Working Group on Independent Complaints and Grievance Policy - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:36 pm on 8th February 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 2:36 pm, 8th February 2018

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement, and certainly welcome the general point she made at the beginning of her remarks about the intimidation and aggression shown towards anyone who seeks to become involved in public life and expresses a view that someone else does not like. People who involve themselves in public life should be celebrated, not denigrated.

I said in response to the repeat of the Urgent Question last year that this is a human and workplace issue. It cuts across parties and clearly the actions have to cut across the parties as well. We have a duty to address any issues robustly and find mechanisms for advice, making complaints, seeking support and taking action. We are all agreed that the workplace should be somewhere where every individual feels that they can give their best and no staff member or colleague should ever have to cope with or try to manage inappropriate behaviour. Further, no one should be frightened to speak up or make a complaint to do with any form of harassment, bullying or sexual intimidation.

I thank the committee for its work but I place on record because it is worth noting that, even during the time that this committee was working, leaks that were usually inaccurate were made to the press from the committee in an attempt to undermine its members. I know that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House had no responsibility for this—she was quite clear on that—but that one member of the committee should be targeted in national newspapers when everyone was trying to grapple with the problems and deal with them was something I found unacceptable. This was difficult and challenging to get right so I acknowledge, recognise and thank the committee for the care and commitment it and the staff who served it in its work showed in putting in place procedures and safeguards to deal with bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment at Westminster. It is an important first step, and we welcome the report.

At the outset, we called for the immediate establishment of an independent specialist adviser on sexual harassment and, although we would have preferred that to be done immediately, we welcome the fact that it is acknowledged in the report. We hope that the adviser will be put in place as soon as practicably possible. As the noble Baroness said, the scheme is to be underpinned by an advice service for MPs’ and Peers’ staff. I recognise that most Members of your Lordships’ House do not have staff but obviously, even if the numbers are far lower, the same principles and expectations of behaviour still apply. Can the noble Baroness confirm that as well as advice for the staff of MPs and Peers, advice on HR issues will be available for MPs and Peers themselves? That could help to avoid inadvertent mistakes or misunderstandings. I welcome her acknowledgement of the need for a comprehensive culture change, and providing advice for all Members could be very helpful in that.

This new scheme has been no small undertaking. As the noble Baroness said, it will cover approximately 15,000 people working across the Parliamentary Estate and it is hoped that in addition it will form part of any contracts let for the building programmes. I think what I am looking for is an assurance that it will involve anybody who is employed by anybody on the Parliamentary Estate because a number of workers are not employed by Parliament but by contractors, whether they are cleaning, catering or building staff. I hope that they will be included and thus will be able to have the same expectations of behaviour.

I will ask a couple of questions. One is on the possible sanctions. Understandably there is a lack of clarity in the report and more work to be done, but my question concerns what sanctions apply in what circumstances. Inappropriate behaviour of any kind ranges from the relatively mild to the very serious. I hope that the commission has been involved in this. Was there any discussion with the commissioner prior to the report coming forward on how the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges as well as the House of Lords Commission could be involved in this?

I will also ask something about the role of the commissioner. I appreciate that this is a Commons Statement and any references in it probably refer to the Commons commissioner, but it says that the commissioner’s role, which I took to be that of the Lords commissioner as well, would be “expanded and reformed”. Has what form that will take been discussed with the commissioner? Will resources be made available for that and will the time of the commissioner be made available? I am concerned about any delays. Having spoken to colleagues who have had issues considered by the commissioner in the past, I know that they can take a long time to resolve. If we are expecting more from the commissioner we should make sure that the resources are there for that work to be undertaken.

I also raise trade unions; I have raised this before. There should be trade union recognition by Parliament. I may have missed it in the report and I apologise if it is in there—I have not had time to read every word in detail. There has to be the opportunity for staff to raise concerns and grievances collectively, not just as individuals. I know that there have been some issues around the anonymity clause in here—that if somebody is reported for bad behaviour they should remain anonymous. It is worth emphasising that in the environment we work in, where there might be one or two people working to an individual MP or Peer, to identify the person being complained about often identifies the person complaining as well. I would be very concerned if that was a barrier to somebody bringing forward complaints. In this instance it is entirely justified.

I am grateful that the noble Baroness acknowledges that this is not the end of the process. There are timescales for the various work streams because there is still a large body of work to be undertaken. Could I have an assurance that this work will be undertaken speedily to try to put in place these recommendations? Having the recommendation is all well and good, but we need action. I hope a progress report can be made.

As I have raised before, I am still concerned about how the mandatory training of Members will be enforced and what sanctions there will be if that training does not take place, but it is right that training is available for Members of your Lordships’ House and to our staff on issues concerning consent, equalities, and how to tackle bullying and harassment.

It is always worth saying that I am still of the view that, for most people, working on the Parliamentary Estate is a positive experience and one that they enjoy. Most of our Peers and MPs are good employers and they enjoy the relationship that they have with their staff, which is positive and productive. But that makes those who fall short of those standards even more culpable in many ways, because the culture should always be one of respect and one where we should aim for the highest possible standards. We have a duty as a Parliament to set the highest standards and, where people fall short of them, to ensure that it is dealt with appropriately.

There is still much to do to tackle pervasive prejudices and unacceptable behaviour. They must be tackled at every opportunity. This report is an important start, but we need to continue to work across parties to ensure that we provide the best possible working environment for everybody who works in the Palace of Westminster.