Members of Parliament: Risk-based Exclusion

– in the House of Commons at 6:21 pm on 12 June 2023.

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Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means 6:21, 12 June 2023

Before we start the debate, I wish to say something about references to other Members. This issue understandably generates strong feelings, but may I remind the House of the words of Erskine May?

“Good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language.”

That means, among other things, that it is not orderly to criticise the conduct of a Member, unless the motion debated directly addresses that conduct. This motion does not do so, and so such criticism would not be orderly.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons 6:44, 12 June 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the House of Commons Commission Report, Risk-based exclusion of MPs: consultation response and proposals, HC 1396.

I welcome the opportunity for the House to consider the publication of the House of Commons Commission report on risk-based exclusion of MPs, and for all right hon. and hon. Members to see and discuss the proposals. It is important for all Members to have a chance to express their views on the proposals. Hon. Members from all parts of the House have requested such an opportunity, including the Chairs of the Liaison Committee, the Standards Committee and the Procedure Committee.

I will also close the debate, so I will keep my opening remarks brief. Hon. Members will have seen the details in the papers provided by the House, so I do not intend to outline the scheme in detail. It has been consulted upon, and I and other Commission members want to hear colleagues’ views today. However, I want to set the scene, not so much for our sake as for the public’s sake.

Seeing this debate and thinking about events in the media and swirling around outside the Chamber, the people of the United Kingdom may be thinking, “Why the heck are the talking about themselves again today?” In comparison to many issues we could be debating at this hour, what happens on the parliamentary estate may seem rather irrelevant, but as well as making legislation to make the laws of the land, we also make the laws that govern this place.

No Committee or the work it undertakes in the service of the House happens without the permission of the House; no standards framework or Standing Order is born without the House giving consent; and no process an hon. Member is subjected to can be done without the will of the House. This is House business—it is important, which is why we have made time for it. For Parliament to be effective, it must be as good as it can be, so from time to time we need to hold debates such as this one to formulate these narrow points of process. The process in front of us today is so narrow that it may well never be used, but it is still important. However, there are other matters that rarely get an airing and are just as relevant to this, and arguably more important.

When I met the Standards Committee recently, its members suggested there were more than a dozen different bodies that oversee the conduct of Members. There is the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards; the Committee on Standards, upon referral by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards; the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, which as Members will know is subject to a review; the Independent Expert Panel, upon referral by the commissioner; the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority; Mr Speaker and his deputies, relating to conduct in the Chamber; the Committee of Privileges, upon referral by the House; the Electoral Commission; the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, covering Ministers, peers, special advisers and senior civil servants; the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests; the Committee on Standards in Public Life; and internal party mechanisms for investigation. I could go on, but I will spare the House.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

My right hon. Friend makes the very important point that there are lots of bodies, but there is no body that can suspend a Member from this House without a vote of this House. The constitutional problem with the proposals before us today is that they would allow a suspension by bureaucracy, rather than the democracy of this House.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I expect many Members will focus on that point, and it is a trade-off. I reassure my right hon. Friend that no rule that we will make in this place will be arrived at without the consent and the will of the House. It is we who govern ourselves, and that is why we are having this debate and have made time for it today. He makes an important point of principle that will sway many Members, but there will be other Members who will be more concerned with confidentiality. These are the points that we should discuss this afternoon, and I thank my right hon. Friend for being here today to do precisely that.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The Leader of the House knows that I am very fond of her, and I understand why she has brought these matters before the House for consideration, but I am always minded that people are innocent until proven guilty. Looking from the outside in, it seems as if these proposals say, “You are guilty; now prove your innocence.” Surely that is entirely against the law of the land?

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I completely agree with that point, but we are talking about a very narrow set of circumstances. This is not about asking people to make a judgment on whether someone has committed an offence, but about the risk that an individual poses to other people. Obviously we are talking about what happens on the estate, although it could be argued that such measures are pointless unless we are also tackling what, in this set of circumstances, happens off the estate. These are the issues that we will discuss this evening, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for being present to do that.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

I understand that when all this was first being discussed there was a debate about whether the right time for intervention for the purpose of exclusion should be at the point of arrest or at the point of charge. Am I right in saying—having read the proposals—that the Commission envisages that in certain circumstances a Member who had been neither arrested nor charged with an offence could be excluded?

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

When, at the time of the Commission’s original proposals, there was a debate about arrest or charge, we decided that that was not relevant. This is about a set of circumstances in which a Member wishes to attend and there is evidence that that individual would be a harm to other people on the estate. That is the set of circumstances that the Commission was asked to consider. It could apply to a variety of cases. Although these proposals are limited to violent or sexual offences, this is not about an allegation made against an individual; it is about the risk assessment made of that individual. I believe that the details of the process involved accompany the papers that have been made available to Members.

We have an incredibly complicated standards landscape with myriad bodies providing oversight of Members’ conduct, yet barely a week goes by without something happening that calls into question our adherence to the rules. We seem to remain in a permanent swamp of complaints, cases and concerns, and the need for professionalism and the need to build trust have never been greater. It is therefore vital that, as well as examining the minutiae of schemes and reports, we focus on the principles that should govern our behaviour and culture, and, crucially, the duty of care that we have to one another in this place, as well as our duty to protect the good functioning of democracy.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

In November 2022, the Commission launched

“a consultation on excluding Members charged with violent or sexual offences from the Parliamentary estate until any such cases are concluded”.

That is a very narrow and specific subject for consultation. There seems to have been a heck of lot of mission creep since then, does there not?

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

As my hon. Friend will know, the original proposal that was put together and issued for consultation by the Commission has been altered, which is why we wanted to hold this debate: the spirit in which it was initiated was a wish to listen to Members’ concerns. There is no point in the Commission presenting proposals, whether they have been widely consulted on or not, if they are not acceptable to the House. There are strong and important points of principle here, some of which have already been raised this evening and are at the heart of how we operate as a Parliament. There are also concerns about how to deal with some very difficult situations which, as I am sure my hon. Friend will recognise, present difficulties to the House authorities and to Members on the estate as well as our staff. The reason we are having the debate is that this is genuinely open, and I hope we can air these issues and make some progress on the scheme.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

As a House of Commons Commissioner, I think it important that we hear of Members’ concerns. This is about ensuring that everyone’s views are heard. Given how many Members there are in this place, the number who took part in the consultation was fairly small, so we need to hear from more of them—and does the Commission not also have a duty of care to the thousands of members of staff who work on the estate?

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I agree with my hon. Friend, and thank her for the work that she has done. We have an obligation to members of staff on the estate, and we have an obligation to Members to ensure that matters are treated confidentially. We also have an obligation to ensure that our principles and the minutiae of our schemes are compatible with fairness and natural justice.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, The Cotswolds

Will those accused have an adequate opportunity to present their own defence, and will they be informed of what the offence is?

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

The answer is yes, in both cases. The scheme does not sit in isolation. In circumstances such as this, there tends to be a conversation with the Member concerned and with the Whips Office, and the Member may remove himself or herself from the estate on a voluntary basis. This will apply in a tiny number of cases, and the motivation for it is not just a duty of care to colleagues and members of staff on the estate, but ensuring that an individual who is trying, in what we all know are very difficult circumstances, to keep matters confidential is not put in a position that could make the situation a great deal worse. These are very difficult, complicated matters, and it is good that we are discussing them this evening.

When we decide rules and processes in this place, it is important that we stick with them. We as individuals cannot outsource consideration of such matters to other individuals or Committees, or pretend that the problems do not exist. We cannot shirk our responsibility to find solutions to them, or turn a blind eye when we see wrong being done. The letter of the law requires the spirit of the law to be followed as well, and trust will not be built without a commitment from all of us.

With that in mind, I am taking forward two new pieces of work that are relevant to the matter we are discussing this evening. First, I recommended to the Commission that we get someone to take a look at the entire standards landscape. Was it fit for purpose? Was it something of which we could be proud? The Chair of the Standards Committee, Sir Chris Bryant, is engaged in that work, and I know that he wants to look at the whole landscape. I, as Leader of the House of Commons, am bringing someone in to advise me on these matters, which I hope will provide us with an additional sense check on the quality of what we do, the culture of our unique community, and its alignment to justice, fairness and good practice. I will make the findings available to the Commission, the Standards Committee and others with an interest in these matters.

Secondly, I have long argued that we will only arrive at what good looks like if we, as the House of Commons, work in partnership with political parties and others who can help to strengthen democracy and improve the work that we do here. I am therefore launching a forum enabling political parties, Government, Parliament and other relevant stakeholders to come together and tackle specific practical issues of concern. That will complement the work of the defending democracy taskforce.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Chair, Committee of Selection, Chair, Committee of Selection, Chair, Committee of Selection

In order to assess the risk, the body of experts—whether they are democrats or Members of this House in all different forms—is surely the key. That is why my right hon. Friend’s inquiry is very welcome, but it all hinges on who the experts are. Is she going to tell us a bit about that in her comments?

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

Nobody has been appointed to those roles. I understand that, on points of principle that have already been mentioned, many Members feel strongly that it should be Members of this House who form the panel. Others take a different view. These are the matters that we need to discuss, but I can tell my hon. Friend that no one has been appointed to those roles.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Conservative, Chingford and Woodford Green

I was not planning to take part in this debate, but I was reading through the notes and my concern—returning to the point made by Jim Shannon—is that we are in a difficult and delicate area. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House talks about confidentiality, and the key to all this is process. It is about how it will actually work, not what we might wish it to be. Of course we have a duty of care to staff and to each other; I hope that that is a given. Working within that, we need to remember the reputational damage that has been done in previous cases. The police have done this themselves, where individuals who subsequently died lost their reputations unfairly because of allegations that turned out to be wrong and unjust. My concern is that we are trespassing slowly into the criminal code, which is not perfect. We have to be really careful here, because reputational damage is the end for Members of Parliament. Their reputation often cannot be regained, and their character is all. How do we protect that if people are going to be sent away? How can they not do the work in their constituencies and still retain their reputation as Members of Parliament? These are important issues.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. Even if a scheme looks good on paper, it is the practical issues about how it will operate that matter. He refers to particular things that a particular police force has done. If they are part of the scheme, Members will want to have trust and confidence in their ability to play their part. It is well understood that Members of Parliament have a unique vulnerability to false allegations. My right hon. Friend will know that there are Members who are currently off the estate for various reasons on a voluntary basis. I feel strongly that in those circumstances —particularly when investigations are taking a long time—their ability to represent their constituencies should not be compromised. I want to thank the Procedure Committee and others who have done work to bring forward the option of a proxy vote for Members who find themselves in those circumstances.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I will take one more intervention as it might help us later in the debate.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Does the Commission accept as a general principle that the people have elected Members to this House and that only the people should remove Members from this House?

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

Yes. I think I speak for all Commissioners when I say that we do, which is why we have been keen to ensure that when people are not on the estate, for whatever reason, they have access to a proxy vote. This is an important point of principle. We are talking about a very narrow and rare set of circumstances. That is the question that the Commission was set, following concerns from members of staff and others on the estate, and that is why this work has been done, but it will be up to this House whether to take this scheme forward, and if so, in what form. That is why we are having this debate today.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown asked whether a person in this House would know whether they had been charged and what the charge was. The document that we have all been given contains a “proposed process flowchart”, but I say respectfully to the Leader of the House that I cannot see anywhere in the process where that happens.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I completely understand. As I say, this is a rare set of circumstances. The way things are dealt with normally has stood us in good stead, with the exception of the fact that those people are disadvantaged because they cannot vote on the estate. We are talking about a narrow, hypothetical set of circumstances that we have been asked to suggest an answer to. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: this needs to be compatible not just with the principles of this House but with the individual’s human rights. That is an important, fundamental point.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I am sorry, but I am going to conclude because I am trying the patience of colleagues. I will be happy to respond to any points on behalf of the Commission this afternoon and I thank all Members and House staff who have helped to bring forward these proposals. I want to reassure Members that these matters are for the House to decide and that all members of the Commission are here to listen this afternoon.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 7:06, 12 June 2023

I want to start by thanking all colleagues and members of the Commission, the secretariat and House staff for all the work they have done to get us to this point. This is not a decision-making evening. This is an airing of the issues and a time for the questions that hon. and right hon. Friends, Members and colleagues quite rightly have. This is a good time for us to get through them. I have been noting down some of the questions that have already been raised, and if I do not cover them in my opening speech, I will also, with the leave of the House, be closing for the Opposition. I hope that the Leader of the House and I between us can cover the questions that Members rightly want answered.

I am grateful to the Standards Committee, which has done a thorough job and made some thoughtful, measured and considered recommendations. I would like to thank those colleagues and staff who responded to our consultation last year and earlier this year, and I would like to thank the trade unions and staff reps who also engaged with the consultation and consulted their members. All of that consultation and feedback has informed our revisions to the proposals, but as yet they are just that: proposals. We are here to listen.

The Leader of the House, the other Commissioners and I have worked closely and constructively and I am proud of the fact that we started out in a very different places—I am not completely sure that we are not still in different places—but we managed to find common ground on the specific area of risk management and mitigation. We have been studying and consulting on this issue for nearly a year now, and I have tried to talk to as many colleagues as possible, not just in my own party but in other parties as well. I have consulted colleagues—I have consulted the women’s parliamentary Labour party several times—as well as promoting the Commission’s consultation to Members, staff, House staff and members of the Lobby. I have also been trying to share the report that we are debating today. I regret that the report was published only a week ago, as I would have liked a longer period of time, but I am glad that we are now able to debate its contents. I hope that all Members who are contributing today have read it. If not, copies are available in the Vote Office.

I want to bring people with us on this process. I do not want the process simply to go through Parliament when it concerns something so serious as to be including but not confined to the possible temporary exclusion of a Member of Parliament. That is a serious business. Three important principles are at stake here. The first is democracy, which matters to every single one of us. Voters have a right to be represented once they have elected us and they get to decide who represents them in this place. Democracy matters. So, too, does the principle of British justice that a person is innocent until proven guilty, which is absolutely fundamental. Concerns have already been raised about whether Members will know the charges against them. Yes, they will, because this procedure can be triggered only if there is a live criminal justice investigation of a Member for a serious sexual or violent crime, so they will know because they would already have been investigated.

That is difficult to balance with the principle of safety at work for Members, for House staff, for Members’ staff, for visitors and for child visitors. We have tried hard to balance those principles, and we have fiercely debated, as I know others have, how we can make them balance. I do not know whether we have them all right, but we want to hear from colleagues about how we can make them better.

Some colleagues have said to me, “In any other workplace, including local government, a senior person being investigated by the police for a serious sexual or physically violent crime or harassment would at least prompt consideration of how to mitigate the risks while they await the outcome of that investigation.” That is not a presumption of guilt; it is an attempt, as any significant workplace does, to balance an accusation and the risks it may pose with the fact that a person has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

I want to protect both of those principles in this place but, until now, we have relied on informal processes to deal with allegations. Those informal processes put the person who is confided in, whether they are a Whip or a friend, in an impossible position because, if there is no formal procedure in place, there is not much they can do if there has been no complaint and no allegation to the criminal justice system, because that would be, in effect, acting on a rumour rather than a formal complaint.

I am not saying that any of our processes are perfect. We all know from our case loads the many drawbacks that, in particular, women who are victims of rape go through with endless delays and difficult procedures. I do not think the criminal justice system is perfect, I do not think the independent complaints and grievance system is perfect and I do not think our party systems are perfect, but we are trying to find a way so that, when the House authorities know about a serious sexual crime, we no longer rely on a quiet word here and a nudge there, which does not feel right either for the complainant or for the person about whom a complaint is made.

I have already said that an MP will know if a complaint is made about them, because the process can be triggered only if there is a live criminal justice process, but I also do not want candidates to be put off coming to this place. Being an MP is an amazing privilege. It is an incredible job and an honour. I do not want journalists or staff to be put off coming to work here, and I do not want visitors to feel that this is not a safe place. I think we have to be an exemplar, not just the best we can scrape along with, and I think we are capable of being that exemplar. We have tested that in many different ways, and I think we are capable of doing it now.

What is being proposed is an evidence-based risk assessment and management process, which has come about as a result of consultation. Again, I thank the Standards Committee because, after looking at our initial proposal, it concluded that, although a procedure is necessary, ours was drawn very narrowly in scope and that we should not only focus on the sanction of exclusion. I think it is important to be clear that a range of risk-mitigation responses is proposed by this document, of which exclusion is only one, and that it is only temporary until a criminal justice investigation is concluded.

Some colleagues have also said that they would like the independent complaints and grievance system to feed into this process. As the Leader of the House said, the system will be reviewed later this year. I encourage all colleagues to feed into that review. When we brought in the ICGS, workplace reps in particular, and others too, felt that confidentiality was important to the process, and that there should be a firewall around it. That is where we are at the moment and, until we have had the review, there is no mechanism for it to trigger this procedure.

The Standards Committee made recommendations to widen the scope on the range of mitigations, and we have incorporated a good deal of them in our current proposals, but I look forward to hearing more from my hon. Friend Sir Chris Bryant, the Chair of the Standards Committee, on where he and his Committee feel we could strengthen it still further.

Like the Leader of the House, I do not want to go into the detail of the proposal, but I will quickly summarise it. If the police feel there is something about which they need to notify the House authorities, whether at charge or arrest, I want there to be a proper process for the House authorities to deal with it, a process that we, as MPs, have considered, debated and voted for. Under the Commission’s proposal, a named group—and they are named in the proposal—of very senior, experienced House staff will consider the initial allegation and investigation that is sent to them, and it will consider whether or not a risk-assessment process is necessary. If the group considers it not to be necessary, the process would stop there; if it thinks it is necessary, based on the evidence supplied, it will then do a risk assessment and make a recommendation—I emphasise this—to a panel. There will be debates in this Chamber, and among colleagues who are not in this Chamber, about whether the panel proposed by the Commission is what they want, or not, but we are proposing a panel with two named Members and one external commissioner. Members, one from the Government party and one from His Majesty’s official Opposition, will outnumber the commissioner on the panel.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

In some respects, I have an issue with describing it as a staff panel. It sounds to me like a risk assessment, and it sounds to me like exclusion is the final option when every other option has been considered. Can the shadow Leader of the House clarify that for me, please?

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The panel will be the decision-making body that comes after the four senior members of House staff have considered an investigation and the evidence; have done a risk-assessment process, which they will consult on with relevant external experts; and have then made a risk-mitigation plan, which they will then propose to the decision-making panel. I agree that we use the term “exclusion” too often when, actually, it is only one of many possible mitigations.

When the ICGS was introduced, people made a strong case for it to be confidential, so it will not feed into the process at the moment, but I remind all colleagues of the review later this year.

If this proposal is passed by the House, investigations will initially be assessed by a group of senior House staff and a mitigation plan proposed. The mitigation plan will then go to the decision-making panel, which will make a decision on behalf of us all. It is very important that MPs can be excluded only by other MPs, which is why we came up with this proposal. We have also responded to some people’s concern that we need an external voice. I am keen to hear from other Members about whether we have the right composition.

The mitigations could include exclusion. Before I came to this place, I worked with very violent offenders at different points in the process, usually pre-trial or pre-civil proceedings, and our aim was safety. At the same time as trying to achieve safety, we had the important principle, which Members have raised, of people being presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, The Cotswolds

The shadow Leader of the House is making a very thoughtful speech. She has satisfied me on the first of my two points: that a person knows there has been a complaint, because there will have been a complaint to the police. My second point is that it is a fundamental tenet of universal human rights that a person who is complained about should have the right to make their own defence. Can she confirm that, under this procedure, such a person will have the right, at every stage, to make their own defence? They might have a perfectly good and reasonable defence as to why this should not take place.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Yes, they will, in so far as the criminal justice system provides it. This is only until the criminal justice system concludes its investigation, which could be because the police drop the case, because the Crown Prosecution Service concludes that there is not enough evidence or because the case proceeds to trial—that will be where an accused person has the right to defend themselves, because they are not being accused by this House or by an individual Member. It will be the police who bring the information to the House.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, The Cotswolds

I am sorry to try the House’s patience but, politics being what it is, there is every possibility that a serious vexatious complaint will be made, and the police would have to take it very seriously because it is a serious complaint, but it might be totally fallacious. It is only right that, in this procedure, whoever is accused of a very serious offence should have the full right to defend themselves.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I understand the point the hon. Gentleman is making, and I have made a clear note for us to consider it in our further deliberations following this debate.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Conservative, Chingford and Woodford Green

I want to follow that up, as one of the points made earlier was important. We know of previous problems where cases have been brought against people and we later discover that the witness was not credible, with that leading to serious and significant difficulties, even in the criminal justice system. That is sure to happen in the same way here. Is there anything in these proposals that talks about trying to figure out at any stage whether the witness is credible, what the record has been and so on—or is that left completely for the police to decide?

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

If the right hon. Gentleman is saying that our criminal justice system could do with improvements, I heartily agree. We are talking about a situation where criminal justice proceedings—an investigation—are taking place, and the police, along with the Crown Prosecution Service, are responsible for that. Even now, they will, at a certain point, let the House authorities know if a Member is being investigated, and we do not have an adequate process for responding to that.

The criminal justice system has many significant flaws, which I would dearly love to help fix, but we have the system that we do. We have to be in a position where we trust that system, as far as we can, to give us information when the police feel that is warranted. We need to look at whether or not this system works. There is plenty of time, not only this evening, but before we have the votable motion and then if we decide to vote for the process to be tested and developed, for further opportunities to do that. I am happy to take away the concerns of the right hon. Gentleman and others, which are reasonably expressed. That is what the debate is for.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

I wonder about this word “defence.” I understand where the question is coming from, but it might be misplaced. It is quintessentially important that the panel should never be deciding on the innocence or guilt of the individual; that matter is solely for the criminal justice system. The panel is only deciding whether, given the circumstances and the investigation that is ongoing—the arrest or whatever stage it has got to—mitigations need to be put in place to ensure that this is a safe workplace.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I thank my hon. Friend for expressing it much better than I just did. The proposal is not a replacement for the criminal justice system and it is not a parallel system; it is about finding a way to take on board, when there is a criminal justice system investigation of a serious crime, how we mitigate the risks, in a limited and time-limited way, because we are not like any other workplace. Whether or not it goes on for one month or two years will be the responsibility of whether or not the criminal justice is operating as it should. As I said to Sir Iain Duncan Smith, I would like to get my hands on that system and help to institute some reforms. In the meantime, we are not a substitute for it and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for expressing that so well.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

It is easy to give an assurance that the panel is not there to decide innocence or guilt. However, the fact that it decides on the basis of information from the police, with a very low threshold, does convey in the public mind some suggestion of guilt. Otherwise, why would such stringent measures be taken against a Member?

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that, but the idea is for this not to be done in a public manner. We probably will face criticism for this, but the Commission has gone to some lengths to try to protect the anonymity and confidentiality in respect of a person against whom allegations of a serious crime have been made. We have built into this process as many opportunities as we can, and some Members are not happy about those. The point is that we should not be deciding guilt, as that would be quite wrong; the separation of powers is an important principle to every one of us in this Chamber. However, we must address the confines of the fact that our workplace is not like any other. It is a workplace for staff here, as well as for our own staff and for each other, and we have a duty at least to try to work out how we mitigate the risk to them, while protecting the confidentiality of the person against whom allegations are being made.

I wish to come to a conclusion because I know that many right hon. and hon. Members want to contribute. While taking those interventions, I have covered a few parts of the speech I was going to make. I started out by talking about three values, and democratic representation is vital. We owe a lot to those on the Procedure Committee and other colleagues who developed the proxy vote system, as a result of which we have a way whereby a Member can be added to the list of proxy votes without saying why and can continue to represent their constituents. Every Member will know what some of the criticisms were of the proxy vote system when it was first introduced. No Member is forced to use it and they can also use the option of pairing, which some will prefer. It is an important principle of democracy that Members’ voters, the people they represent, can continue to be represented.

Other Members have asked about constituency activities. We as a House have no way of legislating to stop Members undertaking those. There may be some who have concerns about that. The police can make bail conditions but we do not have that power. We are not in a position to restrict the constituency activities.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I understand that there will be a review process. It is right that we are doing this, as public confidence in our system as a whole is at an all-time low and how we moderate such behaviour and the associated issues are important. To allay some of the fears that have been expressed, will she say what review system will be put in place to see how effectively or not this is working?

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. In the past week, the Leader of the House and I have met several times to discuss how we might propose to the Commission what a review process might look like. At the moment, our commitment is that by the time we get to the motion—she will correct me if I am wrong—we will have a proposal to put to the House about how and when we will review. That is desperately important.

Members have raised with me their concerns, which I share, about the damaging impact of untrue allegations being made against someone. I completely share that anxiety, but I also share the anxiety that others, and sometimes the same Members, have raised with me about the damaging impact on victims of feeling as though nobody is taking them seriously. I know that there may well be, as there certainly are in other workplaces I have been involved with, victims who feel that because their complaint is not taken seriously, their career ends.

We talk a lot in this place about the possible damaging, career-ending impact on Members. I want to make sure that we do things in a proper and just way, but I also want to place on the record my concern about the damaging and career-ending impact on victims who feel that their complaint is not taken seriously. We cannot ignore them either. Nickie Aiken, who is no longer in her place, made the correct point that thousands of people work here and we should be an exemplar in how we treat them.

I want to come to the end of my speech, as I know many Members wish to speak. I know there are those—I have heard them already today and I have had private conversations with them—who are uneasy about the idea of any exclusion of MPs whatsoever. I understand those concerns, and my respect for democracy is too high for me to ignore them; we have to explore how they can work meaningfully in this process. But I also think that we are in danger of putting others at risk if we do not come up with a formal method of dealing with that which at the moment is dealt with merely by informal, hidden, not transparent and unaccountable means, by well-meaning people who simply do not have the routes to deal with what they are told about.

To those who feel that the proposal does not go far enough, let me say that I understand that view as well. When I worked with violent men, our aim was safety and that can come about through may different routes. In the system I worked in, one of those routes was exclusion, whose equivalent in non-parliamentary terms was imprisonment. That happens only where there is an end to a proper and just process, and we are not talking about there here. I worked occasionally with women but I worked mostly with men accused of violence, and I know which men I worked with changed the most. If we gave them an opportunity to engage with a constructive process and to think about whether or not there was behaviour that they themselves wanted to change, safety was more likely to be sustained. That did not always work, but I want a process that honours the experience that I and others have gained about how to do meaningful change-making work with people who have behaved on a scale from inappropriately to downright criminally.

There will be times when we have to exclude somebody. I hope it is not many, and it would be nice if it was never, but it is time we took responsibility for making sure that everyone who wears a parliamentary pass can come to work each day knowing not only that we have a complaints system, as we now do in the ICGS, but that, if they have reported an MP to the criminal justice system, there is a formal, thorough, risk-based way of dealing with it. We are not a workplace like any other; we are a representative democracy and we exist in a political world. It is not beyond us to come up with a system to balance those principles in a way that is just, that protects victims and that protects democracy.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 7:30, 12 June 2023

It is a pleasure to follow Thangam Debbonaire; perhaps she can answer the question why the Commission has changed its remit completely. In November last year, as I said in an intervention, it agreed to launch a consultation on excluding Members charged with violent or sexual offences from the parliamentary estate until such cases were concluded. That was limited to people who had been charged with violent or sexual offences.

The paper before us today says that that remit has been changed because one or two of the 22 people who responded to the consultation said it was too inflexible. What is the explanation for that change? It is said now that, because several consultees mentioned the need to allow for some flexibility in the system, the Commission’s approach is

“focused on the nature of the risk and the severity of the alleged offence rather than the stage of the criminal justice process”.

However, nobody has explained why we are making that change.

There is a fundamental difference between somebody who has been charged with an offence and somebody who has not. The person who has been charged knows exactly what offence they have been charged with. It is public knowledge. Connected with that charge is the ability of the courts to put that person on remand awaiting trial, either remanding them in custody or on bail and, if remanding them on bail, remanding them on particular bail terms and conditions. Sometimes those conditions can include a requirement that the person shall not go within so many hundred yards of a particular place or visit a house of an alleged victim or complainant.

If we stick to the original proposal from the Commission, if somebody has been charged with an offence and, when the bail conditions are considered, representations are made to the effect that somebody working in the House of Commons feels vulnerable or threatened by that person pending the conclusion of the proceedings, conditions can be placed upon that bail that would provide the necessary safeguards against the risk assessment. That process would be dealt with by the courts, it would be subject to appeal if the person concerned did not like the terms of those bail conditions and it could mean that, in certain circumstances, a person awaiting trial would not have the free run of this House of Commons if it meant he would be in close contact, in particular parts of the estate, with somebody who had brought an allegation against him.

That is a perfectly coherent, logical position. I note that one of the people who responded to the consultation effectively said that, if the charge is made and the person is the subject of bail conditions, those conditions could cover the scenario that we are concerned about. Obviously, if the charge is so serious, the person will be remanded in custody, so he will not be able to attend the House at all.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

Does the hon. Gentleman know how long on average it takes for someone to be charged? What does he suggest might happen in the intervening period to ensure that people are safe, without having a risk-based policy such as that proposed in place? What does he suggest we do?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The hon. Lady is prejudging the situation. She is saying that, if somebody makes a complaint and it is taking the police a long time to investigate it, the person under investigation should be jeopardised and treated as though they are guilty rather than innocent. I am not prepared to accept that as a proposition.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

I am worried that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood what I was trying to get across. I am not suggesting that somebody awaiting a charge is in any way guilty; that is the whole point of the fact that they are awaiting a charge. However, without a system that comes in before the point of charge—which can take a few years—and if measures should be taken to mitigate the risk to others, what does he suggest we do without the proposal we are discussing?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

In a situation where a specific person who is working on this estate has brought a complaint against somebody that is the subject of investigation but has not yet reached a charge, there is nothing to stop the House authorities making provision to look after that person and perhaps enabling them to be absent from the estate or to move somewhere else on the estate. There is no reason at all why an elected Member of Parliament should be put in jeopardy and face the prospect or the threat of being humiliated in public because he is the subject of an investigation—or she is the subject of an investigation.

Investigations are not the same thing as charges. That is why, in my view, the report we are discussing is ill-conceived and should be sent back and be subject to fresh consultation. Let the hon. Lady not forget that Members of Parliament are not subject to the Disclosure and Barring Service. As long as they are not currently serving a sentence of imprisonment of more than a year, they can stand and be elected as Members of Parliament while still on the sex offenders register. Are we suggesting that we should change the Representation of the People Act 1981 to restrict—

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Okay, the hon. Gentleman thinks we should change the Representation of the People Act. That is fine. Let somebody bring forward the proposal to do that. Let them do that expressly and overtly and say that there is a certain additional category of people who are ineligible to stand for election or to be elected to this place. What we have here is a back-door attempt to try to achieve that objective without changing the primary legislation.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the reverse of what Charlotte Nichols says is that a Member could be excluded from this House, the police process could go on for a year or two years, as she has said—and quite rightly; it does happen—no charge could be made at the end of that and, meantime, because we have set the threshold so low, the Member could find himself unable to do his duties?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman completely. That is my concern. Essentially, this proposal opens the floodgates to vexatious accusations that will deny the accused the right to make representations or appeal against any decision to exclude.

The specific proposal before the House is that somebody who is the subject of one of these vexatious accusations would not have the right to make representations to the panel or, if they did not like the outcome of that panel, to appeal against the decision. The Commission goes on to say that the system will depend

“upon the provision of concrete information from the police… In practice, this is very unlikely to happen prior to an arrest.”

Surely, though, if the police have such concrete information, as it is put, there is nothing to stop them bringing a charge? If they bring a charge, the proposals that I have referred to will be triggered, but unless and until a charge is made, the provisions will not be triggered.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

To go back to the question that I asked the hon. Gentleman in my first intervention, is he aware of how long it takes, from the point of arrest, to reach the point of charge? He says that if there is evidence, the police should charge people, and of course we all agree with that, but is he not aware that the average time for that to happen is between two and three years? That does not mean that there is no evidence in those cases for the police to act on.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Such a lengthy period of investigation between arrests and possible charge is, I agree, totally unacceptable. It is capricious and oppressive. If that is where our criminal justice system is, there is plenty of room for improvement, but two wrongs do not make a right. Delays in the criminal justice system do not mean that we should intervene in an unjust way against somebody who is the subject of an investigation rather than the subject of a charge. That is a simple point. I think that the hon. Lady is biased in favour of the potential or alleged victims, while I am biased in favour of the person who is innocent until charged and proven guilty.

Certainly, prior to the charge, when there are accusations in the air, it is bad enough that the accused may not have any idea of exactly what will happen. We know from colleagues on both sides of the House that that sometimes has a severe impact on the mental health and wellbeing of the individuals who have hanging over them the threat of a potential charge and the knowledge that an investigation of their conduct is under way. The point I am making is that the police should bring forward proceedings quickly if there is evidence in such cases. Then, the bail or remand conditions would determine the risk assessment, which goes to the heart of this discussion.

Risks relating to risk-based exclusion of MPs should, in my view, be decided by the courts as part of that process. The proposal that we should do that in-house is completely wrong. The Commission’s proposal that two MPs and one non-executive member of the Commission should comprise the adjudication panel is even odder. That would mean that people who are not Members of this House and have not been elected would be able to exclude a Member of this House who has been elected, and that that Member, once excluded, would not be able to appeal. How can that be fair?

The Commission recognises the risk of prejudice to a Member by what it is proposing, and it therefore suggests that, to ensure privacy and confidentiality, Members should be able to vote by proxy, but that proposal is totally flawed. We discussed it in the Procedure Committee—our Chair, my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley, is unfortunately unable to be here this evening because she is away on parliamentary business overseas—and we found it totally unacceptable, because the proxy system is designed for those who are on maternity leave and those with serious health conditions.

As soon as somebody is in receipt of a proxy not because they are ill, expecting a child or on maternity leave, but because they are accused of having committed a serious violent or sexual offence, the proxy system will be contaminated. How do we know that it will be contaminated? When proxy votes are exercised, that information appears in Hansard, and from what we have been told in the Procedure Committee, we know that some Members have been subject to vilification and abuse for acting as proxies for people who are absent. That is exactly the sort of situation that will arise should the proposals go forward: people will be able to work out who is acting as the proxy for those who are the subjects of suspicion and have been excluded from the House under these conditions, and those exercising the proxy will be vilified. As I say, that will completely discredit the whole proxy system.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House says that the proxy system is the way to avoid prejudice through lack of confidentiality, but I think that that is wholly ill-conceived. It is certainly not acceptable to members of the Procedure Committee, and it does not fit easily with the proposals that we are bringing forward for the revision of the whole proxy process. We have good, constructive proposals, but they would be completely wrecked if they were confused with the proposal before the House.

If we want to change the Representation of the People Act, let us be open and say, “We do not want people in this House who are on the sex offenders register. We do not want people to be Members of Parliament unless they have been submitted to the Disclosure and Barring Service.” Unless or until we take that route, which would mean changing primary legislation, I do not think that we should mess around by indulging people who make accusations—often vexatious ones—against Members of Parliament. We should not indulge them by saying that, prior to that accusation resulting in a charge, the Member of Parliament will be excluded from his duties in this House.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (COP26), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Commons Business) 7:46, 12 June 2023

I will start by repeating the words of the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House: the Commission is here to listen, and we will take note of Members’ comments today in further consideration of this issue.

I will try not to repeat the many excellent points that the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House made, but it seems to me that Westminster is very often accused of being an institution stuck in its ways and unable or unwilling to change. The excellent Clerks working on these proposals requested information from Parliaments and legislative Assemblies whose procedures share a common history with the UK, and although it is true that there was a limited number of comparisons, that should not in any way be seen as an argument for not reforming our procedures. Yes, this is a difficult and delicate area, as has been said, but given that some Members of this place like to refer to it as the mother of all Parliaments, should that not be seen as a challenge to go further and lead by establishing best practice, rather than used as an excuse not to change?

Of course, as has been mentioned, the reforms are not just about restoring the image of this Parliament and the public’s faith in democracy, but about real and tangible efforts to protect staff, and indeed other Members, through mitigation measures. In the development of the proposals, there has been a lot of discussion and consultation with a number of organisations and individuals. There has been recognition of the need to give greater priority to protecting staff and the wider parliamentary community from the risk of potential harm while also ensuring continued representation for constituents and fairness to the individual under investigation. The Commission felt that the constituents of an excluded Member should not be deprived of their right to representation in Parliament, so progress in the safeguarding of our staff should go hand in hand with looking again at forms of remote participation.

We all have a duty of care towards staff. Parliament cannot claim adherence to that principle if it fails to reform when so many people working in this place feel concern. They feel that this environment has to change, and we in the Commission have to demonstrate that we hear them. It is crucial that we provide a safe and supportive environment for individuals to voice their concerns, and that there are clear protocols to follow when reporting and taking action. We must also acknowledge the unique environment that we work in: this is not a shared office floor or open office space but a complex host to restaurants, bars and cafés where MPs and staff socialise freely. It is vital that we all feel safe here.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Does the hon. Lady think it essential that all people who work in this building should be subject to disclosure and barring?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Should all people who work in this building be subject to disclosure and barring checks?

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (COP26), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Commons Business)

I think that this place must recognise that it is the 21st century and that that protections have to be offered to staff. Staff are expressing these concerns to us. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is familiar with the concerns that have been raised, but we have certainly heard them loud and clear and we are attempting to respond to them. I think that that is an important principle that we should be supporting. We have not finalised what the final report will look like or what the decisions of the House of Commons Commission will be—that is what today is all about. The hon. Gentleman has had his say; I am trying to make my points and I will continue.

It is worth noting that testimony given to the GMB union’s parliamentary staff branch said that while many MPs were wonderful, others could mistreat their staff with relative impunity. The circumstances in which MPs can be excluded under the proposals are not limited to actions against staff, of course, but we must remember that this is an attempt to directly help to keep staff, and indeed other Members of Parliament, safe.

There are other points that I would have made, but they have already been admirably expressed by the Leader of the House and shadow Leader of the House. In closing, I want to thank very much the Clerks who worked on the report. They worked very hard on the proposals, with great sensitivity. I thank the members of the Commission, of course, the contributors to the consultation and the many other staff who contributed.

I stress again that we in the Commission are here to listen. We are keen to hear the views of other Members on the proposals. It might be that some finer details change in the future, but I hope that everyone in this House recognises that the Commission is attempting to respond to the genuine concerns raised by staff and, indeed, by many members of the public.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill 7:51, 12 June 2023

As a member of the Procedure Committee, this subject is of great interest to me, as it is to all members of the Committee. My position may not be completely beholden to that of the Committee’s Chair, so I declare that interest straight away.

For three and a half years, I have spent much of my time in this place inadvertently comparing the two institutions in which I have served: the Ministry of Defence, and the Army in particular, for 26 years and this place, as an MP since 2019. They are quite different as institutions. I shall make just a few comparisons that are, I think, useful to the debate.

First, if a member of the armed forces is accused of a crime, serious or otherwise, there is a presumption of innocence. That should be at the heart of this particular debate, as we heard earlier. The MOD has a “leave no man or woman behind” policy. It is very important that an individual who is charged or under investigation for a serious complaint is not excommunicated. The MOD deals with that often by managing it in-house or, if necessary, by moving the individual to another unit so that they can continue their responsibilities and duties elsewhere. It is important, of course, that they are not separated from the chain of command. Why? Because it is important that the chain of command gives them the moral, legal and welfare support that they need, although they may well be separated from members of the unit who might be involved or who made the accusation. It is important that we manage it in the right way, and I think that that responsibility is important in the House, too.

I thank the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House, as well as the Commission, for the effort that has gone into the report so far. We are 95% there and I am very happy with the recommendations as they stand, but I just want to draw attention to a couple of things that I think can be improved. The important thing for me is that we have a clear duty of care to all those in this place, no question about it, but that duty of care also exists towards the individual who might be accused of a particular offence. That is the theme I want to focus on.

I will be quite honest. I have been appalled at times by the ease with which we hang colleagues out to dry here in Westminster—not mentioning any names at all. When we come to this place, it is a big thing. We work hard to get here. Reputations are important and the way in which colleagues have been asked to leave the estate, or asked voluntarily to do so, for things that have been alleged is quite a brutal process. We have to respect the fact that that colleague might also need some support. We are, of course, a team, whether we are the Conservative party, the SNP, the Lib Dems or Labour, and we as Members have a responsibility to each other irrespective of the colour of our cloth.

When the headlines hit, phones can go silent. Colleagues are in the spotlight. They are vilified on social media and they are on their own. We must also remember that we are all colleagues, and all those who are not currently on the estate are also colleagues. Let us not forget that. Reputations are in tatters and it may be impossible for someone to recover from that, even if they are completely innocent of all the charges.

I think that we can do better in this place not just for the staff who are here, but for the accused. For me, the basic tenet of the entire debate is that colleagues have to be innocent until proven guilty. Yes, we are MPs; yes, we have to maintain a certain standard; but it cannot be the case that we are guilty until proven innocent. We must be innocent until proven guilty. That must lie at the heart of how we take this forward as a House.

I want to raise just three core tenets for the process. The first is the make-up and scope of panels. In this place, they have to be run by Members. For me, Members cannot be subjugated by a staff panel, irrespective of what job we are trying to do. Therefore, this must be managed and run by Members for the benefit of Members. When it comes to voting, it is up to this House to vote on which way we want to take it, not up to staff panels to do that on our behalf.

The second tenet is that the point of assessment for exclusion cannot be proposed at any point in the justice process, as is currently in the Commission’s report. In my view, it needs to be dependent on a charge being brought. In my view, just being accused of something is not justification enough for separating a Member from this place—we must be innocent until proven guilty. The report says:

“If charged, were it considered that a member was dangerous to the public, then he or she would be held on remand, and therefore, unable to be present on the estate…To exclude a member who has not even been charged, whatever accusations might be made, would be a fundamental denial of the principle that people are innocent until guilt is properly determined.”

That came out loud and clear in the report and, again, lies at the heart of the matter. A criminal charge, in my view, is the right threshold, although I accepted earlier there are difficulties with the point at which an arrest may be made and the time that it takes between the arrest and the charge. I do not have an answer for that particular issue.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

I want to make the hon. Gentleman aware that a charge in criminal law means there is a high likelihood that a jury, reasonably instructed, would find the defendant guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. That is what a charge means in law. It is not, “There is a case to answer. We’ll see you in court.” That is what it means. Does he not think that in a civil process, which this is—this is a workplace, it is a civil process—setting the point at which we as a House might act at that point in the criminal process is just too high?

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

The hon. Lady is not wrong and I concur with her point of view, but of course it is entirely possible that when a charge is brought an individual may be found not guilty in a court of law. A charge does not itself define guilt. By that same token, if someone is arrested on a charge, ultimately they have to allow that process to play out until the point at which they are castigated and removed from the estate voluntarily or otherwise. I take her point, but, for me, the Commission has work to do to draw a distinction between the point at which someone is arrested and the point at which a charge is made.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

The hon. Gentleman has just said that somebody can be charged but still be found not guilty, in the same way that somebody could be arrested and not charged. It is about the evidence that is presented. As he said at the start of his speech, we have a duty of care. We are talking about a risk-based exclusion process. It is not actually about the perpetrator, alleged or otherwise. It is about the evidence presented at that time of risk to those who remain. Can he say a little about what he proposes to do to tackle that risk if he wants to wait until charge, based on the evidence presented to the House by the police at that moment?

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention and, again, she is not wrong. I do not have an answer, but this is the key thing for me: evidence is what is used in a court of law. Are we judge and jury? Is a staff panel judge and jury? Is the evidence presented to a quango body of individuals here enough, without a charge being brought, to exclude a Member from the Estate? As I said, I think there is work to be done between the point of arrest and the point of a charge being brought.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

By the hon. Gentleman’s logic, there is no evidence of risk that could be presented by the police to this place on which we could act. Is he really saying that, or do we need a process that could assess the evidence being presented? Is he that specific about it: there is nothing that he could be told about the risk posed by somebody to people in this place that would cause him to act?

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

Once again, I find myself concurring with a lot of what the hon. Lady is saying, but my view on this question is that because we are debating it now, the answer is not clear. Ultimately, we have to allow the Commission to make further findings in respect of what the evidence does. My personal feeling is that we have to wait for the charge to be brought before we give enough credence to the evidence. Arrest, in my view, is not enough.

The second issue is how we as a House manage complaints that may be vexatious. We discussed that question earlier, but I would like the Commission to do a bit more work on it. If a complaint has been made and it is entirely vexatious, we have to be able to spot that very early on and deal with it. For example, another Member said during the consultation that

“I am concerned about malicious claims towards MPs, which are constantly on the rise and members being excluded without it being a charge, often these are politically motivated.”

If we follow that logic through, it basically means that any Member can be asked to leave the estate for any reason. Therefore, we have to put in place a process whereby credence is given to an allegation. An arrest may or may not be made, and in my view, it is the point at which the charge is brought that gives that credence to the process. As such, we have to make sure that we can properly define the gap that is in the middle.

I would like to make a further point about management of risk. For me, the important thing in this debate is how we manage the risk-based exclusion, which again is not clear from the Commission. Basically, I want to better understand how we manage the risk: who is responsible for managing that risk? Who is responsible for determining the evidence, if it exists, and who is judge and jury? How do we manage that risk? Who decides, and what factors are involved? In my view, those questions need more work before we can go firm on any vote or otherwise.

The last issue I will address is that of the proxy vote. In my view, a proxy vote has to happen. MPs are elected to do a job, and they must do that job until the point at which they are no longer able to do it—again, innocent until proven guilty. There is a requirement for MPs to exercise their judgment and represent the interests of their constituents throughout the process. Therefore, unlike the earlier recommendation from the Procedure Committee, I am completely happy with the extension of the proxy vote in this case. MPs are still MPs; they are still part of the team and need support. They must not be left on the scrapheap, either. It is important for them—for their own peace of mind and their own validation—to be able to exercise that vote via a proxy. Again, I am not comfortable with the idea that the names of those who have a proxy vote would somehow be published. Those who have a proxy vote should not necessarily be identified as having one, for all the reasons of confidentiality that we have already discussed.

I also welcome the fact that the Commission is now actively considering extending the proxy vote scheme for other reasons. Historically and currently, it has been for maternity and paternity leave, but it should be extended beyond that, to illness and those who may be excluded from the estate.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

At the moment, there is a question as to whether people who have voluntarily excluded themselves from the estate because of allegations made against them should be able to exercise proxy votes. I think the line has been taken that they should not be able to do so, because of the special circumstances surrounding their case. It would put them on a par with people who are very ill or on maternity leave.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

My understanding is that proxy votes are part of this process. No doubt the Leader of the House will verify that in her summing-up remarks, but as far as I am concerned, it is entirely appropriate that if someone is elected as an MP to do a job, they have to be able to do that job if—for reasons of force majeure or otherwise—they cannot be on the estate. Therefore, I entirely support the notion that a proxy vote should be extended to all those with legitimate reasons to not be on the estate, and I welcome that further work by the Procedure Committee.

The first point of my conclusion is that exclusion should absolutely be a last resort, as I think we have agreed this afternoon. Ideally, it should also be at the behest of the individual. I totally agree that these are unique circumstances, and that what we are discussing deals with the unlikely event that a Member might not voluntarily exclude himself or herself from the estate. My second point is that both the Procedure Committee and the Committee on Standards have suggested that the final decision to exclude could or should be put to the House. I am absolutely clear, as an individual and a Member, that that is entirely right. It is up to us as Members to make the finding in such a case—it is up to us as Members to vote.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

If it is put to the House on a vote, how will confidentiality be retained?

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

That is another element of what the Commission, the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader—Thangam Debbonaire—have to work through. Ultimately, I think it is up to us as Members to make that finding on behalf of fellow Members; it cannot be made for us by a sub-panel or a committee. Therefore, that is a further bit of work that the Committee has to go through.

My final point is an obvious one: should a Member be found guilty of a relevant offence, they would most likely receive a custodial sentence or otherwise and be subject to the Recall of MPs Act 2015. That is the point at which we are likely to cease being an MP, and I think that until that point is reached, due respect and credence should be given to all of us as MPs. A duty of care should also be given. In my view, Members should be careful what they wish for. This is a difficult debate and there is work to be done, so let us please not ignore both the duty of care that we have towards staff in this place and our duty of care to each other.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards 8:06, 12 June 2023

It is a delight to follow James Sunderland. He made a thoughtful contribution to the debate, and he is absolutely right: this is not plain sailing. It is not simple. There are complexities here, and there are moments when different principles clash. We just need to make sure that, in so far as we possibly can, we align those principles rather than let them clash.

For me, there are two principles. The first is that everybody who works in Parliament—whether as a chef, a cleaner, a contractor, a journalist, a Member of Parliament or someone who works for a Member of Parliament, or a Clerk—should have absolute certainty that this is a safe place to work in relation to both bullying and sexually inappropriate behaviour. I know there are colleagues who think that it is a safe place, but there are lots of staff who do not think it is. The ICGS is a great thing; I would argue that we are probably the first Parliament in the world that has introduced such a confidential system. It is still in its early days, but it does not entirely have the confidence of all the staff yet. One has only to look at the polling that has been done by the GMB and Unite, or speak to any of the other trade union officials—or, for that matter, those who are not members of any trade union here—to know how staff feel about some of the practices and the way we do our business in Parliament. There is a job of work to be done.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

Can I just do my second principle and then give way to the hon. Gentleman, if he does not mind? They fit together in my head.

The second principle is that an MP, just like any other member of the public, is entitled to due process and a fair hearing. It is unfortunately true that the court of public opinion is in permanent session, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There are no rules of evidence or proceeding in that court, and everybody involved in it thinks that they are the judge, the jury and the executioner. I want to make sure that everything we do in this House ensures that those two principles are met: first, that it is a safe place to work, and secondly, that there is fair due process for MPs just as for anybody else.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

I am in complete agreement: those two principles are incredibly important. The point I wanted to raise with the hon. Gentleman is one we have discussed before in the Standards Committee. Quite often, there is media reporting that 56 MPs are being investigated in relation to bullying or sexual abuse. Those figures are just completely wrong, and they give a completely misleading perspective on issues in this House. That would be around 10% of Members of Parliament. In fact, that figure relates to the total number of employees on the estate—about 7,000 Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, when reporting like that takes place, the Commissioner has a responsibility to correct those figures in order to ensure that the people who work here appreciate that safety and security are important, and so that people understand that those sorts of figures are not accurate?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

I think it was Tom Lehrer who wrote a song that goes:

“Plagiarise,

Let no one else’s work evade your eyes…so don’t shade your eyes,

But plagiarise, plagiarise, plagiarise,

Only be sure always to call it please, ‘research’.”

The hon. Member must have seen my notes, because what he said is what I was about to say, almost word for word. I am disturbed by his eyesight, frankly. What he says is true. I have rarely been so cross as when I saw reports, repeated in several newspapers, that 54 or 56 MPs —I am not sure which—were under investigation by the ICGS at that time. I spoke to the ICGS, and I knew that the figure was absolutely untrue. I spoke to the journalist concerned, who insisted on publishing the report because they had been told by a Member of Parliament that it was true. It was not true; it was utterly untrue, and it cast the whole of Parliament in a much worse light than is necessary.

As the hon. Member knows, I am one to try to insist on fairness and to ensure that when somebody has broken the rules, they are dealt with properly. My anxiety is that if people keep on writing stories that are untrue, unsourced or no more than gossip or rumour, it will undermine people’s confidence in the ICGS and the system, and that makes it more difficult for us to get a place where we have a safe workplace for everybody involved.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for what she said about what I call the crazy paving of different bodies in Parliament. I am slightly worried that at the end of this process we will add another body to the many bodies that presently govern how we operate. It is difficult for an ordinary Member of Parliament to understand, but it is even more difficult for staff and the public to understand the different sets of rules that we have. Sometimes they do not fit together properly, and that undermines confidence in democracy and therefore is a problem. That is why I hope we can do a big piece of work in the Standards Committee, and I am grateful for what the Leader of the House said about the work she will do, to see whether there are ways we can at least align things better.

I am aware, for instance, that the way a complaint might be dealt with by the police or the ICGS might remain entirely confidential right the way through to the very end, or until charge in the case of the police. In the ICGS, confidentiality will remain right through until the end. For instance, we had an ICGS case that started in the last Parliament. The person knew they were under investigation, they stood for Parliament, nobody in the political party knew that was happening, they got re-elected and the ICGS process finished and that person left Parliament. However, if someone complains to the political party, the party will suspend the Whip immediately and that is publicly known. Somewhere in that, it is not quite right and fair, and that is a place where we need to do a piece of work.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, The Cotswolds

I greatly respect the hon. Member’s work in this whole area, and I agree with his two principles on safeguarding and fairness. What we have been debating and asking about is how the panel comes to a decision. It is a serious decision, because that person who is excluded from this place may well eventually be found innocent, but the reputational damage is so great that he might lose his job as a Member of Parliament. This is therefore an extremely important matter. How can it possibly be fair that that panel, in coming to that judgment, cannot hear from the person himself or herself as to why they should not be excluded? Surely that cannot be a fair system.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

I will come to that point, but I will take it in a slightly different direction from the one the hon. Member is aiming at, for the simple reason that when the panel meets, it is not deciding whether somebody is innocent or guilty. I presume that in every instance, the Member themselves would want to co-operate with that process, because it will be in their interests so to do. That would mean they would probably take a voluntary exclusion and decide not to be here, which need never come to public attention. We have got a bit obsessed with exclusion in this process when the likelihood of an exclusion is maybe one or two a Parliament at most.

There are other measures it might be sensible to take. For instance, say a Member has been charged, for the sake of argument, with a violent offence in a pub. We might decide that it would be wise for the House to say that that person should not attend any of the bars in Parliament. Say somebody has been charged, for the sake of argument, with an offence relating to a younger member of staff. Although that name would not be known publicly, we might decide that it was sensible to say that they should not be working in an office environment where there are closed doors or where it is just them and that member of staff. We might say, “We are going to move your office. We will put you in a place where you are working in a set of rooms with other people around as well.” That would be a sensible measure.

My point is that what we do would always have to be proportionate to two things: first, the offence we are talking about; and secondly, the stage at which we are in the process. As the hon. Member for Bracknell said, nearly all these things might only apply at charge, but it might apply at police bail. If the police have gone to a court and explained to a judge that they need to take measures, the House might want to take similar measures. My point is that it all has to be proportionate to the potential offence we are talking about, to the risk that there genuinely is and to the stage at which we have got in the process.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

I thank the hon. Member for his kind words earlier. He is making some persuasive comments, but is there a danger with how the House of Commons Commission might be taking this that somehow we need to be proving a higher level of law? In other words, the rights that exist for people generally across the UK will not necessarily be afforded to MPs, because we are intervening here much earlier in the process than other workplaces might be required to do. We are different in this place—Parliament is unique and sacrosanct—but are we not in danger of demeaning ourselves by allowing each of us a lower bar of legal representation and rights?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

Well, no. The evidence given to the Standards Committee—if the hon. Member has time to read it, I urge him to do so—was that an awful lot of other workplaces do something similar and start considerably earlier than at charge. For instance, there are proper issues for a school, which is probably the only place where we would properly use the term “safeguarding”, and likewise for a youth service. For someone in the police, it is likely that the police would take far more precautionary action than we do, and far more than is even being suggested here. The bit that is different for us is that the scrutiny on us is acute. However, if we spoke to a teacher excluded from school at the point of arrest for a sexual or violent crime, they would say, “It may not have been on the front page of the Daily Mail, but everybody in my local community knows about it,” so there is enormous reputational risk.

One really important point that we must stress time and again is that, in any of these instances, this cannot involve a judgment as to whether somebody is innocent or guilty—that is absolutely the case—and our processes must guarantee the presumption of innocence all the way through to the end of a criminal justice process.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

My hon. Friend knows that I take a lot of stock from what he says on this subject, so I would be interested to know this. Is he completely content with the proposal before the House, particularly the aspect I found surprising, which is that it allows for the possibility of a Member to be excluded even prior to their arrest, basically on the word of a report from, for example, the Metropolitan police?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

Indeed, trust in the Metropolitan police is not high, and that is a problem for the House at the moment. I am aware of friends and colleagues who would like to make complaints to the police but feel that they would not be listened to properly. Vice versa, there are obviously Members of the House who do not feel that the Metropolitan police would deal with them fairly. I think it is a fair point about whether this should be before arrest, but my assumption has been that the moment of arrest, and certainly if somebody is interviewed under caution while under arrest as a suspect, is the point when, again on a proportionate basis—proportionate to the alleged offence, proportionate to the risk there might be perceived to be and proportionate to the stage at which we are—we may want to take action.

I worry that, if we do not do any of this, we will leave ourselves very exposed to further reputational risk for the House. That is my anxiety. The hon. Member for Bracknell raised the question of whether somebody could be excluded without the House voting on it. My anxiety about the House voting on the exclusion of a Member is that that will almost certainly look to the public as though the House has judged that that person, for want of a better term, is a wrong ’un. That is why if my best friend were in this process—if, for instance, they had been charged, and the House authorities thought there was a significant concern and wanted to take action, suggesting they should not come in—I would say to my best friend, “You should just not come in.” Then it would be entirely voluntary, and that would protect the reputation of the House. I think that would be in the best interests of the individual, and we would end up with a fair outcome for the complainant as well.

However, I think the House has to reserve the opportunity that we may be in a situation where somebody is absolutely adamant—saying, “There’s no way you’re preventing me from coming in”—and people may come to the conclusion of replying, “Sorry, but we think you are a genuine risk to other people on the parliamentary estate, and that now trumps anything else. Consequently, if you’re not prepared to accept this, then we will have to vote on it.” However, I think the likelihood of that happening more than once in decade is minimal. I slightly worry about doing a review, because I am not sure how long we would have to allow before we had enough cases to decide whether the review was actually valuable.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

This is a very interesting debate. Has the hon. Gentleman considered that there are several parts to a Member of Parliament’s job? One is representing constituents in this place and voting in this place, but another is listening to their constituents, visiting them, and visiting schools and other places, but there has not been much focus on that part of the job.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

No, indeed. One of the things referred to in the Commission paper, and we refer to it in the Standards Committee report, is that it is all very well dealing with here, but there is also the constituency office. I think we should be able to include that in this issue. For instance, let us say that somebody has been charged with a violent or sexual crime. I think the House authorities should be able to say to that Member, “I’m sorry, but you should make it possible for all your staff in your constituency to work from home”—that, for instance, may be an appropriate measure—or, “You’re only ever going to able to be in your constituency office with your staff with another person,” or some such measure. It is all about minimising risk. Of course, we cannot have a system in which the House says, “Oh, and by the way, you’re not allowed to go to Tesco” and so on. However, that may be a legitimate process that the police have to go down if they felt there were further risks to other people or to the community.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

I am seeking to bring my thoughts to a close, but of course I give way.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

In his last remark, does the hon. Gentleman not see how we can get these measures creeping? Where is the consistency in saying, “This panel has decided you’re not safe, Mr MP or Mrs MP, to be in the House of Commons because you are a danger to staff” or whatever, but also saying, “At this point in time, you’re not a danger to your constituency staff and you can still go to your constituency office”? This is where the creeping comes in, because is not the logic of this that, if someone is excluded from here, they get excluded from everywhere else where their parliamentary duties take place?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

I have to apologise because my hearing is going a bit, so I did not catch all of that. There is always an argument about the slippery slope, the thin end of the wedge and all of that—floodgates were mentioned earlier—but my anxiety is that if we do nothing we will be in danger of doing permanent damage to the reputation of the House and creating further anxiety for members of staff who work in the building.

I have just a few small points to make. I think we do need to address what happens in the Lords. I know we have exclusive cognisance, and it is up to those in the Lords what they do, but the ICGS is bicameral—it applies to both Houses—and we ought to have something similar for the House of Lords. I do find it quite extraordinary that somebody who has committed a significant criminal offence and gone to prison can come out and go back to the House of Lords—and, yes, Sir Christopher Chope is right that I would like to change that law as well.

I think there is a significant issue here for the political parties. Members have talked about vexatious complaints, and the most dangerous space for this is potentially within political parties. The Whips often have to do a very complicated and difficult job, and I think the pressure we sometimes put them under in this field is inappropriate. I do not like the fact that, for many years, we always used to push these things under the carpet. I think it is right that we have proper processes, rather than saying, “Oh, it will all just be sorted out somewhere in the party.” However, I do worry about whether there is fairness for people, because the best way to prevent somebody being able to stand in the next general election is to make a complaint against them to their political party. They will then lose the Whip, the party will probably take even longer than any other authority would to deal with something, the person will not be able to stand and they will have lost their job.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about vexatious claims. If we are normally here for a term of about five years and it takes two or three years to investigate whether someone should be charged, does he accept that, if he wishes to exclude people on the basis of complaint rather than charge, wholly innocent people could end up not being able to represent their constituents for two or three years before that decision is made?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

Of course I do, but I have tried to explain that I think we will mostly be dealing not with exclusion but with other risk-based actions that are about protecting the workplace. I understand the point the hon. Lady makes, but I hope I have tried to deal with it.

Turning to the adjudication panel, I think that is an inappropriate name because it contains a word that sounds like judges and that sounds like deciding whether somebody is innocent or guilty. The Commission has suggested that it should have two members of the Commission—in fact it has suggested that in this Parliament it should be two Deputy Speakers and a member of the Commission. That is the wrong set of people. First, there should not be a named set of people for a whole Parliament because, as sure as eggs is eggs, we will end up with somebody being conflicted because they are too close to the person concerned. Secondly, Deputy Speakers or Speakers are inappropriate as they are in a position of authority over Members and deal with all of them all the time. The lay members on the Commission were not appointed because they understand matters such as these; they are normally appointed because they understand the running of businesses and organisations and finances.

Our preference on the Standards Committee was therefore to have it simply stated that when a case arises a panel be brought together that includes two members of the Standards Committee and one member of the independent expert panel—so, one Member of Parliament, one lay member from the Standards Committee and one member of the independent expert panel—and that if a case ever came to either of those two bodies subsequently, they would then recuse themselves. That would end up with a better and fairer system.

For most of my time in this House we have brushed all these things under the carpet; it is a very beautiful carpet, but that does not mean we have done right. MPs often want to talk about vexatious complaints, but there is another side: lots of people feel unable to bring complaints because this is a place of patronage, power and authority. It does not feel as if we have much power a lot of the time, but many members of staff, especially young people coming to work here—I particularly feel this in relation to young gay men who come to work here—are very vulnerable and it is easy for Members to forget the power and authority they have over other people and abuse it. Although I recognise the need for fairness in relation to vexatious complaints, we must also have a system that enables people to make complaints.

My final point is that I hope we can start this process as soon as possible and have a debate on a substantive motion before the summer recess. I think that was what the Leader of the House was promising, in so far as she is ever able to promise something because other things always come along. My only request of her is that it would be nice to see the motion several days before we debate it, as that leads to better debates because people then know what they are talking about.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 8:32, 12 June 2023

I am very conscious that at this stage of the debate lots of things have already been said.

In my three and a half years in this House it has been brought home to me that in decision making in politics there is no right or wrong. It is usually about the least worst option, but doing nothing is also a decision in itself.

The shadow Leader of the House talked in her opening remarks about the three standards, and I think we all agree that they are the principles of this debate: safeguarding, fairness and democracy. Sir Christopher Chope talked about bias, but for me it is more about balance; all of us will come to individual conclusions about what we give more weight to in finding that balance.

We need to think about reputational risks to Parliament. If we were to ask a member of the public whether somebody under investigation for sexual assault or violent crime should be allowed to come on to the estate—I would like to talk later about the different bits of that investigation—they would think it reasonable that they were not allowed. Frankly, people are uninterested in the complexity and processes that surround our jobs—that we are not employees, that as a Whip I am nobody’s line manager and neither is my party leader, and the different details around allowing us on to the estate. They want to see us being held to account for our behaviours.

When debating matters relating to the House we automatically default to the impact on MPs and thinking about ourselves. That is human nature, but we need to think about safeguarding and how our actions and decisions here are perceived. This is not a normal workplace, but the public’s expectation is that when we can better align with employment practices, we should do so. Our behaviour code references everybody on the estate and I am not convinced we should expect those other people on the estate to be subject to widely different treatment.

One thing that I can bring to the debate is my police experience. I ask the Commission to think about this. I was a police officer for 12 years, and I was sexual offences-trained, so when there was a report of a sexual offence, my job was to speak to the complainer and take the initial statement. Indeed, if the complaint was of a sexual offence nature and it had just happened, my job was to take that person to their medical and to obtain productions. I would also liaise with the criminal investigation department, which would be carrying out the inquiry, to ensure that when it came to take action in relation to the suspect, it did so with as much evidence as possible. That made me think about when a potential suspect becomes aware of the police’s interest in them.

Right from the start, a police officer is making that assessment of the evidence. At an early stage, they might conclude that the evidence is not credible and therefore the investigation will not continue. We also need to be conscious of and remember that while there are 650 of us in this place, 59 of us represent Scottish constituencies, and Scottish law is different. However, the reality is that a suspect may first become aware of the investigation and that the police want to speak to them about a matter at the point of their arrest on suspicion. There is an opportunity to seek clarity about the consistency of that at police level; not only for the Metropolitan police.

I see that Kevin Brennan is no longer in his place. It pains me as a former police officer to think about the number of times I have talked in the House about trust and the lack of trust in the police, but we need to think about where complaints might come from and therefore consistency across forces in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in relation to that. Realistically, if arrest on suspicion is the point at which a suspect first becomes aware of an interest in them, that is likely to be the point at which the police first approach the House authorities to make them aware of such a complaint. The suspect will therefore be aware. For me, that takes away some of the debate that we have had, because if somebody is arrested on suspicion of an offence—they may be released without charge following that initial arrest—the police must have had some degree of credible evidence that required them to arrest that person and take away their liberty for a period of time to carry out that investigation. I hope that that threshold would meet some of the concerns raised.

I am now thinking about this issue through my second role and as the only current Whip to have spoken so far. The current system of voluntary exclusion from the estate is just that—voluntary—and inconsistent, because it is taken on a party basis, and sometimes police advice can make parties come to different decisions. If we are interested in fairness for MPs, we need to consider how the current system is not very fair for MPs as well as for complainers. The voluntary process means that much of the decision making is done invisibly by Whips, who as individuals are required not only potentially to enact some discipline but to provide the pastoral support that is so important.

James Sunderland, who is no longer in his place, talked about the real impact that a complaint—whether vexatious or otherwise—has on an individual. The Whips are the people who are required to provide support. On that basis, we need to consider that the described process in its very specific circumstances will not be taking place in isolation. If somebody is being arrested on suspicion, there is a real likelihood that the party will be aware, and the Whips and parties will be making decisions accordingly based on the same information.

Given that we are talking about safeguarding and the long-term reputation of the House, there should be scope—this is a plea—for parties to discuss ways of taking a more consistent approach to such complaints. We should not be using them as a political issue and saying that one party handles them better than others, because none of us and none of our parties are immune to that. I welcome the announcement by the Leader of the House about the forum, because that might provide an opportunity to bring things out from under the carpet, as the Chair of the Standards Committee, Sir Chris Bryant, appreciated.

The final issue I want to mention is the discussion about the right people to sit on the panels. I absolutely concur with the hon. Member for Rhondda and others who have described what we are talking about: adjudication. I raised it myself in my intervention on the shadow Leader of the House about the staff panel. I think I am in a place where I accept there needs to be somebody who is not an MP looking at the situation from a risk assessment perspective. Again, I think about that in relation to the police. In terms of the internal aspects of the police complaints process, there is a lack of trust about police officers investigating themselves. There is also potentially a lack of trust, whether we like it or not, around MPs passing judgment on ourselves. If what we are trying to do is deal with the complaints that come in and aspire to having none of those complaints in the future because we have changed the culture in this place—culture change is so important—then we have to accept that sometimes we are frogs in increasingly hot water. We become acclimatised to our surroundings and think first and foremost about ourselves as MPs, as opposed to those outwith. We therefore need an ambition that this process is about changing the culture.

To conclude, as MPs we make the laws and we must show ourselves to be accountable. We are discussing this situation because of the actions of a minority. However, those actions mean that the reputation of this House, and attracting the right people into this House, is at risk and we face a continued decline. Not only must we take steps, but we must be seen to take steps. Only then will we start to change the culture and present to the public the face we want to present as Members of this place.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Chair, Finance Committee (Commons), Chair, Finance Committee (Commons) 8:41, 12 June 2023

I wanted to contribute to today’s debate given my role on the House of Commons Commission, and having worked with the Commission across the past few months since taking on the role of Chair of the House of Commons Finance Committee in March this year.

I want to start by echoing all the points made by the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire. Indeed, there have been a number of excellent speeches and lots of food for thought for the Commission. By the time I was appointed to the Commission, the report and the actions proposed had moved past their infancy and were being developed in detail. I am glad, however, that the measures are being brought forward. There is a clear desire—and an unfortunate necessity—for such measures among people across the parliamentary estate and community. Strengthening the safeguarding of all on the parliamentary estate is something which should be taken seriously, so it is reassuring that the House has made good progress.

Protecting and safeguarding our staff, House staff, all passholders and visitors to the estate must be a top priority. The majority of respondents to the consultation run by the House supported the principle of exclusion in relation to alleged violent or sexual offending, and some responses, notably from Members’ staff branches of the GMB and Unite, and the House of Commons trade union side, made their representations on behalf of their members which collectively amount to thousands of members of the parliamentary community. The weight behind their submissions should therefore not be discounted.

For too long, when things go wrong, Parliament has relied on informal or incredibly slow processes to deal with allegations of sexual misconduct against Members. I appreciate concerns raised regarding the constitutional rights of MPs to attend Parliament. That is why voters must have a right to be represented by a proxy vote and why a Member has the right to anonymity, as they are innocent until proved guilty. But to take a seat in this Chamber is a privilege and the role of an elected Member of Parliament is one which should be deeply and intrinsically respected. MPs must therefore meet the highest standards of behaviour.

Parliament must also be a model workplace for organisations across the country. When allegations are brought forward, processes must work in tandem, and our parliamentary community should be protected. But before that step, we need to embed a culture in which people feel safe and confident to come forward—something that recent events have shown is sadly not the case. The policies we adhere to in this House must therefore be updated and strengthened, so that all passholders and visitors are safeguarded.

I would like to thank all members of the Commission and the Commission’s fantastic Clerks, Gosia McBride, Ed Potton and especially Sarah Petit, who led on the project and put in months of work into bringing these proposals forward. I urge colleagues to vote in favour of these proposals when they are eventually laid before the House, and I sincerely hope that the Leader of the House will bring the vote to the House this side of recess.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow 8:45, 12 June 2023

I think there is some common ground among contributors to this debate. It is not innocence or guilt that should be in question—this is about our responsibilities. It is about the probability of harm or further harm when sufficient evidence has come to light to merit the involvement of the police. The Leader of the House said that she was here to listen, so let me offer what I believe is probably a counterbalance to some of what has been said today. It is critical to recognise that we are talking about a risk-based exclusion process; this is not about the person who has been accused. We have a responsibility to act because this is about the risk of harm to people in their jobs and in their lives as part of their connection to Parliament.

In parts of this debate, it has almost seemed as if we have forgotten the victims, the potential victims and the risk of harm. That is to our discredit as a House, because we face such a major challenge, and we must be honest about that. I can reassure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I will abide by what you said at the start of this debate, but, frankly, it is terrifying to me that you had to ask us not to talk about individual cases. We are all living in an environment where we know how pressing it is to resolve this matter, because we know of the number of cases involved.

I recognise the passion that Sir Christopher Chope brings to this debate, but I must be honest: I do not think that arguing that somebody who is on sex offenders register can also be an MP is quite the attack on these proposals that he thinks it is. If anything, it shows that, for so long, this place has lived by rules that no other workplace—frankly, no other planet—would think were reasonable. He says that he is biased towards the accused. Well, that should automatically rule him out of this process, in the same way it would if somebody were biased towards the victims. This is about risk. It is about how we interpret risk and our responsibility in this regard.

I am sorry that James Sunderland is no longer in his place. I listened patiently to what he said and I was very sympathetic to the thoughtful way that he approached this matter, but he kept saying that we need to look at this again, that we need to kick the can down the road one more time. We have been doing that in this place for years—that is what the cacophony of different organisations reflects. Every single time that we kick this issue into the long grass, say that it is too complicated and put it into a box because we cannot deal with it, our constituents think two things: “Hang on, in my workplace we had to deal with this” and “What planet are they on?”

It was 2017 when the #MeToo movement gave people the courage to come forward in this place with what was, frankly, the tip of the iceberg of the challenge we face. It is now seven years later, and we still have not made the progress that we would all like to see.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Both my hon. Friend James Sunderland and I were talking about the importance of the presumption of innocence before being proved guilty. That is why I say that I have a bias in favour of the accused. The accused is innocent until proven guilty, and the hon. Lady seems sometimes to forget that.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

My concern is the concept of bias, because it means that the judgments that the hon. Member makes are not value-free. We need a process that people can have confidence in and that will act. In the last seven years we have seen time and again that what little reputation this place had has been shredded as a result of our failure to have those processes. It is not about the accused but about the hon. Gentleman’s concept of bias. He could not hear someone’s case without fear or favour if he were on a jury, but that is not what this is about.

The hon. Gentleman is concerned about vetting and barring; I used to work for the Scouts, where it was pretty standard to have vetting, barring and DBS checking for our volunteers. It was not seen as an unusual or difficult thing to do. I suspect that most people in daily life would be fairly shocked that Members of Parliament do not have that. They would expect a level of professionalism and safeguarding because of the kinds of cases that we might deal with and the kinds of people who might come and seek our help, and that would not be unreasonable.

The hon. Member needs to take seriously the point made by my hon. Friend Charlotte Nichols about just how long it takes for cases to be heard and for the police to gather evidence when someone is arrested. We do not construct the system in a vacuum, so we must take account of the fact that, as Wendy Chamberlain pointed out, once someone is arrested, they will know that a complaint has been made. That is when the clock starts ticking. We know that this has been going on. In January, the Fawcett Society said that 69% of women MPs and 50% of all MPs—I presume men, too—had witnessed sexist behaviour and sexual harassment in Parliament. They had seen behaviour they thought was inappropriate in a workplace in the last five years.

The permanent swamp of complaints that we are living in means that the concerns are not without foundation. It is up to us all to recognise not just the individual examples but the collective challenge that we face to tackle that culture. It was not just in 2017 that people came forward; in 2018, Laura Cox had an independent review; in 2018, the Women and Equalities Committee made recommendations; in 2019, Gemma White produced a report and Naomi Ellenbogen produced a report for the Lords. I completely agree with my hon. Friend Sir Chris Bryant that it cannot be just about MPs but must be about this place as a whole. The reality of daily life as a Member of Parliament is that they will interact with everyone on the estate, including their staff and the people who come and visit. It is not an unusual concept in any other workplace, but somehow we think we are different, and things are too complicated to make progress. Little wonder the cases still come; little wonder the Deputy Speaker has to issue such a warning.

My worry is that we will deter people from coming forward. We will be unable to address these issues if we do not get the process right, and we will deter people from coming forward if they have to wait until charge. They might continue to be in a workplace with someone they have made a complaint about. The police will have deemed it serious enough to arrest that person and to come to the House authorities about them, yet they still have to be in contact with that person every single day if they want to do their job. We must trust that the police would not come forward with information were they not concerned that we needed to address a risk.

As the people who make the safeguarding legislation, we cannot say, “Sorry guv, this is all too complicated for us, so in this place we won’t have the rules that we ask of other places.” It is right that we do not ask our Whips, who have to do an incredibly difficult job in managing us all at the best of times. As someone who spends too much time around toddlers, I do not envy the Whips, because it feels like a harder job sometimes.

We cannot have a system that is immune to the impact on political parties. Again, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda was right to talk about the interactions that exist and the need to have a process that people feel is fair and firm. Patronage and power are infused throughout this place, and that does not stop when someone is arrested. Indeed, the pressure on the person who has come forward becomes even greater. It is our responsibility to address that.

The Leader of the House said that she is looking to hear views, but let me make a simple plea: why do we not do what we ask of other workplaces in the legislation that we ourselves have put in place? Sexual harassment at work is specifically outlawed as a form of unlawful discrimination by the Equality Act 2010. This is not about narrow points of process—I pay tribute to the Clerks who have worked on the report—but about us doing what we expect of other workplaces. Rather than having multiple processes where people can get clogged in the system and no one has any confidence about who is doing what to tackle an issue, we should have one simple process in which we can interact. It is not so complicated to have interaction between the political parties, the ICGS and this House, if we will it.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

To what extent is the hon. Lady sympathetic to the plight of those who are on the receiving end of false accusations? My understanding is that she herself has been on the receiving end of vexatious allegations that related to social services and her children. From that, she must feel the enormity of the burden that such false accusations bring upon somebody’s shoulders. Does she not have any sympathy for other Members of Parliament in that regard?

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

I think the hon. Gentleman has missed the point I was trying to make earlier: it is not about sympathy or bias, but about trying to have a systematic process that allows us to act as a House. That matters because every Member of Parliament has responsibilities as an employer. Under the Equalities Act 2010, we have a duty of care to our staff and to the people who work with us here, to make sure we are creating a safe environment. Whatever our private experiences, the issue is how we collectively uphold that. Frankly, if the hon. Gentleman does not do that and uphold his role in safeguarding, then my staff are at risk, as well as other members of staff. We get this right together, or we do not get it right at all.

We can get it right if we choose to, and if we follow the requirements put on any other workplace. Employers have a duty of care and are legally liable for sexual harassment in the workplace if they have not taken reasonable steps to prevent it. We make that a requirement for any business or public agency in our constituencies, which is why our constituents will be watching the debate agog that we cannot get our heads around that idea.

There are no minimum requirements: all employers are expected to have an anti-harassment policy and monitoring of its implementation, and clear processes for reporting harassment, protecting the victims and taking action if harassment occurs. That is why the cacophony of different organisations is a challenge, because it makes it hard for people to see how we are implementing the requirements that we ask of other workplaces. It is also why the risk-based exclusion policy should form part of that process. It should show that we take sexual harassment and serious violence seriously enough to have a process in place, so that if the worst comes to the worst, we can act.

In order to uphold those legal requirements, I would argue that the policy should cover all those who have a pass and all areas in which their status as a passholder means they are in a position of power. Again, we cannot put constituencies into the “too difficult” box if somebody claiming to represent Parliament might present a risk of harm. In reality, people will ask, “What did you do when you knew there was a challenge?” That is what the process is about. We cannot be good employers, upholding our duty of care, if we do not hold each other to account.

We need a process where if a disclosure is made—not tittle-tattle or gossip, but a disclosure—there are formal responsibilities. In any other workplace, that would be standard. If someone reported something to a senior manager, there would be an expectation that they would act on it. Indeed, a senior manager might say, “Do not tell me something if you do not wish me to act.” Frankly, I do not blame people who have gone to the press because they have seen the failures in our process; I blame us for not acting more quickly to resolve the situation. I hope, appreciate and understand the need to have the debate today and I am pleased we will have a motion before the summer recess, but I recognise that it cannot be just about MPs. It has to be about everybody who has a pass and has that status within Parliament.

None of this will change the culture, which we all know needs to change, whereby power corrupts and people use it to abuse. Most do not, but we know some do and consistently will without a system that tackles that. This is not about MPs marking their own homework. It is right that we bring in a third-party challenge from lay members, who are people who have to deal with the issue in their day-to-day workplaces. It is also right that we use the proxy voting scheme to deal with some of the issues that arise. As somebody who has been part of a proxy voting scheme, I argue that it is not the reason why we get abuse from people.

Safeguarding does not have to mean no socialising. It is perfectly reasonable for people to be able to go for a drink together, through the long hours that we do in this place, without that being inappropriate, but the fact that some Members are inappropriate means that we need to act and that we need a speedy resolution process. However, that speedy resolution also means resolving the issues involving multiple bodies. There is a general election on the horizon, and I would wager that most female MPs will say that the first question they are asked by other people—especially women—who are thinking about standing is “Is it safe?” They will ask, “Is it safe for my family? Will I receive abuse? What sort of behaviour will I have to deal with? Will it be like being around a bunch of toddlers?” I suspect that most of us will give an answer that we would not really want to defend.

We can change this. The public only have the chance to elect Members every five years, and perhaps none of us will there by the time these proposals are implemented, but we all have a responsibility to those whose voices are not being heard in our political process, because they look at this place and think we are all complicit. I hope that Sir Christopher Chope and I can find common cause in wanting to make it possible, in our democracy, for every voice to be heard. If this is a barrier, we can address it, but let us address it soon, because for too long those voices have not been heard, and for too long the consequences for the House and for democracy have been seen.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit) 9:00, 12 June 2023

I am glad that this is just a general debate, because I suspect that were there to be a vote at the end, many Members, even those who have grave doubts about these proposals, would feel almost compelled to go through the Aye Lobby, for the very reasons that have been given by some of those who have spoken this evening. We have heard that we must restore the image of Parliament, that we must respond to the concerns of our constituents, and that we must consider the reports in the press about this place. I suspect that many people would have thought to themselves, “Although I am not satisfied with all the proposed safeguards, rather than put my head over the parapet and go through the No Lobby, I will go through the Aye Lobby”, and I think that in the context of what we have before us, that would have been wrong.

Of course this should be a safe working environment, and of course a blind eye should not be turned to Members of Parliament who disgrace themselves, disgrace this place and disgrace their constituents through their behaviour. We have a moral duty—apart from our political duty—to ensure that that does not happen. Let me explain my main concern, which we have already heard expressed by others this evening. This started off as an exercise: what do we do if people are charged? I have looked at the evidence, and some, although not a majority, asked, “What about before charge?” I suspect that there was a bit of running for cover. If some people are saying, “You are covering up until the person is charged”, the goalposts have been moved. I do not know what was in the minds of the people who eventually wrote the report, but I suspect that behind their concerns was the question, “Are we being seen to be too lenient, or having a desire to cover up the offences of people who do wrong in the workplace?”

We should look at the threshold that is being set here. When the police have credible evidence, it is reported to the panel. We know what happens, especially in high-profile cases. Let us put ourselves in the place of a senior police officer. An allegation is made, and is passed upwards. “Do you know what has happened in Westminster? An allegation has been made against such-and-such a well-known person.” It would be a very brave police officer who said, “Let us just leave this for a moment, see what further evidence there is, and investigate this case.” The danger is that if the allegation is correct, and if something even worse happens and that gets into the press, the first thing journalists will ask—and, I suspect, the first thing that some Members will ask—is “Why did the police not tell us?” There will be what is almost a default position at the very first line of defence. Should we take the precautionary attitude, even though we have not investigated the matter fully, rather than take the risk that this could be a bad individual who could repeat the offence and hurt someone else? Let us report it to the panel. I suspect that once the panel gets credible information, as it is described, from the police, there will not be too much willingness on the panel’s part to sit back and say, “Let’s look at these allegations a bit more closely”, especially if the individual concerned does not even have the opportunity to argue the case to the panel that the allegations are totally spurious.

Of course the allegations might be genuine, but we know that there are a number of people out there who do not like our politics, who do not like MPs full stop or who think we are all a bunch of wasters, and there are also some disturbed individuals, and they will make allegations. We have evidence of the police being given allegations—the Carl Beech case and Operation Midland are good examples—and of individuals being dragged through the dirt, with no charges ever being made but reputations being ruined. We cannot ignore the fact that if we take a cautionary approach because people are afraid of what might happen if we do not act immediately, individuals in this House could find their reputations damaged.

Let us look at what the impact will be. We have heard tonight that this is not about exclusion and that this process might never be used, but the very title of this debate, “risk-based exclusion”, indicates where this is going. An individual is going to find themselves unable to do their duties in this House, on the basis of credible information that has not even reached the point of the police thinking it serious enough to arrest them, question them and charge them. They cannot do their job. They can proxy vote, but that is not the main job of an MP. The main job of an MP is to listen to constituents here, to take part in debates, to express views, to go into Committees and to try and shape legislation, but they will be excluded from doing all that.

The report indicates that

“the Commission is not proposing any changes to what Members can and cannot do while absent from the estate”,

but the logic is that we cannot stop there. If we think that someone is a risk to individuals here, they will be a risk to individuals elsewhere as well.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

I agree in principle that some safeguarding measures should be taken outside the House, but the right hon. Gentleman is failing to recognise that this is about our duties as a House. What would it mean, in a context where we had chosen not to act to put some sort of safeguarding policies and procedures in place, if someone who we chose not to exclude—were that proportionate and reasonable—went on to reoffend? This is about what our responsibilities and duties would be as employers and as a House, if we allowed that to happen.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

I agree with the hon. Lady on this one. If we go down the route of saying that an individual should not be in this House because they are a danger to staff, they are not going to be any less of a danger to the staff in their constituency office. That is why the very next paragraph in the report, paragraph 31, states:

The Commission noted the strength of feeling in relation to the management of risk in constituency offices and agreed to write formally to the Speaker’s Conference”.

So we are going to find, on the basis of a credible allegation—which, by the way, has not led to the police arresting or charging anyone—that an individual could be excluded from this House and eventually excluded from their constituency duties in their own locality. All this will be done on the basis of allegations that have not been tested. It has been glibly dismissed, “Oh, it is not the panel’s role to take over the role of the judicial system. The panel’s job is not to find somebody guilty or not guilty.” All I have to say is that, if the panel makes a decision that someone is not safe to be in this place and should therefore be excluded, even though the panel might try to keep it secret, it will not be too long before that individual is known. That Member will have a proxy vote and will not be seen about the place, and we know how rumours go around.

People might say, “No, no, the panel is not there to find anybody guilty,” but by default that person will be regarded as guilty because very severe action has been taken against them—action so important and so severe that they have been excluded from doing their job—even though they have not been arrested or charged.

It is not just vexatious claims; it could also apply to cases where a person has made a complaint, genuinely believing, “That MP’s behaviour was inappropriate, so I’m making a complaint.” They might be convinced in their own mind—it is not that they are trying to do somebody down—even though the legal test has not been met to justify the allegation.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I refer to my earlier comments about needing clarity on what that credible evidence aspect means, because I believe it is likely to come at a point where a suspect has been arrested on suspicion and put under interview. The credible evidence required for a person to lose their liberty in order to be interviewed would be there.

The challenge is simply that the Commission does not have any power over MPs in their constituency. The Commission only has control over Members on the estate. I agree there is a gap, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Commission does not have that power? That is where the disconnect comes from.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

I accept that, but the report talks about referring this to the Speaker’s Conference to see what measures could be taken, because it is recognised that there is a logical step here. That is why it is so important to get this right, so that we know when it is safe to trigger some sanctions against an MP where allegations have been made. I think the threshold that has been set, of credible allegations being made to the police—who I believe will act in a precautionary way—is far too low a bar that will lead to situations in which Members could find themselves unjustly treated. The Chair of the Standards Committee, Sir Chris Bryant, talked about the principle of fairness, which will not be met.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

I want to pick up the right hon. Gentleman on his use of the term “sanctions.” Again, when we talk about a risk-based approach and about mitigating some of those risks, exclusion is not a sanction. Exclusion is a safeguarding proposal that is done without prejudice, in the same way that, in any other workplace, people can be suspended while an investigation is carried out, for safeguarding purposes. We have 650 individual employers, as well as the House itself, so does he not think that we have the same duties and responsibilities around safeguarding as any other workplace?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

Where an individual is excluded from coming here, from meeting constituents here, from talking to lobbyists here and from taking part in debates here—eventually, that exclusion could stretch beyond this House—there is hardly any way to describe it other than as a sanction, because that individual would be prevented from doing certain things that are an integral part of their job.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the current system also fails those where credible allegations are made, as such allegations come to a Whip and a voluntary arrangement to be excluded or to stay away from the estate is made? Does he accept that this proposal is a clarification of the process that currently exists in a more—“underhand” is not the word—low-level way?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

I do not see it as that, because what individual parties decide to do to safeguard their own reputation is up to those parties, and MPs sign up to that as members of their party. This also shows that parties do take these issues seriously; suggesting that we have an absence of any control or safeguards at the moment is just not correct.

The last point I wish to make is about the length of time that this process can go on. Members have talked about how long a police investigation takes and how long it takes to get to a point where someone is arrested or charged—that process can be much longer. Where allegations are credible and it is clear that there is evidence, the police will act and can act quickly, so that we get to the point of charge. I find it incredible that Members should think that because the police process is long—it might take three years before they decide that there is not a case and they are not going to charge an individual—an individual should be excluded from doing their job for that time, with their reputation being ruined over that period. We must have safeguards and we cannot ignore the fact that some Members misbehave, but we must recognise that we have to be fair to those Members.

Let me go back to something a Member said about how we must put in place processes that safeguard the reputation of this House. It does not matter what processes we put in place—we can have whatever processes we want. If people behave wrongly, the reputation of this place is going to be tarnished in any case. The message we should be taking tonight is that all individual Members have a duty to maintain the reputation of this place.

Every day I walk through the doors of this place, I am honoured to think that many people who do not know me and probably will never see me, because they will never have any problems to come to my constituency office with, put their trust in me to be their representative. If we all took that view of life, perhaps we would not behave in a way that tarnishes the image of the place and we would not need to put these processes in place. I believe that what we have before us tonight is flawed.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy) 9:17, 12 June 2023

Let me take us back five years, to when Dame Laura Cox told us that 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.”

The House of Commons staff who bravely came forward at the time, shared their stories and gave evidence to Dame Laura felt for the first time that they were being listened to and that they had not spoken out in vain. There was a sense that we were beginning a process that would oversee real change in the culture of this place. Five years on, we must ask ourselves: can we be confident that the change in culture that the Cox report said was absolutely necessary has happened?

I came to this place to fight for better working conditions for everyone in this country, including people who work here. It is only right that we should aim to be one of the best places to work. As the shadow Leader of the House said, we should be an exemplar of good employment practice. Frankly, it took too long to introduce the independent complaints and grievance process, and the experience of it to date suggests it has not reached the stage of development where it carries everyone’s confidence. There are definitely lessons to be learned from the experience so far, but we are heading in the right direction. The issue being discussed tonight is part of that journey towards this becoming, as far as is possible, a safe and secure place of work, just as we would want for all our constituents and just as every other employer should be.

A number of hon. Members have talked about how we should be following the lead of every other workplace: if there is a risk in the workplace, the employer has a duty to take steps to minimise that risk. As far as I can see, the only reason there is even a debate about this is not that Members are some special category of people who deserve to be treated differently, but that there is a clear question being ventilated tonight about striking the right balance between ensuring that people are able to work in a safe environment free from fear, and ensuring that people who are here to represent their constituents are not disenfranchised by being forced to leave the estate.

The fact that we are not voting on the proposals tonight shows that there are issues still and that we do not yet have our own house in order on this question, but it is vital that we address it. As the report states, the great majority of Members who responded do not oppose the principle of excluding Members for allegations of violent or sexual acts. Just two Members who responded to the consultation disagreed, citing the principle of innocent until proven guilty. We have heard that mentioned a number of times in the debate, but I think people are conflating a non-prejudicial suspension with a finding of guilt.

In every workplace it is quite possible to suspend someone without having a finding of guilt attached to them. We are not going to be replacing the role of the court. I believe that the risk assessment process and the adjudication panel are as good a way as possible to deal with that question of risk. The panel will have ample opportunity to weed out vexatious complaints—another concern that has been raised. That is another reason why we should accept that the threshold for involvement can be lower than a formal charge.

It is not clear from the report what opportunity there will be for the Member affected to make representations. The Leader of the House suggested that there would be such an opportunity, but I did not see that set out in the formal process in the report. It would be a good thing for the Member affected to have that opportunity to make representation and the adjudication panel would probably be the right stage for that. Of course, if the person who is being complained against can make representations, I would say the victim should be able to do so as well.

I certainly do not think a vote or a debate in this Chamber on the question would be appropriate. We cannot possibly have an informed debate on something of that level of detail without risking a breach of confidentiality, as has been mentioned, and indeed possible inadvertent breaches of sub judice rules. This is not the right forum for matters of that nature to be debated or discussed; they should be left to a private panel away from the glare of the Chamber.

I would presume that, if a Member did have an opportunity to make a representation to the panel, they would deny any wrongdoing. I would hope that, unlike with the ICGS, that denial would not be seen as a reason to double down on punishment. It should be accepted that a denial in the context of a “without prejudice” suspension, coupled with engagement, which we would expect from the Member, could actually lead to a pragmatic solution being found, which would not always necessarily mean a complete exclusion from the estate. It is clear from the report that that is possible.

I know that some will consider that the threshold for intervention is too low if charges have not been brought, but that is the threshold for the process to begin. I think we have probably all agreed that currently police investigations take far too long, but it is simply too long for something that serious to be left hanging in the air. We cannot possibly determine in this Chamber tonight every set of circumstances in which expulsion would be appropriate, so it is right that we set out a process to deal with that and for that process to be robust and thorough enough that we can have confidence it will be fair on all.

However, the key is what the report says about flexibility. The panel will have flexibility to deal with the circumstances of the cases that come before it, and that seems to me the right way to do it. As I have already mentioned, that could include mitigations falling short of total exclusion. The process would be sensitive to the facts of each individual case—that is what would happen in every workplace, and it is what we should do here.

As we have said, an exclusion from the estate does not mean that the Member is completely excluded from the process. They could vote by proxy, and they would be able to submit written questions or write directly to Ministers on particular issues. It is hard to envisage any circumstances in which those measures would not be available. We need to think about the processes that the independent complaints scheme has dealt with so far. The speed and the quality of those investigations needs to be dramatically improved. That is something that we can deal with here; we can set performance targets for it. It is not in anyone’s interest—not the victim, not the accused, not the reputation of this House—for complaints to take 12 to 18 months to reach their conclusions. The police will take as long as they need to, but we should have a far greater grip on how long it takes for internal complaints to be dealt with.

I remind Members of what Dame Laura Cox envisaged for internal investigations. She said that they should

“be conducted by someone whose status, independence, experience and expertise are beyond question,” and that

“it has to be a rigorous process, a transparent process and one that is seen to be fair to both sides.”

I do not think that we are quite there on that. I will not go into detail on the flaws that I have seen in investigations, but we should be in no doubt that this serious matter must be looked at again, and I welcome the commitment to doing so.

On the proposals before us, I echo what other Members have said: we need a vote on them shortly. We need to iron out the differences of opinion, ideally before the summer recess. As employers here, we have a duty of care towards everyone in this place, and we do not want to be seen as falling short because we are still arguing about the niceties of process. We would not accept that in any other workplace. We have to set the standard on these things, not drag our heels.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 9:27, 12 June 2023

It is a pleasure to follow my good and hon. Friend Justin Madders. I have been touched by the thoughtfulness with which he has addressed this question privately and publicly. He has given me wise counsel on many occasions, and I am grateful to him for reminding us that the ICGS process came from a good place and that there is still a lot of work to do. I agree and hope that he will take part in the review that is due to take place later this year—his contribution will be extremely valuable. I am also glad of his reminder that many of us came here to fight for safe and secure workplaces. In the Labour and trade union movements, that is really part of our DNA, and I think that was a good tone to end on.

Sammy Wilson clearly has many concerns. I hope that, if he takes time to listen to the responses and the opening speeches from the Leader of the House, me, and other members of the Commission, we can talk about how his concerns might be dealt with.

I am glad that my hon. Friend Stella Creasy, along with my hon. Friend Sir Chris Bryant, brought up the fact that this is not about judging innocence or guilt; it is a risk-mitigation process. I know that others will still not be convinced, but I hope that they will take the time to listen to all sorts of views, as we have done this evening. I am particularly pleased that we have had an incredibly respectful and thoughtful debate. I think it far better that we do that and listen to each other despite our differences, even if we disagree robustly.

I am grateful to my friends from the Commission—my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson and Deidre Brock—for adding their support to the work that has gone on and for rightly paying tribute to the House staff, who have helped us, particularly Sarah Petit, who has put in a really long shift.

James Sunderland started out by saying that he thought he agreed with us on about 95% of the proposals, and went on to say the many ways in which he did not. Again, he made some very thoughtful points and it was interesting to see the difference between him and Sir Christopher Chope. The Procedure Committee said that as a body it did not like the use of proxies, but the hon. Member for Bracknell said that he disagreed and I think it is a good sign that we are all willing to listen to one another’s point of view.

Several Members made the point that if a Member is excluded without a proxy vote, there is a democratic deficit and that it is not the fault of the voters if a Member has voluntarily or non-voluntarily had to exempt themselves. We have dealt with non-voluntary absence due to illness. This is different, but in neither case is it the fault of the voters. Putting that proxy vote in place is critical.

I am particularly grateful to my colleague Wendy Chamberlain for bringing her experience of the police to this place. It has been invaluable and is a really important part of the debate. She identified for us the need for political parties not to compete on how well or not they deal with complaints but to try to help each other raise our game collectively. She also mentioned the role of Whips, and I am grateful to her for doing so. I was a Whip for many years, and the role is often misunderstood. Whips put in so much work to support people in complex situations, and they do it behind the scenes. I have witnessed Whips putting in a solid shift for months and months while at the same time being criticised for not doing so; I knew that that was not the case. I certainly saw that happen more than once in previous Parliaments. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for what she does as a Whip in her party and to Whips on both sides of the House for what I know they do.

I want to finish with the contribution made by my hon. Friend Sir Chris Bryant. It was helpful that he familiarised himself with the subject to a great extent—it is also great when he brings in a quote from Tom Lehrer, and that was a pleasure. He is right that we need to consider the language, and I am going to glance at the Leader of the House at this point. He highlighted the term “adjudication”, but also the term “exclusion”, which has been mentioned by many Members. Having “exclusion” in the title has perhaps led Members to think that that was the entire point—the A to Z—and it is not. That was a good challenge, thoughtfully made.

My hon. Friend also challenged us on the various processes. He and the Leader of the House mentioned the need for a review of the many, many, many processes we now have, which he said are not necessarily understood by Members, let alone the public. That is right, and I am therefore glad that we might see some progress on that. I also salute him for bringing up the impact of incorrect media stories, however they may occur. He and his friend from the Standards Committee, Andy Carter, who is no longer in his place, mentioned the impact of stories such as the one that claimed that 56 MPs were under ICGS investigation. I hate to repeat it, because I know that it was not the case, but it is important that we explore—perhaps as a Commission but perhaps with other bodies in Parliament—how we rebut such stories without coming across as defensive, which I also would not want to do. That has to be done thoughtfully, but I like the fact that my hon. Friend reflected on the principles that underpin what we are trying to do, which are very important to me.

Finally, when the Leader of the House introduced the debate, she introduced a couple of new initiatives she is bringing about and it is excellent to see a Leader of the House taking this responsibility seriously. We all do that as Commissioners, but she is doing it in her role as Leader of the House. I look forward to discussing the issue with her further. She has been extremely collaborative and consultative with other Members from different parties on this process so far and I look forward to hearing more from her in due course.

I want to close by saying that I did not expect the debate be so measured and thoughtful, and I was wrong. I am glad I was wrong, because we still have strong feelings. I know that there are people in this Chamber who disagree strongly and I am grateful to everybody for showing that although we may not necessarily agree, we can disagree in a respectful way.

I end with the challenge from the right hon. Member for East Antrim to remember that to walk through these doors is an honour and privilege and that every day we should live up to that. Would that it were so and that we did not have to discuss this issue, but that is a good place for us to end. Much as I have disagreed with him on many of the points he has made, I respect the way he has made them and I value the fact that he has reminded us that every single day we walk through this place is a privilege, not a right, and that we do it on behalf of our constituents.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons 9:34, 12 June 2023

I start by thanking all Members who have contributed to this important debate. I am sure that as we have done so, we have all been very conscious that people will have been listening in—members of staff and colleagues—who are very anxious and concerned about these issues. I hope we have demonstrated to them that we take these matters incredibly seriously and want to do the right thing. I absolutely agree with the shadow Leader of the House, Thangam Debbonaire: we have had a good and thoughtful debate, which I think has been very helpful to the Commission, and we have done so with great care. In his remarks, Justin Madders summed up the care that I think we all take in these matters.

I will attempt to sum up, and particularly focus on some of the tough issues that still need to be dealt with, so with a caveat that I may not be providing answers that satisfy all Members, I hope they will take comfort from the fact that we have at least identified what the questions are. First, many areas of concern that colleagues have raised are not covered by the scheme and would not be affected by it. Sammy Wilson, for example, spoke about many issues that are live concerns at the moment with the processes that we have. This scheme will not in any way affect what the police do—when a serious allegation is given to them, they already notify the House authorities. Neither does it cover matters that my hon. Friend Dr Johnson raised about what goes on off the estate. We recognise that we are talking about a limited aspect of the House’s authority.

The scheme does not cover Members’ obligations to their own staff if there are allegations against those members of staff. It also does not cover a situation that might arise where there are concerns about an hon. Member’s behaviour, but those concerns have not risen to the level of information being given to the police and, therefore, the police passing that information back to the House authorities. It is a very narrow proposal that does not deal with those issues, and the Commission is very aware that it does not.

In answer to Stella Creasy, who raised the very important question of why this is so complicated, I would say that it is because it relates not just to one workplace; there are hundreds of workplaces. It is about our own constituency set-up, whether that is on the estate or off it. It is about the House as well, and—as has been referenced in the debate—we are not employees. We are also the employer of our staff, and reference has been made in the debate to the fact that that issue is being looked at by the Speaker’s Conference.

Turning to some specifics, I thank the Chair of the Standards Committee, Sir Chris Bryant, for his contributions. He has made some helpful suggestions about the composition of panels, and I entirely agree with him that we sometimes need to zoom out and look at the entire standards landscape, and that how we work with other agencies is important. In his remarks, he gave very helpful examples of mitigations that could be taken aside from exclusion—barring someone from using the bar, drinking on the Terrace and so forth. As a point of fact, we already do that, and it is staff who do that, although the Serjeant at Arms enforces it. We already take some actions.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

I think normally the final decision is taken by the Administration Committee, so there is yet another Committee in the House that is taking decisions in this field. That is why all of this needs tidying up.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I quite agree with that point, and the hon. Gentleman is right to say that gumption needs to be applied to these cases.

We are all grateful to my hon. Friend Andy Carter for putting this issue in perspective: it is not the case that all Members of Parliament are rotters. Indeed, in many cases where people’s behaviour has fallen short, there are often reasons behind it to do with an individual’s mental health or some other issues that they are facing. He is right to remember those points.

I want now to turn to the tough stuff. The speeches of the shadow Leader of the House and some of the interventions made on her, and the intervention of my hon. Friend Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown got to the heart of the issue about an individual’s human rights. Is it right that a decision should be taken by an adjudication panel on the basis of a risk assessment without that Member having a say, stating their case or being able to appeal against that decision?

I want to explain why the Commission has put forward that proposal. It was based on a strong principle that no action taken during the safeguarding process should compromise the investigation and the criminal proceedings. That is why it was not deemed appropriate that someone should have the right of reply to that adjudication panel. The Commission should take that issue away and look at it. It was very much envisaged that people would be acting on such things as bail conditions and other things that would help inform that risk assessment.

The other point I would make is that although we are looking at a narrow process in isolation today, that process does not take place in isolation. One would imagine that there will be conversations with the individual’s Whip, advising them what they think they should do in a particular situation. Clearly someone can have representation during the investigation and the criminal process. This is an area that the Commission should focus on, and it has been helpful hearing Members’ comments today.

The second area in which the Commission needs to consider comments made today is with regard to the bar for when the process is triggered. Several Members, including my hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope, have spoken about charge versus any other part of the criminal process. I say to all Members who have those concerns that I was of that school of thought. I was an advocate for charge precisely because I felt that the threshold for this process needed to be high. However, it became apparent during our discussions—again, I am not seeking to persuade my hon. Friend, but just to explain why the proposal developed—that the question we were being asked to address was about risk. It is perfectly possible for an individual to be a serious risk earlier than the point of charge, so the debate as it was originally framed around arrest versus charge was not deemed appropriate. Again, given what we have heard this evening, we should focus more on this area.

I have nearly finished my remarks. To comment on the comparison that my hon. Friend James Sunderland made with the armed forces, my shift as Minister for the Armed Forces saw the aftermath of the Brecon three. One thing that I learned from that was that it is difficult to get people to focus on a joint service publication and health and safety rules, but it is easy to get people to focus on taking care of their mates and their duty of care to people who they work with. That is why it is so important that we focus on culture change, as well as the minutiae of particular issues.

The third area where there is a consensus of concern is around the proxy voting situation. I very much feel that Members, whether they are off the estate as the result of the process we are discussing today or through voluntary exclusion because they deem it in everyone’s interest to do that, should not be denied the opportunity to vote in this place. That is important, not only because of the impact on them, but because of the impact on their constituents. I recently visited the constituency of a Member in that situation, and the impact it has, partly because of the length of time investigations take, is devastating to a community when it loses that voice and is disempowered. I understand the concerns raised today, and particularly the concerns of the Procedure Committee, which I thank for the work it has been doing on that.

I want to thank my Commission colleagues who have spoken today—the hon. Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) and my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken, as well as the shadow Leader of the House, with whom I will continue to work closely on all these matters. The speech by Wendy Chamberlain, with her police experience, was extremely helpful. She is right to encourage us to pursue these matters, not leave them in the “too tough” in-tray.

To sum up as best I can for colleagues, I think that the main areas of concern are proxy voting, the human rights aspects, the issue of a right of reply, particularly to the adjudication panel, and whether we should consider the threshold of a charge. I know that the Commission will look at all the points raised by hon. Members and take them seriously, and we will of course come back to the House in good time with good information. In the meantime, I know I speak for all members of the Commission when I say that our doors are always open if people want to raise issues that they may not have felt able to raise on the Floor of the House today.

I think this was a good debate. I hope it has reassured people, if not given them all of the answers, and I look forward to working with all colleagues on these important matters in the weeks to come.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

I began this evening’s debate with a caution, so may I now thank all hon. Members for the dignity and the courtesy with which they have conducted this debate—a fact that I am sure will be widely reported in the press? I also thank both the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House for remaining in the Chamber for the entire debate, which I know is hugely appreciated by colleagues.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the House of Commons Commission Report, Risk-based exclusion of MPs: consultation response and proposals, HC 1396.