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I beg to move,
That this House
welcomes the publication of, and recommendations in, the Dame Laura Cox report on bullying and harassment in Parliament;
welcomes the implementation of the recommendation to abandon the Valuing Others and Respect policies;
expresses concern about damage caused to the reputation and standing of this House by the lack of progress made on other recommendations on historical allegations and the non-involvement of MPs in Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme cases;
and calls on the Leader of the House and the House of Commons Commission to push forward the implementation of all three key recommendations in full without delay.
The Cox report was commissioned a year ago, in July 2018, at what we can only call a low point in this place’s history, our reputation having been rocked by allegations of bullying and harassment. Eight months on from the report being published, just one of the three Cox recommendations has been implemented, despite the House of Commons Commission, the body responsible for the employment of staff, stating that it clearly agreed in full with all three of the recommendations made by Dame Laura Cox.
Nothing is more important than the safety and wellbeing of the people we rely on to run this organisation—parliamentary staff, constituency staff, members of the Metropolitan police and Members themselves—and it is completely unacceptable that eight months on, progress in delivering change is so very slow. We rightly consider other organisations that fail to act when serious problems are identified, particularly when it comes to issues of bullying and harassment, and we run the serious risk of undermining the credibility of the House of Commons in speaking out in the future by not having acted swiftly in the wake of the full Cox report findings. This has to change.
There is much more in the Cox report aside from the recommendations, but those specific recommendations call for the abandoning of the valuing others policy and respect policies; for the amending of the independent complaints and grievance scheme, which according to Alison Stanley’s six-month report published on
It is welcome that one of those recommendations has been put into practice, but that decision was to axe a policy, which is a very straightforward thing to put in place. There has been no change in practice on the other two recommendations. There has been much discussion and consultation—another consultation closed a few days ago—and many plans to set up groups of people to talk to each other and have ideas to bring to the Commission, which could then discuss and think about them and then perhaps do something, but it is unclear when that would be done and who would do it. Let us be clear: there has been no action to actively protect employees in this place.
Not only has the Commission not put in place the changes demanded by Cox eight months ago, but it was made aware that the current policy with regard to non-recent cases could well be unlawful. In its letter of
Furthermore, the Commission was warned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that the House could also be in breach of its public sector equality duty—again, laws that we all passed in this place, not just for ourselves but for those outside. The EHRC has been clear that we could well be in breach of the public sector equality duty under section 149 of the Equality Act, and that it may actually intervene on the House of Commons and issue a compliance notice. Again, this has not been addressed by the Commission.
When I sat on the working group that came up with this, there was a strong desire from those of us in that room that historical cases be part of the process. We were assured at the time that that would be place—or at least starting to be put in place—by now. What the right hon. Lady is saying is incredibly worrying. Does she agree that we should have pressed ahead at the earliest stage so that if there were further challenges we could have addressed and finessed them by now, rather than waiting for an intervention by the ECHR?
The hon. Lady brings up a very important point. It goes even further than that. If an organisation is made aware that it could be breaking the law, it does not wait eight months to do something about it; it gets on with it straight away.
My right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom, who was Leader of the House at the time, did the most remarkable job on behalf of Members, getting in place the very first independent grievance scheme, and we all owe her an incredible debt of thanks for what she has done, but it was not an easy process, and I am sure that she may make a contribution to the debate today to add her perspective on that. We have to make sure that the Commission, which exists only because Members want it to exist—it is there not by right, but because we have decided it should be—is acting in a way that protects us from the inevitable criticism that will come from being found to be potentially unlawful in the way we treat our employees.
Members of the House have given the Women and Equalities Committee a responsibility to scrutinise the Government’s policy on equality, but I do not think that it is just the Government who need to be scrutinised at the moment, and we are actively keeping an eye on what is going on in the House of Commons as well. Working with my Committee colleagues, I have established an inquiry into the gender-sensitive Parliament, and we will be looking closely at the procedures that this place is using to ensure that it is actively taking on not just the key recommendations in the Cox report, but the spirit of that report as well.
The way in which the House of Commons Commission is dealing with this matter is unacceptable, and, I believe, risks bringing us all into disrepute if change does not happen soon. However, I also believe that the lack of action on Cox is symptomatic of much wider management dysfunctionality in this place, and I want to raise a couple of issues that are directly related to that lack of action.
The fact that the Leader of the House will be responding to the debate goes to the heart of the problem. The Government do not run the House of Commons; Members do, via the House of Commons Commission, which is chaired by the Speaker. So why is a Minister responding to the debate? I say this with the greatest respect to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who is an extremely capable individual, but he is not responsible for the matter that I have raised today. While I welcome his contribution, he cannot answer directly the questions that I am asking. At the end of my speech, I shall set him some tasks that he might want to undertake were he to wish to assist Members in resolving this issue.
Members established the House of Commons Commission in 1978 to administer, on our behalf, the way in which this place is run. Unlike almost all other Committees of the House, it has no elected members, and because it is chaired by the Speaker—whose impartiality is key to our debates—it is difficult to achieve clear accountability. Quite rightly, the Speaker does not feel that it is appropriate either to appear before the House to answer questions, or, as I found recently, to appear before a Select Committee. I fully understand the rationale for that, but it does leave us with an accountability deficit in knowing why these delays have been so lengthy.
However, I believe that the problem goes deeper than that. Responding to an urgent question on
“In this place, we are all aware that a number of these issues are ‘matters for the House’. That is quite a tricky concept, because nowhere in the workplace are things simply a matter for all those who are involved in that workplace.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 647, c. 535.]
That, I would assert, is why the House of Commons Commission was set up. It would be impossible for each and every one of the 650 Members of the House to actively manage it. By definition, we must have a body that is nominated by us to do these things on our behalf, but when there is no clear accountability or report-back mechanism other than the regular questions that are asked, there is no other proactive way of engaging in debate.
Let me now refer to a matter to which I have referred in the House before. I think that it, too, is at the heart of some of the dysfunctionality surrounding management in this place. I speak as someone who spent 20 years in business before coming to this place. It has always struck me that this place has very opaque management systems, which—for me, at any rate—have just reached breaking point because of the lack of progress in delivering on the Cox report after eight months. I think that that is reflected in one of the key findings in the report. I shall quote verbatim from page 154. This is not my interpretation of what Dame Laura has said; it is what she has said:
“I have…referred throughout this report to systemic or institutional failings and to a collective ethos in the House that has, over the years, enabled the underlying culture to develop and to persist. Within this culture, there are a number of individuals who are regarded as bearing some personal responsibility for the criticisms made, and whose continued presence is viewed as unlikely to facilitate the necessary changes, but whom it would…be wrong for me to name, having regard to the terms of reference for this inquiry…some individuals will want to think very carefully about whether they are the right people to press the reset button and to do what is required to deliver that change in the best interests of the House, having regard both to its reputation and its role as an employer of those who are rightly regarded as its most important resource.”
Unless we choose to change not only the structures but the management of the House and the people in charge of its management, we face the prospect of continued inertia on this and other reforms that are long overdue.
It was difficult for me to quote Dame Laura’s words, because they are critical of individuals, but we cannot put our head in the sand continually, eight months after the report’s publication. We must stand up and take what I believe to be long overdue decisions. We need the implementation of the report to be completed before the end of the summer recess, in about 10 weeks’ time. In the case of any other business, we would expect, after 10 weeks, the completion of a measure to bring people within the law and to create a process for analysing cases that came forward.
Can the Leader of the House assist Members by putting a motion on the Order Paper to that effect? There is no reason why the House should not debate the issue, and agree—I would hope—that the Cox report should be implemented in full within a reasonable period. I suggest that we issue a request to the House of Commons Commission to deliver that, or else to explain why it has not done so.
It is clear that we also need to consider the modernisation of the Commission itself. I think that what has happened recently requires us to consider the way in which it might be run on our behalf in the future. Such a modernisation should include an elected Chair who would be directly responsible to Members, and could speak here on all Commission matters. There should be a transparent agenda for the modernisation of the management of the House and the way in which business is conducted. The current piecemeal approach is not working in practice. Members need to know how wider change is being implemented, and to know that it is not just being talked about.
This needs to be debated by Members. Would the Leader of the House also consider tabling a motion proposing that we begin to discuss the modernisation of the House of Commons Commission, so that we could take account of Members’ views and, perhaps, Select Committees could follow them up?
Thirdly, these problems of implementation point to another area of reform. We as a group of people need to take stock of how we shape the role of the individual who runs the business of this place: the Speaker. It is we who have determined that the Speaker is responsible for not only the important procedure and running of the business in this Chamber and elsewhere, but the entire running of the House of Commons, because as chair of the Commission it is the Speaker who is ultimately responsible for the implementation of Cox, the thousands of staff employed here and the complexities of running an organisation of this incredible scale. I would assert that the two roles are individually challenging; having one person doing them increases the risk of the Speaker becoming involved in matters that are not compatible with the important independent nature of the Speaker’s jobs. Any of us who have been involved in employing staff know that can be one of the most controversial issues we can get involved with; why would we want the Speaker to be involved in something that can be so difficult and controversial?
Will the Leader of the House consider putting forward a motion for debate on the Floor of the House on the role of the Speaker so that the views of Members can be established, and then Select Committees can, if appropriate, take those views forward? If that is not appropriate, perhaps the Leader of the House can advise me on what are the appropriate ways for Members to review and discuss those issues.
It is vital that we find a way forward on all three of the issues I have outlined, because they are all connected to the problems we are experiencing in implementing Cox. But even above that, they are determining how people outside view this place. We must be an exemplar in management, not a laggard. There can be no special pleading for working practices in this place and the fact that they have not changed to reflect the realities of a modern 21-century Parliament.
The House of Commons is central to our democracy. As custodians of this place we have a clear and unquestionable responsibility to safeguard the effectiveness of the House of Commons, to ensure it is respected and to root out anything that could serve to undermine its standing in the public eye. It can never be an option to seal Parliament in aspic because, as a democratic institution, we have to reflect the country we seek to serve. There is an important place for tradition to root our procedures in precedent, and any change has to be evolutionary, not revolutionary, but we should leave this place better than we found it—more relevant, not less, to those we seek to represent here, our constituents.
There is no lack of good will to change, and the staff of the House of Commons are clearly dedicated to the future of this place, as came through strongly in the Cox report and the research Dame Laura did, but too often that enthusiasm and dedication to change is not forthcoming in practice because of a lack of clear responsibility and accountability. The lack of swift action on the Cox recommendations reflects deep-seated problems with the way the House of Commons is run, and colleagues, it is down to us to change that—no one else.
I pay tribute to the staff of the House of Commons: the staff who work for us and the staff who work to make the building work—the staff without whom we could not do any of this. At present, we are the masters of their destiny; we in this Chamber are the masters of how well the system works for them, and sometimes we are the people who work against them. For anyone who has ever been involved in any sort of employee relations, such a power imbalance should sit uncomfortably; where there is a power imbalance, there can always be exploitation, and, to be honest, what we have here is an opportunity to give power away, to do the right thing. I think we should do that.
Dame Laura Cox’s report was thorough and wide-ranging, and it made clear recommendations that we should absolutely be getting on with, because the people who know that we are not getting on with them are all the people who work in this building. Nothing has changed since we started the whole “Pestminster” thing or even the broader #MeToo movement; it feels as if a moment of blood-letting led to no significant material change in the actual working lives of the people we are here to try to protect.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech and an excellent point. Does she agree that we have to see this not as a solution, but as the first step in solving a problem that goes back decades and that, unless we act, will continue to go on for decades?
Absolutely. This going back decades has been discussed, including the idea of historical cases and whether they can or cannot be heard. If we do not sort out what has gone on before, we will never be able to sort out what goes on in the future, and we have to. This is not about drawing a line and hoping for the best in future. Some of the people we are talking about when we say, “Let’s draw a line on the historical cases,” still very much work in this building.
This week and last week, I have been reminded that the system still seems not to have changed much on the ground. Actually, I will go back a step and pay massive credit to the Member I cannot now call the Leader of the House, so I will have to learn her constituency: Andrea Leadsom—we were just discussing whether there is a North Southamptonshire. The systems that have been put in place, if used well and seen through in everything that Cox required, can be the solution, but there is currently a blockage in the system. This week and last week, I have in my diary three different incidents where I have to call or meet people. Those people’s names cannot even go in my diary, because they are so worried about further complaints and about people who either represent constituencies in this place or work in this building. This is still going on. Even with the new systems being set up, people still feel that I am a person that they should come to find out whether this can be trusted. We are nowhere near the level of trust that we need to be at in this building for people to feel that they can go forward and, without fear or favour, make a complaint about somebody, especially somebody who sits on one of these green Benches.
The argument for an independent system is won—certainly not yet in my political party, but in the system that we hope to see set up here. The Cox report clearly identified concerns about the idea of Members of Parliament sitting in judgment over any of this, and the public would have a question mark over that. That system and MPs’ involvement in deciding how the sanctions might be given out can cause by-elections. It is not an unpolitical system. It is something where politics can very much play a part.
I am really pleased that lay members have a balancing vote in the independent complaints system, but there are still real concerns about the idea that we are the ones who get the say. I have absolutely no reason to doubt the complete and utter commitment of all the people on the current Committee on Standards to doing the right thing, but I personally saw how who goes on that Committee is a political decision, because I was stopped by my political party from going on it. The Whips had put my name forward. It appeared on the Order Paper and then it was stopped. I have no idea why my political party did not wish to put me forward to be on the Committee on Standards, but I can guess. I will take it as a compliment that I am actually independent and that I would act fairly, regardless of the situation.
I place on the record that as Chair of the Committee on Standards, I would have been delighted if my hon. Friend had been appointed a member of our Committee.
Is not one of the ironies that although we have elections in our political parties for all the positions on all the other Select Committees, we do not have elections for these places? If there had been an election in the Labour party or, for that matter, across the House, I do not doubt for a single instant that my hon. Friend would have been elected.
Oh my gosh! It is like a “get out the vote” moment. I am going to stand for something now, because it would seem that I have the will of all the House behind me.
What I find about the people who want me to be involved in their cases is that they do not usually have anything to hide. It is a small thing that this is about me, and it is a pleasure that everyone is offering me their kind regards, but this highlights an issue in the system—namely, that the way in which bad behaviour, harassment and bullying are handled in this building can be controlled by patronage, power, friendships and politics. That cannot be ignored, and while it is the case, people will still come to people like me and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke and tell us their stories. Until we get this right, no system that we put in place will ever have the trust of the people who work in this building or of those who interact with them.
I also want to highlight the issue of historical cases. In the end, Dame Laura Cox said the exact opposite of what came out of the systems that we created around historical cases. She said that it would be beneficial for historical cases to be heard, and not that it would be legally difficult for people to be held accountable for a code of conduct that they had not previously signed up to. I do not personally need to be told not to sexually harass anyone. I do not need it written down that I should not murder people in the House of Commons. That is not what stops me murdering people; there are many other things that do. The trouble with the issue of historical cases is that it immediately put aside some of the issues and challenges that would have been cleared up, had those cases been able to be heard. We have to open up the idea of historical cases. I am perfectly comfortable with the idea that historical cases concerning people who are no longer here, for example, are much more difficult. We have no sanction over people who are no longer here or who have died, and I can see that there is nervousness about going back to the beginning of time in that way.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I might well vote for her if there is an election. On historical cases and the point about people no longer being here, is there not a danger that the longer we leave this, the more chance there is of people no longer being here?
Absolutely. That is certainly a concern. This place has a way of reminding us how welcome we are at the moment. I have absolutely no doubt that there are people here whose processes have been in the long grass for a very long time, and that they will be allowed to go off to pastures new. Any constituency MP will know how a constituent feels when that happens in the police force, for example, when complaints are made and people are allowed to be retired off.
Lord knows we are doing an absolutely terrible job of convincing people that we are even equal to the value of the British people. Politics stinks at the moment, but we have an opportunity, in trying to do what Cox has asked of us, to show that we do not think we are above the people, that we are better than them, or that our jobs and the employment system are just too complicated for us to be able to do anything about this. We have to deal with complicated stuff all the time; our job in this building is to deal with really complicated issues. We cannot keep falling back on the idea that this is too difficult, simply because some people work for us, some people work for Parliament, some people work in this bit of the building and some others are journalists, for example. We have to deal with people when they behave badly.
My hon. Friend is right that if we do not deal with this, people will get away with things, which will breed a culture in which such things are acceptable if someone is a Member of Parliament and in which Members can behave in such a way towards their staff or to staff across the estate. Although not many Members are involved in all this, if we do not have an independent system, it is that breeding of distrust that will allow this culture to develop, to fester and to continue to grow over years to come.
Absolutely. I want Members in all political parties—let us not pretend that this is not happening in all parties—and all the institutions of Parliament and politics to know that a truly independent system should protect us from the charge that we can do whatever we want and that we will stitch things up for our own benefit. At the moment, it does feel a bit like we can still do that.
Speaking specifically about my party, I do not know why there is ever any pushback against the idea of complete and utter independence when it comes to complaints, certainly those around sexual harassment, bullying or racism. When we stand up and speak or go on Twitter or go to work, we should be held to account, but not by somebody who can give us a job or who we can give a job to, because independence protects both the claimant and the person making the claim. I honestly do not understand why we are so afraid of it.
The other issue that constantly comes up when discussing how we handle such systems is the idea of a third-party complaints system and how we can take up complaints on the behalf of people who are vulnerable and/or terrified to come forward. Such a process has still not been ironed out in this place. If a Member sees something in the bar or somebody comes and tells them something—it happens to me a lot, and I have to struggle with the things that I know, which I often wish I could unknow—it is unclear what to do in those circumstances. The response is often, “There is not very much that we can do unless somebody comes forward, and they will have to make statements,” but there needs to be something in the system that is better for third-party complaints.
I have worked with the FDA throughout the whole process from the original complaints to the Cox report and all the different elements. I share the frustration of the right hon. Member for Basingstoke about there being another consultation with another group of people, because there seems to have been endless different reviews into different sorts of people who might come into this building. The FDA’s response to the Cox report included designs for perfectly reasonable independent systems with appeals processes that are completely fair and balanced for people both within and outside this building.
This argument goes around a lot, but there is an idea that we MPs have unusual lives, that we know best and that how systems work cannot be understood without MP involvement. I suppose that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is the example that is always given. It is a good one, so I can understand that argument. I am not suggesting for one second that there is any design that will not have built into it the idea of vexatious complaints, which are plentiful—I have had them from other Members of Parliament, for example. I understand that that has to be built into the system, but we should want to give up some of the power over the decision making.
Turning to the House of Commons Commission, I am quite heavily involved in all this stuff—I am knee deep—but I do not really know what the Commission is and/or does. I do not know whether there is meant to be a Back-Bench representative on it, or whether it is just party political. Somebody once told me that Tom Brake was the Back-Bench representative, but, meaning no offence to him, I did not elect anybody to that role. I have no idea how the Commission works and how I could work with it, and I think we need to look at the level of transparency. We also need to look at how the Commission works with the Committee on Standards and the Procedure Committee. Having all these different things makes normal people who want to do the right thing think, “I can’t be dealing with this.”
We have a real opportunity, as has been said, to leave the House in a better place than we found it by creating clarity on the structures and power lines to get this right. No matter who are friendships are with and who holds power in this place, we should never fear making and/or supporting complaints against those we like or those we think do a good job in other regards. We have to be honest and fair.
The Cox report is clear and does not beat about the bush in what it asks for. I am not entirely sure what has caused the delay. It certainly was not caused by the will of the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire, and it was not even caused by the will of the House. The House, although sometimes with clever planning, has largely voted through the report’s recommendations. I am not sure why it is taking so long, and we have to ask ourselves what we will do about it and how we will speed it up. It definitely needs speeding up.
I absolutely love the House of Commons, and I think parliamentary democracy is the greatest form of democracy in the world. We have the best democracy because we are directly linked to our constituents. There are very few countries in the world where, on a Friday, a person can go and have a chat with their representative. Unlike in Ghana or India, say, we can genuinely have a cup of tea and listen to what is going on in people’s lives. It is precious, and it needs to be protected against the very dark forces we see at the moment.
We should never give those who wish to damn our parliamentary democracy the argument that we are somehow stitching things up and that we are an elite establishment force who do everything to line our own pockets. We should never give those arguments any credence, because I will not be told by the likes of Nigel Farage that he cares more than I do about the people and about the people who work here. If we do not do something, he will have every right to say those things.
I urge the new Leader of the House to do something to make this happen, and to make it happen quickly.
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller and Jess Phillips have secured this debate, and I am proud that this is my first speech back on the Back Benches. Hopefully, I have the freedom to shed a little light on some of those dark spaces.
Before I do that, I want to agree with the hon. Lady. I, too, love this Parliament. I feel incredibly optimistic that, between all of us, we will make this change. Right now, we are still in a difficult place, and I will go through some of that before setting out some recommendations of my own.
I pay tribute to the officials in the office of the Leader of the House and to all the members of House staff who worked so hard to get the independent complaints procedure in place. If anyone is at fault for the lack of progress, it is definitely not them.
As I said, the picture is very complicated. This all began back in November 2017, when the appalling allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment hit Parliament. Having already hit Hollywood, the allegations soon came to Westminster. So the independent complaints and grievance procedure was established and voted on by this House in July 2018. It was a cross-party agreement, with many colleagues from across the House working hard together to achieve something that is different and ground-breaking.
Then of course we had the Cox report, which was specifically on the bullying of House staff by Members of Parliament. That reported in October 2018, after the independent complaints procedure had already been set up. Subsequent to that, we now have the inquiry by Gemma White, QC, into the bullying of MPs’ staff by MPs, and vice versa, which is due to report later this month. Finally, we have the inquiry by Naomi Ellenbogen, QC, into the bullying and harassment of peers’ staff by peers, and vice versa, which will report later this year. A number of complicated inquiries are going on, and I can well understand people saying, “It is all too complicated. I can’t get my way through it.” Nevertheless, it is all headed in the right direction; people are genuinely being given the opportunity to speak out and have their say, which is so vital.
The independent complaints procedure was set up following the July 2018 motion that was agreed by this House, and Alison Stanley, the independent reviewer of the complaints procedure, has just finished her review of the first six months of the independent complaints and grievance scheme. I wish to quote one statement in her report, as it gives us hope:
“both the Behaviour Code and the policies represent in some aspects leading edge practice, such as the unequivocal language used in the Behaviour Code. From my own experience of introducing change across diverse organisations, the fact that the Scheme has now been largely introduced across the Parliamentary Community is an achievement and, from survey results, has been seen as a positive sign of a change in the culture of the Parliamentary Community by some.”
That is on the good side, but of course there is another side. Throughout my time as Leader of the House, both officially, through the working group, and unofficially, as a private Member of Parliament, I have heard some truly terrible stories. These were stories of victims being quietly moved on, rather than the bully being challenged in any way; of young women and, in some cases, young men being taken advantage of, on and off the estate; of complaints left entirely unaddressed by those who are supposed to be addressing them; and of mental health issues suffered by those who have been subjected to bullying, day in, day out, for long periods, by senior people who should be ashamed of themselves.
Alison Stanley’s report on the complaints procedure makes for difficult reading. The start of the culture change to embed the need to treat everyone with dignity and respect has been far too slow and it has not been well enough resourced. That is the conclusion of her report. She talks specifically about the speed of investigations being too slow, and speed is crucial both for the complainant and for the respondent. Where someone is accused of something and they then have to wait for several months not knowing whether it is going to be taken up, it can, in some ways, be as difficult as the situation is for the complainant, who has plucked up the courage to come forward and just does not seem to be making any progress. Issues associated with confidentiality were raised. Unfortunately, as we live under the spotlight in this place, there are accusations made in the press which mean that people who want to come forward with a complaint do not really know whether their complaint would also then find its way into the press. That gives the complainants serious concern about being re-victimised. We have not yet managed to achieve enough confidence in that aspect.
We also face issues associated with the qualifications and processes for investigations—for example, on the understanding of the investigator as to whether the case deserves investigation or not. Alison Stanley makes some very strong recommendations on this, which will go a long way to also addressing concerns about historical allegations. As Leader of the House of Commons, I was concerned that when we look at day-to-day allegations of issues that are ongoing now we find that they are in some cases more easily understood than something that happened eight or 10 years ago, where most of those involved at the time might no longer be around. The complexity can be much greater, although not necessarily so. So the quality and experience of the investigators are vital.
It is incredibly useful for the House to have my right hon. Friend talk about her experience in this debate. She mentioned the assertion in the Stanley report that the roll-out of the grievance procedure had been under-resourced. With reference to what Jess Phillips said, it is difficult for us to know who is responsible for that, but we need to know, because we Members need to ensure that that changes in future.
My right hon. Friend is exactly right. One thing that I found fascinating about the independent review was to see somebody with real experience, as Alison Stanley has, of implementing these kinds of change processes, because one could really see where the rubber hits the road. It is all very well all of us sitting and standing here making representations as to how we want change to happen, but it has to be workable on the ground. There have to be proper resources and service-level agreements, so that people turn investigations around fast enough for them to be meaningful. My right hon. Friend is exactly right that resourcing is absolutely key.
Does the right hon. Lady agree with another of Alison Stanley’s recommendations, which is about trying to ensure that there are no further cases of bullying and harassment? She recommends that all Members should go on the Valuing Everyone training course, which I am pleased to say I went on yesterday and would thoroughly recommend to all Members.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I had the great pleasure of going, with my hon. Friend Vicky Ford, to one of the first prototypes of the Valuing Everyone training. I join him in thoroughly recommending that all colleagues undertake that training. It is quite insightful and extremely helpful.
Let me move on to address further points made in Alison Stanley’s report that should inform the roll-out of the responses to the Cox inquiry. Alison Stanley talks about independence. Quite often, people who want to come forward with a complaint will be concerned that they do not want it to be discussed with somebody whom they may then come across, whether in a corridor, a Select Committee or, indeed, the Terrace café. They do not want to feel that they are going to bump into the person, so the scheme’s true independence is vital, and Alison Stanley makes strong recommendations in that regard on which we should focus.
I wish to focus my remarks on the final point, which is about the ownership of the scheme. This goes right to the heart of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley said: who owns this scheme? We want to see things happen—we all say that it is not happening fast enough and ask why. The reality is that the recommendations in the Stanley report set out the problem rather than the solution. Using her best efforts, she has in effect sought to use current parliamentary processes to try to find a little scrap of accountability somewhere. I am afraid we are going to have to change that, so I shall focus on some specific recommendations.
First, the House of Commons Commission has struggled to tackle issues—not only this one, but others—at pace. The Commission should meet every week, not every month, and should have a much shorter, more focused agenda. The Clerk of the Commons and the director general should be voting members, not people who just sit there giving comments and are then overruled. They are clearly the two humans who are accountable for many issues, including the roll-out of this scheme and of changes to the culture, so it is right that they have a say on the House of Commons Commission.
The Commission’s meeting times should be fixed, and if the chair is unable to attend, as is often the case, an alternative—I suggest it should be one of the external commissioners—should step in and chair the meeting instead, rather than it being cancelled or delayed, as happens now and is often a problem for the other attendees. The minutes of House of Commons Commission meetings should be circulated promptly within a couple of days, in line with best practice in the business world, not with the agenda for the next meeting, as so often happens now.
On the point of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, MPs should be elected onto the House of Commons Commission. Colleagues are saying, “I don’t know how the House of Commons Commission works. What does it do?” The reality is that if Members were to get elected onto it, they would find out. In the House of Commons, we should be electing the members not only of the Commission, but of the Standards Committee. It should not be the case that somebody who might be dangerously independent is muzzled.
It is almost a shame to see the right hon. Lady on the Back Benches—no, it is a shame to see her on the Back Benches not least because she was taking this matter forward with such verve and energy and I applaud her for that. She knows that I completely agree with all the recommendations that she has made thus far. We should be electing people on to the Commission, and the Commission should be meeting far more frequently so that it can transact more business more swiftly. Should we not also be electing all of the House Committees so that they can feed into the Commission more effectively?
The hon. Gentleman and I have had lots of conversations about this. We are in complete agreement, and I am quite sure that he and I would make a good fist of proposing a wholesale set of changes for the House of Commons Commission, including for the Finance and Administration Committees, but that is not the subject for today. None the less, what the whole issue of culture change in this place highlights is the need to change the way that we manage it, which is why I want to focus specifically on our recommendations for changes to the House Commission.
The final point on which I would like to focus is that, in dealing with culture change, we really have to do so in a bicameral way. I will not go through the sequence of events, but, essentially, we approved our report in July. The House of Lords approved theirs in November of that year. It was only in May of this year that they changed their standards Committee, so we are completely out of step. What they have agreed is not the same as what we have agreed, and this issue is absolutely integral to the point about sanctioning. I want to talk briefly about that before I draw to a close.
I am delighted to see that a number of members of the working group are here today and I thank them all again for what was such a fantastic cross-party collegiate piece of work. Let us be clear: this is not all about MPs. Members employ staff, the House employs staff and there are many, many contractors here. There are 15,000 people who work in the Palace of Westminster. Although this is not all about MPs, there are some really important considerations for them.
The working group wanted to ensure that a member of staff and/or an MP or a peer could be sanctioned even if they resign or, in the case of an MP, step down or lose their seat. This is very important. In all cases, the working group felt that records of bullying and harassing behaviour should be kept so that a member of staff or a Member of Parliament could be sanctioned should they ever return to either House. In this way, an MP who was given a peerage might be rejected outright potentially by the Lord standards Committee for their previous record in this House of bullying and harassment. A member of House or MPs’ staff, or, indeed, a contractor could be sanctioned by being ineligible for a security pass should they seek re-employment in either House. These are really important points. I do not want to labour this, but I really do think that this has to be bicameral. We cannot have this going down two separate tracks so that someone can step down as an MP, go and get their peerage and then sit pretty at that end—as long as they do not repeat their nasty behaviour, they can get away with it scot-free. That is key to this.
I was delighted by recent visits that I received when I was Leader of the House from Canadian and Australian delegations and by my own trips to visit the Llywydd in Wales and the presiding officer in Scotland to talk about our complaints procedure in the UK Parliament. They are looking closely at what we are doing here. What I really hope and pray for is that this old and very much loved Parliament can demonstrate real change and can provide a genuine role model for other Parliaments right around the world. If we can achieve that and truly get to the point where we treat all who work and visit here with dignity and respect, we will have achieved a lasting legacy from this generation of UK parliamentarians.
I apologise for being just two minutes late for the opening remarks of Mrs Miller. However, I enjoyed listening to the bulk of her contribution. Maybe it was because I arrived a bit late, but at times I felt that she was saying that no action had been taken on Cox. I agree with her that belated action has been taken on many aspects, but some progress is being made, although perhaps not as swiftly as any of us would like. Part of the reason that I referred to the Valuing Everyone course was that it is an example of action that is being taken. As I said in my intervention, all Members of Parliament should be required to go on that course. I suspect that that would not be popular among Members, many of whom will feel that they know perfectly well how to value others, but if we want to get to the bottom of this cultural change in practice, we should require each and every single Member of Parliament to attend the course.
This debate is very tightly drawn on the Cox report. There were only three recommendations from that report, two of which have not been put into practice, particularly the ability to look at non-recent cases—some people call them historical, but they do not feel very historical to me—as well as the implementation of an independent system of reviewing cases. I have been on the Valuing Everyone course and, although it is very important, it was not actually one of the three recommendations that I cited in today’s motion.
I will come to those recommendations, but if the purpose of what we are doing is to ensure that there are no future complaints about bullying and harassment, that course is part of the answer. Having attended the course yesterday, it is very clear that bullying and harassment is going on now, and that there are members of staff in particular who do not yet feel able to have that behaviour addressed and do not feel confident in speaking out openly. I would therefore suggest that the more Members who go on this course and the quicker that happens, the better.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for plugging the course because I certainly was not aware of it. I did, however, get an email last week advising me about a compulsory fire safety training course. Apparently the email was sent in error because I had already done the course, but my point is that if we are saying to Members that fire safety courses are compulsory, why can we not say that the course to which the right hon. Gentleman refers is compulsory as well?
I do not want to get diverted on to fire safety, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that it is a matter that we discuss at the House of Commons Commission. Having been on the fire safety course, I am very much in favour of naming and shaming the other 600 Members of Parliament—that is probably the number at this point in time—who have not been on it. I recommend that people attend that course because we are in a position of responsibility towards our staff. Therefore, if we have not been on the fire safety training course, we are not in a position to help them should an incident occur. But I need to focus, rightly, on the three critical points that came out of the Cox report.
The first recommendation is the termination of the Valuing Others and Respect policies. I hope that the right hon. Member for Basingstoke would agree that that has been acted on. The second recommendation is access to the independent complaints procedure for historical complaints. I agree that that has not progressed particularly quickly. However, the right hon. Lady may or may not be aware that the consultation on that closed on
I hope the House can forgive me for intervening again on the right hon. Gentleman, but he is actually the person who is most likely to be able to give us answers to questions because, unlike the Leader of the House, he is our representative on the Commission. The right hon. Gentleman talks about the importance of making progress on the second recommendation. May I gently remind him that not making progress is potentially unlawful? Surely the Commission does not need a consultation; it should simply be telling us what legal advice it has sought following the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s letter saying that it could be unlawful to block these non-recent cases. Might we actually be falling foul of our own law?
I thank the right hon. Lady for that intervention. She will be aware that there has been legal advice of a different nature about what action we can take. However, I agree that we need to take action. I very much hope that the meeting on
The third point relates to an independent process for determining complaints of bullying, harassment or sexual harassment brought by House staff against Members of Parliament. I agree that we have not acted quickly enough on this. There were some quite engaged discussions, if not to say arguments, at the Commission about how to take it forward. I think that a satisfactory way forward has been determined in terms of a staff team who are going to look at it. We hope that we will be in a position to consider the output from that and choose a preferred option on which there will be a consultation in the autumn.
Again, I agree with the right hon. Lady that not enough action has been taken so far. However, there are things that are in train, including, as the former Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, mentioned, the Alison Stanley report that is flagging up actions that we should be taking. In terms of a timetable, I agree with the right hon. Member for Basingstoke that we need an action plan with precise dates that the Commission can then be held to account on. The Commission is going to agree an action plan in response to the Alison Stanley report by
A number of Members have rightly flagged up some concerns about the way that the Commission operates. We have heard that it is perhaps not as efficient, accountable, open or transparent as it should be, that it could come to conclusions more quickly, and so on. I have already mentioned to the Leader of the House the initiative suggested by the lay people, Jane McCall and Rima Makaram. When the previous Leader of the House was still in post, there was the idea that the Commission should collectively sit down and work out whether we are working as efficiently and effectively as we could be—how we could streamline the Commission’s processes and look again at the way it operates to ensure that it is meeting more frequently, that there is more clarity about the way that the decisions are taken, and that it becomes—this is certainly what I would like to see—much more businesslike in the way that it operates.
I am sure that the Leader of the House would want to support that initiative. I think there is a collective desire—
The shadow Leader of the House is nodding as well. I think there is a collective desire to ensure that we run the Commission more effectively than has perhaps been the case so far. I am sure that all the players on the Commission will want to support that initiative.
I agree that, as the right hon. Member for Basingstoke said, action has not been taken as swiftly as it should have been in relation to the Cox recommendations. However, there are some challenging deadlines, some of which I have mentioned, and they are on the record. We are meeting on
Everyone is entitled to work free from harassment and abuse in an environment that promotes dignity and respect, yet sexual harassment and violence against women in politics is a long-standing phenomenon in the UK and in many other countries. I am proud to chair the all-party group on women in Parliament, the women’s caucus that works to encourage more women to come into political life and to support one another when they do. In the past couple of years, there have been a number of inquiries into the nature and extent of sexual harassment in Westminster, and the inquiry by Dame Laura Cox was pivotal in shining a light on the scale of sexual harassment, intimidation and bullying in Parliament.
The women’s caucus held a meeting in February with Dame Laura, and we were delighted that the then Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom, was able to attend and reaffirm the commitment of the House to driving forward meaningful change in this area. We welcomed, and continue to welcome, the lead that the House has taken in ensuring ongoing reform and making Parliament a place where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. While the allegations of bullying and harassment in Parliament shocked all of us we were glad to see progress, with the new complaints and grievance policy now up and running. However, while there were welcome changes, such as the appointment of a new director of HR and a cultural transformation director, along with some interim changes on the Committee on Standards, Dame Laura conveyed to the group issues that have been raised with her by members of staff in both the Lords and the Commons about the implementation of her report. As chair of the all-party group, I would like to set out some of her concerns, bearing in mind that it is nine months since the publication of her report.
There were particular concerns about transparency and the rate of progress in implementing the recommendations. Dame Laura has received requests for amendments to the new independent complaints and grievance scheme to enable members of staff to bring complaints relating to historical allegations. Members of staff often find it difficult to make such complaints. There have also been suggestions to make sure that the processes for determining complaints brought by members of staff against MPs will be entirely independent and that MPs will play no part in those processes. I urge the new Leader of the House to look at those two specific suggestions and make sure that progress is made on those issues.
Dame Laura expressed concern about her recommendations becoming bogged down in process through, for example, the setting up of working groups and advisory panels. The feedback that she received from staff was that they were concerned about knowing who is responsible for what, and the dates by which action should be taken. The problem of becoming bogged down in the process and detail, rather than seeing the big picture, was holding back progress.
We need better communication both to members of staff and to members of the public on the parliamentary website about what has been done and by whom. It was good that the House of Commons Commission published a statement on the way forward last week, but much more regular communication is needed for transparency. The biggest concern expressed to Dame Laura by staff was that some MPs and senior management—and, indeed, some very senior MPs—are prevaricating and delaying. It has even been suggested that that is with the aim of attempting to water down the recommendations. Delay can only exacerbate the lack of trust and confidence of members of staff that there will be fundamental change and that recommendations will be carried out. Any delays can only worsen the level of public confidence in the House’s ability to correct past errors and implement fundamental change. As I have said, these accusations were passed on to Dame Laura by members of staff.
We know from research by the Fawcett Society that the level of public concern about the nature and extent of allegations is very high, with 73% of both men and women believing that there needs to be change in how unwanted sexual harassment is dealt with in politics. If there are delays, they will only continue to undermine the legitimacy and authority of our own Parliament. There must be greater transparency and greater accountability. These recommendations are important, and progress needs to be seen.
I have a couple of other points to make. Having worked in politics for a decade both in Europe and then here, I see how it is very stressful. We in this place face very difficult decisions. We are living at a time of great change, with great challenges. We are living in the middle of an industrial revolution—the digital revolution—with huge demographic changes putting great pressure on our public services. We see the generational challenge of addressing climate change, which we must get on top of now, or the next generation will not have a planet as we know it for the future. On top of that, we in this place of course face the overlaying challenge of resolving Brexit.
It is therefore not surprising that politicians are under great stress and can be snappy. However, there is a difference between being stressed and snappy and continual harassment of staff, which is the allegation laid in front of us. There is work we could do to alleviate the level of stress in this place. I have talked about the lack of predictability of the parliamentary day, and other Parliaments have managed to find ways to resolve that, which does destress the working environment. I was very pleased to take part in the gender-sensitive Parliament audit last year, which made many recommendations about how to make this Parliament a more welcoming and sensitive place for Members, staff and those who work here, especially those with families or other caring responsibilities. I am very pleased to be on the Sub-Committee of the Women and Equalities Committee that is looking at implementing those recommendations.
I really feel strongly that I do not want to leave the impression that women are not wanted in this place. There are more women on these Benches in Parliament than ever before. Women make a huge difference in their constituencies, and they make a huge difference in Westminster. We need more of them here, and we must support them. In the news today has been the need to make sure we are supporting women, especially when they are expecting a baby or when they have a baby. No woman should have to choose between having a family and standing for political office, and I am very sorry to hear the concerns of Stella Creasy.
However, I have been in touch today with a number of women MPs who have recently had a baby or are expecting a baby very soon, and some have commented on the great support they are being given by their colleagues, constituents and staff. Indeed, the Minister with responsibility for the constitution, my hon. Friend Chloe Smith, who is currently on maternity leave, has commented that proxy voting is a good start. She has been in touch digitally today on these matters to remind us, at the same time as she is breastfeeding, that it is National Breastfeeding Week. We are introducing measures to make sure that our women and our men can have such flexibility. Again, I thank the former Leader of the House for her efforts in introducing proxy voting.
My hon. Friend is making a really important point. It is really important that the message that goes out from this place is that women should be MPs. Having children should not be an impediment to having a career in Parliament. My youngest was three when I joined—Madam Deputy Speaker, you have probably got a better story than that. Even back then, in 2005, it was very possible to do that. I would want to offer every support to any Member who felt that it was difficult.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that valuable point. I say again that there are more women in this place than ever before and they make a hugely valuable contribution. There are many women in this place who have just become mums or are soon to become mums—on that point, I note my neighbour, my hon. Friend Mrs Badenoch, most fondly. We must make sure that mums and dads have the flexibility to take parental leave and to be supported during the time when they are expecting a baby. Every constituency in this country is different and every Member of Parliament represents their constituency in a different way. We need to make sure that each MP has the flexibility to make sure that their constituents continue to be represented when they are taking parental leave.
I want to make one final point about harassment. Harassment of politicians and our staff does not just happen in the physical world. It happens increasingly online, and there has been exponential growth in that online abuse. Action must be taken to stop the online harassment of women involved in politics—and it is women who are harassed more.
The hon. Lady is making a very important point about online harassment. Does she agree that dealing expediently with the report, being transparent about it and getting on with it would set an example that might help to break the logjam of inaction on online abuse elsewhere?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We must move on with the Cox report. It must be implemented and there must be transparency. For the future, we must also deal with other areas where women, and men, are harassed, although it affects women particularly. There is a level of intimidation that is turning women off standing for public office, and that is therefore a direct attack on our democracy and on the democracy of the future. Britain needs to take a lead. The rest of the world is watching us. We must make sure that this Government do not allow this to continue into the next election.
Before I call Justin Madders, I would say that the hon. Lady is absolutely right. There are a small number of women here in Parliament who have become mothers while being Members of Parliament. Those of us who have done it know that it is a challenge, but it is far from impossible. It is very worthwhile, and it is really important that we encourage more of our sisters to follow this path, and that we do not let them be put off by anything.
This place has a culture of
“deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed.”
Those were the words of Dame Laura Cox when her report was published in October 2018. Let us be honest with ourselves: if we received that report about any employer in our constituency, we would be on the phone to them straight away demanding action. That is why we have had so many Members making similar points today.
Such was the shocking extent of those revelations, just nine days later the House of Commons Commission agreed to implement the recommendations of the Cox report in full and without delay. There was agreement across the House that something should happen as soon as possible. House of Commons staff bravely came forward, shared their stories and gave evidence to Dame Laura. They felt that they had been listened to and that their efforts had not been in vain. There was a sense that we were beginning to see a real change in the culture of this place.
Like many Members, I am frustrated that, nearly a year since the House adopted the independent complaints and grievance scheme and nearly nine months since the House accepted Dame Laura’s three principal recommendations, we still have a long way to go. It should be to all our shame that we are not much, if any, further along than where we were seven or eight months ago. There is little or no evidence that the culture of acquiescence and silence is being actively challenged. The sense of urgency has, I feel, dissipated from this debate.
The House of Commons Commission is responsible for the implementation of Dame Laura’s recommendations, so it is right that the commission should answer to this House about the lack of progress, engagement and information to date. We are told that things are happening, but they are clearly not happening quickly enough. I wholeheartedly agree with the motion. The reputation of the House has been further damaged by the lack of progress made. I came to this place to fight for better working conditions for everyone in this country. That includes people who work in this place. It is only right that we get our own house in order.
We should be an exemplar of best practice. We should be the standard that others look up to and try to emulate. We are so far from that at present and I feel very frustrated about that on a personal level. More importantly, I am frustrated for all those who contributed in good faith to Dame Laura’s report, particularly those who have been the victims of bullying and harassment. They have shown such bravery in coming forward to take part in the inquiry, even under the condition of anonymity, to record their experiences in the hope that by coming forward they would change things for the better. Men and women, former and current colleagues, have been let down again and again by this House, and we are still being let down now. People who have waited years are still waiting to see the changes we need to come forward.
Sometimes I think people do not appreciate just how debilitating, damaging and distressing it is to go into work every day not knowing what it is you are going to face. I was an employment lawyer before I came to this place, so I saw clients every day who faced intolerable workplaces, but at least there was a way forward. What my hon. Friend Jess Phillips said earlier about the power imbalance is absolutely right. Every workplace has power imbalances, but the difference here is that our power is pretty much absolute. She is absolutely right that we need to give away some of that power to get a sense of fairness and balance in this process.
We were all clear when we met here in November that we needed to move forward quickly and that people had waited long enough. Swift action on the two outstanding principal recommendations—the historical cases and the independent process—is needed immediately. We all seem to agree that that is needed, so I have to ask: what is stopping that happening much sooner? I am aware that there has now been a consultation on historical allegations, which concluded last week. The proposals, which set out that non-recent cases will be treated in exactly the same way as the current independent procedure, with the same assessors, steps and decision-makers, will, I hope, ensure that whoever brings a complaint will have an equality of process moving forward. Given that what has been consulted on is exactly the same as the current procedure, I do not know why it took so long for the proposals to come forward. If are to have the same system, we should have been implementing it a long time ago. It is only when the system is up and running for all complaints that trust will be restored and we can begin to take those crucial steps, which are desperately needed, to change the culture.
I am also deeply concerned about the lack of progress towards meeting the priority of non-involvement of MPs in the independent complaints process. This was in response to the specific recommendation that the House considered the most effective way to ensure the process for determining complaints on bullying, harassment or sexual harassment brought by House staff against Members of Parliament would be an entirely independent process in which Members of Parliament play no part. That is pretty clear—we all know what it means. The Commission agreed last December that a small working group should be set up to examine and report on that recommendation, but seven months on and it was only last week that any progress made. A staff team is to be set up that might report in the autumn—a year after the initial recommendations —and only then would the Commission consider its proposals. Goodness knows when it will come back to the House for us to vote on implementing any changes.
There are serious questions to be asked about what has been happening for the last seven months. How can staff have faith that further announcements will be forthcoming? It feels like someone is dragging their feet. We need to move this on much more quickly. How can we give the impression that this is a priority for people in this place? There is no legislation coming forward at the moment, and we know that the Government are in a holding pattern until they sort out the leadership. We could be using this time to implement these recommendations, to have a proper debate in here and to get them on the books sooner rather than later.
The culture identified in the Cox report as widespread, enduring and profound is still preventing progress. Many Members have rightly expressed concern about the delays, and we are told that there are working groups and so on. The Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Mrs Miller, is right that the nub is the lack of clear accountability—it is not clear who is responsible for implementing the recommendations. Well, we are all responsible, and we all have to do a bit better. We need concrete action. We need much more frequent updates. There is no reason it should take any longer.
We have to get this right. Staff feel this is being kicked into the long grass. This does nothing to reassure them that the problems with the culture identified in the Cox report will be addressed. We are not asking for the earth; we are asking for something that is commonplace in every working environment up and down the country. In accepting Dame Laura’s report and agreeing to implement the recommendations in full, we have already agreed what needs to be done—the clue is in the title: it is an independent procedure. Why can we not get on and get that independent procedure in place? The failure to act swiftly only damages further the reputation of this place.
One way to instil confidence in this system is to make sure people know that what is happening is effective. I am not suggesting we name individuals who have had complaints lodged against them, but if we at least knew that those complaints had been upheld or dealt with and that offenders had been sanctioned, we would know that something was happening.
I want briefly to return to the issue of having a truly independent system of adjudication for complaints. My hon. Friend Jess Phillips mentioned this. All political parties should look at their own internal processes at the same time as this work is ongoing. If we ever finally have independent processes in this place, we could find ourselves with different processes being operated against Members for essentially the same types of complaint. As far as we know, the new independent procedure covers everyone working in both Houses, whether paid or not, and anyone with a parliamentary pass, and it covers bullying and harassment committed while on the parliamentary estate, in constituency offices or when carrying out parliamentary work.
The third of those is a bit vague. What covers parliamentary work? Someone wanting to bring a complaint of sexual harassment might have to go through an entirely different process depending on where the offence took place. Where does an act committed at a party conference come into it? Is that parliamentary duties? What if the victim is not a passholder but is harassed in the course of parliamentary duties? Where do we draw the line? We want to avoid having different processes depending on where the offence takes place and who the victim is. We have an opportunity to get consistency across the board.
Sadly, there is ample evidence that political parties are prone to be tempted to make decisions about such complaints on a political basis, rather than on the basis of whether that behaviour needs to be dealt with. That has applied to all political parties for as long as politics has been in existence, but that does not make it right. If we do not get our own house in order and deal with bullying and harassment in our own parties, whoever has done it, we have no right to lecture other employers about how they treat their staff. That is why I believe that there needs to be a root-and-branch review of all political parties’ complaints processes and an acceptance that we need total transparency and total independence. If we carry on as we are, we shall run the risk that members of our parties will not be dealt with impartially when serious allegations are made—that they will not be dealt with as they would be dealt with here—or, at the very least, that there will be a perception that they are not being dealt with impartially. That could be as corrosive as not dealing with the allegations at all.
We have to think about the message that the low attendance in the Chamber is sending to staff. Where is this issue on our list of priorities? We should be fighting to ensure that everyone who works here, and everyone in every workplace in the country, is treated with dignity and respect, free from bullying and harassment. We need to accept that we have a long way to go, and that we really must find an answer and move this forward as soon as possible.
I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller, for not being able to be present at the start of her speech. I was able to catch up with her remarks, and I think that she spoke on behalf of all of us in the House.
I thank Dame Laura Cox for leading an extremely important inquiry, and for producing such a comprehensive report containing such sensible and achievable recommendations. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom, the former Leader of the House, for her work in beginning to implement those recommendations. She was clearly right when she highlighted the need for a significant culture change in this place. I also pay tribute to her for her acknowledgement that it will not happen overnight, but it needs to happen, and to happen without delay. The time that has already passed has been too long for those who work in this building, who work with us and who support us, but who may be subject to behaviour that would be clearly unacceptable not only in this Parliament, but in any other workplace.
Bullying is vile and horrid. Unfortunately, it appears to be becoming more and more of an issue—a visible issue—in wider society. Across society, there seems to be, in many cases, not only a breakdown in what might previously have been thought of as common courtesies, but a breakdown in basic decency. It is a question of fundamental values: how we should treat each other, and what is the correct way in which to work with not just those to whom we are close, but those with whom we have professional contact.
As Members of Parliament, we clearly have a particular role in setting an example of—I was going to say “good behaviour”, but behaviour that is acceptable. We should not be expecting thanks or congratulations merely for not doing things that would be rightly condemned if they were done by anyone in any role in almost any business, any school, or any workplace in any other organisation anywhere in our country.
When we talk about bullying in the context of schoolchildren, we refer to the devastating effect that it has on their mental health and development, but bullying is an issue that affects people at all stages of life, regardless of their backgrounds, and it is increasingly affecting people’s mental health. Technology and social media seem to be increasing the prevalence of bullying, but it is even more noticeable that the reach of that bullying and abuse continues to expand so that, in many instances, victims cannot feel safe, whether in the workplace or at home. If a person cannot feel safe from being abused by someone who—as other Members have said—has an improper power advantage and is abusing that imbalance in the relationship, how can that person be happy and continue to function on not only a professional level but a personal level? So, yes, we in this place must be setting an example to people in the wider country, not showing people how to belittle and undermine others.
As has been said, politics is a very peculiar environment. It clearly attracts people with high passions and people who feel very strongly about their beliefs. It arouses those passions. People get hot under the collar. It makes people’s blood boil. People rarely end up agreeing with each other. But high passions and strongly held views cannot be an excuse for unacceptable bullying and abusive behaviour. It is not acceptable for my children at home and it is not acceptable for those of us who claim to represent our constituents here in the mother of all Parliaments.
If we are to resolve the issue of bullying and harassment in Parliament, the recommendations in Dame Laura’s report must be embraced. The report needs to be implemented wholeheartedly and we must enact a seismic shift in culture. We must develop that culture of respect that we speak of for our society. We must embody a culture of respect in Parliament because everybody who works in Parliament—whether Members of Parliament, staff, Officers of the House, contractors, journalists or anyone else who has reason to work in this place—has a right to be able to go about that work and their lives without fear of abuse or risk of bullying and harassment.
In many ways, we see a parallel now with the stories around the expenses scandal a decade ago, very different though those issues are. Both cases threaten to completely undermine what remaining respect and confidence people have in our democratic structures, institutions and political system. In both cases, it is simply unacceptable to try to appeal to some peculiar culture in Parliament, saying “People outside just don’t understand what it’s like. It’s always been that way.” Whether or not it has always been that way, if it should not be that way, we have to make sure it is not that way, and that means we need to take action now and to make sure that processes are in place so that the victims or potential victims of this behaviour can be protected and those who are guilty of this unacceptable behaviour can be held to account.
As with the expenses scandal, it is clearly inappropriate for Members of Parliament to think that they can mark their own homework. That is why the independent nature of this body is so important. That is such an important recommendation from Dame Laura, so I hope that the Commission will ensure it is implemented swiftly.
This has been a painful and unpleasant experience for Parliament as an institution, but it has been a far more painful and unpleasant experience for those who have been the victims of bullying and harassment here, and whether that is from other MPs or from staff should not matter; they should have that level of protection. And it has been painful, unpleasant and unacceptable regardless of whether it happened before or after this new code of conduct came into place. That is why it is essential that the issues of historical abuse and bullying are properly addressed. Jess Phillips talked about retrospective regulation, and we must be wary of the risk of retrospective regulation and rules coming in that hold people to a standard they could not reasonably have expected to be held to, but this is not the situation on the whole: most of these cases do not involve some obscure administrative or procedural requirement that we are expecting people to sign up to that we would not have expected them to meet a decade ago. In almost all cases, this is about basic standards of decency, where, regardless of whether the code of conduct was in force at the time, it is perfectly reasonable to expect Members to have abided by those standards. Those who did not should expect to answer for that, and whether what happened was 18 months ago, three years ago or longer, those who have been the victims of abuse, where the evidence is there to support those allegations, should have the right to have their claims heard and, where appropriate, there may be arguments for redress.
We really need these recommendations, including for an independent body and for an effective system to handle historical cases, to be implemented without further unnecessary delay. I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House feels strongly about these issues, as his predecessor did. We all call on the House of Commons Commission to do everything possible to make sure that the changes are introduced, implemented and enforced, so that we can all come behind the report and the recommendations made by Dame Laura, endorsed by the House and so badly needed by so many people who work for us in the Houses of Parliament.
Like many in the Chamber, I very much welcome the good work undertaken by Dame Laura Cox and the former Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom. She was emphatic in her support for Dame Laura’s report and eager to see its recommendations implemented. I am sure that her successor is equally keen. While a fundamental change in policy will always require time and patience, I feel very strongly that we must prioritise its implementation, as has been said so often this afternoon. I believe that that is essential if we are to regain the trust of the House staff and, equally importantly, the wider public. Indeed, I am convinced that it is also key to regaining public trust more generally in politics and politicians.
The implementation delays are unacceptable. As Members, I am sure that we all agree that the staff of this House do an absolutely remarkable job for all of us, often under intense pressure. Much of what goes on in this place involves some level of stress or pressure—not least time pressure—whether that is on the shoulders of parliamentarians or House staff. Often, it is indeed a shared pressure. We are all fallible as human beings, but what we must avoid, and what Dame Laura sought to highlight in her report, is the almost casual manner in which this wicked sort of bullying, harassment and behaviour seemed to have become endemic in this place. I imagine that this was sadly supported by a blind-eye policy adopted by those around them. Stress and pressure are no excuse for an underlying culture of bullying and harassment. As Members, we must remember that the tentacles of bullying and harassment go beyond the workplace to the domestic environment, social lives and general wellbeing of the individuals who are subject to bullying and harassment. We must never, ever condone any such activity.
It is clear that there was little confidence in the erstwhile Valuing Others policy, introduced as far back as 2007, or the Respect policy of 2011, however well intended they were. In fact, it is frankly astonishing that there was no formal avenue for dealing with complaints before these policies came into effect, or indeed, that even after their introduction, it seemed that the somewhat old-fashioned and antiquated “quiet word” in one’s ear here or there was sufficient. That is not acceptable any more. We can hardly be surprised, therefore, that there was little confidence in the policies or their implementation. However, by swift action we must be satisfied that the staff of this House—they are so important—will have confidence in the implementation of the Cox recommendations. There are indeed only three; there is not a raft of important recommendations to implement. The introduction of the independent complaints and grievance scheme marks a positive first step, but we must not lose our momentum. We must overcome the inertia that we have experienced to date.
Earlier this month, the House of Commons Commission confirmed that agreement had been reached on the implementation of the Cox recommendations. I am, however, concerned about the treatment of historical cases before June 2017. I see no acceptable justification or reason as to why it is impossible to assess historical incidents with similar accuracy as recent cases, and I hope that that decision will be reconsidered or revisited.
Bullying and harassment have no place in the House of Commons or, indeed, in any area of public life whatsoever. It is abundantly clear that we have failed the staff in the past, and we must not fail them in the future. However, the solution lies not just in the implementation of the Cox recommendations but more fundamentally in the behaviour of ourselves as parliamentarians. In closing, I suggest that we as parliamentarians we would do well to listen to the wise words of Robert Burns, who wrote as follows:
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!”
It is a rare pleasure to follow immediately after my hon. Friend Bill Grant, especially when he quotes Burns so beautifully. I, too, must apologise to the House and to my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller for missing the start of this debate—for pretty much the same reason, I am afraid—but had I waited until after this time, I might have missed the ballot, so I hope that the House will forgive me.
I would also like to repeat the sentiments of many who have spoken today by offering my gratitude to Dame Laura Cox for her tireless work in putting together this report. Her dedication to making this House a better, safer and more respectful place for everyone who works here has been indispensable, and I am glad that she will continue to be consulted by the staff team that will lead on producing options for implementing the recommendations in her report. In addition, I would like to congratulate my right hon. Friend Jess Phillips on securing this debate and on their impassioned speeches—at least those that I managed to catch. I would like to commend my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom, as we are getting used to having to call the former Leader of the House. She was instrumental in the progress we have made as a House on this issue during her service as Leader of the House. I commend my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for her leadership on this issue, and I would also like to wish the current Leader of the House all the very best in his efforts to progress this matter further.
Parliament is about much more than MPs and peers. Thousands of people work on the parliamentary estate in a whole host of roles, and the Cox report is about making sure that all of us who work in this place can go about our work with dignity and free from bullying or harassment of any kind. This is an important goal in itself, but it is also vital if Parliament is to do its duty as a democratic institution and have the faith of the public. A House where the powerful exploit their position to mistreat their colleagues, not necessarily on purpose, is neither an accessible House nor a truly democratic House; it is a House that will quickly lose the confidence of the people it is supposed to represent.
I am glad that Members on both sides of the House share an aspiration to make things better, but we must do so as quickly as we can, and in a manner that is thorough and robust and that properly safeguards staff on the parliamentary estate for years to come. I therefore welcome the progress that has been made so far on implementing the Cox report’s recommendations, including the abandonment of the Valuing Others and Respect policies. I am disappointed that more progress has not yet been made on the other recommendations—on historical or non-recent allegations, in particular—but it is my hope that those recommendations will be implemented in a rigorous manner in the very near future.
It is vital that we act on the recommendations because I firmly believe that Parliament must be accessible. Between the cases of bullying and harassment on the parliamentary estate and the ongoing proliferation of online abuse, such as the kind described by my hon. Friend Vicky Ford, towards not just MPs, but people who have the temerity to appear online in support of their MP or other MPs and all those who work in wider politics, I fear that more and more people may come to the conclusion that politics, whether that means holding office or working on the estate or in a constituency office, may not be for them. That could have profound consequences for the health of our democracy.
We must therefore continue to work together, quickly and thoroughly, to make Parliament and politics truly accessible again, and that includes delivering on the recommendations of the Cox report. It is clear from this debate that there is genuine commitment from all sides to achieve that, but it is vital that we put today’s words into renewed action tomorrow and every day until we have achieved the objective of making these Houses of Parliament a safer and more respectful place for everyone who works here.
I congratulate Mrs Miller on securing this important debate. I also thank other parliamentary colleagues for contributing to what has been an excellent debate that has given us the opportunity to kick around some issues that now go back almost two years.
The major theme is that there seems to be some slowness in execution or a paucity of action around some of the conclusions and recommendations of Dame Laura Cox’s report. I do not take great exception to that, because the report was produced in October and its conclusions were accepted in a debate in November, and it is now only June of the following next year, which it is not particularly unusual. I am pretty used to the glacial pace that this House operates under and to the speed at which things get done, so I do not actually find it all are unreasonable that we have waited some seven or eight months to get to this stage.
I want to go through conclusions one by one to see what progress we have made. As everybody has said, Dame Laura made only the three recommendations. I think we have established that the first has been dealt with, which was to abandon the Valuing Others and Respect policies. The second recommendation was, of course, that the independent complaints and grievance scheme should be amended to ensure that historical cases can be heard, and we have heard a few contributions, most notably from Tom Brake, who represents the House of Commission, that progress is being made on that.
I declare an interest in that I have been involved in the ICGS since its inception, and I have just recently been appointed to the House of Commons Commission—an august body on which I look forward to serving. The members of the ICGS group take things seriously when we are presented with them, and it was important that the second recommendation was considered with full intent, which is what we have done. I have seen the shadow Leader of the House shaking her head about all that, and we had a series of meetings just to see how to respond. We said that we would move forward, so we had a consultation, and we are trying to ensure that we move forward and that the recommendations on that specific point are accepted by the House.
The matter will be debated further at a forthcoming meeting of the House of Commons Commission, which will be my first, and I hope that there will be progress. I therefore do not see any big issues with the second recommendation, but if I am missing something, I am more than happy for the right hon. Member for Basingstoke to intervene and tell me where the drawbacks are and where something is being lost.
The third recommendation is that the process for determining complaints should be independent and free from any involvement from Members of Parliament and, again, I have seen progress there. There is a complicated issue relating to how we deal with historical cases, and there were delicate negotiations with the Committee on Standards as to how things would be progressed. I am disappointed that Kate Green, who chairs the Committee, is not here, because I am pretty certain that she would reiterate that it is important to get things right when making really important decisions about how we operate. I know that there were real issues with how to do that, and that legality and other things had to be considered. I think we are making steady progress, and there is a view that independence will be created—no one in this House would deny that.
I see progress in all these things. It might not be fast enough for the right hon. Member for Basingstoke and other Members, but I am ticking all these recommendations. I am ticking the top recommendation, with two thirds of a tick for the other ones. I understand there is a real desire to get things going, but we are not doing all that bad.
Would the hon. Gentleman be satisfied if employers in his constituency reacted so glacially, to use his term, to important recommendations about the safety of his constituents? I am not sure he would. I also think he needs to reflect on whether the two-thirds ticks he is giving those two elements actually make any difference to staff in this place. It might make a difference to him and to members of the Commission but, if we were to ask staff, they will not have noticed a blind bit of difference.
The right hon. Lady makes an important point, but what is more important to me when it comes to these things is that they are done right for the constituents I represent, for the staff I employ in this House and for my obligations and responsibilities as a Member of Parliament.
It is important that we get this right, which is why some of the conversations and negotiations that are required have to be played out so we get to the right solution, and I believe we are getting there. We owe it to the House to get to the right place. We have to make progress, and we have to deal with this.
I remember when this all started. There was a huge flurry of activity, with party leaders getting together under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister. There was an urgency about it. Something had to be done.
The energy seems to have been sucked out of that initiative, and I do not know why. The Chamber is a bit busier now but, at its busiest, I counted only 15 Members here to discuss these important issues. At one point during the debate we were down to seven Back-Bench colleagues listening to these important proceedings.
I suggest that somehow we are not getting the message out to other colleagues, and I am grateful to everyone who has been here. The contributions have been sincere and heartfelt, but we are not exciting the House with these proposals. We have to do more to ensure that Members are engaged with this process, because it is about us. It is about our behaviour and how we respond to staff and to the parliamentary community.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that perhaps one way of getting the attention of Members would be to act on my earlier suggestion—in fact, it was recommended by Alison Stanley—that all Members should be required to do the Valuing Everyone programme? That would draw people’s attention to it.
I will address Alison Stanley’s recommendations, which are important. The six-month review of the ICGS is important, and we are all grateful for her contribution and the sterling leadership that she offered. Again, I see the shadow Leader of the House nodding her head in agreement, because Alison Stanley demonstrated real leadership on these issues.
One of Alison Stanley’s main recommendations, and one of the things that was changed in the scheme—this is why these things are so important to get right—is that the training will now be compulsory for all Members. In the early stages of the working group’s report, it was suggested that the training would be voluntary. We tried to do as much as possible to encourage Members to undertake the training, but now it is to be mandatory. I know the right hon. Gentleman did the training yesterday, because he did it with two of my staff. I brought them all the way down from Perth to ensure they would be among the first to be properly trained in the scheme. My staff’s recollection of the event is that he was an assiduous and energetic collaborator in the exercise, on which I congratulate him.
Along with the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House, I was supposed to be the first to undertake the training, but I had responsibilities elsewhere. I say today—I will be held to account for this—that I will undergo the training at the earliest opportunity. Every Member should ensure they do the training, because it is important. We have 15,000 people working on this estate. We have huge obligations and responsibilities to ensure that everybody who enters it, be they those who work here or visitors, is treated with respect and dignity. Regardless of everything else that happens in this place, the one thing we can all agree and unite on is that there should be zero tolerance of any inappropriate behaviour by anybody who works on this estate, be they people who work for Members of Parliament or others working in any capacity across this House.
I served on the ICGS group, and I join in the tributes to Andrea Leadsom—I always find it curious when “south” and “north” are in the same constituency name, but I think I said that about right. She, too, was really dedicated to this and provided inspired leadership for the report. Her determination and sheer willingness to get this through ensured that we got to this stage. If anything is going to be her legacy, it will be the fact that we have been able to progress to this stage on the ICGS.
We have just had Alison Stanley’s six-month review, and I have already said how highly I regard her and the work she has done. All of us on the ICGS group are eternally grateful for all that. She made important recommendations, and it was right that the ICGS was reviewed at six months. There is another commitment, as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, to have it reviewed again in 18 months. I will say again today that I am happy to continue to serve. I will just talk about my association with the work that has been done so far, but I look forward to serving that committee and coming back in a year’s time just to see where we are on it.
The most important recommendation was the one mentioned by the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, which was that training will be mandatory. We had a look at some of the processes that have been set up, for example the independent helpline. There is a general conclusion that it is working satisfactorily. The number of people who have sought help and advice via the independent line is really encouraging; so many people have now seen this as a feature they can go to in order to secure the assistance that they feel they require, so we know that it is working. All the way through the ICGS process, we have looked at things to do with confidentiality, with the involvement of Members of Parliament—the so-called “marking your own homework”—and with ensuring that we make progress on historical cases. We have had countless debates and sometimes even arguments about all these features. We have got to a place where we are reasonably okay.
On the historical cases, I believe we are getting there. I think we are going in the right direction. We were probably shaken a little by legal advice we got about how a new scheme would be applied to people who had not signed up to it. We all questioned the quality of that legal advice and opinion—initially we had advice we were prepared to accept, which said that it could not be. Dame Laura Cox could not care less about that, and, as a former High Court judge, she is probably right; opinions probably do not come greater when it comes to this thing. She said that she was having nothing to do with that and historical cases would have to be looked at. That was a clear recommendation to the independent ICGS group to look at this and incorporate it. As I have said, there is a real and absolute commitment to do that.
I will not go through the progress on the other issues on which Dame Laura makes recommendations, because, as I have said, I think we are getting there, although I know we might not be doing so with the speed that some in this House would like or to their satisfaction. I think we will get there, and I believe that within a short period we will get to the point where we will have implemented all the recommendations made by Dame Laura.
There is one feature I do not think we have made enough progress on, and I continually come back to this. I am referring to the culture of this place and how this House operates, how it appears, how it feels and what it expresses about dynamic power relationships and arrangements. We have to do more work on this. Banning alcohol in the Members’ Tea Room and in the cafeteria was to be it—that is utterly ridiculous. We are talking about one small bottle or glassful of wine, but a ban was seen as attacking the culture in this place. I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, but it is almost laughable that that was the only positive and concrete proposal that was implemented. That is just nonsense.
We have to look more at how this place does things, and we have a blueprint for that in Sarah Childs’ guide, “The Good Parliament”. If Members have not read it, I ask them to please have a look at it, because it suggests a number of things we could do, even down to how we light the place and how we arrange and put together meeting spaces. This place practically oozes patriarchy out of its statues, paintings and walls. The new types of arrangements that we need to put in place to become the modern Parliament that we need to be are almost impossible to design because of the way we arrange this place and the way the House is structured.
I have suggested a number of proposals. The way we address each other in this place is ridiculous. I cannot call people by their first name. In how many other places in the world can people not do that? I was born with a name and I am quite happy for people to use it. I have to wear a tie in this place and be dressed in a suit like this. The Speaker of the House is responsible for dressing me. The last person to have been responsible for dressing me to go out was my mum, yet we allow the Speaker to define a dress code for male Members of Parliament. It is utterly ridiculous. I know that the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington would tell me to dispense with the tie, because he is an example of doing that, but how long did that change take? We have all these weird things and gentlemen of this House are expected to dress in a particular way that serves no purpose whatsoever, other than to try to suggest a sort of authority.
The hon. Gentleman has just noticed that the tie was perhaps not a good example to go for, but I encourage him and his colleagues, who have been assiduous in pushing the idea that the new temporary Chamber that is to be established in Richmond House should be used to test some of the different arrangements in this Chamber that he and I would like to see.
The tie example was a bad one, even though that change took a long time, as I said. The right hon. Gentleman is a proud exponent of the non-tie arrangements and decorum of this place. I do support the idea that there are things we could do. If we are to move out of this place, why are we moving to a temporary place that does exactly the same things and looks, feels and appears to be the same place? Why not try to do something different? I know the right hon. Gentleman has been paying attention to my clear and detailed agenda to replace the current Speaker. The proposals I have put forward include things such as electronic voting. Let us try to bring this place into the 21st century—
As the right hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position, my proposals relate to the Cox recommendations. Can we please do more to look at how we do business in the House, how this place feels and how it looks to people who come into the House? For goodness’ sake, we still have a place down the corridor called the Lords. The forelock tugging and cap doffing goes on, and there are still people called Lords and Ladies. What does that say to the people who come to this place from throughout the country? That somehow these are our betters—these are people who are titled, and they run the country.
Earlier in his remarks, the hon. Gentleman alluded to the fact that he is a member of the House of Commons Commission. It will be noticeable to people listening to the debate that the two individuals who are members of the Commission are far more positive about the progress that has been made on Cox than the rest of us are. Will the hon. Gentleman remind me and other Members who put him in his position on the House of Commons Commission? It would be helpful for the House to be aware of that.
Ah, that is a very good point, and I will answer it fully and comprehensively. I do not know who said it, but of course people should be elected to the House of Commons Commission, and that is what we should do for everybody in the management of the House.
I would go further than that, because a key feature of the ICGS was the fact that staff members and trade union representatives were involved—representatives of the general staff of the House—and they did two important things. First, they gave a voice to the members of staff who work in all parts of the House. They made probably the most useful and positive contributions throughout that whole experience. Secondly, they had a restraining effect on the Members of Parliament who served on the group. We were somehow better behaved because members of staff were part of the group, and it did not feel like a bunch of MPs getting together and shouting at each other in the most appalling and useless way.
I make this appeal: as well as reforming the Commission to include elections for Members of Parliament, we should also have staff members on it. The Commission is responsible for the management of the House, and therefore it should include people from the whole House community. As I look around the House, I do not see a great deal of agreement on that point, but I hope that Members of Parliament might actually give the idea some thought. Let us run the House in a way that represents the people who work in this place. I think that is a reasonable suggestion.
We will have a debate about the future of the Commission, and I look forward to being part of it. I say to the right hon. Member for Basingstoke that, unfortunately, I cannot be held responsible for any earlier decisions—I have not been to a meeting yet. I am looking forward to going to my first one on
I am all for reforming the House of Commons Commission. It would be good to have a positive debate about the type of management structure that we want in this House. Perhaps it would be an idea to include the Backbench Business Committee in this, as it seems to be getting all the business just now. Ian Mearns might as well be the Leader of the House rather than Mel Stride, given that he practically determines and dictates everything that is going on, including this debate. Perhaps it would be useful to encourage him to hold a debate on the House of Commons Commission. We would be able to hear the range of opinions about how we can make this House a more effective, democratic and useful type of organisation. One thing that we have to conclude is that this organisation has issues and difficulties. Is the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire the man to fix them? Probably not. We need everybody in the House to be involved and engaged in that debate, and I hope that we have it.
Finally, there is the ownership issue. This is a very important issue, and it might get to the heart of some of the frustrations and difficulties that Members have expressed throughout the course of this debate. It is about who owns what when it comes to the plethora of initiatives—I say plethora because, in my view, we have too many things going on. I have been a member of the ICGS group, so I am familiar with that work and I know what we are doing in that regard. I also have a good sense about the direction that we should take and the type of service that we should deliver. Obviously I know Dame Laura’s report, because I have read it and attended these debates on it, but then there is also Gemma White’s review. Another review is also going on in the House of Lords. We have four initiatives, which seem to be happening simultaneously with different terms of reference. Although most of them seem to be working quite collegially with each other, we are creating confusion and difficulties. We need to look at how we can bring these initiatives together under one work stream, which will make it sensible not just for Members of Parliament but for people across the House.
If there is something that we can take away from today, it is how we can start to combine these initiatives. Then we must decide who owns this. It looks as though it will be the Commission—I accept my responsibilities and obligations when it comes to that—but perhaps the Commission is not the best place to look at the ownership of all this. This is just a thought—it is not a thought-out suggestion or proposal—but perhaps we should be looking at some sort of Select Committee, some sort of new elected authority, that would have ownership over these initiatives and be charged by the House to look specifically at these issues. I think this is important enough for us to do that. I know that the right hon. Member for Basingstoke chairs the Women and Equalities Committee, but perhaps we need something beyond that, which could possibly include our friends from that high and mighty place to which we always have to pay due deference—that is if they deign to be part of something with us humble directly elected Members. I put that forward as a suggestion. I will think more about it and see whether I can come back with a firmed up proposal.
I say to colleagues throughout the House that they should not despair. We have come a long way. We need to do more to reactivate interest from colleagues across the House, and the mandatory training will help to do that once people are asked to do something that is perhaps part of a more general package. Steady progress is being made. I do not share the great sense of disappointment that the right hon. Lady and others have expressed about whether we are getting there, because I am confident that we are.
It has been an absolute pleasure, privilege and humbling experience to have been involved in the conversations and debates on this issue. [Interruption.] I see that Andrea Leadsom has returned to the Chamber; I did pay tribute to her for her leadership in all this. I think we all bear the scars of the past year and a half when it comes to these matters, but it has been an excellent experience to work with others across the House, including the shadow Leader of the House. We are getting there. I would appeal for just a little bit more patience, because the most important thing is that we get it right.
Order. The hon. Lady cannot do that. This is not fair because I am now obliged to call her to order, so Pete Wishart will call me old-fashioned, which I am not—just because I approve of the tie he is wearing, on behalf of his mother.
I apologise to Mrs Miller. I was a bit late trundling over from Norman Shaw South, and the preceding statutory instruments finished quicker than I had anticipated. I thank the right hon. Lady and my hon. Friend Jess Phillips for applying for this debate, and the Backbench Business Committee—chaired by my hon. Friend Ian Mearns—for granting it and finding time for it. I also thank the new Leader of the House. He has just got the job and has been thrown in at the deep end, having to respond to something that has been going on for quite a while. However, he is very welcome and I have appreciated all the discussions we have had so far.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke wondered about who makes appointments to the Commission. As she will know, Tom Brake replies to questions; time is made available for him to be held accountable for what the Commission does in the House.
I was just coming to who appoints us to the Commission, so maybe I can answer my hon. Friend’s question. As a member of the shadow Cabinet, I am appointed by the Leader of the Opposition; the Leader of the House is in the Cabinet, so he is appointed by the Prime Minister. We serve on the Commission because the Commission is responsible for the House staff, and this is related to the business of the House.
I think that the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington was appointed before I was. It was appropriate to have him as the voice of the Commission because he is not a Member of a main party. Obviously, there is a staff to support him and, no, he is not paid. I hope that clarifies the situation. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley has a lot of power, as she is a deputy editor of The House magazine. I do not know whether or not she was elected to her post. Anyway, I look forward to being in the magazine because I have not been in it for a while.
To complete the clarification of my role, there have in the past been requests to hold an election among the Liberal Democrats for this post. When a party has a relatively small number of MPs, the competition for the posts that are available is not usually very extensive, and therefore the probability of an election is quite restricted. If two Liberal Democrats had wanted to perform this role, there could have been an election that Members of the House could take part in, but there was no competition.
The Commission appointed Dame Laura Cox to do the report as a result of the “Newsnight” allegations. Because it was very clear that the Commission did not want to be involved as elected members—as you will recall, Madam Deputy Speaker—we tasked the non-execs, Dame Janet Gaymer and Jane McCall, to draw up the terms of reference for the report and to find someone of the stature of Dame Laura Cox who was willing to produce it. It was a completely independent process both in terms of the report and picking the person—it was not interfered with at all by the Commission.
Dame Laura Cox published her report on
The Clerk of the House then worked with members of staff to ensure that the recommendations were put in place. Dame Laura did not say in her report how she wanted the various strands set up—that had to be done from scratch. It was down to the Clerk and the staff he worked with to work on how the three recommendations would be implemented. The House of Commons debated the report in the Chamber on
We all take this seriously and we all take responsibility for it. Every Commission meeting—the minutes are available on the parliamentary intranet—has been dominated by the deliberations that we have had on this. We appreciate that these are complex matters. Progress has at times been slower than we would wish, but I consider that we are now making good progress. It could be faster, and we will monitor that.
The first recommendation was that the valuing others policy and the revised respect policy should both be abandoned as soon as possible. That decision was taken immediately and they were suspended immediately.
The second recommendation was that the new independent complaints and grievance scheme be amended to ensure that House employees with complaints involving non-recent allegations can access the new scheme. That is because the Commission had made the clear recommendation that, for simplicity and consistency, recent and non-recent cases should have exactly the same process. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley made that point. We were advised by Speaker’s Counsel, the Commissioner for Standards and the trade union side. The public consultation closed last Friday. The responses will be reviewed, and there is an excellent prospect that this will be in place very soon. Dame Laura Cox said that she wished that we had waited until the publication of her report before the ICGS was in place because she had some recommendations to make about that. She felt that it was important that everything should be taken together.
The third recommendation was that steps should be taken, in consultation with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and others, to consider the most effective way to ensure that the process for determining complaints of bullying, harassment or sexual harassment brought by House staff against Members of Parliament will be an entirely independent process in which Members of Parliament play no part.
In paragraph 379 of Dame Laura’s report, she said that there was a
“general reluctance of Members to judge the misconduct of other Members, or even to assist in the investigations”.
The Commission considered how to take that forward, and the previous Clerk, David Natzler, came up with a form of consultation that included Members. Her Majesty’s Opposition agreed which of our Members would serve on that group. A general agreement was required among all parties through the usual channels that the people on that group should, as we say in equity, have clean hands —they should have no involvement whatsoever with the Commissioner for Standards or the Committee on Standards or any other involvement; that was the sticking point.
As a result, on
The group that will take forward the third recommendation will talk to the union side, lay members of the Committee on Standards, party whips, Dame Laura Cox and the Chairs of the Select Committees on Standards and on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, as well as the Chairs of the Women and Equalities, Liaison and Procedure Committees. There will be a wide view, and a wide consultation. I know Members feel that the Commission or individuals have to drive things forward, but it is important to consult staff, Members and anyone who wants to make a contribution, so we should widen it out and hear those voices. Consultations do not take place quickly. People have to be given time to be consulted, but there is a way to push things forward.
The options will be presented to the Commission, then a consultation will be opened. The House authorities were quick to appoint Julie Harding, who took up her post as Independent Director for Cultural Transformation on
Steps have been taken to change the culture. The House Service launched a new diversity and inclusion strategy on
Sarah Davies, our new Clerk Assistant, is also now Managing Director of the Chamber and Committees Team. It has adopted standards of service for all Select Committees, ensuring that all Select Committee members know what they can and cannot expect from staff. A staff member now sits on the Strategic Estates Team board, ensuring that staff issues are heard at the highest level. The Commons Executive Board—the board just below the Commission that manages the House—has undertaken a 360 degree feedback exercise and coaching from Julie Harding on behaviour as part of its broader commitment to cultural change.
The ICGS is supported by two helplines—the independent bullying and harassment helpline and the Independent Sexual Misconduct Advisory Service—and all their details are published on Parliament’s website. The most recent figures show that, between
As has been reported, Alison Stanley was absolutely remarkable in the way she conducted her six-month review, which was very important for us to have. That review was put in place, and there is also an 18-month review of the processes. We need to have these reviews because we must constantly monitor and improve our processes. The Commons Executive Board and the Commission will consider the review.
Dame Laura highlighted the gendered and racist dimension to bullying and harassment. Paragraph 123 states:
“Some areas of the House were described as having a particularly bad reputation for sexist or racist attitudes”.
Of the 200 people who came forward to give information to the inquiry, the majority—nearly 70%—were women. We know there will be other reports that will steer future decisions and change. We are awaiting the report from Gemma White QC, who I am sure will make further recommendations, and it is right that the House has time to debate them.
I have only two minor asks of the new Leader of the House, who I know has a very big in-tray. May we have a debate on the forthcoming report and Alison Stanley’s recent six-month review before the House rises? During the debate on the Cox report on
“to ensure the allocation of proper resources and extra staff to make this work”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 648, c. 1287.]
Will the Leader of the House say whether further resources will be available for the further recommendations of the Cox report and the other important reports?
Every time we talk about delay, we must remember that, down below, staff have been working incredibly hard. In the last eight months, they have made some major moves forward, and we should always remember that. I know that when we first set up the review of the ICGS, staff were actually doing other jobs as well as doing the job of ensuring that we came to our proper conclusions. I particularly want to thank everybody who has worked on producing those reports and those—whether House staff or in the special unit—who are continuing to do that work. I also thank Dame Laura Cox for her report, and Alison Stanley.
Everyone who works here, in whatever capacity, knows that they play a vital role in ensuring that our Parliament and our democracy thrive. It is essential that everyone who works in a modern Parliament knows the boundaries of acceptable behaviour in a safe and secure workplace. Her Majesty’s Opposition’s position is very clear: we will work with the Leader of the House and the House of Commons Commissions to push forward all the key recommendations in full.
I congratulate those who brought forward this afternoon’s debate, most particularly my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller—I thank her for sitting down with me, prior to this debate, to talk through some of her thoughts on the very important issues that she has presented this afternoon—and of course Jess Phillips. I thank all the speakers who have contributed in such detail and such thoughtful ways on an issue that I know is of great importance to everybody right across the House.
We are privileged to work and legislate in the cradle of our great country’s democracy. As a legislature, we expect the very highest standards among all organisations in our lands—among all businesses, public organisations and so on. So if there is any one place where we should set the standard, it is here, and that standard should be a culture of respect and dignity.
At a time when the country is so divided and there is so much anger—we have heard from one or two contributors this afternoon about what is going on online—it is doubly important that we set the bar as high as we can, particularly when it comes to our own. All those who work in the Palace of Westminster, whether they report to line managers as part of the House staff or report to Members of Parliament, and all those who are visitors to this place, should experience the very best when it comes to a culture of dignity and respect.
I have a very small request. I was in the Scottish Parliament the other week. In the toilets, they have posters that give contact details to report behaviour if someone feels that they have not been treated with dignity and respect. Could something like that happen in this building, and could it happen quickly?
I will certainly take that specific point away, although I do know that the behaviour code has been distributed widely across the estate. I will take the representation seriously and will come back to the hon. Lady on that specific point.
I pay tribute, as many have, to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom, who has been right at the heart of much of the progress that has been made. There has been a debate this afternoon about whether that progress has been too fast or too slow, but progress has been made. It is fair to say that, wherever we are today—satisfactory or otherwise—if it were not for her we would be a long way behind where we are.
In a sense, that is not surprising. As many Members have pointed out, we all operate in a historic, rather stratified environment, steeped in traditions, which tend to change extremely slowly. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley referred to us being the masters of other people’s destiny and she makes an important point. She speaks an important truth. There are inevitably power dynamics in a place such as this.
There are many different strands of employment. There is the employee who works within the House administration, and there may be various sub-divisions within that, and there are those who work for Members of Parliament. There is also the fact that this is a very public place and that those who come forward and make complaints about how they are treated may expect that that will end up in the press and might identify them publicly. Those are additional stresses and complications with which this place has to grapple.
In that context, while we have not moved fast enough and I accept that, we should not overlook the progress that we have made. We have a code for ourselves and for the other place. We have a process that affords anonymity to those who need to come forward, with sometimes extremely serious concerns, and that has also been rolled out not just across this place but across the other place. That has been achieved through cross-party, cross-House work. I thank my opposite number, Valerie Vaz, for coming to see me and sharing with me a lot of her valid and important insights into the current situation. I will come on to the House of Commons Commission in a moment.
What today’s debate shows is that we still need to do more. That is what the Cox report tells us. Of course, it is not just Cox. Understandably, Members have strayed beyond the terms of the debate this afternoon. My hon. Friend Vicky Ford talked particularly about online abuse. As Leader of the House, I feel particularly strongly about that. I raised it in my opening remarks in my first outing at business questions, and it is an area that I intend to lean in on quite hard. Of course this is an element that affects women in particular, sometimes in the most wicked and appalling way, but actually it affects all of us, too. As a father, I can tell Members that to have one of your children come home in floods of tears because they have been told things in the playground about you that may be entirely false, makes one, whether you are a man or a woman, feel pretty miserable. So I take that extremely seriously and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for choosing to raise it.
I pay tribute to Dame Laura Cox for a very thorough and detailed report, which came up with some very important recommendations. We must not forget the background to the report, which came about when my predecessor pushed for an inquiry around the allegations in March 2018 of extensive bullying and harassment in this place. We must not lose sight of where we have come from. There are some very, very serious allegations that relate to Parliament, both this House and the other place.
I want to touch on the issue of where responsibility lies for how we move forward. The question posed by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire was: who owns the scheme? That is a good way of phrasing this particular conundrum. There is the sense that there is something we are trying to grasp here, but we are not quite sure who owns it or where the responsibility lies. Clearly, the House of Commons Commission is responsible for House administration and, in a sense, is therefore responsible for the Cox recommendations, but ultimately it is for us—not on a party basis, but as individuals Members—to push matters forward. Neither I as the Leader nor my opposite number the shadow Leader speaks directly for the Commission. That is why I was so pleased that Tom Brake was able to join us today as the official spokesperson for the House of Commons Commission.
To get to the heart of the accountability issue, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke termed it an accountability deficit. She in particular and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire raised the issue of the Commission and directly the way in which it works; whether it is representative enough; whether it should have members who are elected; whether it is transparent enough; whether, when the chair is not able to attend the meeting, the meeting should be postponed or chaired by somebody else; whether the minutes should be circulated more quickly; and whether there is an overall sense that the Commission is sufficiently functional for the challenges it faces. In that context, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke called for a series of motions on the Floor of the House on the delivery of Cox to address issues around the Commission, including the role of the Speaker in the Commission. Pete Wishart suggested that it might be replaced by a Select Committee and run on those lines.
My message this afternoon is that I do not think anything should be off the table. I am not saying that we should necessarily jump instantly to conclusions and start to shake everything up, but we should be prepared to look at everything carefully and in the round. I say that as someone, like the hon. Gentleman, who has not yet attended a Commission meeting. I look forward to attending my first meeting on Monday
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that I raised an idea put forward by the lay people on the Commission that we should as a Commission go away—I dare not call it an away-day because of the connotations of everyone wearing a patterned jumper for that purpose. Would he support that sort of set-up, where we go away, look at how the Commission is operating now, and come up with some suggestions and recommendations for how it can operate differently?
I would certainly be prepared to consider that, but let me consult and discuss it with others. In answering that intervention, may I also thank the right hon. Gentleman for spending time with me in my early days as the Leader of the House and for sharing that thought amongst others with me on that occasion?
I will turn now to the three main recommendations of Cox. The first, as we have heard, was too terminate the Valuing Others and Respect policies, and that was, as many have pointed out, done relatively swiftly. It is fair to say, however, that of the three challenges set by Cox that was by far the easiest. It is much easier to abolish a policy than to bring something in from scratch. None the less, it should be recognised that that has been done.
The second recommendation was about ensuring that historical complaints could access the scheme. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke raised the issue of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and her view that the current scheme is discriminating against older employees. She also raised the view that the House may in that sense be in breach of the public sector equality duty under section 149 of the Equality Act. That, plus the legal advice that had to be taken when the scheme was being considered in terms of what scheme should replace it and ensuring that the new scheme would itself not be open to legal challenge for being unfair and unreasonable, in contradiction of other statute, is one reason these things sometimes take a bit of time, to echo perhaps the sentiments of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire.
That is not to say that, because something is complicated and takes a bit of time, it should drag on forever—that is certainly not the case—but, in pressing for things to move forward quickly, it is still important to get things right in terms of our approach. We now have a new proposal that was agreed by the Commission in February. It has been consulted on—the consultation finished on the 14th of this month—and it will be on the agenda, I believe, for the meeting on
The third recommendation of the Cox report recognised the importance of limiting Member involvement at the point that any cases reach the Standards Committee. That is an important point because throughout the rest of the ICGS system this particular matter does not come into play. There will have been important decisions or considerations about the fact that we are elected representatives, and constitutional issues will also have had to be taken into account. I am pleased that, in the past week or so, agreement has been reached to move forward with a taskforce that will, as the hon. Member for Walsall South eloquently set out, liaise with the Chairs of the various Committees she listed, and which I will not relist, to ensure we move that on with a view to reporting as soon as possible—certainly, I would hope, no later than the autumn.
This has been a crucial debate. Right at the start the Cox report, there is a quote from a member of staff who in essence says that this is an institution worth fighting for, but that a seismic shift is needed. That encapsulates everything in a nutshell. We have made progress to date, but this is a beginning, not an end. There is a journey to be continued. The House has my personal commitment, although I am but one member of the House of Commons Commission, to work collaboratively right across the House. My door is open. To those who have contributed in the debate today, I say: please come and see me. Let’s talk everything through. Let’s gather everything up together and do what we can collectively to make progress.
The motion is crystal clear. It says we have to push forward the implementation of all three recommendations in the Cox report “without delay”— perhaps I should have used the word “forthwith”, which is a bit more parliamentary. Not one hon. Member who is not a member of the House of Commons Commission has spoken against this motion. That sends a loud message to the House of Commons Commission, including those right hon. and hon. Members here today, that they must bring forward policies and procedures to ensure that non-recent allegations are dealt with now and that independent processes, as described by Cox, are put in place. I have recommended that there should be motions on the Order Paper to ensure that progress is made. If others do not table them, I will seek support from the Backbench Business Committee to do so, because this is important. We cannot continually push things into the long grass because it is convenient for others to do so. We have to act.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
welcomes the publication of, and recommendations in, the Dame Laura Cox report on bullying and harassment in Parliament;
welcomes the implementation of the recommendation to abandon the Valuing Others and Respect policies;
expresses concern about damage caused to the reputation and standing of this House by the lack of progress made on other recommendations on historical allegations and the non-involvement of MPs in Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme cases;
and calls on the Leader of the House and the House of Commons Commission to push forward the implementation of all three key recommendations in full without delay.