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Privileges and Conduct - Motion to Agree

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 30th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord McFall of Alcluith Lord McFall of Alcluith Chair, Freedom of Information Advisory Panel (Lords), Chair, Hybrid Instruments Committee (Lords), Chair, Liaison Committee (Lords), Chair, Committee for Privileges and Conduct (Lords), Chair, Procedure Committee (Lords), Chair, Committee of Selection (Lords), Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Lords), Chair, Sub-Committee on Leave of Absence, The Senior Deputy Speaker 3:08 pm, 30th April 2019

My Lords, the fourth report from the Committee for Privileges and Conduct, Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme: Changes to the Code of Conduct, has its genesis in the autumn of 2017 when allegations surfaced in the media about inappropriate behaviour and a culture of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct at Westminster. A great deal of work has been done since then by politicians, officials and employee organisations on a cross-party and bicameral basis. This led to a new independent complaints and grievance scheme for Parliament, including a behaviour code which sets out the standards of behaviour expected of everyone working on the parliamentary estate.

The House of Lords Commission agreed that the independent complaints and grievance scheme, or ICGS, and the new behaviour code,

“would meet the clear need for a new approach to dealing with bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct both on the Parliamentary Estate and in the course of parliamentary duties elsewhere”.

The Lord Speaker, the chair of the commission, asked the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Conduct to consider how to integrate the ICGS with the Code of Conduct for Members of the House of Lords, the Guide to the Code of Conduct and the Code of Conduct for House of Lords Members’ Staff; and how the proposed independent reporting and investigatory service can best sit with existing procedures for investigating breaches of the codes.

That is the task we were given. The report before the House sets out proposals for amending the Code of Conduct, the guide to the code and the code of conduct for Members’ staff to incorporate the requirements of adherence to the behaviour code. These proposals are the result of extensive and detailed work by the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Conduct, supported by the noble Baronesses, Lady Anelay of St Johns and Lady Donaghy, as co-opted members, and subsequently by the Privileges and Conduct Committee. We also consulted Members in February and early March. The results of that consultation have informed our proposals.

There is a clear need for specific and appropriate processes for reporting and investigating complaints of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct. Those processes must work fairly and effectively for Members and complainants, and provide appropriate support for both. Those processes must draw on the growing evidence base on best practice for addressing such behaviour. The package of changes set out in the report and the changes to the codes of conduct in the appendix to the report represent a significant step towards achieving that.

I am sure that noble Lords will have read the report in some detail, but it may help the House if I set out the key proposals. The Code of Conduct should incorporate the behaviour code and make explicit that behaviour by Members or their staff which constitutes bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct is a breach of the code. The requirement to comply with the behaviour code will be retrospective to 21 June 2017—the start of the current Parliament. Complaints of bullying or harassment can be made to independent helplines, as well as to the commissioner, and complainants and Members can be signposted to sources of advice and support. This requirement will apply to Members who are on leave of absence or disqualified if they are on the Parliamentary Estate or using the facilities of Parliament.

The existing requirement that a Member should act always on their personal honour should be widened to cover a Member’s performance of their parliamentary activities, as well as their parliamentary duties. This wider scope will apply retrospectively.

A new conduct committee should be appointed to take on all conduct functions of the Privileges and Conduct Committee and the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Conduct, both those relating to bullying and harassment and those relating to other breaches of the Code of Conduct. It will have lay members with full voting rights to work alongside the Lords members to hear appeals and oversee the Code of Conduct. This will bring more independence and a valuable external perspective to the committee’s work.

The conduct committee would act as the appeal body for the Member who was the subject of a complaint and, in cases of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct, for the complainant. Appeals would be restricted to judicial review-type grounds.

The independent House of Lords Commissioner for Standards should continue to investigate complaints to establish whether there has been a breach of the codes of conduct. In cases of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct, she will have the option of being assisted by independent investigators appointed by Parliament for this purpose.

The role of proposing a sanction should be carried out by the commissioner, rather than the conduct committee. This is another step forward in making the process more independent of Members.

Reports from the conduct committee relating to the behaviour of individual Members, including those imposing sanctions, should be decided by the House without debate. We recommend a new Standing Order to make that clear.

There are a number of proposals intended to provide a process better suited to dealing with complaints of bullying or harassment. These include removing the expectation that a complainant should raise the complaint with the Member in the first instance, and new provisions on protecting the identity of the complainant and the Member complained against.

This report is not intended to be the final answer. There are Members who wish us to go further and faster in delivering a system more or wholly independent of the House. That is for the proposed new conduct committee to consider, particularly in light of the report of the independent inquiry into bullying and harassment in the House of Lords, led by Naomi Ellenbogen QC, expected in July. These proposals are an important step towards improving our processes and delivering appropriate independence for dealing with complaints of bullying and harassment. They will keep the House of Lords in step with the new approach taken across Parliament. I hope that the House will support them. I beg to move.