In the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament (HC (2017–19) 1882):
(1) in paragraph 19, at end add “and for the Independent Expert Panel acting in accordance with Standing Order (Independent Expert Panel) in relation to the determination of cases under the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme.”.
(2) in paragraph 21; at end add “Failure to comply with a sanction imposed by a sub-panel of the Independent Expert Panel shall be treated as a breach of the Code.”.
Motion 6—Matters Raised on Motions Consequent on the ICGS—
That, subject to the discretion of the Chair, the House shall apply the following rules in proceedings on matters raised by the Independent Expert Panel or its sub-panels:
(a) The name of any complainant may not be referred to in any motion, debate or question.
(b) Details of any investigation or specific matters considered by a sub-panel of the Independent Expert Panel shall not be referred to in any motion, debate or question.
(c) The findings and determination of sanctions of a sub-panel of the Independent Expert Panel may not be called into question.
This is a dreadful position for us to be in as a House. The behaviour of a small number of Members of Parliament over years and decades has disgraced and shamed our parliamentary democracy, of which I, and many hon. Members, are so proud. Our ancient right that we should look after our own affairs is to be sacrificed, because the importance of restoring the trust of the British people in our system makes that the right thing to do. How we treat each other matters at all times in all places, but particularly in Parliament. It matters wherever people work together, for everyone should be able to perform their roles in an atmosphere of courtesy and respect, and it most certainly matters in the Palace of Westminster.
There are about 13,000 passholders with access to the parliamentary estate. In recent years, we have been trying hard to create the kind of culture that prioritises having a safe working place where people are afforded respect and which enables them to speak out and be confident that they will be listened to. My predecessors, particularly my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom, made an enormous contribution to that effort by achieving cross-party agreement for the establishment of an Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme. That we had to do so is an indication of how far some in this institution had failed and had not lived up to the standards required of them.
The ICGS has already been approached by a large number of people, receiving 201 calls and emails in the first quarter of this year alone from those who feel that they have faced bullying, harassment or sexual harassment. However, there are some complaints that have not yet come forward because of the concerns of the complainants that Members continue to play a role in the sanctions process. This is where we have the greatest challenge in restoring trust: not just between us and voters, but between us and those who work in this place.
The approach I am putting forward today is motivated by supporting those who need to make complaints and allows for the restoration, I hope, of our reputation. Since becoming Leader of the House, I have spoken to a number of complainants and potential complainants about the progress made so far. Every conversation I have had has left me profoundly moved and, in some cases, shocked and appalled by some of the things that have happened to people in this House, some of which seem to me to reach the threshold of criminal activity. This place, which ought to be the epitome of good behaviour, has been besmirched by that. I am therefore determined to do more to continue the momentum for sustained culture change that was begun in the previous Parliament.
I, of all people, cannot pretend that I like abandoning some of the ancient responsibilities and rights of Parliament, but it is our fault that we have to do this and so it is right to change. There is a problem of the power dynamic which can occur wherever those in a position of influence assume that they are able to act without consequences, so it is right that we seek to change the culture in order to challenge that assumption. In Westminster, we have introduced a behavioural code; established the “Valuing Everyone” training; replaced the Respect and Valuing Others policy with the ICGS; and extended the scheme to include historic allegations of some former members of the parliamentary community. The latter two steps were the result of Dame Laura Cox’s recommendations made in her report on the treatment of House staff. Her third recommendation, however, remains outstanding: that Members of Parliament should no longer be able to determine the sanctions imposed.
It is no coincidence that that outstanding recommendation is by some distance the most constitutionally challenging and the most significant, too. Under our current arrangements, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has the power to determine cases and impose sanctions up to a certain level of severity. Until now, more serious cases, including suspension and expulsion from the House, have been for the Committee on Standards to determine. In February, the House of Commons Commission agreed its preferred option of those presented by the staff team on a means of changing that: that there be an independent chair and seven expert panel members, none of whom will be MPs. The panel should be empowered to determine ICGS cases, decide on sanctions, and hear appeals by either party against the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards’ conclusions. That proposal has been the subject of consultation over recent months and Dame Laura Cox herself was among those who supported that approach.
While I am taking steps to strengthen it further, I am supportive of the House of Commons Commission’s proposed solution overall. Placing decisions of this kind in the hands of an independent expert panel is a fundamental break with the past that reflects our continuing efforts to make Parliament a better place to work.
I wholeheartedly welcome the momentum for having a system that is fair and transparent. The Leader of the House referred to the constitutional significance of the creation of this new independent body. Is he aware of an independent body in any part of the UK with such sweeping disciplinary powers over its members that is not justiciable? My concern is that if an accusation is made against Members, they will not have any recourse to a court of law, whereas if an accusation of bullying against a member of House staff or Members’ staff is upheld by the panel, they would have recourse to a court of law or an employment tribunal.
The question of parliamentary privilege applying to the ICGS is one that will have to be determined by a court, and it is not entirely clear whether they would be covered by the article 9 rights. The reason we have to have a final vote in this House is that there is no court outside Parliament that can question the proceedings in Parliament. That is at the heart of the constitutional dilemma that we have been facing. It is also why we are making this fundamental break with the past.
In allowing an independent body to take such action we are making a really important constitutional change. We are doing this—and we are right to do this—because of the way that some Members have behaved, and we have to stop that happening in the future. As Leader of the House, I am ashamed when people come to see me and tell me what they have suffered; I am appalled at the stories they tell me and shocked sometimes that they have not been to the police about them when they are so awful. That is why we have to have this change, which hits at the heart of our constitution. The House knows that I have an admiration and affection for our constitution that does not seek to change it lightly.
Let me come to the panel and the level of member that we expect. The panel’s members must bring significant expertise to the process, and we will expect it to be led by somebody who has a standing equivalent to that of a High Court judge. It must also include knowledge of human resources, employment law, bullying and harassment cases and sexual harassment cases. In a serious case, three of the independent experts would consider the sanction in the light of the report and recommendation of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. A further three would act as an appeal panel if necessary.
In cases considered by the panel that propose sanctions requiring action by the House, the panel would report directly to the House. At that stage, a motion would be moved by a member of the House of Commons Commission to implement the sanction, and it is at this stage where we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, it is constitutionally proper that a decision of this magnitude—the expulsion or suspension of a Member—can only be taken by the House as a whole. It is removing, in effect, albeit temporarily, the democratic representation of tens of thousands of people, and we can only take away that democratic representation by a motion of this House. It does not seem right that a decision that could overturn the result of an election in a constituency could be taken by unelected individuals.
All bullying is horrible and goes against traditional good manners; we all accept that. I hope that the Leader of the House will emphasise the point that he just made: the fundamental difference between Members of Parliament and all other staff members is that we are elected by the people. We are responsible to the people, and the people must have the final say on whether we come here in the first place, when we leave and how we leave. That is very important. However distinguished an independent panel, only the people have the final say.
My right hon. Friend makes a crucial point: we are elected by the people, and we are answerable to them. That is why I support the principle that only the House of Commons holds the authority to make the decision to suspend or expel.
It is of fundamental importance, and I say again that I have had people come to see me who have been treated in a way that makes my skin crawl. You cannot believe that senior people would have behaved to people subordinate to them in such a way in any workplace, let alone in the House of Commons, which ought to be a model of good behaviour. That is why we have to have the counterbalancing bit, but we cannot give MPs an opportunity to delve into the personal details of a case and try it effectively a second time. The other place offers a cautionary tale in this regard.
Having listened carefully to views expressed to me in recent days, I am proposing that we establish a convention that the Commission member moving the motion will do so formally. This means the expectation will be that there will be no detailed debate, while maintaining the constitutional right to debate. In addition, I am asking the House explicitly to restrict what it is permissible to refer to during any further proceedings on severe ICGS cases in the Chamber.
To that end, motion 6, in my name, emulates the sub judice resolution, which the House carefully and successfully observes to avoid prejudicing any current criminal proceedings and which is enforced from the Chair. The motion sets out that the names of any complainants may not be referred to. The details of any investigations or specific matters considered by a sub-panel of the independent experts panel, in any motion, debate or question brought to the House, may not be referred to. Furthermore, the findings and determination of sanctions of a sub-panel may not be brought into question. The motion will ensure that any debate that does occur, which is something of a misnomer in this instance, is merely a short, factual exposition of the process, not the circumstances involved.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I turn to amendment (a), tabled by Chris Bryant , who has been very helpful in this process and in the discussions I have had with him. I understand that some Members remain sceptical about the approach that I have set out and whether it is the right one, and this amendment seeks to remove entirely any possibility for debate in these circumstances. I am not entirely unsympathetic to this view, because our priority is to restore confidence in the ability of the House to achieve the standards that are reasonably expected of us and to ensure that people making complaints, some of whom, as I have said, have been treated in the most appalling way, feel that the system will not add greater pain to that which they have already suffered.
However, it is my view that it would be wrong for the Government to have tabled a motion that denied the House the opportunity to consider a matter of this gravity. It should be for the House, not for Ministers, to decide that they wish to curtail the ability of Members to conduct debate. The House can set its procedures as it wishes, but it would not be constitutionally right for the Executive to seek to limit free speech in this House.
I believe that this curtailment can be avoided and have set out how we can meet our constitutional requirements, while reassuring those wishing to access the ICGS who have not yet done so that they will have their confidential information preserved and protected. But if the House agrees to this amendment, it will willingly and knowingly have taken this approach, and in those circumstances, motion 6 will not be moved.
While the amendments tabled today differ in terms of the means, I think we are all entirely united in the ends, signalling our collective determination to make a break with the past. Above all, this is a matter for the House, which this House must get right to show that we are genuinely committed to change.
The Leader of the House has taken us very deftly through the constitutional and procedural aspects, but there is a further test that I think the House needs to apply: whether the outcome of the decisions that we make will make it more or less likely that the people whom he has met and whose complaints he has heard will have confidence in the system to see it through to a conclusion. I suggest gently that that is why the amendment tabled by Chris Bryant is a sensible one.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I believe that the proposal that the Government have put before the House balances the constitutional needs and the protection of the individual complainants, but I make no criticism of those who have come to a different conclusion. I absolutely share his concern not only that we must ensure that people are not discouraged, but that we must all—in our own way, when we can and when it comes to us—encourage people to use these systems, because they are there to protect people who are vulnerable. That is very important.
The tone of this debate is in the right direction, but I really do have concerns about a bully pulpit being used in this Chamber. Even if people are not named, there will be gossip and innuendo about who is being referred to. I hate to refer to this, Madam Deputy Speaker, but a predecessor of Mr Speaker, in a published book, named Members of this House. If people of position and power do that, what confidence will people have if we still have an open debate in this Chamber, even if people cannot be named?
The hon. Lady makes a very fair point. I think the answer is that not having a debate in this Chamber at the end of the process, subject to very strict rules, does not mean that people may not write books saying things that they should not say or that they may not use other opportunities within parliamentary privilege. It is the question of constraining what can be done within parliamentary privilege that is essential, which is why I believe that something that is controlled and clearly set out in the rules is, on balance, preferable to trying to prevent this House from debating. However, I understand that others come to a different conclusion on what is a serious level of constitutional change because of past behaviour that has besmirched the name of this House and of politics and politicians generally.
Taken together, the provisions have the effect of acting decisively to uphold the spirit of our efforts towards culture change, while respecting the traditions and requirements of our parliamentary democracy. They aim to build the confidence of complainants by ensuring that these matters will be treated with the sensitivity and professionalism that they deserve. We simply have to give people who feel that they have been abused the confidence that they need to come forward. Adopting Dame Laura Cox’s recommendation by establishing the independent panel of experts will help us to do that. I commend the motions to the House.
I thank the Leader of the House for bringing the motions to the House today.
I want to start by thanking all the staff for their work on the independent complaints and grievance scheme, which is a testament to them all and to their hard work: they were working to tight deadlines in addition to their own work.
At the start of the process, it was about serious cases of sexual misconduct; it was then extended to bullying and harassment. We are now at the stage where there is a behaviour code. We have Valuing Others training in place, and I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members have signed up. I am not quite sure what is happening now, with covid—whether the training can be undertaken online or whether it is still going on.
I have mentioned numerous times at the meetings that we also need to have racial awareness training. Now that the Black Lives Matter movement is becoming centre-stage, I think that it should be an important addition to that training. The Leader of the Opposition has instructed everybody from the shadow Cabinet to undertake unconscious bias training. He has given us a deadline to do that, and the same should apply to the House.
Motion 4 confirms our commitment to the ICGS. It is worth hon. Members reading the ICGS annual report, which covers its first year and ends in June 2019. It was undertaken by Lee Bridges, the senior responsible owner. He and his staff have done a fantastic amount of work to ensure that the scheme is in place, and we owe them a great debt. The next report is due in October. Alison Stanley undertook a six-month review, and she has come up with recommendations. It would be helpful if the Leader of the House could set them out in a grid and tell us when Ms Stanley is likely to conduct the 18-month review, which I think is due in June.
I am concerned about the changes to the helplines, because I notice on the intranet that the two helplines have merged. The view when they were set up was that particularly for those who had experienced sexual misconduct, a specialist was required in the first instance so that the first person they spoke to could deal with them and they did not have to tell their story over and over again. I hope that that has not changed.
The other motions deal with setting up the panels, and that is about the end of the process. As the Leader of the House has said, and as we have discussed, the panels should have a level of judicial experience. They will set their own rules and processes, and it is important that transparency applies and everyone knows the rules.
The right hon. Lady and I have spoken about this over the last few months and years. As a lawyer, does she share my concern about the fact that, as she just said, the panel will make its own rules on disclosure of evidence? None of these procedures will be subject to review or oversight by a court of law. Why are MPs being denied recourse to the law in the event that they are subject to a complaint?
The hon. Gentleman and I have had this discussion. The House can, by resolution, decide how it wants to conduct its business, and the House has decided, for the reasons that the Leader of the House has set out, that this is extremely urgent. We are trying to say that if the process is transparent and fair, and if the rules of natural justice apply from the start to the end of the process, there should be confidence in it. Let me explain what that means. Both parties to the dispute should be heard, the hearing should be a fair one and the Human Rights Act should be engaged. The point is that the panel at the end has the expertise to look at that. The Leader of the House is right to say that this is a big moment for the House because it is letting go of a process, but that can be done within our constitutional settlement.
I encourage hon. Members to support the amendment that has been selected, in the name of my hon. Friend Chris Bryant. I understand that on motion 6, the Leader of the House tried to come to a compromise. I thank him for trying to ensure that the name of the complainant and the details and findings of the investigation cannot be called into question, but I do not think that that will give those who use the system confidence that their case will be heard confidentially. I will come on to that.
Max Freedman, the chair of Unite, representing staff of MPs, and Georgine Kester, from the Members’ and Peers’ Staff Association—both have vast experience of dealing with cases and with other people in the community—have said that there should be no debate. They, too, have been at the meetings of the ICGS, and they have had tremendous input over the years. I thank them for their work. I have been, as has the Leader of the House, contacted by a complainant in what I would describe as a completely horrific case. The complainant said:
“I do not want this serious case”—
I will not say what it is, but it is very serious—
“being debated…being named…being called a liar or slandered”.
If complainants feel that that will happen if the report is debated, they will not come forward, because they will be too scared. There cannot and must not be a re-hearing of the case, nor should complainants be identified in any way by association when a report is discussed. This is a confidential process from the start until the end. Having no debate would mean that that confidential process is preserved.
I ask hon. Members to put themselves in the shoes of the complainant: what would they expect of the process? This way, we can give a voice to the voiceless and those voices can be heard. The House has made huge attempts to change the culture, starting with the respect policy. There have been various discussions about how the bars operate and about changing the drinking culture. I hope we will look at unconscious bias and racism and awareness training.
Everyone who works here knows how important our work is for our country. We have seen the House rise to the challenge of a pandemic and make sure that democracy works; I know that the whole parliamentary community will rise to the challenge of working together in mutual respect.
I support the motions tabled by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but I have also added my name to the amendment tabled by Chris Bryant, who is Chair of the Committee on Standards, on which I serve. The amendment would mean that the House would ratify the decisions of the ICGS independent expert panel without debate.
Evidence of the mistreatment of the staff of this House, of right hon. and hon. Members’ staff and even of Members of the House themselves was for far too long managed out of public view to avoid proper scrutiny, meaning that those responsible were never held to account. That is why the ICGS must be as it describes itself: independent. Unless we understand how we MPs have forfeited the trust of victims, we will fail to learn the lessons of our past and fail to honour our obligation to put matters right.
So my hon. Friend thinks it is alright to pass control of who is here from the people—from this House; this House is responsible to the people—to an independent body. He thinks that is okay, does he?
To expel or even just suspend an MP voted in by their electors is a serious matter. It is perfectly sensible for my right hon. Friend to test the opinion of the House on whether the House should debate a decision by the IEP, but the delegation of such decisions has no bearing on our sovereignty, whether we debate the matter or not. By voting for the amendment we will not only demonstrate our commitment to the ICGS. By deliberating and then deciding on these matters, we make sure that there can be no legitimate complaint about there being no debate when at some future date we are asked to approve the IEP decisions.
I do, however, wish to put down a caveat. If the wrong kind of panel is appointed, this delegation of a very serious constitutional responsibility to unelected people will not last. The IEP must inspire the trust and confidence of the House as well as of staff and the public. The legitimacy of such decisions taken by such a panel will be the issue. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, it needs to be chaired by the equivalent of a High Court judge.
I would say that it should be a retired senior judge who chairs this panel, supported by relevant people of similar standing with juridical experience of the assessing and weighing of evidence and of interpreting the meaning of rules. The IEP should itself be sufficiently judicial in character to provide the same assurance as a proper court. Its decisions need to be as unimpeachable as the High Court would be. If this works well, there is much that the Standards Committee might learn from the ICGS about how to improve the House of Commons code of conduct, which we still have under review.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House talked about changing the culture. That is something that the House of Commons code has never really succeeded in doing. What do we mean by culture? We mean changing people’s attitudes and changing their behaviour, and that is a very personal and difficult thing to discuss. It is about not just talking about that, but approving of the good behaviours and the good attitudes and calling out the bad long before people have actually broken rules. I suggest that promoted alongside that is a positive conversation as well as a holding to account. It is not just about the enforcement of rules. Our challenge on the Standards Committee is to reform the House of Commons code so that it begins also to promote a positive change in attitudes and behaviour.
It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate. I have had the great privilege of having served in all the various ICGS working groups since their inception, and it is particularly good to be here today to say a few remarks on behalf of the House of Commons Commission on what hopefully will be the conclusion and the implementation of all the recommendations that have been made to the ICGS.
As I look around the Chamber today, I can see several colleagues who have served on the various incarnations of the working group, and I pay tribute to them for their contribution and dedication. In particular, I pay tribute to Andrea Leadsom, whose vision, leadership and guidance at the inception of all this helped to guide us through this process, so I thank her for her contribution today.
Today, we are here to bring the ICGS in line with the third recommendation of Dame Laura Cox. It is worth briefly reminding ourselves of what Dame Laura Cox actually said about this House in her most damning report and the litany of issues that she uncovered. She talked of an
“excessively hierarchical, ‘command and control’ and deferential culture, which has no place in any organisation in the 21st century.”
That is what Dame Laura said.
It is two years since Dame Laura Cox presented her report to the House. It was in October 2018 that the Commission overwhelmingly agreed to all three of her recommendations. We have heard that the first two have been implemented. One was, of course, the behaviour code, which has been put in place. The second was looking at historical cases, and today we are considering the third recommendation. Let us just remind ourselves what that is. It is to put in place the mechanism whereby complaints of bullying, harassment or sexual harassment brought by House staff against Members of Parliament would be an entirely independent process in which Members of Parliament will play no part. For this to happen, the Commission set up a working group to put together how we should respond to this and to bring this House in line with that recommendation. That was met with the Commission’s unanimous agreement to establish the independent expert panel to replace the Committee on Standards in considering cases brought under the ICGS.
At our last meeting of the Commission, we confirmed our support for the implementation of the independent expert panel, and we asked for this matter to be brought before the House. The new panel will determine sanction in cases where the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards does not have the power to invoke sanctions. As we have heard, this could include the suspension or expulsion of a Member of Parliament. These serious cases will be referred to the panel and will be considered by a sub-panel of three independent experts, supported by specialist advice. When decided and concluded, a Member of the House of Commons Commission, probably me, will move a motion to allow the House to implement the sanction determined by the IEP. Lastly, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will know that the Commission agreed that the House would be asked to consider whether there should be a time-limited debate in these circumstances, and that is where we are today, with the motions in the name of the Leader of the House.
The motions accurately reflect the considerations of the House of Commons Commission, and its members are pretty much in line and in step with what Dame Laura Cox expects in the implementation of her third recommendation. That is, of course, until we get to paragraph D(1) in motion 5, where the Leader of the House makes that provision for the debate. If it is helpful to the House, what the Commission decided in our consideration of this issue was that we would let the House decide whether it wanted a debate. I think the expectation was that a couple of motions would be brought by the Leader of the House, which would give us flexibility in our options. Instead, we have this one determination of the Leader of the House, which is that we are now invited to a yes or no. I do not think that I am giving away any secrets, Madam Deputy Speaker, when I say that the Commission was almost split down the middle when we were considering this matter, and that was why we felt it was appropriate that the House should decide and determine this.
My view as a Member of the House who has been involved in the ICGS for the past two and a half years is that what the Leader of the House suggests in paragraph D(1) breaks practically every principle and the whole spirit of the third Cox recommendation. It is little wonder that there is profound disappointment among House staff today. Such are the concerns that Dame Laura herself has felt the need to respond to some of the representations from staff. She notes the fears that a debate could result in a complainant’s confidentiality being compromised and speaks of
“the chilling effect that this will undoubtedly have on complainants reporting cases of harassment or bullying”.
There are real concerns that MPs will debate the findings of an independent judgment on one of their colleagues while protected by privilege, with staff having no equivalent platform. That cannot be right.
The Leader of the House seeks to assure us with motion 6, but we cannot escape the overwhelming conclusion that Members and complainants could be identified inadvertently in a debate. Colleagues and friends of somebody who has been complained against will feel the temptation to get up there and defend them.
The hon. Gentleman is drilling down into an important part of the issue, which is about procedural fairness. It goes to the point raised by Sir Edward Leigh. Once we got into a debate, it is inevitable that we would get into the merits of the issue; how, procedurally, could we expect not to?
I think that concern has been expressed by the House staff after looking at the motions presented by the Leader of the House today.
As was mentioned by the Leader of the House and shadow Leader of the House, the House should make the ultimate determination about the expulsion or suspension of a Member of Parliament. That is right, but it should not be done through a debate. That is why I will be supporting the amendment tabled by Chris Bryant, and I really hope that the rest of the House will too.
It is disappointing that this little issue has presented itself after we have come all this way with full agreement, full consensus and the involvement of the House staff, and are just at the point of doing this. I say to the House: stick with the principles of Laura Cox and support the amendment this evening.
It was on
“Our ultimate ambition is for a culture where people can work and visit Parliament and take part in our democracy free from unacceptable behaviour and free from bullying or harassment and where individuals are free to thrive and make a difference.”—[Official Report,
That must apply to everyone who works in this place—from cooks to Clerks, from Members’ staff to security staff, and from cleaners to Members of Parliament. I pay tribute to so many people in this place, from cross-party Members to House staff to Members’ staff, who supported that huge piece of work, and to the many brave victims who came forward to give their story and tell their side.
When we established the ICGS, the cross-party team that worked on the Committee sought to uphold two key principles: first, that confidentiality for the victim must be at the heart of any successful complaints procedure; and secondly, the democratic convention whereby elected Members of Parliament should not be removed by unelected institutions. I had hoped that my amendment would be selected today, because it would have addressed those two red lines.
First, it would have protected the confidentiality of victims. It would have ruled out any debate in the Chamber that, notwithstanding the constraints included by the Leader of the House, will result in a complainant feeling re-victimised—therefore inevitably undermining confidence in the complaints procedure itself. Staff and trade union side representatives have already publicised their concerns very clearly.
Secondly, my amendment would have sought to preserve the key democratic principle that an elected person should not be removed from office by an unelected person. To ensure that the democratic convention was adhered to, under my amendment we would have had—instead of a debate in the Chamber—a constrained debate on process, not on the case itself, in the Committee on Standards. That would have happened within five sitting days of the independent expert panel’s findings, and the final recommendations, which could not go against the findings of the IEP, could have been for expulsion or suspension up to and including invoking the Recall of MPs Act 2015. That is something that will not be available to the independent panel on its own if it does not go through the Committee on Standards. That conclusion of the Standards Committee would then have been put to the House for a vote without any further debate.
I am deeply disappointed that my amendment, which seeks to uphold the two fundamental principles behind the ICGS, has not been allowed for debate and a vote today. For my own part, I will have to vote for the amendment tabled by Chris Bryant, which would not allow a debate in this Chamber, because we cannot not stand by those victims. I feel that we will rue the day that we enable Members of Parliament in this way. In the last period of office, we had cases where members should have invoked recall and not been expelled, and that will not be possible in future.
Order. After the next speaker, I shall introduce a time limit of three minutes in order to try to get as many people in as possible.
That normally happens before I speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a delight to follow Andrea Leadsom, because she has done so much work on this. Everybody who works in this place surely has a right to know that this is a safe workplace. That is a fundamental principle. A second fundamental principle is that everybody has a right to a fair hearing. For complainants, that must mean that they have confidence in the system and that it is not loaded in one direction against them. Of course, we know that in recent years many complainants have felt that they have not had the chance of a fair hearing, and that is why the work we are doing is so important. I would also say, however, that MPs have a right to a fair hearing. That is why it is so important, as Sir Bernard Jenkin, who sits on the Standards Committee, said, that a full, fair, judicial or semi-judicial process is engaged in and that MPs have the right to due process and independent adjudication, the right of appeal and the right to a fair hearing.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for tabling his amendment, which I shall be supporting. On the point about due process, politics can be a dirty business, and sometimes complaints that turn out to be unfounded can be deployed against politicians for political reasons. Is he satisfied that our new independent process will be robust enough to deal with those sorts of complaints fairly?
I think it will, but that will obviously depend on the quality of the people that we appoint to it. I very much hope not only that the House will go through a thorough process to ensure that we get good people, but that good people around the country will seriously consider taking on this role, because it will probably be a fairly thankless task. We need to ensure that we have the right people.
I warmly commend the Leader of the House on bringing forward his motions today and on the way he has approached today’s debate and the discussions that have taken place over recent days. I should say, as Chair of the Standards Committee, that I have deliberately not spoken to any complainants, because it is perfectly possible that something might be coming to my Committee, and it would have been inappropriate for me to have done so. I have only one issue with the Leader of the House, which is about the one-hour debate, as he knows—hence the amendment that I have tabled. His motion 6 is effectively a sort of self-denying ordinance. It sort of says, “There are lots of things that you will not be able to address in the debate”, and I commend him for tabling it, but in the end you cannot be half-chaste. It is a bit like when you decide to give up chocolate for Lent. You cannot decide on Ash Wednesday to stock the fridge with chocolate, because that shows that you have not really decided that you are going to give up chocolate for Lent.
The point about a self-denying ordinance is that it has to be absolute, and in this case we have to declare an absolute self-denying ordinance in relation to debating a decision that has already been reached by an independent body, that has an appellate process within it, where all the evidence has been considered, where both sides of the argument have an equal opportunity to put their case, and where both sides have equal forces. That is not the case in a debate in the House of Commons, and many complainants would be frightened that they would be re-victimised—to use the word that was just used by the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire—and that they would be put through a second ordeal. Even words that the Speaker might allow, because they did not understand that it was a subtle way of getting a dig in, could be terribly, terribly wounding to an individual who had made a complaint. It is terribly easy in this small world to reveal what is meant to be confidential.
I will not, if she does not mind, because I have very little time and I know others want to speak.
It is important that there is equality of forces when it comes to a process such as this, and I say to those who worry that non-elected people will be making decisions about whether somebody can be suspended or expelled from the House that that is already true. It is already true, for instance, of an election court, a criminal court that decides to give somebody a sentence of more than 12 months or, I think, a bankruptcy court.
I fully understand that we are making a very significant change to our constitutional process, but my amendment would simply mean that the motions would be taken forthwith. In 1910, Asquith was absolutely blind drunk at the Dispatch Box and nobody ever knew about it. Churchill wrote home to his wife Clemmie that it was
“only the persistent freemasonry of the House of Commons” that meant it never became a scandal. That is the fear that many complainants would have. We must not have a debate.
It is a great pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom, who deserves huge credit for moving this agenda on in the way it should have been, and Chris Bryant, to whose amendment I will return.
First, I declare an interest as a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Although the Committee takes no collective view on the specific questions put in the motions before us, it undoubtedly welcomes the determination of complaints against Members of this House, particularly serious ones, by a body that is wholly independent of it. I have spoken to my Committee colleague, Margaret Beckett, who cannot participate in this debate, and I know that she shares the views I am about to express.
I support the establishment of the independent expert panel and its determination of these cases, but it is right, as the Leader of the House said, that as a matter of constitutional principle the act of suspending or expelling a Member of this House can only be done by the House itself. There must therefore be a vote on the use of the most severe sanctions.
I am not, however, persuaded that there should be even the prospect of a debate about the sanctions, and I therefore declare my second interest as a former practitioner in the criminal courts, where I took part in a large number of sentencing hearings, which is in effect what we are discussing here. The panel would return a verdict, and we as the House of Commons would consider whether to impose the penalty that the panel had recommended.
My right hon. and learned Friend uses an excellent example, but in that example he must also accept that there is an appellate structure, which is being denied to MPs and only MPs in this proposal.
I absolutely understand the point that my hon. Friend is making, which he has made before in this debate. I only say to him that he may find less comfort in his argument than he thinks, because as a distinguished lawyer he will know that the courts are extremely reluctant to involve themselves in the processes and penalties imposed by this place. It may be that the courts will not be as much help to him as he thinks.
I was going to go on to say that sentencing hearings can only be effective and fair if we have two sets of information: first, the mitigation available to the defendant, but secondly, information about the seriousness of the offence. More recently, the criminal courts have access to a third set of information, which is the effect of the offence upon the victim.
For good and sensible reasons, the Government are seeking in motion 6 to exclude from the debates we are considering not just the name of the complainant, but also
“Details of any investigation or specific matters considered” by the panel. That is doubtless correct, but it would make it extremely difficult to assess the seriousness of the offence, and we would—again, quite properly—have no information at all on the effect of the offence on the victim.
I do not then see how we could do justice to what would effectively be a sentencing process in such a debate, and I do not therefore see what good having such a debate would do. It would certainly give rise to the risks that others in this debate have already set out, without deriving significant benefit. For that reason, I will be supporting the amendment of the hon. Member for Rhondda.
Worry not, Madam Deputy Speaker; I can say it in two minutes.
I very much welcome the Leader of the House’s comments. I do not think he expected at the beginning of his career that he would be changing the constitution quite so much; it must be a tiny bit painful. I simply want to say that a debate in the House, even with the constraints that the right hon. Gentleman has attempted to introduce, will stop people coming forward. That is what the victims, the staff and Dame Laura Cox are saying. It will simply stop people feeling confident.
As a slight rebuttal to the interveners in this debate, it is a delight to see people so concerned about MPs having employment law, but I do not remember the same voices speaking up for maternity leave, for example. In this instance, they are right there with us on the employment law issue.
On the idea that our constituents’ rights would be taken away, because they have voted for us, we are talking about the most severe cases, which will have gone through a process. Does any hon. Member honestly think that their constituents would complain if this House takes action on something that is abhorrent enough to mean expulsion? Good luck selling that on the doorstep—“I’ve been found completely wanting, but you voted for me so you should carry on getting your say.” It is nonsense, and it is not what our constituents are calling for. No constituent has been in touch with anyone in this House to say, “Do you know what? I really want my right to keep my slightly wrong ’un MP in place”—not a single one. I will be supporting my hon. Friend Chris Bryant because that is what the victims have asked me to do.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom on the work that she has done and I warmly welcome the Leader of the House’s remarks. I want to talk briefly about why I will be supporting the amendment proposed by Chris Bryant. I am an employment law barrister, and I have previously been instructed by the House of Commons Commission in a number of employment disputes, most recently last year. None involved current elected Members of this House. I support the amendment because, as a matter of employment law, any process that invites Members to speak up for colleagues against a background of party allegiance and personal loyalties is fundamentally problematic.
That is not just a theoretical objection: the debate on Lord Lester that took place in the House of Lords in 2018 prompted 74 members of staff employed in the House of Lords to write a letter of complaint the following week. The next month, that letter was reviewed by the Committee for Privileges and Conduct. I believe that this may answer the point made by the Leader of the House, who said that any such debate should be a short, factual exposition, dealing purely with process. The Committee’s conclusion was that the debate had
“inappropriately strayed beyond points about the process and into implied and explicit criticisms of the complainant.”
It said that the word
“‘reputation’ was invoked (positively) 15 times to describe Lord Lester. It was not invoked once to describe the complainant.”
The debate led Naomi Ellenbogen, who undertook the independent inquiry into bullying and harassment in the Lords, to conclude in paragraph 181 of her report:
“On numerous occasions, I was told that any earlier belief that a complaint…might be worth pursuing had vanished…ultimately powerful members would protect their powerful friends, at the expense of the complainant, whose public humiliation would be immortalised in Hansard. Making a complaint was not only pointless;
it was devastating”.
I commend Laura Farris for that insightful contribution.
We are in a different place from where the constitution set us up to be. There is a line that, unfortunately, Members have crossed and transgressed in the past. That means that, if we have to clip the wings of our constitutional position, so be it. I listened very carefully to Andrea Leadsom, and it is with some pain that I have come to that position too, but we need to consider the victims. I have had the privilege of being contacted by a number of victims. Some have done so face to face, but some have emailed me because their outlet was to leave this place, because that was the easiest thing to do. The impact on their lives has been immense.
We need to stand up and make this place transparent, proper and modern in the way that we employ people and that we treat people, and that means that we all individually need to step up. I reiterate, as I conclude, that it is important we actually stem this before it gets to the point of the independent panel. I would advocate again that we have properly paid, properly trained and properly accredited office managers or heads of office—whatever we want to call them—who call us out on the slightest transgression. Staff would have the confidence to go to them so that Members who are learning to manage staff, often for the first time, and who have often come from very different working environments, learn what is proper in this place.
If we cannot set the example of good employment practice and protection for people who call it out here, and good management—let us face it, sometimes staff may complain because they are asked to do something that they do not want to do, and vice versa; it is not always clear cut—what does it say? It is important that we manage our staff well, that we are trained to do that and that we have the mechanisms in place.
This is part of it, but it is only the beginning. I will of course be backing amendment (a) tabled by my hon. Friend Chris Bryant, because we cannot have a debate, as I mentioned in my intervention, where we refer to such things. For anyone who was wavering, I think the hon. Member for Newbury has nailed it.
As a new MP with a background in human resources, I would echo some of the comments made by Meg Hillier. I have often thought about the job description of an MP and what it looks like—the behaviour, knowledge and skills required to carry out this role effectively—even though our recruitment process is fairly unique. For me, they fall into three broad areas: the skills to be a candidate in order to be elected in the first place; the skills to be an MP in terms of a role in this place and our engagement with constituents; and, finally—I would argue this is both the most important and the most overlooked—the skills as a people manager.
Although I am incredibly grateful for the support I received at the time of my election, the reality is that Members recruit staff themselves and, as the email inbox quickly fills up and this place sits, the process must be completed as quickly as possible. I would argue that this is not necessarily the right environment for the best recruitment decisions to take place. The fact is that, too often, staff either working here or in our constituencies are let down. Too often, Parliament is not a good or even, appallingly, a safe place to work for our staff. Scenarios presented during the commendable Valuing Everyone training that all MPs should complete seem, sadly, to be all too common.
Dame Laura Cox’s inquiry was a vital step forward, which was welcomed by many of the staff members I have spoken to, and I fully agree with the report’s recommendations. Fundamentally, having a debate on the Floor of the House on the rare occasions when a finding of suspension or expulsion is made is grounded in our roles as democratic representatives in the traditions of this place, but that is not the point of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme. The point of the scheme is effectively to execute our responsibilities as employers. What business would allow its powerful executive to debate a complaint against one of their own without any right of reply? What business would allow staff members—
One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the motion, the Deputy Speaker put the Question (Order, this day).
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
reaffirms its commitment to the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) and to tackling bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct on the part of anyone who is or was a member of the parliamentary community;
accepts the recommendation in the report by Dame Laura Cox QC on The Bullying and Harassment of House of Commons Staff that complaints against Members should be determined by an independent body;
agrees with the proposal brought forward by the House of Commons Commission to implement this recommendation;
accordingly agrees to the establishment of an independent panel of experts which shall operate in accordance with the principles of fairness, transparency and natural justice;
and expects all Members of this House to cooperate with the Panel’s work and comply with its decisions.
The Deputy Speaker then put the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Order, this day).