It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate today, following the publication of Gemma White QC’s report last week. I would first like to pay tribute to her for the incredibly detailed independent inquiry that she led. Her report into the historical allegations of bullying and harassment of MPs’ staff adds greatly to the work done by the independent complaints and grievance scheme working group and will drive much-needed further reforms in the way we treat and value all those who work for and support us in our roles as MPs.
I also want to acknowledge all the current and former staff members who contributed their experiences to the inquiry and helped to expose behaviours that have clearly gone on in this place for far too long.
I met Gemma White during my time as Leader of the House and found her to be both knowledgeable and determinedly constructive in supporting Parliament’s desire to modernise our practices. Her report highlights the need for everyone working in or visiting Parliament to be treated with dignity and respect, but she also highlighted some truly unacceptable employment practices. I was appalled, as I am sure were colleagues from both sides of the House, to read some of the comments from staff. As part of my work in chairing the ICGS working group, I heard some pretty harrowing testimony from several individuals, and I want to pay tribute to them for their bravery in coming forward to speak with the group. It is clear that we in Parliament must bring about long-lasting and positive institutional change without delay, and that change must come from the very top. Only then can we truly restore confidence in how Parliament works.
The report acknowledges that the ICGS provides MPs’ staff for the first time with a mechanism for having complaints of bullying and harassment independently investigated. Feedback from some of the first complainants is that turnaround times under the new procedure can be too slow. My first observation is that the scheme is still developing, so it is important that we allow it time to become fully embedded into the fabric of Westminster. The staff working for the scheme are all fully committed to continuous improvements in its processes. Secondly, I am glad that the White report agrees that employment relationships should continue to sit with individual MPs, and I fully agree with the recommendation for a centralised human resources function for MPs’ staff.
However, the question of where the responsibility for a new HR function would lie must be considered further, although the two obvious candidates would be either IPSA or the House authorities themselves. The former—I am sorry to say—currently suffers from fairly widespread feedback from Members’ staff about a lack of confidence in its practices and hence in its ability to be the supportive voice that staff members need. The other alternative provider of HR for staff would be the House authorities themselves. During the working group, they raised concerns about taking on an HR role for themselves, because that could create an unhelpful secondary employment relationship, but it would be worthwhile looking again at whether that could be the best way forward.
A key aspect of the White report is that many current staff still feel uncomfortable making complaints, and to assure them the working group must focus specifically on ensuring that, as far as possible, an individual’s career will not be affected in any way if they come forward with a complaint. That is why the ICGS carries out any investigation in strict confidence. I urge anyone with a grievance or a complaint to be encouraged to come forward via the helplines that have been widely advertised around the estate.
As part of the scope of the working group, it was recommended that a wide range of training should be available to MPs and their staff. The White report recommends making some of that training mandatory in order to bring about institutional behavioural change, and I totally agree. All MPs and all staff working for MPs should now be required to undertake at least the Valuing Everyone training that was implemented as part of the ICGS. I call on each of the Whips Offices to ensure that their MPs have completed their training within six months of the report’s publication.