Sexual Harassment and Inappropriate Conduct Inquiry

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 14th June 2018.

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Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

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.