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.