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.

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Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 2:36 pm, 8th February 2018

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement and I thank even more the members of the working group who have worked very hard on an intensive programme to produce this report. I begin by associating myself with what the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, just said about the behaviour that we see from the majority of people who are Members of or work in these institutions. That is what we would expect. But the report underlines—as if we needed telling—that not everybody meets those standards. The number of people who claim to have been the subject of sexual harassment or intimidation and bullying is shamefully high.

Any of us who have been around Parliament for any length of time are not totally surprised, because the abuse of power that it is possible to use as a Member of either the other place or here is pretty considerable. If we search our memory, all of us can think of people who have abused that power for a number of unsatisfactory purposes. It is very good to see that at the heart of these proposals there are sensible and comprehensive ways in which people can complain and have those complaints dealt with.

As I said when we discussed this before, underpinning all of this and more important than the complaints procedure is improving the culture of this place. The complaints procedure is dealing just with what happens when things go wrong. The key thing is to ensure that things do not go wrong to the extent that they have in the past. For this, the Code of Conduct is absolutely key. We have seen how the Code of Conduct of your Lordships’ House, which has been strengthened during my time here, has had a very significant impact on the way Members view their role and how they approach some potential conflicts of interest, for example.

The code and the importance attached to it are fundamental elements of these proposals. For example, I hope that all Members and members of staff will have to sign it in a somewhat formal way. In his last intervention in Parliament, Lord Callaghan wrote to the committee considering the Bill that was bringing together the Inland Revenue and HM Customs and Excise. He said that he hoped that the new merged department would keep the oath that all members of the Inland Revenue had had to sign on joining the department. He told how, as a young man, having formally to sign something that said “I will keep taxpayers’ information confidential” and “I will be honest” had a profound impact on him. Although on one level it seems a small thing, formally getting people to sign something will be very important.

When things go wrong we have very sensible ways to start to deal with them, but like the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, I question the role of the commissioner here. The Statement says the Commons commissioner 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 idea of having future behaviour agreements for Members of your Lordships’ House rather appeals to me, but it is quite a change. If we are to do it—this will no doubt be one of the things that we will discuss in our debate after Easter—we will need to make sure that the commissioner here has a very clear remit and that all noble Lords and staff are absolutely clear what that remit is and how it should be exercised.

There is also a question for us as to which body will be reviewing this on a regular basis. The idea of having a six-month review is great, but which committee will have this formally in its remit? I suspect it is the House of Lords Commission but I am not absolutely sure. Some body here has to own this policy or it will not be properly implemented.

However, these are largely questions for the future. Today, we must simply welcome the Statement and the substantive work that underpins it and commit ourselves to do whatever we can to make sure it is properly implemented.