I thank the right hon. Lady for that point. I find it incredible that we are still in that place. I cannot imagine that the contracts of employment of those staff do not make it explicitly clear that bullying and harassment are considered gross misconduct. A quiet word following an allegation of gross misconduct is not good enough, and it deters people from making valid complaints in future. That really has to change.
Even if we get to a truly independent process, we still need to think about why staff feel inhibited in making a complaint against their employer. The employer might have to write them a reference, or they might still share an office. Until recently, staff could not pursue a complaint at all if they left Parliament. I think that will change with the motion on the independent complaints and grievance scheme, but it was a ridiculous distinction to make—it would not be allowed in any other workplace—because a lot of people, for valid reasons, will not make a complaint until they have left their employment.
I am pleased that we will finally have a chance to extend the independent complaints and grievance scheme to cover non-recent cases of bullying and harassment. I do not know why we need to wait for the autumn, as has already been mentioned, and we have to be clear that this is not the final point on our journey but is a step towards it.
From what Gemma White has said, it is clear to me that, without effective sanctions and a truly independent complaints panel, we will not have true justice. It is bizarre that we can talk about extending the scheme, when the report basically says that staff do not have confidence because of the lack of independence and the lack of sanctions. That problem will not be rectified when we pass the motion on the independent complaints and grievance scheme, and we need to address it as a matter of urgency.
Ultimately, this comes down to the power imbalance between MPs and staff, the high demand for jobs in politics and the reliance on patronage in our political system, which means that the risk of abuse of power is all too great. We have 650 individual offices, which together employ more than 3,200 staff. Any other public sector organisation of that size would have a body that allows some degree of independent oversight of its employment practices, whether it be the use of probation periods, appraisals, performance management or training.
As an absolute minimum, we need basic policies and procedures to drag our worst offenders into the 21st century, and it cannot be ignored that probation periods and performance management were repeatedly raised by contributors to the report. Those of us who already recognise employment practices in a fair and reasonable manner use them to support and develop our staff, but they can be used as a stick to prevent people from making complaints—those are the tactics of a bullying employer. So I welcome the Commission’s statement that it will begin consulting immediately to see what implementation issues there will be in the creation of a new HR department, because it is clear that we need to give much more support to Members and staff in developing and implementing policies in a fair and reasonable manner. That we do not already do this in 2019 is shocking to the outside world, so we have to get on with it as soon as possible.
Having spoken to staff, I know that they are keen to see that department set up, because, as Gemma White recommends, it would also support staff welfare. We hope it would also introduce initiatives such as a buddy system for new staff, to reduce isolation, and peer mentoring for staff who need extra support. Many staff do this in an informal way already, but others are struggling behind closed doors and are not calling for help but actually need it.
There is a role for IPSA or a similar independent body in respect of the introduction of both a leavers survey and a way to collect data to monitor MPs’ employment records, which would help to identify trends or specific pockets of concern in individual offices. That is important, because there must be nowhere for bullies to hide. Only through introducing transparent systems and independent scrutiny will we be able to end the impunity that currently exists in some quarters to hire and fire at will. Let us imagine it became public knowledge that a Member had gone through a dozen or more staff in a couple of years—questions would rightly be asked about what was going on there. So although I also welcome the Commission’s announcement that it will consult on how to collate this data and use it to improve employment practices, I again urge it to do that with the utmost expediency.
Finally, I come to an issue that I have spoken about before and that Maria Caulfield spoke about at length. Many MPs enter Parliament with little or no management training or experience, but that cannot be used as an excuse. If we know MPs lack that training, we should be providing it, to make sure that no one falls behind. Even with my experience in the law, I would still have welcomed a Members’ staff handbook, with correct procedures and policies in place, and I was shocked to find that there was little support here when I was starting out as a new MP, having to hire staff, set up offices and so on. Clearly, with such a low take-up so far of the Valuing Everyone training, voluntary training is not the answer. I see no reason why that training should not be mandatory for all current Members and their staff, and it should be completed within a short timeframe. It is up to us as Parliament to set the standards not just for this place, but for the rest of the country. We cannot lecture others on the way they treat their staff if we cannot get our own house in order. We must be an example of the best practice, not the worst. That starts with getting our house in order, and getting true independence in our procedures and meaningful sanctions for those who transgress.