Bullying and Harassment of MPS’ Parliamentary Staff

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:48 pm on 17th July 2019.

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Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady SNP Chief Whip 3:48 pm, 17th July 2019

The hon. Gentleman is touching on an important issue—these little grey areas where relationships can become very close, because of the intense environment, and we ask for things that perhaps we would ask a friend to do, but not necessarily a paid member of staff. It is important that boundaries are established, and some of this is covered in that Valuing Everyone training. I will say a little more about that later, but I cannot recommend that training highly enough. The former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire, will be pleased to hear that a significant number of the Scottish National party group took part in that training last Thursday, coincidentally just as this report was being published, and everybody came away with things to think about and having found it a very worthwhile experience.

As well as the Valuing Everyone training on respect, dignity and understanding boundaries, there is definitely a need for further training on employment best practice. It is worth thinking about when and how some of that training takes place. There is a role for the political parties to play here, even at the candidate selection stage. Doing what we are doing now, sitting on the Green Benches and standing to make speeches is the most visible part of the job, but it is a tiny part of what is involved in the work of a Member of Parliament. People putting themselves forward for election—and I count myself in this—do not necessarily realise everything that comes with the elected responsibility. So at the selection stage prospective candidates have to be fully aware of the responsibilities they will be taking on as employers and the standards that they will be expected to adhere to. There is also perhaps a more formal role for returning officers to play during that nomination stage or shortly after the election. Then, as the hon. Member for Rhondda said, very early in the MP induction process the advice and support on being an effective employer must be available.

That is why the proposal on a fully resourced human resources department is crucial to all of this, and we warmly welcome it. The system would probably be better sitting under the auspices of the House or the Commission. If it was to be somehow independent, it should be clearly so, even if staff continue to be funded through the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. This is not what IPSA has been set up for and I do not think it is fair to IPSA, let alone to the people who would have to live with the consequences of it.

A new-form HR department also leads on to the recommendation that MPs be required to adopt and follow employment practices and procedures aligned to best practice found in the public sector and elsewhere. We also fully support the recommendation that former members of staff be allowed to access the independent complaints and grievance scheme, and will support the motion to implement that following this debate.

As I said, underlying any structural and procedural changes that are put in place must be a wider cultural change. Politics and political considerations should never be allowed to take precedence over principles of dignity and respect. That means that Members of Parliament and staff must be active in calling out and working to eradicate unacceptable behaviour. It comes through in the training that I mentioned that as Members we all have a duty to recognise our privilege and power and not abuse it. When complaints are made, staff and MPs should be properly supported. Nothing should discourage staff members from coming forward through the proper channels if they have concerns about their own experiences or those of others. We must work towards creating an environment in which everyone feels empowered to speak out if they feel they are being affected by bullying or harassment, and in which everyone in the parliamentary community feels that they work in a safe, comfortable and professional environment, supported by a robust system of human resources and a complaints and grievance procedure.

It was not strictly part of the remit of either Gemma White or Laura Cox, but perhaps we need to look a bit deeper into where some of these practices and behaviours have come from and how they are perpetuated. We work in a building that was designed to promote power and hierarchy—to establish a culture of “them and us”. In previous debates, we have heard new Members of Parliament speak of how on their election they felt intimidated by signs on toilets and tea rooms that say “Members only”. That was certainly my experience back in 2015, and it sometimes still is today. Quite why a staircase or a toilet is only for the use of Members of Parliament is somewhat beyond me. I know that moves are afoot to drive some change in that regard.

Once upon a time, I worked as a researcher in the Scottish Parliament. Although by no means was everything perfect there, there was an openness and transparency that undoubtedly shaped a different culture of tolerance and respect. In Portcullis House and on the Terrace, we still have tables that are clearly marked as for Members only. As Jamie Stone will know, in the Scottish Parliament canteen one will see Cabinet Secretaries sitting down next to the team from the mail room and special advisers sitting next to the cleaning staff. There is no sense of deference and no sense of particular entitlement based on obscure notions of seniority or grading.