Working Group on Independent Complaints and Grievance Policy - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:27 pm on 8th February 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal 2:27 pm, 8th February 2018

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Leader of the House of Commons in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“Thank you Mr Speaker. Today I am pleased to announce the publication of the report on an independent complaints and grievance policy. In this week of celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage, it is right that we recognise the bravery of the suffrage movement and praise the great strides we have taken in our politics and in our society over the last 100 years. But we are also all too aware of the unacceptable level of intimidation and aggression being shown towards people in public life—often directed particularly at women, BAME and LGBT+ candidates. This behaviour clearly deters people from entering politics and threatens our democracy. When dealing with this very real issue, our Parliament must lead by example.

The working group was set up last November by the Prime Minister, and with the support of all party leaders, in response to the very troubling allegations of sexual harassment and bullying taking place on the Parliamentary Estate. We all recognised the need for robust procedures to change the culture in Parliament, and for this place to set the best example of a workplace that protects and supports all those working in it.

In my first Statement, I said urgent action would be taken and that was the case. The staff helpline was extended to include staff of Peers and others, with face-to-face counselling made available on the estate. Party codes of conduct were updated and published online and, since Christmas, interim HR guidance has been made available to Members’ staff.

However, it was clear from an early stage that there was a substantial amount to do if we wanted to create a sound working environment that properly supports the more than 15,000 people who work for or with Parliament. I am hugely grateful to all members of the working group for their time, consideration and indeed patience as we worked towards the publication of this report. Mr Speaker was clear that for the House Commission to take up the new scheme, the response to this had to be cross-party and, while there have been some challenging discussions, I am pleased that this is what we have been able to achieve.

The group took extensive evidence, both in person and in writing, from a wide variety of stakeholders including parliamentary officials, the staff of MPs and Peers, unions, academics, authorities on sexual violence and legal professionals. The group also conducted its own survey, which was open to a wide range of people and included a number of passholders who had not previously been asked for their experience of bullying and harassment. Many people have devoted a considerable amount of time to this over the last three months and, after more than 100 hours of discussion, consultation and consideration, I believe that we have proposed a set of policies that will fundamentally change the working culture in Parliament.

I would now like to turn to those proposals, which are as follows. First, Parliament will agree a shared behaviour code. It will apply to everyone on the estate or engaged in parliamentary business, regardless of location, and it will underpin the new policy. It will be consulted on and will make clear the behavioural expectations of everyone in the parliamentary community. Secondly, the new complaints and grievance procedure will be independent from political parties. Thirdly, it was acknowledged that sexual harassment and sexual violence are different from other forms of inappropriate behaviour such as bullying and intimidation. Therefore, separate procedures will be agreed for those looking to raise a complaint regarding sexual harassment from those with a complaint of bullying. This is an important distinction and while everyone has acknowledged the severity of complaints of sexual harassment, evidence from staff made clear that instances of intimidation and bullying are in fact more prevalent. Fourthly, MPs’ staff require proper HR advice, something that has previously been lacking and will go a long way towards helping to resolve workplace grievances.

Importantly, the new system will be based on the principles of equality, confidentiality and fairness to all parties, and it will be in line with the laws of natural justice. It must command the confidence of all those who will use it. The working group took advice at an early stage that rather than reinventing the wheel, we should work with and build on the many sound processes and systems that we already have in place.

For the benefit of Members, I will turn briefly to the process for making a complaint or raising a grievance against a Member of this House. As colleagues will appreciate, the process for raising complaints against other members of the parliamentary community such as Peers, Members’ and Peers’ staff, journalists and contractors will each differ according to their particular role. All the procedures are designed for the protection of staff and parliamentarians alike and have fairness at their heart. It is intended that the House authorities will procure two independent services, one to consider allegations of sexual harassment and violence and the other to consider workplace bullying and intimidation. Both avenues will provide support and, where needed, will investigate the complaint.

Where informal resolution is not possible and the complaint is upheld, it will be referred to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in the case of a Member of this House. The working group proposes that the commissioner’s role will be expanded and reformed. She will have access to legal advice and will be able to impose a new range of lower-level sanctions that may include a written apology, mandatory training or future behaviour agreements. The commissioner will be able to review any finding by the independent investigator and, where she does so, she will ensure that her investigations are confidential, that both the complainant and the alleged perpetrator have access to all evidence and, crucially, that each has the right to representation or to represent themselves. These measures will ensure fairness.

In the most serious of cases the commissioner will refer her findings to the Committee on Standards. The committee can recommend to the House that an individual is suspended and the House will vote on the recommendation. It is through this route that the existing Recall of MPs Act 2015 could be invoked. The trigger for recall remains the same as it is now and there is no plan for changes to primary legislation. The working group fully recognised that those who work in this place are often in the media spotlight and that vexatious and malicious complaints are a risk. The new procedures will therefore ensure that checks and balances are in place to guard against such complaints.

Finally, I will briefly outline the next steps. A Motion will be brought before the House and a debate will take place in the first two weeks after the Recess. Any necessary equivalent steps will be taken in the other place. It will then be for the House Commission to instruct the House authorities to finalise the agreed processes and carry out their implementation. I am grateful to the Clerk of the House for confirming that the House authorities are ready to begin this work via a series of workstreams that will include: first, developing and consulting on a behaviour code for Parliament; secondly, procuring the two separate services required to support and investigate complaints of sexual harassment or bullying; thirdly, procuring an HR guidance service for Members’ staff; fourthly, developing a staff handbook; and fifthly, identifying and drafting changes to the Standing Orders to finalise the amendments necessary to the procedures of the PCS and the Committee on Standards. The working group will continue as a steering group to oversee the work of the House authorities. It is our intention for the work to proceed at pace over the next few months. Finally, six months after the start of the new scheme, an appropriate body, covering both Houses and having direct staff representation, will review the operation of the new processes.

In conclusion, the working group was formed to bring about change. It is a right, not a privilege, to be treated with dignity and respect at work and this ambitious report is a major step towards a safer, more professional environment. I hope that honourable and right honourable Members across the House will welcome the report, which will, I am confident, ensure that our Parliament is among the best in the world, demonstrating our commitment to equality, justice and fairness. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.