The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-12730, in the name of Clare Haughey, on the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct inquiry. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons. I call Clare Haughey to speak to and move the motion on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee.
In opening the debate on the SPPA Committee’s inquiry into sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct, I thank everyone who came to give oral evidence or submitted written evidence. I will explain the backdrop to our work, then outline some of the committee’s key findings.
A little over six months ago, we entered a new era. Sexual harassment in the workplace was suddenly front and centre of people’s consciousness, and this workplace was no exception. Recent months have seen significant changes in attitudes, and it appears that society is now beginning to catch up with a long-standing issue.
The SPPA Committee has responsibility for the conduct of members of the Scottish Parliament through our oversight and application of “The Code of Conduct for Members of the Scottish Parliament”. While being mindful of the Parliament’s status as a role model for other workplaces in Scotland, we quickly launched an inquiry that aimed to determine whether current arrangements for dealing with sexual harassment in Parliament were adequate and, if not, what needed to change.
At this point, I thank Daniel Johnson. Having raised the issue with the committee and called for an inquiry, Mr Johnson then resigned his place on the committee in the interest of promoting gender balance.
We are not the only ones who are moving swiftly to address the issue, so our report pays tribute to the rapid response of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body in launching its telephone helpline, which provided a route through which anyone who was affected could seek advice and support. That was rapidly followed by a sexual harassment and sexist behaviour survey of all workers at Holyrood and out in regional and constituency offices, which aimed to ascertain the scale of any problem and to gather views and ideas about how people would wish it to be tackled.
The corporate body has established a joint working group to consider and agree any actions that need to be taken on a joint or individual basis between the Parliament and the political parties, in the light of the survey. In our report, we have asked that the joint working group review the evidence that was provided to the committee during its inquiry, because it included many detailed suggestions about what a good reporting and investigation regime should look like.
As part of our inquiry, we looked at the results of the survey and were very disappointed to discover worryingly low levels of confidence in the Parliament’s policies and reporting procedures. We found it unacceptable that a person who was affected by such misconduct would decide against making a complaint because of lack of faith in the organisation’s processes. Putting in place the right complaints regime was clearly a high priority.
The Parliament is a diverse workplace: MSPs, party staff, Parliament staff, journalists and a range of contractors all share the same workplace. The committee’s remit extends only to the conduct of MSPs, and our recommendations sit alongside the work of the SPCB, political parties and other employers who have workers in Parliament.
The Parliament’s workplace diversity means that there is no one-size-fits-all policy that would prevent and address sexual harassment in the Parliament. That leads me to one of the key findings of the committee’s inquiry. We recommend that a central policy on sexual harassment be created to apply to all campus users regardless of their employment status. We recommended that that central policy, which is to be developed by the joint working group, include as a starting point a zero tolerance statement, and definitions and examples of behaviours that constitute sexual harassment. It is very encouraging that the joint working group issued a zero tolerance statement earlier this week that sets out what the institution means by “zero tolerance” and how that will be upheld in practice.
The staff survey also revealed chronic underreporting of undesirable behaviours; indeed, the most common reported response to experiencing sexual harassment or sexist behaviour was to do nothing. Although a central policy on sexual harassment ought to give people greater confidence in reporting systems, we discovered that that is not the only barrier that prevents people from reporting misconduct. It appears that many individuals who are affected by harassment do not report it because of fears about career impact. In the survey, that was, disturbingly, the most cited reason for not reporting misconduct. That has to change. It cannot be the case that the victims of harassment feel unable to speak out because of fears about job security, promotion prospects, or other more subtle outcomes, such as being ostracised or excluded by colleagues if they make a complaint.
This is not an easy issue to tackle. We recommend that new policies on sexual harassment state clearly that the consequences for anyone who reports misconduct will be minimised, and that safeguarding and protection of the person who reports misconduct is clearly set out in the policies.
Staff who work for MSPs are in a particularly exposed position. Their jobs and livelihoods are on the line if the MSP who employs them is removed or if working relationships break down. The small size of MSP staff teams also means that it is virtually impossible to make a complaint confidentially. Our report asks that special consideration be given to finding solutions to protect staff who are in that vulnerable position.
Perpetrators of the behaviour have relied on the silence of their victims for too long. Change is coming, and Parliament’s policies and processes must accelerate that change.
Many people whom we heard from during the inquiry called for mandatory training for all campus users as a way to encourage culture change. I understand that mandatory training might raise some eyebrows. It is generally assumed that men are the perpetrators of sexual harassment, but it is important to look more closely at the issue. The purpose of training on sexual harassment is not only to make potential perpetrators aware of their behaviour; it is also essential for all managers, so that they are in a position to support their staff to access support and redress.
It is also important that we are all aware of where the lines are drawn on unacceptable behaviour, so that we can call it out or report it when we see it. That is called bystander intervention. Although the incidence of sexual harassment that is perpetrated by women against men appears to be lower than that by men against women, the survey revealed that women do harass men. It serves no one to deny or underplay that fact. Our recommendation stopped short of insisting that training for all staff should be mandatory, but we think that there is a strong argument for including all campus users in training.
In my remaining time, I would like briefly to introduce some matters that arose during the committee’s inquiry, and which require further more detailed scrutiny because they have far-reaching constitutional implications. We intend to give those issues more detailed scrutiny in the future, and this debate will inform our considerations.
The first suggestion is that an independent body or figure be established to provide a single reporting, support and advocacy point of contact, with the possibility that the body or figure will have responsibility for sanctioning MSPs. We recognise that practical, legal and constitutional issues would need to be addressed before such a function could be established, but we find the concept to be worthy of further consideration.
We also looked at the possibility of an ultimate sanction for MSPs. In most workplaces, gross misconduct would result in dismissal, but elected members can be removed from office only in a narrow set of circumstances. We concluded that a process of recall or dismissal for actions that amount to gross misconduct is worthy of exploration. We are very mindful of the practical and constitutional implications.
Finally, we looked at whether a process of suspension could be applied to MSPs, pending an inquiry into misconduct. We accepted that the consequences of a suspension for an elected member could be more serious than they would be for people who are employed in other capacities, and although we uphold the idea that MSPs should be held to the same standard, we recognise that careful thought would have to be given to such circumstances.
The committee looks forward to returning to those thornier issues in some detail once we have heard responses to our report, including the views that are expressed in this debate. I commend the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body and the joint working group on their rapid response to the issue of sexual harassment and sexist behaviour. I know that a great deal of work is taking place. It is very encouraging to see outputs already emerging, with more promised. I commend the committee’s report to Parliament, and I look forward to hearing members’ views.
That the Parliament notes the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s 4th Report 2018 (Session 5),
Sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct
(SP Paper 340).
I propose to keep my contribution to the debate relatively short. The subject matter of the committee’s report is of interest to everyone, but its content clearly focuses on the operations of the Parliament. The Government’s views on sexual harassment are already known, and, like the SPPA Committee, the Government is keen for as many members as possible to have an opportunity to express their views on the report’s content.
The Government fully supports the committee inquiry into sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour in the Scottish Parliament. Sexual harassment and abuse in any form, whether in the workplace, the home or elsewhere in society, are completely reprehensible and cannot be tolerated. Everyone has the right to work and live their life free from abuse, harassment and intimidation. The Scottish Parliament should exemplify those principles and demonstrate the value of operating as a modern and inclusive organisation.
Parliamentary rules and practices should be fair, sensitive and supportive for everyone. It is unacceptable for any individual to be discouraged from working in, or engaging with the Scottish Parliament.
The same principle clearly applies to the Scottish Government. The First Minister has led calls for anyone who has experienced sexual harassment to report it. In February, the new “Scottish Ministerial Code: 2018 edition” included additional references to ministerial standards of conduct.
The permanent secretary has also reviewed and strengthened Scottish Government policies and procedures to deal with sexual harassment. Government staff are encouraged to share concerns about culture or behaviour. The permanent secretary has also taken steps to ensure that Government staff are aware of and understand the sources of support that are available to them, including a confidential sounding board.
A wider review of our fairness at work policies is also on-going. It will include revising the Government’s standards of behaviour in the workplace and considering what support is needed for leaders, managers and individuals to help them to understand the standards and ensure that the standards are applied in their contexts.
I welcome the committee’s approach to conducting its inquiry. The remit highlighted the many factors that require careful consideration. First, we need to assess the current framework concerning the conduct of MSPs in the context of sexual harassment. The committee report has already flagged potential changes to the MSP code of conduct in order to reflect the need for such very personal matters to be handled with due sensitivity. Secondly, we must recognise the role of political parties and how they handle allegations of misconduct that are made against their members. Thirdly, we need to consider the cultural and societal dimension.
The report notes that remedial activity goes beyond the boundary of parliamentary standards and extends to the behaviours that are encouraged and expected of the people who work on the parliamentary campus, and to how Parliament operates day to day. That brings me to the responsibilities of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. The Parliament has already made moves to improve the gender balance of the SPCB. That is a welcome first step and one that should be beneficial to shaping any future reforms.
The report seeks to inform the on-going work of the Parliament’s joint working group and the Scottish Government supports its recommendations. I also note and welcome that, earlier this week, the joint working group published a statement on zero tolerance, together with an indication of other activities that it proposes to implement in the future. The Government endorses the constructive approach to such important issues.
Today’s debate also allows gathering of views, as the committee and Parliament continue to take the inquiry forward. The Government will work with you, Presiding Officer, and with all parties to achieve a consensual outcome as to how best to make the Scottish Parliament a zero tolerance workplace.
I look forward to hearing the views of other members.
Following on from the words of our convener, Claire Haughey, I welcome the committee’s work on this important subject and the spirit in which my fellow committee members have approached our inquiry. The committee received a significant body of evidence and I extend my thanks to the clerking team for pulling it all together and to all those who wrote to us and attended evidence sessions.
The Scottish Parliament is an unusual workplace. Within the walls of the building, we have 129 separate-but-linked employers, hundreds of people employed through different teams within the corporate body, thousands of other individuals who come through the Parliament on business every year, as well as other visitors and constituents. When constituency and regional offices are factored in, the work of the Parliament stretches the length and breadth of Scotland.
From the beginning of our inquiry, the influence of stories in the press was clear. Against that background, it was important that the corporate body moved quickly, establishing the joint working group to ensure trust and confidence in the Parliament’s institutions. It is also welcome that the SPCB established the sexual harassment and sexist behaviour survey, which has provided the committee with an evidence base on which to structure our deliberations. The findings of the survey were significant. Based on a 62 percent response rate, a fifth of staff members reported experiencing inappropriate behaviours—that figure rose to 30 percent among women staff members.
We have heard it said repeatedly that the Scottish Parliament should aspire to be a model for other workplaces in Scotland but, sadly, when it comes to tackling inappropriate behaviour, we have fallen short of that in the past. Early in the inquiry, the committee recognised that there were few shortcuts here. Other legislatures in the United Kingdom and abroad are wrestling with similar questions and have seen similar problems arise. There has been no perfect example for the Parliament to replicate, although there has been some useful learning from elsewhere.
Despite its distinctiveness, the Parliament shares some similar challenges with other employers. For example, we have heard from a number of organisations about the barriers that employees experience in reporting inappropriate conduct. The regrettable conclusion is that, in virtually all sectors, the majority of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace goes unreported. While tackling barriers that are common to all workplaces, we must not ignore the additional problems that the structures of the Parliament can create. It was therefore welcome that the committee agreed on a point of principle that MSPs should not be seen as having any form of unequal protection from answering accusations that are made against them.
The survey showed that, in 45 per cent of cases, individuals reported an MSP as responsible for the inappropriate behaviour that was directed at them. By comparison, in 40 per cent of cases a member of the parliamentary staff was perceived as responsible, and in 20 per cent of cases a member of MSP staff was. Given the relative numbers in each category, that should concern us all.
How we ensure that complaints are reported and heard is of course key to the work of the inquiry. Our findings were that there is a
“lack of confidence in the Parliament’s policies and reporting procedures” that requires urgent work. The committee has been clear that no one should be deterred from making a complaint because the structures that we have in place make it complicated or challenging for their complaint to be heard.
As a result, we have proposed a single complaint route for employees who are victims of inappropriate behaviour. We want existing institutional barriers to reporting improper conduct to be broken down. The committee recommends that that should be achieved through the means of an independent body, and we have left open the further question of that body having some role in sanctioning such conduct. We look to the joint working group to consider and agree steps before the Parliament considers the matter again.
The question of sanctions remains a significant one for the Parliament as a whole. The committee has recognised the limitations of the sanctions that can be taken against MSPs who are found to have behaved improperly, short of depending on the criminal justice system. The additional sanctions that we reflected on in the report would be significant innovations in relation to the accountability of members of the Parliament. The question of whether those should be considered is rightly one not just for the committee but for the Parliament as a whole.
There are also areas for political parties that are represented in the chamber to consider. We were told that a key reason given by staff not to pursue complaints is fear of a negative impact on their careers. That leaves MSP staff in particular with a level of vulnerability in the workplace. Our recommendations set out the need for joint work between parties and the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. We have suggested looking towards having mechanisms in place to redeploy staff where relationships have broken down with their MSP employer or where an MSP has left office over their conduct.
The committee has also welcomed the joint working group’s consideration of the culture of the Parliament as a workplace. This building is, after all, one of Scotland’s largest employment sites. Driving cultural change is one way of ensuring that prevention, rather than simply remedial action, is at the heart of the changes that we make in future. The provision of effective staff training on harassment and inappropriate behaviour is just one way that we can make a difference.
The committee’s work and the conclusions in our report are in many ways an interim step. I have covered some of the many bodies that are involved in the way in which behaviour in this building is regulated and how complaints are heard. It is important that all the organisations within that mix take account of the findings and the work of the joint working group. The Parliament has a responsibility to the people who work here. No one should be the victim of harassment or inappropriate behaviour in the workplace and no one who is employed in the building should feel that they cannot report improper behaviour that is directed at them. To make that a reality, the Parliament needs to change.
I advise members that I, too, am a member of the joint working group on sexual harassment. I put on record my thanks to the officers who are working on that group and to Emma Ritch from Engender, who is supporting and giving advice to it.
Initially, I was disappointed with the committee’s report, because I expected to see some leadership from it. It feels to me like an interim report to instigate a debate that might shine a light on the more difficult issues, rather than a finished piece of work. Many of the recommendations refer issues back to the joint working group, and I am sure that we will take on those challenges and work with the committee.
We need to recognise that the Scottish Parliament is not an ordinary workplace. Within the administration of Parliament, there is a workplace with normal hierarchies. However, MSPs are elected by the people and answer to them only every five years. MSPs employ their own staff, and there is no parliamentary or party locus in the management of those staff. Just because someone is a good politician and is able to win votes does not mean that they are a good manager.
Any human resources issue could be problematic, but that is particularly true with something as sensitive as sexual harassment. If a member of an MSP’s staff is being sexually harassed by their employer, they have nowhere to turn. Making a complaint to their employer is impossible if that employer is already abusing the balance of power in their relationship. If they make a complaint to their MSP’s party, again, there is no recourse for them and no alternative employment—there is only a disciplinary process for their employer.
People need to work so, because no alternative employment is available, they will keep quiet. When the behaviour becomes too bad, they will try to find another job. We are talking about people’s livelihoods, and few people are financially secure enough to risk that. I was therefore disappointed that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee did not make recommendations on those issues.
We need to look at how an MSP can be brought to book for unacceptable behaviour. I know that that is challenging and that there have to be checks and balances in any system to ensure that it is not abused for party advantage. However, it is untenable that there is not a system that can hold MSPs to account and address unacceptable behaviour. That cannot simply be left to a party because, when such allegations are made, normal practice would be to suspend a member from the party, pending investigation. However, they cannot be suspended from Parliament, so we need a system that can remove an MSP from Parliament in extreme circumstances. Currently, that can happen only if they are given a custodial sentence.
Any system needs to be balanced with our democracy. The people elect a representative and therefore they need to have a role in deselecting that person. Somewhere between the MSP and the electorate, there needs to be an investigatory process that is above party politics and cannot be used as a vendetta—a process that the electorate can trust and use as its basis for decision making. Sadly, the committee shied away from that, which is a decision that needs to be made by politicians.
We are all vulnerable to personal attack. Although the public do not believe that we have reputations to protect, we all know that reputational damage can be devastating. Therefore, we need a system that protects elected members from spurious attack while holding them to account when they do wrong.
We also need a system to support our staff. Within Parliament, staff can be moved around and offered a different workplace when an investigation is on-going and the perpetrator is not suspended. That cannot happen with MSP staff if the offender is their boss. The MSP can be suspended from their party, pending investigation, but they cannot be suspended from Parliament. Therefore, the staff member is likely to have to continue to work with them. It is likely that the stress of that will lead to long-term sick leave but, again, that is not acceptable treatment of a victim. We need a mechanism whereby a staff member can be transferred to another employer if a problem occurs. Worry for their livelihood should not be the driving factor in a person’s decision on whether to make a complaint. Being abused should not spell the end of a career. We need to protect the people who are often the first point of contact for our constituents.
Added to that, we need to encourage all staff to join a trade union, so that they have an organisation behind them that will support and guide them if they are subject to abuse. Within parties, we also have a responsibility to protect staff. We need to understand that party structures can also bring their own issues. There can be feelings of loyalty and allegiance. Therefore, concerns about feelings of betrayal from reporting one of their own might put off MSP staff from making formal complaints about members of their own party. They might also be worried that they will be excluded from not only parliamentary working but local party events and campaigns outwith Parliament.
Those things have to be into account when reporting frameworks are being created in the Parliament. We need to reassure staff that their complaints will be taken seriously and that we will do everything in our power to protect them.
The working group can now look at those issues and, indeed, the many more issues that we are currently working on to change the culture and build a zero tolerance approach to harassment in the Parliament.
The debate has been quite instructive so far, and there have been wise contributions from all sides.
Trying to change the culture of conduct in the Parliament is a very difficult subject. In the early days, when we initially heard about the problems at Westminster, there was a degree of complacency. We thought that we were above all that. However, the survey clearly shows that we are not and that there are significant problems here. One in five have witnessed or experienced a problem; one in three women have; and 45 per cent of those cases involved MSPs. That shows that we have as much of a problem as the other institutions have, and we have an equal responsibility and duty to try to resolve those issues.
I do not doubt that those issues are difficult and challenging. We are in an odd workplace. There are 129-plus employers, and we all have our own standards and ways of working. MSPs should not be above everyone else—that should not happen—but it must be recognised that we can no longer tolerate being unable to police ourselves. I will not name individuals, but we cannot have repeated cases of MSPs frankly embarrassing the Parliament and causing considerable disrepute for it. Therefore, we need a mechanism for change.
A mechanism for recall has been introduced at Westminster. I recognise that it might not have dealt with the problems that we have faced in the particular circumstances, but at least people there have stepped up and come up with a mechanism with a variety of thresholds and barriers that need to be overcome before action can be taken. Ultimately, MSPs are employees of the voters, and the voters should have the final say.
I fear political motivation in disciplining particular MSPs and I fear the consequences of that. I recognise that an independent process and an independent investigator would assist in ensuring that the process is above party politics. An independent process may be fine, but we might find that, in 10 years’ time, it is not robust enough in order to avoid party politics—
Mr Rennie will be aware that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee considered several arguments relating to that and concluded that, in considering any mechanism for ultimate sanction—dismissal or the equivalent—we should remember the aims at the start of the report, which include
“encouraging reporting ... providing greater clarity about the procedures” and
“providing some consistency with regard to sanctions”.
Has Mr Rennie given any further thought to how recall mechanisms could be made to achieve those objectives as opposed to putting them at risk?
I understand what Patrick Harvie says, and I want to ensure that any victims are protected, as well. Perhaps subjecting them to a recall process would be a factor that we would have to consider. We also want consistency and we want the Parliament to lead in addressing sexual harassment. All those factors are challenges.
We are ultimately employees of the voters, so they must be part of the equation. Perhaps anonymity could be a factor in the system in order to protect individuals.
We will find flaws in every system. We will find flaws in the Parliament doing things by itself and in the public having a say in the process. The problem is that, if we find flaws in everything, we will end up doing nothing and we will be back in the same position yet again in a few years’ time.
We need to push the boat out and consider things that are perhaps outside our comfort zone, because we have to send a message to MSPs in the future who might think that they are above the law and above the behaviour that would be expected of other employers and can carry on as they have before. We have to change the equation and ensure that they will fear the consequences, that there are sanctions, and that we can throw them out of the Parliament if we have the desire to do so in order that they do not do things again.
There must be an independent process, and having some kind of recall system might be necessary. It is not acceptable for us to carry on as we are just now. We need to change the culture. Sometimes, writing policies does not change a thing. What changes things is the threat, the sanction and the possibility that someone might lose their job at the end of the process. That is what we must be aiming for, because the status quo is unacceptable and has to change.
As a member of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, I thank my fellow committee members—current and previous—and place on record my thanks to the clerks, researchers and everyone who took time to give oral and written evidence to the committee.
It is important to state that the piece of work that we are discussing represents not an end but a beginning. I say that particularly in response to Rhoda Grant’s comments, which were well made. The committee had to balance the need to make recommendations and acknowledge the seriousness and gravity of the issue and the implications that some reforms could have with the need to survey the views of all members of this Parliament. Although the report is not published as an interim report, it can be understood as a stimulus to further conversation and debate, and it makes clear that the committee is willing to revisit the issues in the light of this debate and the work of the joint working group.
The report makes a series of recommendations that represent low-hanging fruit—policy changes that can be implemented in fairly short order—and I welcome the joint working group’s publication of a zero tolerance policy. That represents the start, and there is clearly support across the chamber for training, which, as has been highlighted previously, is important not only for changing cultural attitudes but for ensuring that MSPs, as employers, are equipped with the required skills.
A key issue that arose was the need for a simplified reporting process. The reporting landscape is incredibly complicated, as the committee heard time and time again. That is a consequence of the various relationships that exist in this Parliament—between MSP and MSP; between an MSP and a member of their staff; between an MSP and a member of another MSP’s staff; and between an MSP and a member of staff who is employed by the group. There are also the relationships with the staff who are employed by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. Clearly, that complicated landscape is one of the barriers to reporting at the moment. Establishing a single point of contact and a single portal in a simplified process is absolutely essential.
One of the issues that arose from that situation was one of competence and the question of whether someone who pursued a case could be confident that it would result in action being taken. Inevitably, that led to the question of there being an ultimate sanction involving suspension or recall. None of the options is without problems but, indeed, none is without merit.
On the issue of recall, as has been said, there is the potential for what might be a sensitive issue, in relation to which there is a need for anonymity, becoming politicised and publicised. On the issue of suspension for the purpose of investigation, there would be challenges with regard to the perception of that suspension. In a normal employment scenario, a suspension enables the facts to be established and evidence to be provided for a report. In the context of our place of work, suspension could be interpreted as a form of punishment.
There is also the issue of having an ultimate sanction for acts of gross misconduct that currently fall short of the threshold of criminality, which is something that we must explore. I will make two comments about the ultimate sanction in that regard. First, in considering the possibility of disqualifying MSPs for gross misconduct, we cannot look at sexual harassment in isolation but must consider broader areas of gross misconduct. Secondly, under the current arrangements, as I understand them, there is parity between what disqualifies someone from being a candidate and what disqualifies someone from being an MSP—that is, a custodial sentence in excess of a year or insolvency. Again, we would have to investigate that. If we regulated to provide that an MSP could be dismissed for gross misconduct, would we want to prohibit someone from standing as a candidate for the Parliament if they had been dismissed from a workplace for gross misconduct?
My final comment is addressed to Rhoda Grant. This is not an end but a beginning, as I said, and it is important that all members have an opportunity to contribute. I am sure that the committee will reflect on that.
Sexual harassment in all its forms is completely unacceptable and must not be tolerated under any circumstances. We all acknowledge that. It is the responsibility of members of this Parliament to set the highest standards, to which others must rise.
It is clear, however, from the parliamentary survey, that this Parliament has fallen well short of the standards that are expected of it. The survey makes for worrying and sobering reading. Many people wanted to tell their stories. Victims wanted to be heard, but it appears that they were terrified that they might jeopardise their careers if they told their stories.
Of the 1,000 individuals who responded to the survey, one in five said that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment. Women were significantly more likely to have encountered some kind of sexual harassment or sexist behaviour, with three in 10 women reporting experience of such behaviour.
The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s report on the topic also gives cause for concern. I had the privilege of being a member of the committee—I am no longer a member—and was involved in some of the evidence sessions. I thank the individuals and organisations who told us how they were tackling the issue and talked about how individuals had come forward to tell their stories. That was important.
The committee said that
“Under-reporting of sexual harassment appears to be endemic”,
and went on to say that
“the most common response to experiencing sexual harassment or sexist behaviour was to do nothing.”
Individuals felt that there was no point in doing anything because they would not be believed or they would jeopardise their careers or lifestyles. That has to change. The current reporting procedures and policies are, quite simply, not fit for purpose.
We heard evidence that it happens across the piece, but the committee found that our circumstances and situation might make us more vulnerable to the issue because individuals work closely with us. We must therefore be alive to what happens in this environment.
It is important that victims of sexual harassment feel able to report such conduct. That was not the case here; individuals felt that they would not do that, given the possibility of redundancy and losing their career.
The committee suggested in its report that consideration should be given to the establishment of an independent advisory body. I would welcome that, as such a body would make a difference and would give individuals the opportunity to come forward to report misconduct.
The establishment of the Scottish Parliament’s joint working group on sexual harassment is a positive step for the Parliament and political parties. I also welcome the statement on zero tolerance that the Presiding Officer, the chief executive and party leaders released this week. A zero tolerance approach is exactly the right one for this Parliament to adopt as we seek to set an example for Scotland.
We must set that example. We must ensure that there is training. Inaction is not an option. We need a change in the culture and attitudes. Sexual harassment in the workplace is wrong. We must ensure that it is rooted out of public life, and we should report every case.
I do not flatter myself that anyone remembers my leader’s speeches to Labour conferences back in those halcyon days. In fact, I am not sure that I remember them, although the First Minister quoted one at Richard Leonard a few weeks ago, so maybe someone was listening after all.
However, I do recall one speech in which I announced to a somewhat taken aback Labour conference that I had a new woman in my life—Lucy, my first grandchild, then just born, now eight. I tried to describe the world and the Scotland that I wanted Lucy to grow up in—equal, caring, prosperous, fair and safe—and how I believed that we could achieve that.
I argued that it was to the programme and policies of this Parliament, of which I am proud, that we must look to deliver that for her. I did not say it explicitly that day but, believe me, I want Lucy to live without facing sexism—everyday or systematic—and I want her and every woman in this country to live without fear of sexual harassment. It is, therefore, imperative that we eradicate those things from this institution, which should symbolise, set the standard for and shape by law and example the country that we want to see. We rightly expect the Scottish Parliament to set an example to the nation that is based around reason, integrity and service.
That is why the survey that the SPCB conducted is so worrying. One member of staff facing harassment is one too many, but for one in five respondents and one in three women to have experienced such behaviour is absolutely unacceptable. It is clear that we are falling short.
What links instances of sexual harassment across workplaces and society is the power relationships between people and their abuse. My goodness—is this not a veritable palace of power relationships, both formal and informal? We have different types of employment and staff in this institution, but all are centred around the work of MSPs. Indeed, the survey highlighted that fears surrounding career progression, which is often within the gift of an MSP, is a key reason why victims of harassment do not feel that they can come forward.
As we have heard, there is the added factor of political parties having their own different systems for reporting, as well the increased media and public scrutiny of complaints that many victims feel might compromise their confidentiality and lose them their right to anonymity.
It is not just about MSP staff, of course. Staff who are employed to provide parliamentary services of all kinds also face an unequal dynamic with MSPs as well as being part of a hierarchical system of line management in the SPCB. The survey clearly showed that victims of harassment lack faith that they will be taken seriously and that the process will check the power of an elected member.
There is also an incorrect presumption that the responsibility for harassment sits solely with the perpetrator. Sexual harassment often involves not just the perpetrator and the victim but the complicity of bystanders. It is up to us all to stand up, call it out and report such behaviour. It is up to us all to call out everyday sexism, no matter how apparently trivial, and not just serious harassment, because the one leads to the legitimisation of the other and they are both wrong.
Willie Rennie is right to say that only a fair and consistent process with real consequences, no matter how hard that is for us, will drive a culture change. The report marks progress, and there are good recommendations on trade union involvement and the call for a no tolerance approach, which are all very well. However, at the end of these procedures, victims must feel that there will be no tolerance and that there will be consequences for perpetrators, regardless of their seniority.
I welcome the report, but Rhoda Grant is right in saying that we see must the concrete proposals.
Before I go on to the substantive part of my speech, I remind everyone that not only women but men can be victims of sexual harassment and that, for example, a man can be harassed by a man, and a woman can be harassed by a woman. We should not generalise in those areas and we should also recognise the particular circumstances that non-binary people might find themselves in.
I thank the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for its report, which I welcome as an exceptional piece of work. Having served as that committee’s convener, I know that it will have approached the report in a measured manner. Both Tom Arthur and the committee convener, Ms Haughey, have outlined how complex the situation is. As has been mentioned, there are many different types of relationship in the Scottish Parliament’s working arrangements, which has made the inquiry quite difficult. I remind members that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee is responsible for the “Code of Conduct for Members of the Scottish Parliament” and that the committee must work in conjunction with the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body to look at the wider implications and the way forward.
The SPCB should be congratulated on actioning the sexual harassment and sexist behaviour survey. Many members, including Iain Gray, have talked about how shocking some of the survey results are, but one of the joint working group’s recommendations is that progress should be monitored to ensure that there is culture change and improvement, and the survey will be an important benchmark. I thank colleagues across the chamber, including Ms Grant, who have taken time to be in the joint working group and have committed to continuing that work.
The confidential phone line, which was established very quickly, is a way forward. I welcome the development, although it is just the start for what has been described as the requirement for a streamlined reporting process, which is another of the report’s welcome recommendations. I also welcome the recognition of the need for counselling and therapy for those who are initiating or going through a complaint process.
The report refers to “campus users”, which reminds us that the Parliament is about not just this building but our constituency offices and that wider community. Everything that we do about the working arrangements in the Parliament building in relation to this issue should be equally valid for the working arrangements in our constituency offices.
I am interested in the suggestion of having an independent body in this area. I have not come to a conclusion about the best way forward in terms of sanctions, but that has to come from the joint working group and the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. I am sure that that is something that we will debate.
I am getting a nod from the Presiding Officer to wind up, so I will refer finally to the report’s recommendation on education. I know that colleagues have shied away from the word “mandatory” in that regard, but I will quote Richard Feynman, the Nobel physicist, who is a great hero of mine and whom I have quoted many times in the chamber—
I, too, thank the Parliament for its work to eradicate sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct from not only the Scottish Parliament but workplaces across Scotland.
Sexual harassment can happen in all kinds of workplaces and at any level. The person responsible for the harassment might be a work colleague, a manager, a customer, someone making deliveries or someone connected in some way to where we work.
Harassment is usually experienced by women and perpetrated by men, but it can also be the other way around and it may involve people of the same sex. It can be difficult for someone to know what to do about it, especially if their job or prospects are being threatened. People may worry that they will not be taken seriously, or that complaining about the harassment will have negative consequences. There may remain circumstances in which employees feel unable to raise a complaint of sexual harassment; however, technology is now being used effectively to support people in a way that helps them to feel safe to report it.
All employers are responsible for the health, safety and welfare of their employees at work. They are also usually responsible in law for the actions of their employees at work. As soon as employers are aware of unwanted behaviour from anyone connected with the workplace, they should take action to stop it and also to prevent it from happening again. However, I appreciate the problems that that creates when employers are the perpetrators. In any work environment, if someone is experiencing sexual harassment, their employer should take what they say seriously, investigate it, and find a solution that is consistent with their health, safety and welfare at work. Employers should deal with complaints fairly and promptly and treat them confidentially. Employers should also make sure that their employees are not victimised in any way for making a complaint.
I read not long ago that
“The Equality and Human Rights Commission has written to Chairs of the FTSE 100 saying it will take legal action where there is evidence of systemic failing in preventing, or dealing with, sexual harassment. In the wake of the Hollywood and Westminster sexual harassment scandals, and the #MeToo campaign, the Commission has written to the Chairs of the FTSE 100 and other leading employers to remind them of their legal responsibility for the safety and dignity of their employees in ordinary workplaces across the country. The letter explains that, where the Commission discovers evidence of systemic failings, it will consider exercising its enforcement powers, this could include undertaking investigations into organisations which it suspects may be failing to take reasonable steps to protect employees.”
Sexual harassment is rife across all our industries. We accept it far too easily, in terms of the culture that we live in, but accountability lies with leadership. Everyone is entitled to a workplace that is free from harassment and discrimination. As a society, we have turned a blind eye for too long: enough is enough and now is the time to act. Culture change will not happen overnight, but I feel that there is a definite shift in attitudes towards being much more aware of sexual harassment, and that it will now no longer be tolerated.
As a Parliament, we need to encourage people to report sexual harassment, and we need mechanisms that address the significant barriers to raising issues in order to stamp it out, not only here in Parliament, but in every place of employment.
As so many other people have mentioned, I too was struck by one sentence in the introduction to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s report. I wholly agree with the sentence, which reads:
“The Scottish Parliament should aspire to be a model for other workplaces”.
Parliament is, of course, not immune from all the types of harassment that other workplaces suffer from. We know that for a fact, but we differ in one key respect from civic workplaces. That difference is that, if harassment is perpetrated by one of our elected members, they cannot be dismissed as the final consequence of a disciplinary procedure.
Where does that leave victims? It is tremendously difficult for someone to come forward about sexual harassment, particularly by someone who has power over them. Even with improvements in reporting systems and procedures, in this workplace a person could come forward, go through a process that is a tremendous strain on the most resilient of souls, tell strangers the most intimate details of their experiences and still be faced with an unsatisfactory conclusion, even if their complaint is upheld. If the complaint is against an elected member, and even if that member is disciplined by their own party and admits their harassment, they can still continue to be an MSP with access to constituency offices, parliamentary buildings and resources. In short, the victim will be likely to come into contact with their harasser.
There are strict regulations on the breach of standards that would lead to a member being forced out of office, and we all know them. Perhaps those need to be looked at again. The report is the start of a wider discussion on the matter, but it certainly offers no conclusion on what is a very difficult matter. The people of our constituency recruit us, and only they can sack us: not Parliament, and not a group of specially chosen people who sit on an independent body and have no relationship to a member’s constituency.
However, the Parliament has a duty of care to those who work here. If a person is found to be a victim, is it right that they are forced into a situation where they can be in physical proximity to the perpetrator? Of course it is not. However, the idea of having a board of people who can overturn an election result is also problematic, as Tom Arthur said.
We need a discussion about what additional sanctions on a perpetrator there can be and what operational procedures we can put in place that could protect a victim from having contact with his or her harasser. How we do that while still giving equal representation to that constituency or region is no small matter, but I am glad that there will be on-going work on that.
As with most things, prevention is better than cure. Political parties that choose candidates for election have the ultimate responsibility. Their procedures and vetting and their internal disciplinary mechanisms—or the lack of them—should not be Parliament’s mess to clean up. All parties should have a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment, robust and comprehensive training for potential candidates and a reporting system that equals, if not betters, the reasonable recommendations made in this report. I want to see political parties dealing with complaints in the way that any well-run workplace would, not sweeping them under the carpet and putting party reputation ahead of justice for victims. If they do the latter, they are failing the electorate that puts its trust in them and are saddling a constituency or region with a person who has hidden their true self from their colleagues and their constituents. They damage our party, our Parliament and the reputation of those of us who conduct ourselves professionally.
Sexual harassment is happening across the party divide. No party is immune. I say with respect that some are dealing with it and some are not. The recommendations in the report are right and proper. I agree with almost all of them, but we should not leave Parliament to be the cure when prevention is in the hands of all parties in this chamber.
I, too, believe that this is a very good report and I thank the committee for all its work on our behalf.
A standards debate should be free of partisan party politics and I am glad that that has been the case this afternoon and that everyone has given their individual views—I will do the same. I say for the benefit of members who are not aware of this that I was the first convener of the Standards Committee back in 1999 at the very outset of our Parliament. I am proud of the fact that I was the member in charge of the very first committee bill of the Parliament, which set up an independent commissioner to investigate complaints against MSPs. I, and my committee, worked for many months to get that right.
I will comment on the section in the report headed “Sanctions for MSPs” and on the independent investigator. The committee recognises that there is a mechanism for the removal of an MSP for a serious breach of the law that results in a prison sentence of one year or more. In my opinion, such convictions and sentences are quite rightly in the hands of the courts. I would like to see the removal of an MSP as a result of their receiving any length of prison sentence; in this case, the one-year barrier is wrong and an MSP who is imprisoned should not remain an MSP.
However, paragraph 81 of the report states:
“Dismissal for serious offences is a feature of conventional employment arrangements, but there is no mechanism to remove an elected member from office for such misconduct”.
We must remember that, in law, parliamentarians are not employees. The committee itself states in paragraph 85 of its report:
“removing an elected member without reference to the electorate cuts across the principles of democracy.”
As to the issue of recall, we really must think through the practicalities. I notice the diplomatic absence of my party leader when I say that, with the greatest of respect to him, this is a point on which I disagree with him. I cannot possibly see how the process could operate in the Scottish Parliament when we have regional members who are elected by proportional representation. If anyone could explain in practical terms how we could recall regional MSPs, who are elected on the basis of PR, I would be willing to listen, but I cannot see how the practicalities of it would work.
On the issue of an independent investigator—which I know something about—my committee took a great deal of time to get that right, recognising that it was important to have a complaint investigated independently of MSPs. I had the unfortunate task of investigating the first major complaint, along with my committee, and we knew that that approach was wrong. It is absolutely right to have an independent investigator, but it should not be the job of such a person to sanction anyone. The investigator should put in a report of their independent findings to the SPPA Committee for further action. That is clearly the right way to approach this.
As MSPs, we all come to the chamber honoured to represent our constituents. We welcome individual constituents, school groups and community groups to Holyrood, and we hold up the building as a democratic institution that we are very proud of.
From that point of view, the statistics in the sexual harassment survey were absolutely shocking and worrying. The fact that 20 per cent of those surveyed had experienced either sexist behaviour or sexual harassment is just completely unacceptable in Scotland’s Parliament. Also, the fact that there were five times more cases involving women than men indicates that, in parts of this building, there is still too much of a male-dominated culture, which has to be eradicated.
One of the really worrying points that Jamie Halcro Johnston pointed out is that nearly half—45 per cent—of the instances of sexual harassment involved MSPs. The Parliament as an institution needs to take a close look at itself. Added to that, the real worry—as the committee brought out—is the lack of confidence in making complaints. As Clare Haughey pointed out, that leads to really low reporting of cases of sexual harassment or sexist behaviour.
There are a number of reasons for that. As Tom Arthur pointed out, we have a myriad of policies across the Parliament and individual political parties can have their own policies. One of the problems with political parties investigating complaints is that when they investigate any complaint, not just sexual harassment complaints, there is an element of trying to manage and minimise the fallout from the complaint. That is not good enough in this situation. We need a proper process that people can have confidence in. To do that, a central policy that sits above and is a higher priority than political parties’ policies would help. As the committee report also discussed, the use of an independent investigator would give people more confidence.
The other problem that Rhoda Grant and Gillian Martin brought out is that people who are employed by MSPs may have a real worry that making a complaint could have an effect on their career. One of the ideas that the committee discussed is whether staff could be reallocated by the corporate body in instances where complaints have been made. That suggestion is worthy of consideration.
As Willie Rennie pointed out, the status quo is not good enough. There is a lot of work to do by the review group and I am glad that Engender is involved in that. However, if we are to achieve Iain Gray’s ambition that his granddaughter will grow up to have a life without sexual harassment, we need to show leadership as a Parliament, not just to eradicate such behaviour here but so that the culture in the country will change as well and we can rid the country of sexual harassment and sexist behaviour.
I place on record the fact that I am a member of the joint working group and add my thanks to the clerks for the large amount of work that they are doing behind the scenes.
To tackle sexual harassment, we must first be able to recognise it. Willie Rennie rightly identified that as a complex problem. We start off by thinking that it is really simple and then, as the working group has discovered, the more we discuss and consider it, the more complex we realise that it is. That is why the formation of the joint working group, the work of the committee and the publication of the report were and are important.
Acts of sexual harassment are power plays. The behaviour tends to be dominating and, often, humiliating. Iain Gray beautifully described this place as a “palace of power relationships”. I will take that home with me and have a wee think about it, as it is quite a good description.
Members across the chamber agree that the levels of sexual harassment that we found in the survey are not acceptable. However, it is worrying that the most common response of people who experienced sexual harassment was to do nothing. On top of that, nearly one third of respondents had witnessed harassment or sexism and, again, one of the most common responses was to do nothing.
The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s report showed that underreporting is endemic in the majority of institutions, and the Parliament is clearly no exception. However, Alison Harris astutely noted that it can often be difficult for someone to know what to do and who to turn to when they experience harassment, especially if they feel that it might compromise their job prospects. That serves to highlight why having new mechanisms for reporting it is important. I hope that that will allow the Parliament to begin to rectify its record.
As my colleague Rhoda Grant indicated, the joint working group has already published its statement of zero tolerance. I hope that that is the beginning of moving towards a better environment and experience in the Parliament. The new reporting procedures that we are working on will, I hope, allow for independent, confidential channels for complaints that will balance anonymity with transparency and fairness.
We must remember that the issue is not the intention of an action or comment, as that might be entirely without malice. The importance of what somebody does often lies in the unintended consequences of their actions and how others perceive them. If the recipient feels degraded and intimidated, the action must be taken extremely seriously to ensure that it cannot happen again. However, that does not necessarily mean persecuting the individual, who perhaps did not realise that their behaviour was having that effect.
That brings me to training. We all need to become more aware of, and more alert to, the feelings and perspectives of others, so training has an extremely important role. Should it be mandatory? Lack of training should certainly not be an adequate defence.
As Alexander Stewart stressed, the Parliament should set standards to which we expect others to rise. Inaction was not an option; therefore, I am glad that the working group and the committee have been able to move quickly to establish new measures for the elimination of sexual harassment. Nevertheless, for a complainant to feel truly confident in reporting harassment of any sort, they need to feel confident that action can and will be taken. As Jamie Halcro Johnston, Clare Haughey and Rhoda Grant all said, there is still a gap in holding MSPs to account fairly and effectively.
I take Tom Arthur’s point that the report and the work that is being done should be considered as a start—an interim stage, not an end. There are still a number of items that we will have to explore in detail and on which we will have to consider the evidence. The clash between Patrick Harvie and Willie Rennie highlighted that. There are things on which we should take action that seem simple on the surface but that we find are complicated when we start to get into the detail.
We need to remember that we are in positions of power and, as a result, have a responsibility to lead by example. I hope that, over the next few months, we will show that we can do that.
I am grateful to have the chance to close the debate on behalf of the committee. I once again thank everyone who participated in and supported the committee’s work, whether our clerking team or those who gave evidence to us. Also, all MSPs owe thanks to the members of corporate body staff and MSP staff who are participating in the Parliament’s wider work to address the issue.
I will not be able to respond to every issue that has been raised in the time that is available to me, as there is a great deal of complexity to many of those issues.
Michelle Ballantyne, Jamie Halcro Johnston and Gillian Martin were among many members who talked about the barriers to reporting. We need to get right the procedures for how we deal with incidents of sexual harassment, but, if we do not challenge and overcome the barriers to reporting in the first instance, that will not be enough.
Gillian Martin ended her argument by saying that we should not simply leave it to Parliament, as political parties also have a responsibility. As parties, we have a responsibility, but we also have to remember the issue of the cluttered landscape that was described by our convener, Clare Haughey, as well as by Jamie Halcro Johnston and other members. There is a cluttered landscape of employers and potential relationships, and we must avoid fragmentation in how individual cases are dealt with. If Parliament is unable to address matters under the code of conduct—for example, because information is held elsewhere—there is still the problem of the cluttered landscape, which leads us to the argument for a central policy in Parliament across all the different employers.
Iain Gray touched on an extremely important point in that regard. He said that it is not merely a case of having the right policies but of all of us taking responsibility. Although I agree with members who said that the perpetrators are not exclusively men—Clare Adamson reminded us to place the issue in the context of the gender spectrum, not the gender binary—as a society, we must recognise that there is a particular problem with men. There is a problem with men’s attitudes, behaviour and sense of sexual entitlement as well as their failure to take responsibility, often dismissing things as locker-room talk, as it has been described elsewhere. Iain Gray is absolutely right in saying that, if we do not call out and challenge the behaviour that we see in others around us, we, too, fail to accept responsibility.
Rhoda Grant recognised that, in the context of all those aspects, there is a need for a clear system for holding MSPs to account. It is easy to say “a clear system”, but today’s debate—in particular, some of the arguments around whether a recall mechanism is appropriate—has demonstrated that there are complexities in defining what a clear system can be. Michelle Ballantyne described my discussion with Willie Rennie as a clash, but I hope that it did not feel like that, as there is a serious debate to be had about the wider arguments for a recall system and its place in a democratic process.
The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee was clear that that was beyond its remit and the remit of the inquiry, but the wider political arguments for a system of recall will, no doubt, be played out. Our concern, and the concern in some of the external evidence that we heard during the inquiry, is whether that would be consistent with giving people who wished to make a complaint clarity about how their complaint would be dealt with and ensuring confidentiality for those who wished to make a complaint as well as providing consistency in the sanctions that were applied.
I cannot speak for the committee as a whole on that subject, as we have not reached a conclusion. We have considered the complexity of the issue, and it is one that needs to be thought about.
We are also talking about what has been described as an ultimate sanction that is comparable to dismissal for gross misconduct in other employment settings. We must recognise that, although recall is one way of achieving that, it is not necessarily the only way. There is already a threshold for dismissal from office as an MSP, and it currently lies with the courts. That is another way of thinking about the problem.
That issue, along with the principle that MSPs should not enjoy or be seen to enjoy a higher level of protection from investigation or sanction than people who are employed in other capacities and the question of suspension formed a set of issues that we wanted Parliament to debate to inform our future work.
I am aware that there are those who do not feel able to report their experiences. They include the person who works here who wrote to me recently:
“The MSP ... approached me in the parliamentary office of my employer and made ... graphic comments about my appearance, what he was keen to do to me once I had agreed to go for a drink with him off campus.”
He acted in that way
“on a number of occasions”.
The person who wrote to me said:
“I discussed this situation with a colleague who had worked for a ... MSP since 1999 and was told to forget that it had happened and that ‘it’s just the way he is.’ I mentioned it to my own employer who just raised their eyebrows and said that the MSP was well known to be a ‘bit of a chancer’ with younger women.”
Every single one of us—the committee and members across the Parliament—should be united in saying that we all need to take responsibility for challenging that culture. We need to challenge the status quo and change such attitudes and behaviours—every single one of us needs to take responsibility for that.
The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee is committed to continuing this work. As Tom Arthur said, this is by no means the end of a process; it is the beginning of one.