lives.
Members obviously come to the House at a variety of ages and with a variety of other experiences. We are all then plunged into employing members of staff. As the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Jenkin, said, Members come to the House with the very best of intentions but often do not have the required skills. We therefore need to improve the training on how to employ and manage people and on the expectations that we set. We also need to provide HR support not only proactively, so that Members are better trained and supported, but so that we have somebody to ask questions if there are challenging issues that we are not comfortable dealing with. That would be valuable.
I welcome the recommendation that training should be part of the induction process for new Members. I do not think there is a massive gap between the position of Jo Swinson and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex. I think that everybody should go through the training, but the challenge is that we can mandate that everyone goes to a training course and physically turns up at the room, but we cannot mandate that they will listen attentively and change their behaviour after doing so. It seems to me that the people who are least likely to go to the training are probably those most in need of it.
As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire said, the challenge is to persuade people that they should go on the training course, listen and change their behaviour. The proposals to which the hon. Lady referred on publicising whether people had been on the training course, so that there is peer pressure and people feel they should go and so that the staff they might wish to hire put pressure on them, are a good idea. Nevertheless, for new MPs, it should be part of the standard set of training that every Member undertakes, so that we set the expectations correctly.
That leads me to the second part of my final point, which is about the culture of this place. I have listened to the debates we have had on this issue over the past few months and thought about my own working career. I was perhaps fortunate to work for two businesses that took management and how they treated their people very seriously. I went on training courses on how to manage people and set expectations and on what was expected. Staff members were empowered to speak up, and it was recognised that speaking up on a whole range of issues—whether how we ran the business or how people behaved—was the right thing to do. That set the right sort of culture, which is not always the case.
I have thought through some of the comments that have been made over the past few months. Examples of behaviour have been given and people have said things like, “That sort of behaviour was acceptable a few years ago, but things seem to have changed.” I thought back to when I started my working after leaving university, which is tragically a lot longer ago than I care to remember, in 1991. I thought through some of the specific examples we have read about, and whether they involved Members of this House or people outside it, we heard people say, “This sort of behaviour used to be acceptable.”
I was thinking back to when I started work 27 years ago, and I concluded that, actually, those sorts of things were not acceptable. The difference between then and more recently is that people used to get away with behaving like that. What has changed is not that certain behaviours are no longer acceptable—actually they never were acceptable—but that people cannot get away with them now, and that is right and an improvement. What we are trying to deliver with the training and the change of culture is that everybody accepts not only that those sorts of behaviour are not acceptable, but that no one will let people get away with them.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I am just going to conclude.
If the report of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House does nothing else but that and changes the culture, it will have taken us a huge step forward. I am very happy to support the motion and to commend it to the House.
Order. I want to make sure that everybody gets equal time. Working on the basis that we have seven people and that we have until 5.40, we should have around 10 minutes each. I think that that will be helpful to everybody.
I beg to move amendment (a), after “others,”, insert
“in consultation with the Committee on Standards and the Parliamentary Commission for Standards,”.
The Committee on Standards has discussed the working group’s report and authorised me yesterday to write to the Leader of the House setting out its unanimous view. The letter was published on the Committee’s website. The Committee welcomes the report and strongly supports its commitment to zero tolerance of sexual harassment, bullying and harassment within the parliamentary community.
Members will have seen that an amendment, which was tabled yesterday, was signed by all the elected members of the Committee, calling for the Committee on Standards and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to be formally consulted as part of the process of implementing the working group’s recommendations.
We were a little surprised not to have been mentioned in the motion, as the House has given the Committee and the Commissioner important roles in dealing with the conduct of Members. May I say to the Leader of the House—I am sure I can say this on behalf of all members of the Committee—that I welcome what she said earlier in relation to the Standards Committee and the Parliamentary Commissioner being involved in future work.
The House should take note of the fact that we are currently carrying out a long-planned review of the code of conduct, which will be announced in due course. The current review will obviously be informed by the working group’s report. As Members have said, the Committee is unique among Select Committees in containing lay members. Those lay members, along with the Commissioner, provide a much needed element of independence in the current standards system.
May I just react to one or two exchanges that have taken place this afternoon? It is true to say that lay members are not allowed to vote. That was the wish not of the Standards Committee at the time we set up the first three lay members many years ago, but of this House. My understanding is that the House did not want to bring the law inside this place and inside its Committees.
Mr Jenkin has been talking about bringing in the law. As I understand it, that would be a big step. I think the reason why lay members were not given a vote was that we were advised that we could not take them on without bringing the law into the Committee system. I still think that if we are going to legislate on that at any stage, we should give that some consideration.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but just let me say this: I do not understand the case that he mentioned—about the judge taking a harder line on a case than the Committee did. We are not involved in taking our judgments to law. The law is a completely different process. From time to time, we will refer Members there if it is felt that there is anything that is a matter for the law and not for the Committee.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I think he knows the case to which I was referring. I will not name it, because it is too tiresome. It was a case in which the Committee adjudicated on someone who then tried to make the same case in a court of law under a completely separate jurisdiction, and he lost his case. He was also criticised by Ofcom. The point is that the proposals that PACAC has made are not about bringing the judiciary into our own proceedings—this is not about that—but about the House appointing our own legal person to make these adjudications on behalf of the House, and on behalf of his Committee so that he has a far more unimpeachable judgment handed to his Committee on which to act than he is compelled to work with at the moment.
I think I now know the case that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. The person in question did not agree with what happened to him, and he went to court and got nowhere. If it is the case I am thinking about, the court supported exactly what the Committee had said about the individual involved. Let me move on.
As hon. Members will know, the current system has developed as a series of merely reactive measures in response initially to the cash for questions scandal in the 1990s and, more recently, to the Members’ expenses scandal. This means that it is arguably skewed too much towards issues of financial impropriety—important though they are—and neglects other aspects of Members’ conduct and behaviour towards other people.
The right hon. Gentleman mentions financial impropriety, but the challenge that we now face, particularly in relation to sexual harassment, is finding the balance between Members’ personal lives and the time spent actually conducting their parliamentary duties. Does he foresee any questions about that as we implement these policies?
That issue has to be looked at. I think the hon. Lady was there when I gave evidence to the working group. I finished by mentioning a case that was in the media in October last year, and said that this House will have to come to a decision on what is a personal and private activity and what is not. That is something that we may be asked to do in the coming months.
Over the years, the Independent Standards Commissioner and the Standards Committee have done their best to try and address this imbalance, and have looked at possible ways of updating the current code of conduct, particularly in relation to issues arising from Members’ conduct. In the past, the House has resisted attempts to incorporate some of these changes, but I am glad that the working group’s report has given fresh impetus to developing a more comprehensive system of standards and behaviour.
The Committee contains a pool of expertise on the part of both elected and lay members that we believe will be of real value in developing the new processes. We are keen to be of assistance, and I am pleased to say that we now have a meeting in the diary with the Leader of the House to discuss how we can help. In my letter to the Leader of the House, I comment that
“as is inevitable with such ambitious and far-reaching proposals, there are a number of challenges concerning detail and process, as well as some issues of principle, which will need to be addressed as part of the implementation”.
My letter sets out what these are, so I will not detain the House long in summarising them.
We will need to consider how the new arrangements will work alongside the existing system. It is crucial that the new systems should be seen to operate fairly and impartially. Due process is important because it secures the rights of everyone involved. One proposal in the report—that a parliamentary investigation might proceed in parallel with police inquiries—would represent a clear breach with the existing practice, which is set out in a memorandum of understanding between the Committee, the commissioner and the Metropolitan police, so it will require careful consideration. The implications of the report’s proposals on anonymity will need to be thought about carefully. All of this is clearly a matter for future discussion. The Committee and the commission are likely to be involved in the sixth workstream mentioned by the Leader of the House.
Today I simply want to express the Committee’s support for what the working group is trying to achieve, and to assure the House that the commissioner, my colleagues and I are committed to working closely with the steering group to turn the new system into reality as soon as possible.
Comments were made earlier about the lay members not having a vote in the Committee. It is many years since there has been a vote in the Standards Committee. We work on the basis of getting the agreement of all members. But when the Committee agrees a report, each one of the seven lay members is asked whether they want to put down anything other than what is included in the report. That has never happened yet. They have far more power, each individual one of them, than the seven elected members put together. I hope that the House begins to understand that and stops repeating that this Committee is marking its own homework. It is not. It is a Committee of this House with lay members. We should be looking at having lay members on other Committees as well. I argued for this for many years before we actually got it. I sat on the General Medical Council as a lay member, sitting in judgment over doctors and other health professionals on occasion. We should not be afraid of bringing lay members here and giving them the respect they deserve. The Committee is independent, notwithstanding the absence of a vote.
It is a great privilege and pleasure to contribute to this debate, and to follow Sir Kevin Barron and all the others who have spoken on this very important topic.
Having been very lucky to be elected chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament, I am very interested in this debate, because of course we all support women entering Parliament and want to encourage and see more of it. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr Harper and my hon. Friend Mr Jenkin for what they have done to further this cause on the Conservative Benches. I know that there are many champions of women in all parts of the House. Pete Wishart talked about the issues of patriarchy in this place. We ought to be proud, however, that we have a number of incredibly competent women in this House—I see them sitting in all parts of the Chamber—who are more than capable of holding their own despite the patriarchy. It is also important that we signal to people who wish to enter this place that they are going to be welcomed when they get here.
I want to touch on the issue of culture. My experience comes from running my own business. I do not come from an exalted or privileged background; I got here through hard work in starting my own business and experiencing many failures and setbacks. It is a bit of a misconception that everyone who runs their own business, or works in a business, is somehow privileged. In the process, I learned about managing teams. The main thing that I learned, from a very trusted mentor, was that culture eats strategy for breakfast. It is about the culture and the leadership. We can have as many reports, processes or training schemes as we want, but if that is not followed through, and lived and breathed by deeds not words, I am afraid that we might as well all give up and go home.
We have seen a fantastic response to this issue. I pay tribute to the Leader of the House and all the others who have played their part and thank them very much. This is such a long-standing issue that addressing it is long overdue. It is a credit to all involved that the bull has now been taken by the horns. I really do hope that this can percolate upwards to the very highest level. All political leaders in all parts of this House absolutely need to live and breathe it.
The reason this is so important is that our staff are very vulnerable. They are, relatively speaking—perhaps not all of them, but some of them—quite young. They do not come here with a lot of experience of other workplaces. For some, this is the first place that they have worked. With a young woman and perhaps an older man, or any man, there is a very sensitive issue of gender imbalance. It can be very difficult for a young woman, or a young man, in their first job to tackle that—to have the confidence to raise it and know that it will be taken seriously. The root of the matter—I am really grateful for the consideration that has been given to this point—is power and the abuse of power, and how easily that can be very detrimental to young people who are vulnerable because they are working in this unique workplace and supporting us in our challenging duties.
Leadership is absolutely critical and essential. I hope that we can all play our part by holding our colleagues to account, however we do it. The issue of training also needs to be taken forward. It is not enough to train just once.
I have the great delight of having two psychology degrees, and I worked in HR for many years. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean, I have had a lot of training—I actually was the person giving the training—on how to manage staff. It is one thing to ask people to change, but change is painful. There are people in this House who have been behaving in certain ways, possibly for decades. Change is difficult, and it is really hard to make organisational change stick. We need to pay close attention to that.
We need to be united in our determination to drive this through, for the benefit of all the people who work here and all the people who are looking to us to be examples. I end by again expressing my gratitude for the work that has been done, which I hope will lead to positive change.
It is a delight to follow Rachel Maclean. It sounds as though she has some excellent skills and perspectives that will be important in the consultation about how to make this organisational culture change stick.
As a member of the working group, I very much welcome the motion and the debate. As well as making specific comments on what we put in the report, I want to talk about the wider context. We have come at this issue in Parliament from the events at the end of last year, which followed hot on the heels of the Weinstein scandal, and in recent weeks we have heard about the issues in the charity sector. An important point for us all to remember is that this is not a problem in any one specific industry. This problem is endemic across society and every sector. It is important that we get our house in order with our own procedures, but we also need to understand the wider perspective and the wider societal cultural change that, as parliamentarians, we have a role in leading. That is why it is vital that what we do is of an excellent quality and can act as a beacon to other organisations and institutions that are trying to grapple with similar issues.
Of course, for all that we have seen these cases in politics hit the headlines, I am painfully aware of how many women are in positions with so much less power than those connected to this place—women working in low-paid jobs—whose cases do not hit the headlines. We read in the briefing from the Young Women’s Trust that three in 10 young women have experienced sexual harassment at work. This is happening all over the country.
The working group was a generally positive experience, if occasionally frustrating, but that was partly because we were grappling with difficult issues. I would like to praise the contribution of the staff, particularly the three representatives of staff who work for Members in various parties and the experts who advised the group. I for one learned a huge amount from listening to what they had to offer and the wisdom they had to impart.
These issues are not easy to deal with. We all come to them saying that we want to deal with them and get it right, but there are sensitive issues to work through. Mr Harper talked about confidentiality. On the one hand, if names are published, that might encourage others to come forward and we might spot more patterns. On the other hand, that might discourage some people from coming forward because of the fear that their anonymity will be breached. We had a lot of discussions about how we work through that and how we deal with historical allegations and people who have already gone through a different process and are very upset with how that went. There are no answers to some of these questions.
We also discussed at length the interplay with the criminal justice system. While we want to ensure there is support for people who want to pursue a criminal conviction in a case of sexual assault, for example, we recognise that in the survey we did, a tiny proportion of people—I think it was 2%—said that they would feel comfortable to go to the police in those circumstances. We looked clearly at how we could provide people with support if they wanted to do that, but we also looked at how we could give them control, so that if they wanted the case to be pursued as a grievance and effectively as a matter of professional conduct, it could be dealt with as an employment issue, rather than them being forced to have faith in our criminal justice system, which they may not do.
It is because this is not easy that the review clauses we have suggested are so essential. I am very confident that what we propose today will make things much better. I am also very confident that it will not be perfect. It will only improve things if we make sure we review it regularly and learn from what works well. There may well also be cases where it does not work well, and we need to make sure we take those lessons on board and not be overly defensive about that.
I also want to touch on the issue of gender. Harassment, bullying and sexual harassment happen to men as well as to women, but we know from our survey that they happen to women more often. Mr Jenkin posed an essential question: how did we let this happen? Part of my answer to that is that this institution was designed by men and built for men, and for the largest part of its existence, it has been run by men and made up almost exclusively of men. Therefore, the place of women within the institution, whether in this Chamber or among the staff who support our work, has not been viewed as equal.
As women in Parliament, we have all experienced being talked over in meetings, questioned about whether we are allowed to be somewhere—whether we have the right to be on the Terrace, or in a particular lift during a Division—and asked whether we are a researcher or a cleaner, instead of a Member of Parliament. A woman journalist bravely reported that somebody said to her, “Here comes the totty.” We now know that many other women journalists have experienced similar, and indeed worse, treatment from people in this place. When I was a Minister, I learned of a former Minister from the House of Lords who had engaged with his male private office staff but refused to speak to or take seriously the female staff, even when they were more senior, because they happened to be women. We know that these things happen.
I was really struck by the Young Women’s Trust briefing, which states that 89% of women MPs and 58% of men MPs say that sexism still exists in Parliament. That gulf is significant. Almost all women know that there are still instances of sexism, but only just over half of men recognise that. That gulf is part of the problem, and it is part of the reason for the complacency that still exists. We are talking only about gender, but there is a layering of race, LGBT and socioeconomic barriers and disadvantage that all come together in this place.
Not every man does it, but this kind of behaviour is present in every single political party, and we all experience it and see it from time to time. It is not just a few bad apples; it is cultural. We all—women, too—have the capacity to make these assumptions or thoughtless comments. When we are in a position of power, those comments have so much more force, and we have an extra responsibility to be aware of that. I say to all Members of the House, including myself, that often when these things happen, they are tolerated. Someone will roll their eyes, or they will be embarrassed, but the behaviour is not always called out because doing so may feel uncomfortable or inconvenient, or it may be easier not to rock the boat. Part of what we need to do is to challenge and tackle that culture throughout our work in this place.
I want to touch on a couple of issues in the report. The behaviour code will be the foundation of what we do. It needs the widest possible involvement of Members and staff, and of passholders who are not in those categories, to ensure that it is built on a shared sense of values. That is vital to ensuring that it has the resonance that we need it to have so that people really buy into it.
There has been quite a lot of discussion about training, which I think is essential. For anyone who employs staff, such training should be part of what they have to do to access funds from IPSA to pay somebody. Training is also needed on harassment and issues of consent. When I did an interview on the day the report was released, I was challenged on the “Today” programme by John Humphrys, who said, “Surely, MPs know what is appropriate behaviour.” If that were universally the case, we would not be in this situation. There is no room for complacency. The #MeToo movement shows us that. It is, incidentally, why I think we need consent education in relationships and sex education in schools for all pupils, and I am slightly dismayed at the Government’s recent rowing back on that.
The hon. Lady is making such a good speech, particularly when it comes to the point about assumptions. If we want to change culture, everyone has to stop making assumptions about their own beliefs and other people’s. We need to talk about that and get it into the open, without judgment. I agree with her wholeheartedly about training for MPs who employ staff. Ultimately, if an MP has not been through a basic training package, why should the taxpayer allow them to employ their own staff?
I would welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support on those points.
Some of what we experience on these issues of harassment is undoubtedly deliberate—done with intent and entirely with knowledge—but some is inadvertent. It is to tackle that complacency that the training is so essential. There will be people who sometimes do not understand the impact of all the words they use. I attended a recent session on anti-Semitism by the Holocaust Educational Trust, which was fascinating, and the more we can all listen and learn from the experiences of others, the more that will help us to engage in a more mature way on these issues.
That cultural change is important. Sarah Childs, as Pete Wishart outlined, produced an excellent report in “The Good Parliament”. She recommended ways in which we could change the culture. She also gave evidence, and she talked about challenging the exceptionalism of MPs—that we think we are in some kind of unique scenario. Yes, there are many elements of our job that are very unusual, but that should not be some kind of excuse for not having basic professional standards. That might be about good employment relationships; if we had good employment practice, that would deal in large part—not entirely, but in large part—with the problems we experience here. It might also be about the macho approach to late-night sittings, which are some kind of badge of pride—the parliamentary equivalent of having a jacket on the back of the chair in the office. That is not how modern workplaces are effective, so that cultural change is essential.
I agree with Caroline Lucas that we need as fast as possible to extend the behavioural code to Members of Parliament and staff of Parliament, wherever they are when they are in that role and carrying out their duties—whether they are in their constituency, in an office or at some event, or whether they are here in Parliament.
I know that others want to speak, so, in conclusion, let me say that the problems that we are facing are not unique to Parliament, but we all have our part to play in dealing with them. This motion and this report are an important first step. They will lead to a real improvement and hopefully help us to get our own house in order.
I, like everybody else, want to commend the work that was done by the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House and everybody else on the working group. One hundred hours—I would definitely have lost the will to live halfway through the negotiations. Everybody worked really, really hard.
The report has been done relatively quickly for this place; it is the quickest thing I have known go through since I have been here. There are just a few slight concerns I want to raise about how we might take this forward, but, by and large, the work that has been done is brilliant, particularly when there are often not easy answers to the anonymity and privacy issues. This is not easy; people outside this building can say these things are easy, but when you are actually here, it is quite different.
We talk about the events of last November and those being the reason we are all here. I want to say thank you to Ava Etemadzadeh, Jane Merrick, Bex Bailey and Kate Maltby, who all had the guts to come forward and say that people who were powerful had not always behaved the best with them. They deserve huge praise and merit.
I have concerns about the issue of representation during any process on sexual harassment. The Leader of the House said both parties would be entitled to representation, which is absolutely as it should be—and fair—in every system in the land, whether that is trade union representation or legal representation. However, I have a concern about how we will make sure in this place that there is equality of arms in that representation. If a caseworker is working in one of our offices, and a very wealthy peer, for example, sexually harasses them, I worry that one of those people has very good representation and can frighten people with legal letters—I have received some myself in these past few months. It worries me greatly that there will be an unfair imbalance. If the Weinstein issue teaches us anything, it is that rich men know how to use the law to get away with murder. We need to make sure that we address that all the way through this process
I also have one slight issue about the independence of MPs as decision makers. That is not in regard to them marking their own homework—I did not even know anything about the lay members until today, and I am satisfied with the explanations I have heard. However, in the report, one of the decision-making lines is that if a member of our staff perpetrates sexual harassment, bullying or harassment, we are one of the decision makers. I, as the employer, would the decision-maker. That seems completely acceptable—that is what it would be like in the outside world. As Mr Harper put it, that is the same standard as that used for other employers. In this place, however, we are in close quarters with our employees. I employ only one person here and she is very, very close to me. I feel incredible loyalty to her. When I walk around this building, I see Members’ partners and children working here. I am not entirely sure that a Member of Parliament could be completely and utterly without bias in a case against a member of their staff, and that definitely needs to be looked into.
I hope to be able to reassure the hon. Lady, because we did come up against this issue. As she rightly says, there are some unusually close relationships in this place. Clearly, however, where there is a finding against somebody who is employed by a Member of Parliament, and the finding goes to that Member of Parliament and they fail to take action, the complainant will be able to take that Member of Parliament to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards for failing to fulfil their role as an employer. I hope that reassures the hon. Lady.
That does reassure me to some degree. My concern is that the complainant, as is always the case in such instances, has to do an awful lot of work. We need to make sure that they are supported all the way through the process. There is also the issue of equality of arms. As Members, we are much more powerful than most people and we are much more frightening than most people. [Interruption.] I am, that’s right! I would like to think that I can recognise that and employ it appropriately, but I still worry that there will be a power imbalance. The working group has done everything it possibly could do on a matter that is very difficult, and I imagine there were lots of voices on both sides. I will finish by just saying that I totally commend the report—
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, because I think she rightly points to the necessity that, as employers, MPs, because we are public figures, must be held to a much higher standard than we would expect of an ordinary small businessmen and employer outside. That is because we are accountable, we are expected to be accountable and we are expected to be leaders and example-setters. I think, however, that the report addresses that and her concerns, because there will be HR support from outside the Members’ office for the staff of Members of Parliament, so they get the support and counselling they need to take a complaint against their employer in a way that has not existed before. I think it is a very important reform.
I totally recognise that and I am very happy with the progress that has been made. I personally felt listened to throughout the process, and I thank the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader for that. The system will need to be tested as we go through it. Lots of people have talked about review. It will be strength-tested by those who go through it. We have to ensure that, when the first case comes and things have not been as they should have been, we do not close ranks with each other. I will always commit to being the person who closes ranks with the people on the outside. I commend the report.
Abraham Lincoln said:
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
What we have been talking about today is what happens when men—and it does tend to be mainly men—have power and how power can be misused. In that sense, I start by paying tribute to the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House and all those who, in those 100 hours, looked at the issue in that vein, recognising that this is about the many different ways in which power can be abused, because this place is powerful and full of powerful people.
I started the morning at a school in Walthamstow, taking part in an assembly on sexual harassment. It is a very sobering moment to think, “What do I tell the younger women of our country about sexual harassment in 2018, in the environment of #MeToo, Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar and what we have seen in our charity sector?” Each of us may be individually responsible for what we do today about the motion and for what happens next, but we have a wider remit for our young people that involves recognising that it is simply not enough to pay lip service by saying, “This shouldn’t be happening.” It is about asking, “What are we all doing to make sure that this never happens again?”
The message that we send out from Parliament—we know that this work must continue—has wider ramifications, because it sets a bar for other agencies. None of us here can claim that Parliament has covered itself in glory. We have been too slow. We have let the idea develop that it is somehow about leading a horse to water, rather than recognising that some of those donkeys have no place in our political process. Now is our opportunity to say that we are going to make a stand, not just in Parliament but across public life, because it matters to those girls. It matters that they have the freedom that we would want for them all to realise their potential, without thinking, “This is the kind of workplace that I might go into.”
In the run-up to International Women’s Day, I will mention four points that I hope the Leader of the House will take on board, bearing in mind that many us have been called shouty feminists today—I hope that this shout will come loud and full. First and foremost, on training, I understand where Mr Jenkin is coming from. For many years, we have been inspiring each other on issues of gender equality and feminism. I understand his point about catching more flies with honey than vinegar, but with something like this, it is probably the people who are most resistant who are the most likely to need to change. We need to recognise that we cannot simply keep asking nicely and then apologise to the people who have to deal with the consequences. That is why having sex and relationships education for every young person in this country matters, and I hope that all of us will renew our resolve not to backslide on that now, because we can see that breaking the culture, so that we do not have to deal with this, needs to start as early as possible.
My second point to the Leader of the House is that this has to fit into the wider context. People do not end up as passholders here by accident. That is not just about Members of Parliament, but about our political parties and our political culture. How do people get involved in activism? How do they get employed? Although the Leader of the House has to look at the culture in Parliament, inevitably it is one piece of the jigsaw puzzle about how people become involved in public life. I pay tribute to the women who have come forward as part of the LabourToo campaign to give their stories. That tells us that we have work to do within our own political movement. I do not think that that is unique to the Labour movement; it probably goes across political parties. This process will be only as good as those who are coming into political activism, and political activism will be only as good as the environment that we create for our volunteers and activists. One of my questions, therefore, is: how do we fit this in with the broader work on making sure that there is no hiding place for the people who seek to abuse power?
My third point is about what happens when we find people who have behaved inappropriately. As the Leader of the House knows, I have persistently asked her about recall, and I am so pleased to see that it is now on the agenda. I believe that we have to have the sanction—the sanction that none of us wants to admit to, but know needs to be in the process—for when somebody is found to have behaved in these ways. We have heard questions today about where the standards board might come into this and whether there is a case for taking the initial decisions about sanctions out of the standards board altogether. Instead, it would be given information from an independent third party who would then advise lay members and MPs, so that we can take out any suggestion that political favour or fear of the consequences of recall would be part of the decision. If recall is the right course of action, it should be on the table, and it should be on the table because the transgression is serious enough that the local community that the person represents needs the right to say something. None of us wants to send one of these young girls to see their MP, as would be their right, knowing that that person has behaved in a way that we would not countenance in any other workplace.
My fourth point, simply, is that we know that this is yet another staging post. The shadow Leader of the House was so right when she said that this is the fourth time that we have debated this matter. We know that there is much more work to do. I pledge my support for the Leader and the shadow Leader in keeping going. I fear that some in this place, including those accused of things, are hoping that, after the tidal wave has subsided, this issue will go away and life will go back to normal. Let us not make 2018 like 2017; let us make it the point when the sands shift, and that means keeping going and seeing these cases through, as difficult and awkward as that might be—because they might involve people we care about deeply. We owe the young women I spoke with today so much more, but that is at least something we can promise them.
As one of the members of the cross-party working group and the leader of Plaid Cymru’s Westminster team, I wish to congratulate everyone involved in this timely, long-drawn-out and, at times, demanding task.
It is worth stating some of the obvious facts that have brought us here. This policy has come about following co-operation between politicians representing all the parties in the House and representatives of staff employed here and trade unions. In particular, I commend the many witnesses who spoke to us and the specialist adviser on sexual harassment, Dr Helen Mott, as well as the Leader of the House for her able and patient work in chairing the working group—and that from the Opposition Benches!
The policy before us today represents a critical step in transforming Westminster into a 21st-century workplace. Again, let us take a moment to state the obvious and consider how ineffective we would be without the staff, including office staff, who hold things together, balance constantly conflicting demands and enable us to present composed and competent faces in our public lives. The flip side is that this is a highly pressurised, tiring and emotional environment, and there is potentially always a toxic mix of power, ambition and vulnerability, much of which is played out behind closed doors.
The de-sexualisation of this and any workplace is simply a matter of equality, and just as with the line between assertiveness and bullying, much of our discussion is around our fear of where we draw the line. The unique nature of the terms and conditions for MPs’ staff, who, as we have heard, are employed directly by MPs, has meant that until now their last resort for complaint was either their MP or their MP’s party, which is why the independent nature of the complaints and grievance policy is so significant. Political parties must, of course, ensure that their own grievance policies are fair and without prejudice, but the question of whose interests are best served will always remain in those routes.
None the less, as is obvious from these discussions, some of which have been quite sophisticated, work still needs to be done over and above today’s recommendations. We need urgently to address the question of how to include visitors to constituency offices, and there is also the important question of how to decide when and where Members, their staff and all those to whom this is applied are engaged in parliamentary duties, be that here in Westminster, in our constituencies or on visits here and abroad. We need clarity on that to ensure fairness.
This will be a quasi-judicial process weighing up the pros and cons and the views of two people necessarily in conflict. There has been some discussion about the role of the Standards Committee, and the report anticipates changes, including to the voting arrangements on the Committee. We are doing our best to merge House structures with cultural change, which will be challenging, but we have struck the best balance we can and will be moving ahead with the arrangements.
I urge that there be a high-profile campaign to inform staff about the new human resources facility—we know it exists, since we have talked about it, but we need to remind people as and when they need it—and about the independent complaints policy and the other working group proposals, with a particular emphasis on our staff in constituency offices, who are not necessarily part of the discussions and talking groups we have here. That process of informing new staff should continue into the future; it should not be a one-off event. Making effective human resources facilities available to Members’ staff will address problems that may be minor or mundane, but will also prevent those problems from escalating.
There has been a fair amount of discussion about training today, and I think it important to depersonalise that issue. There has been a rather personal, individualistic approach to training, but it is not a threat to individuals; it is a way in which we, corporately—as an entire body—can bring about change. This is about corporate leadership. What I particularly commend in the report is the ability of politicians to rein in that inclination to feel concern as individuals: the inclination to over-emphasise the potential for political motivation in complaints. It has maintained the balance between supporting complainants and resisting an over-emphasis on malicious and vexatious complaints.
The measure of the success of these initiatives will be a change from a dated culture of deference and outmoded power structures to a culture of respect among equals working together in our many parliamentary workplaces, wherever they may be. Their future success will require rigorous implementation and rigorous monitoring. Just as, on a number of occasions, the contribution of staff and union representatives served as the glue that held the working group together, it is essential for staff and the representatives of all their unions to be involved in the future monitoring. These policies are not complete—they will evolve in practice and in review—but I am confident that they are the catalysts for change.
It is a sad irony that, in a year that marks the 100th anniversary of the first women winning the vote, Parliament has been under the spotlight as a place in which women, in particular, face so much harassment and mistreatment. As we know, one in five people working in Westminster report that they have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in the past 12 months, and twice as many women as men report incidents of harassment. It was a privilege to serve on the cross-party working group that was set up to respond to that routine sexual misconduct and, indeed, the concurrent routine failure to handle complaints either fairly or, in some cases, at all. I join others in paying particular tribute to the Leader of the House for her leadership and commitment to seeking consensus on the recommendations from the working group.
The report will set up a support system where previously there was none. It will also set in train the process of establishing an independent framework in which complaints can be heard. Crucially, anyone who reports sexual misconduct will have access to a complaints process that is specifically designed to differentiate between such cases and bullying. That was the first and arguably the most important change that the working group pressed for. Complainants will have access to someone with expertise in supporting those who have experienced sexual misconduct—someone who understands that complainants must be in control when it comes to the next steps and who will fight for their rights to be upheld.
Parliament should lead by example and not take yet more power away from those who make complaints, as happens repeatedly elsewhere. I am pleased that that is reflected in the working group’s recommendations. I think that this is progress, and it was possible largely because one of the country’s best-qualified experts in sexual harassment had an advisory role on the group, which meant that our work and decisions were informed by both evidence and best practice. Huge thanks must go to her, but also to the whole secretariat for its tireless work and to all the experts who supported us. I agree with Pete Wishart about the importance of the participation of staff representatives in our deliberations: it made the process far more effective and inclusive.
A complainant-centred approach is just the start of this procedure. The next steps are of equal importance, especially the question of sanctions. To some extent that is in the hands of political parties, and I welcome the commitment that all the parties have made to reviewing and improving their own processes. We in the Green party have committed ourselves to referring sexual harassment cases to an external body with relevant expertise. That is how we will try to ensure that there is independence and transparency.
I would like to make the case, however, that smaller parties are at something of a disadvantage in resourcing those more robust systems for training and constant evaluation, and I ask that Parliament be encouraged to look at this on the grounds that there should be some element of funding for political parties and this will be a good place to start. I made that point at the working group meetings. Previous complainants and MPs have told me that they have zero confidence in their parties dealing with cases fairly or taking appropriate action against perpetrators and that the threat of a by-election will be enough to kill off the prospect of suspension or other sanctions.
A vast amount of work must be done to overcome the years of sweeping under the carpet that have brought us to a place of such distrust and despair. No political party is perfect, and I am certain that my party will have its ongoing learning to do as confidence in procedure and a more vocal discourse on harassment rightly encourages more people to come forward. Today, I want to pay tribute to Labour and, in particular, to all the women who have shown the courage to raise this in the Labour party. The challenge for all political parties is to be brave enough to accept that no party or organisation is exempt from this, but that together we can work to challenge the culture of harassment and it can be changed if we are committed enough to doing that, and we must prioritise the voices of those coming forward over party reputation.
The working group is clear, however, that many people experiencing sexual misconduct would not be protected by party policies even if those policies were the very best possible. That is why we have recommended the development of a shared and binding behaviour code that covers everyone working in Parliament, including all MPs, peers and parliamentary staff. That code, which will be developed in the coming months, is absolutely crucial. Volunteers, staff employed by political parties, contractors and officials working in Parliament will all be entitled and held to the same high standards of treatment, and it will cover behaviour in any designated place of work, or in the course of parliamentary duties or activities at home and, crucially, also abroad. The working group was not able in the timescale to reach agreement on how best to protect visitors to constituency offices, but I was reassured that the Leader of the House said earlier in the debate that that would be a priority for her.
We have had quite a bit of debate about the role of the Standards Committee, and while I appreciate that the inclusion of lay members on it improves the situation, the recommendation in the report about looking again at how it works is important. There is a risk of how this looks to people looking in from outside this place, and if it seems to them that the outcome of the complaint is in the hands of politicians who might well have a vested interest in not taking it any further, that will undermine all the good work we have done to date. There may be a perception that the system is left open to abuse by the Whips or political parties, the political string pullers and the other career makers or breakers. That flies in the face of what constitutes best practice and is utterly at odds with the stand-out principle of an independent system that underpins the working group’s report. This risks perpetuating the lack of trust that is already keenly felt by the staff these new procedures are supposed to protect and risks further reputational damage for Parliament by opening us up, quite rightly, to accusations that we are dragging our feet or letting perpetrators off the hook.
We may have made huge strides in the past 100 years, but we still have a patriarchal political culture that denigrates, bullies and discriminates against women. A complaints mechanism that is fit for purpose will not radically transform things overnight, but it will make a big difference, and it will send a loud signal that we recognise the problem. That difference and that signal will, however, be fatally undermined if the independence test falls at the last hurdle and MPs are left deciding on recall and other sanctions.
I want to say a few last words about culture change. I have been heartened by the number of Members on both sides of the House who have stressed its importance. It was not formally within the remit of the working group, but I am glad that we strayed into it, because that was the right thing to do. That shows that we have an opportunity to start to dismantle the power inequalities that exercise such a damaging grip on politics and to replace them with a culture founded on dignity, equality and safety from harassment—a culture that goes further than merely sanctioning those who have not yet grasped why grabbing someone’s knee without permission is a problem but that also seeks to educate.
I am sorry that we did not manage to get agreement for compulsory consent training during this Parliament, although I am glad that we have the famous kitemark by any other name—we decided not to call it a kitemark—and I think that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire should be glad that we still have the idea of a naming and shaming device. None the less, that could still mean that proper, compulsory consent training does not start until 2022, and it is not right that staff and visitors to the parliamentary estate should have to wait another five years to be guaranteed safety in the workplace.
I want formally to put on record that I believe we will have failed all those who have experienced sexual misconduct and all those who experience it in the future if we do not continue the momentum that has been started in this working group to take radical steps when it comes to culture change. The immunity once enjoyed by the very powerful and influential is starting to wear off, but perhaps only because we are under a spotlight and because right now there are loud, strong voices for change. Those loud voices need to continue to be heard, and this issue must not be allowed to be kicked into the long grass.
We have heard the argument that only those who employ staff should need to undergo training, but those kinds of arguments must not be allowed to gain traction. Every peer and MP must learn about consent and about bullying. They must understand the power that they hold and the weight of their actions. That education must be ongoing, and delivered by experts in tackling misconduct and bullying. Crucially, and sadly, I believe that this training has to be accompanied by a system of financial penalties imposed on those who fail to co-operate—as has been recommended by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee—that could include withholding pay and allowances. The systems and processes have to have teeth; otherwise, they will be rendered meaningless.
Unfortunately, serious sexual harassment and bullying are endemic in Westminster, and we have to call this out, name it and shame it at every turn. The behaviour in this Chamber is part of the problem, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I know that you and your colleagues will continue to show leadership in that respect, as well as demanding much more of colleagues.
I want to echo those hon. Members who have already talked about the importance of ongoing evaluation, review and development. We must ensure that, as we go along, we are tracking to see how effective our new procedures are. That good tracking must also include cases that are not taken forward. We need to devise mechanisms for capturing the ones that do not even come into contact with the system. I disagree profoundly with the witness whose evidence to the working group was essentially that we do not have a problem because no one has ever reported one.
I shall say a final few words about complainants who wish to remain anonymous. We have protected that right and at the same time reflected the importance of being able to build up a picture that includes those cases. For example, if one individual is accused by a number of people, that is a pattern of behaviour that can be investigated further, whether or not formal complaints are made. We must of course uphold data protection rules, but I am pleased that we have found ways within that framework to pay attention to cases where the complainant chooses to remain anonymous.
The working group report does not go as far as I would like in some areas, but I am proud of the extent to which we have signalled a zero-tolerance approach to bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct. Making politics a world that is genuinely attractive, accessible and safe for all, irrespective of gender, race, sexuality or background, is a prize from which society as a whole can only benefit. I am reassured by the response that we have heard from both sides of the House today that this is something that we can do and that we can make a real difference.
Today marks a positive step forward towards achieving a working environment that treats everyone with the dignity and respect they deserve when they come to work. Further work is needed, but I want to take this opportunity to thank all those who have helped us to get to this point. First, I want to thank all the members of the working group: the hon. Members for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) and for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts); my noble Friend Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Hope of Craighead; and our staff representatives, Max Freedman, Georgina Kester and Emily Cunningham. I thank them for all their commitment, dedication and perseverance over the past few months.
I should also like to thank the amazingly hard-working members of the secretariat: Nick Beech, Andrew Burrow, Christopher Clarke, Ian Hook, Justine How, Alix Langley, Helen Mott, Anna Murphy, Sophie Somervail and Kate Emms, as well as my own Leader’s Office team. Their help, support and advice have been invaluable, and I sincerely thank them for their drive and determination. I am grateful to all those who gave written or oral evidence to the group and to colleagues on both sides of the House and in the other place who have given their own thoughts and advice.
This Parliament must lead by example. It is a right, not a privilege, to be treated with dignity and respect at work. This place must set the best example of a workplace that protects and supports all those working in it, so I assure all those who have contributed and who care deeply, as I do, about changing the future for all who work here that I am 100% committed to seeing this through—no rowing back, no watering down and no delay. I hope that the House will support the motion.
Amendment agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this House
endorses the recommendations of the Working Group on an Independent Complaints and Grievance Policy;
and asks the House of Commons Commission to authorise House officials, reporting regularly to a steering group of Members and others in consultation with the Committee on Standards and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, to undertake the work necessary to establish:
(1) a Behaviour Code for Parliament that covers bullying and harassment, and sexual harassment, and applies to all persons working for or with Parliament, or who are lawfully on the parliamentary estate;
(2) an independent complaints and grievance scheme to underpin the Code, together with associated policies, appropriate sanctions and the contractual arrangements necessary for delivering the scheme;
(3) particular procedures to deal with reports of sexual harassment, including the provision of a specialist Independent Sexual Violence Advocate;
(4) a system of training to support the Code;
(5) a human resources support service for staff employed by Members of Parliament or jointly by political parties, delivered by a third-party provider, and a handbook for these staff; and to identify any amendments that may be necessary to Standing Orders and the Code of Conduct, for the approval of the House.