Complaints against MSPs (Committee Bill Proposal)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 29th September 2020.

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Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-22213, in the name of Bill Kidd, on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, on complaints against MSPs

amendment of the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Act 2002.

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party

The committee’s proposal to introduce a committee bill in relation to sexual harassment complaints marks the culmination of work that was initiated by the Parliament in 2017, to address sexual harassment. During that time, a series of changes have been made to the code of conduct with the aim of ensuring that members of the Scottish Parliament, MSP staff and parliamentary staff who have experienced sexual harassment can be assured that their complaint will be investigated independently and in confidence.

The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee initiated an inquiry into sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct in 2017. It examined the Parliament’s processes and procedures for dealing with sexual misconduct by MSPs. While that was under way, the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body launched a sexual harassment helpline and issued a survey to all staff and members to establish baseline information on staff and MSP experiences and their attitude to reporting sexual harassment.

In February 2018, Parliament established a joint working group to progress the work arising from the results of the staff survey, and it considered the committee’s inquiry report. The joint working group was made up of representatives of all parties, as well as senior members of parliamentary staff and a representative of Engender. The joint working group reported in December 2018 and made a series of recommendations. Following a consultation on its recommendations, the report was referred by the SPCB to our committee to implement the recommendations relating to the standards regime in the Parliament.

The committee considered the joint working group’s recommendations during the first half of 2019, before consulting MSPs on proposed revisions to the code of conduct to implement two of the working group’s key recommendations: that no time limit should be applied to complaints of sexual harassment; and that members should be held to account for their behaviour towards their own staff in the same way as they are held to account for their behaviour towards anyone else. The joint working group also wished to see consistency of approach to all investigations of allegations of sexual harassment by MSPs.

Following its consultation, the committee recommended a number of changes to the code of conduct that were agreed by Parliament at the end of last year and came into effect in January. They made it possible for the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland to investigate complaints about an MSP’s treatment of a member of the Parliament staff or an MSP’s treatment of a member of staff of another member. Such complaints had previously been excluded complaints and subject to different procedures. Only if those procedures failed to reach a resolution could they then be referred to the commissioner.

The code changes also introduced a standard of conduct for MSPs towards their own staff for the first time. The new standard, agreed by Parliament, prohibits MSPs from behaving in a manner towards their own staff that includes bullying, harassment including sexual harassment, or any other inappropriate behaviour.

Although clearly never acceptable, sexual misconduct by an MSP towards his or her own staff was explicitly prohibited by the code of conduct from that moment forward. However, legislative change would be required to address historical conduct by MSPs towards their own staff as recommended by the joint working group. That is because the act governing the remit of the standards commissioner allows her only to investigate breaches of a relevant provision, which includes the code of conduct, standing orders, or legislation relating to members’ interests that was in place at the time of the alleged misconduct. The joint working group also specifically recommended the removal of any extra barriers to the bringing forward of complaints that are made more than a year after the complainer becomes aware of the misconduct. The committee believes that that should be applied to complaints of any breaches, not just those relating to sexual harassment.

The committee now presents the Parliament with a proposal for a committee bill under rule 9.15 of standing orders. It aims to address both those issues.

In drawing up plans to introduce the bill, the committee invited political parties, MSPs, MSP staff, people who responded to the committee’s 2018 inquiry and anyone else with an interest to respond to its proposals, and the responses are published on the committee’s web page. The Scottish Women’s Convention pointed out

“The psychological toll that historic sexual harassment has on victims”, while Engender’s submission referred to the “power dynamic” between MSPs and their staff. Both submissions welcomed the proposed creation of an alternative independent route for complaints that did not involve complaining directly to the employing MSP.

To summarise the committee’s proposal, the bill would adjust

“what is treated as a relevant provision for the purposes of the Commissioner’s investigations under the 2002 Act so that complaints about historic instances of sexual harassment” by MSPs towards their staff can be dealt with in the same way as conduct towards other staff or MSPs.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

On a point of clarification, would the historical approach apply not just to current, but to former, MSPs?

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party

I am just coming to that; I hope that this will explain it.

It is important that I point out that the change will apply only to complaints of sexual harassment. It will not be possible to reopen minor historical grievances or the breakdown of a working relationship as a result of the changes.

The bill would also remove a requirement in the 2002 act that a complaint should be made

“within one year from the date when the complainer could reasonably have become aware of the conduct complained about.”

That point may be relevant to the issue raised by Mike Rumbles. By removing the requirement for the complaint to be made “within one year”, the bill takes the timescale further back. I will have to take advice on the matter, but I think that that covers what Mr Rumbles was asking about. It might not, but I will certainly check that.

For simplicity, that change will apply to all older complaints, not just those involving sexual harassment. Although it has always been possible for the commissioner to investigate older complaints following a direction from the committee, the change removes a hurdle that might inhibit complainers from coming forward.

Finally, the proposed bill would also contain a housekeeping amendment to the 2002 act removing the requirement for signatures when lodging complaints with the commissioner, or withdrawing them, to better reflect modern working practices. I commend the committee’s proposal to the Parliament.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the proposal for a Committee Bill, under Rule 9.15, contained in the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s 7th Report, 2020 (Session 5),

Proposal for a Committee Bill — Complaints against MSPs — amendment of the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Act 2002

(SP Paper 766).

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I propose to keep my contribution to the debate relatively short, as I suspect other members will, too, because I doubt whether there is much, if anything, that will divide us on this matter. The Government’s views on sexual harassment are well known and the proposals set out in the committee’s report are very much a matter for Parliament. Aside from the process element of the debate, it also affords a further opportunity for us to place on record a statement, which I am confident is agreed by all of us in the chamber, that sexual harassment or abuse of any form, whether in the workplace, home or society is reprehensible and cannot be tolerated.

The Government was fully supportive of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s inquiry into sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour in the Scottish Parliament, because everyone has the right to work and live their life free from abuse, harassment and intimidation. It is imperative that the Scottish Parliament exemplifies those principles. Parliamentary rules and practices should be fair, sensitive and supportive of everyone. No individual should be discouraged from working in or engaging with the Parliament.

The committee bill proposal set out in the report is, as we have heard from the convener, shaped by the committee’s inquiry into sexual harassment and the recommendations of the Parliament’s joint working group.

The bill proposal follows on from a suite of reforms that the Parliament has already implemented to tackle harassment, which are now enshrined in the MSP code of conduct, parliamentary policy frameworks and the Parliament’s internal processes for handling any allegations that may arise.

The focus on encouraging individuals to raise their concerns with an assurance that such issues will be handled sensitively and discreetly is especially welcome. The aim of the proposed bill is to complete the implementation of the working group recommendations, specifically those that can be delivered only through primary legislation.

The Government notes that changes are proposed to the 2002 act to allow for the investigation of complaints of a historical nature; to remove extra requirements for the investigation of older complaints in general; and to implement the committee’s own proposal for removing the requirement for complaints and complaint withdrawals to be signed.

The Government is supportive of the proposed bill in principle, subject to sight of the actual bill that will be brought forward for introduction. I take the opportunity to confirm that should Parliament agree to the bill proposal, the Government would not wish to exercise its right to legislate in that regard.

I want to air a related issue that I have raised with the committee, and which I understand would be a matter for the MSP code of conduct as opposed to the proposed bill, although I would welcome further confirmation of that. The issue in question is whether Scottish Government officials could be reassured that any reforms to the MSP conduct framework, and any associated complaint-handling procedures would apply to them as well as to MSP staff and staff in the parliamentary service. As I said, the Government would welcome any reassurance that the committee could offer on that specific point.

As I have noted, the Government welcomes and is supportive of the committee’s report, and I look forward to hearing the views of other members.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

Everyone who works in the Parliament has an interest in ensuring that the public can have confidence that we operate with a high level of integrity and propriety. That has been part of the Parliament’s ethos since it was created in 1999. Integrity is one of the four principles that are inscribed on the mace that has sat before Presiding Officers during every session, symbolising the chamber’s authority. There have, of course, been challenges to the Parliament’s reputation in the past few decades, including a number in recent times.

Where people’s faith in their public institutions has been dented, it is often more than simply the actions of individuals that have fallen short of the standards that we set ourselves. In those cases, the actions and precautions that our institutions have taken have often fallen short, too. It is by acknowledging those institutional shortcomings that we can begin to make real change, not just in the processes that we have in place but in our organisational culture.

For many years, we have, institutionally, failed to root out and tackle many of the problems that have given rise to the discussion that we are having today. Individual incidents in the Parliament, unlike in most workplaces, are likely to receive extensive coverage in the media. Our behaviour is very much under scrutiny, and it sends a signal to wider society. One thing is clear: nobody benefits in such situations. When our reputation is dented, it diminishes not just individuals or specific political parties—it diminishes us all. Sadly, that is true not just for the elected members among us, but for those who are attached to the Parliament and those who work in it and with it.

We are all aware of the specific concerns that have prompted the proposed changes. Over recent years, there has been a significant effort to tackle sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour. As a first step, we must acknowledge that such conduct has previously been overlooked, ignored or excused. We have heard the testimony of many people who have been affected, but there are undoubtedly more who have yet to be heard, and some who maybe never will be.

The Parliament has acted on those issues, and I commend the work by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body and by many parliamentary staff across a number of departments. The joint working group reported its recommendations, and it is down to those recommendations that we have made the progress that we have so far.

It is important to ensure that consensus can be built around a shared set of proposals for change. We in the chamber are in the unusual position of being 129 small employers, but we are all equally invested in the Scottish Parliament, both as an organisation and as a community. I believe that it is important that members continue to have the ability to manage their own staff, and that they have the flexibility, within reason, to best serve their constituents in the ways that they see fit. However, it is vital, too, that the right processes are in place to tackle situations effectively where serious problems arise.

As has been outlined, the recommendations of the joint working group have already brought about positive change. They have clarified the expected standards of conduct between MSPs and staff and they recognise that bullying, harassment and inappropriate behaviour are entirely incompatible with MSPs’ elected position at the heart of public life.

We have yet to take the proposed changes to their conclusion. The committee has agreed with the recommendations of the joint working group, and we have made clear our position that it is in the interests of the Parliament as well as in the wider public interest to allow for the effective investigation of historical allegations of improper conduct that has taken place within this institution.

The proposed legislation will not be complex. It will ensure that it is within the power of the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland to pursue complaints of this type of sexual harassment that have occurred in the past, removing the current one-year limitation that exists in statute.

The work that the Parliament and the political parties that are represented here have done over the past two years to tackle improper conduct has been a step in the right direction. We have long accepted that that sort of behaviour is wrong and that the people whom we employ should never have to accept it in any form as part of coming into work.

The committee is proposing that we start to deliver on the remaining outstanding issues, ensuring that we have the processes in place that can address the problems that we have faced.

I join my fellow committee members in recommending that the proposed bill be brought before the Parliament.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

The proposed bill follows on from concerns that have been raised about sexual harassment, and about such behaviour in the Parliament. The survey that was circulated to gauge the experience of people who work here was a sobering piece of work. The proposed committee bill is a response to the work of the joint working group on sexual harassment, and the group’s recommendation is that no time limit should be applied to complaints of sexual harassment. I am led to believe that the bill would allow complaints to be made in relation to historical misconduct by any serving or former MSP towards his or her staff, to answer Mr Rumbles’s question. My understanding is that that is already the case in relation to complaints about the conduct of SPCB staff and MSPs.

The Parliament started looking into the matter at the end of 2017, when the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee agreed to carry out an inquiry into the procedures for dealing with sexual harassment and misconduct. The proposed bill follows up on that work, removing the admissibility requirement that a complaint be made within one year and allowing the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland to investigate complaints made by any member’s own staff in relation to sexual harassment that is alleged to have taken place in the past. The bill will deal with complaints of historical sexual harassment by MSPs towards their own staff, and it will remove the requirement for a signature on any complaint.

The proposed bill is one of a wide range of measures that are being taken to tackle sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour in the Parliament. We have already heard about the sexual harassment helpline that was set up and the subsequent survey of all staff and members. The survey found that a majority of people—78 per cent—had never experienced any sexual harassment or sexist behaviour. However, 20 per cent, or a fifth of the people who work here, had experienced such behaviour while working in our national Parliament—30 per cent of women and 6 per cent of men reported experiencing that type of behaviour. It should shock all of us that that was the response of those who took part in the survey.

Key changes to the code of conduct were agreed in 2019 and came into practice in 2020. Historically, conduct and matters between MSPs and their own staff were addressed outwith the code of conduct and via employment law. However, that has changed since January 2020. The code of conduct was amended to ensure that MSPs treat their own staff with courtesy and respect. It is absolutely astonishing that we had to do that: I would have expected all MSPs to treat their own staff with courtesy and respect, and I hope that we all do.

Any complaint about behaviour prior to January 2020 is currently inadmissible. Therefore, the legislative change that is being suggested is required to ensure that there is no time limit. The proposed change removes that one-year provision.

It also removes the requirement that complaints need to be signed. The online process will provide some safeguards to ensure that the identity of a complainant is fully established and that only the complainant is able to withdraw the complaint.

This is a fairly straightforward committee bill and these are practical and necessary follow-up steps, so I hope that the proposal will receive unanimous support at decision time.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Gosh, everyone is paying attention to the need for brevity today; I am quite stunned.

There seems to be some confusion, with some members having pressed their request-to-speak buttons and some not. I ask everyone to check that they have got it right.

We now move on to the open debate, with speeches of four minutes, please. I call Gil Paterson, to be followed by Rachael Hamilton.

Photo of Gil Paterson Gil Paterson Scottish National Party

This proposed committee bill on complaints against MSPs, which will amend the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Act 2002, is an important part of ensuring that the Parliament upholds the highest standards in dealing with complaints about the behaviour of MSPs.

The joint working group on sexual harassment identified among its recommendations one issue that would require primary legislation, which is that no time limit should be applied to complaints of sexual harassment. In principle, I am very happy to support and endorse that.

As we have seen, it can take many years for those who have been sexually harassed or abused to gain the confidence to make a complaint against their boss, who can have control over their career and professional future. Therefore, in my view, it is absolutely necessary to withdraw the one-year cut-off to making a complaint against an MSP that is contained in the 2002 act.

After consideration by all parties, the other recommendations made by the joint working group were incorporated into the code of conduct for MSPs and have been in effect since January 2020.

As part of the consultation process, another important statement surfaced: that MSPs should be held to account for their behaviour towards their own staff in the same way that they would be held to account for their behaviour towards anyone else. That is very obvious when it is expressed as simply as that—why was it not the case in the first place?

I was particularly pleased that, as part of the amendment process, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee has expanded the joint working group’s recommendation to remove the one-year provision to cover all complaints about MSPs’ behaviour towards their staff. That will result in a single set of rules, which will make it much easier to administer staff complaints about MSPs’ unacceptable behaviour.

Unfortunately, harassment and bullying have become a big part of many people’s working lives—or maybe it only seems that way because of the media attention and the high-profile, powerful people who are being called to account for their actions. On balance, I suspect that bullying and harassment have always been in the working environment. However, a new awareness and collective public condemnation of those unfair and counterproductive practices, together with the courage of those affected by bullying and harassment to go public and challenge inappropriate behaviour, are slowly putting an end to a very unfair era. I certainly hope that that is the case.

All in all, the amendments in the proposed bill will enhance the equity of our staff complaints procedures. I urge everyone to support the proposal at decision time.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

The Scottish Parliament should be a safe and pleasant environment, where staff feel comfortable in their place of work and confident in reporting harassment of any kind. Setting standards in this place should set an example across all levels of Government, in the public and private sectors and in wider society.

That has not always been the case, and many members of staff have been let down. A recent survey by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body found that a fifth of respondents had experienced such behaviour while working in the Parliament. When the results were analysed, 30 per cent of women and 6 per cent of men reported experiencing some form of such behaviour. Those statistics are concerning and require continual improvement.

Actions have been taken in the Parliament, with policies such as the culture of respect workshops. I attended those and saw a high level of participation from both staff and members.

The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s announcement of a proposal for a committee bill to amend the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Act 2002 stems from the committee’s work and from its writing to Dame Laura Cox, author of the independent inquiry report, “Bullying and Harassment of House of Commons Staff”.

I thank Engender for submitting evidence to the consultation and I echo the calls from the Scottish Women’s Convention for an analysis of the power imbalance in the workplace and for a commitment to tackle the deficiency in equal representation at a parliamentary level.

We must not forget the psychological toll that historical sexual harassment continues to take on victims. I agree with the SWC that the current time limit of one year creates an unfriendly, unsupportive and toxic atmosphere in the work environment. It is natural that some individuals may require a little more time to consider making a complaint. Removing that time limit might even act as a catalyst to encourage others to come forward. In light of that, the committee agreed that no time limit should be applied to complaints of sexual harassment.

The legislative change is necessary to allow for the investigation of historical complaints of sexual harassment by MSPs of their own staff under the 2002 act. The proposed committee bill deals with a change to the admissibility criteria in that act. That change relates to older complaints in general and it responds to the recommendations of the joint working group on sexual harassment.

For many former employees, sexual harassment was a key factor in their moving jobs. The victim may become empowered to speak out only years after their employment in the Parliament has ended. Removing the requirement for a signature on complaints, and on complaints withdrawals, is also an important amendment that allows staff to anonymously report incidents of harassment.

There is still a long way to go in helping survivors of harassment, not only in the Parliament but in other workplaces across Scotland. The issue is not a party-political one, nor does it affect any one party more than others. It crosses society. Getting it wrong causes reputational damage, and we have a duty to get it right.

We must promote the highest standards of conduct among those elected to Parliament. In doing so, we uphold public confidence in the good reputation of the Scottish Parliament. We on the Conservative benches support the proposed committee bill and its principles. We must strive to make our staff feel safe and secure in their employment in Parliament.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That was the final contribution to the open debate, so we move to the closing speeches. For members’ information, the stage 3 debate may start at about 10 to 4.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

Our role as MSPs is a privilege and we should aspire to a high standard of behaviour. Sadly, that is not always the case.

Neil Findlay pointed out the shocking statistics from the staff survey. What was even more shocking was that 45 per cent of perpetrators referred to in the results of that survey were MSPs. I was a member of the joint working group that was set up to deal with that desperate situation. The proposed bill comes from the recommendations of that working group.

It is clear that sexual harassment is based on an imbalance of power. The privilege of being an MSP bestows power on all MSPs, and abuse of that power is simply wrong. It is an abuse of our privilege—a privilege that was given to us by the Scottish people. I therefore welcome the consensus among all members that the change in legislation is necessary.

One of the most difficult issues that the joint working group looked at was the protection of MSP staff. They are directly employed by MSPs and have no right of appeal beyond their employers to the Parliament, to the Scottish Government or, indeed, to their party. Therefore, extending the remit of the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland to investigate such complaints adds to the protection for staff. It could also be a deterrent to MSPs who seek to abuse people in that vulnerable position.

Graeme Dey and Neil Findlay talked about extending that protection to Scottish Government and Parliament staff. I agree with that but, as it stands, Scottish Government and Parliament staff have a right to complain to their line manager and a right to have complaints about an MSP investigated beyond that MSP. An employer would normally investigate, and that might be the right way to do it for such members of staff, because the employer could also provide the support that is required for staff while the investigation continues. However, if an MSP were found guilty of harassing Scottish Government or Parliament staff, it would be right and proper for the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life to consider sanctions for that MSP.

I welcome the removal of the one-year cut-off for complaints of sexual harassment. That shows an understanding that the victim might be reluctant to come forward, because such behaviour might impact on someone’s self-esteem, there is an embarrassment attached and there is a huge fear for MSP staff about their employment. Added to that, our staff normally share our political affiliation, so there is a reluctance to call out an MSP if that could cause reputational damage to the party. I say to anybody who is a victim of such abuse that it is not them who is causing that damage; it is the person who is perpetrating the abuse. I ask them never to be silenced by someone who preys on their party loyalty while not displaying the same loyalty themselves.

We need to have zero tolerance for sexual harassment. The proposed change to the legislation works towards that. All our staff need to feel safe in their workplace. We are in a privileged position, and it is unacceptable for anyone to seek to abuse that privileged position. Therefore, it is right that protections are put in place to hold abusers to account.

Photo of Alexander Stewart Alexander Stewart Conservative

I am delighted to have the opportunity to be involved in this important debate. Sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct in all its forms are completely unacceptable, and we should all stand resolutely against such conduct not only in the Scottish Parliament but in workplaces throughout Scotland and everywhere else.

As we have heard, MSPs were involved in a staff survey that was carried out by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. We found that one in five respondents to the survey indicated that sexual harassment or sexist behaviour had been part and parcel of their working experience. That is a very high statistic, as Neil Findlay said. Twenty per cent of individuals who filled in the survey indicated that there was a problem, so the issue has to be tackled.

Some welcome steps have been taken. The joint working group on sexual harassment was set up, and it is only right that we ensured that the code of conduct was enhanced. It is also right for complaints that are made by MSP staff against MSPs to go to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life. Such cases should not be just left to the law; there should be an opportunity to deal with them in the Parliament, to ensure that we send out a strong message.

In the view of many individuals who complained about sexual harassment, it was important that the code of conduct was introduced and then revised, and it is now very much explicit about such behaviour. It was not right that complainants could not come forward after one year. That was an anomaly that had be challenged, and it has been. In sexual harassment cases, many people find it very difficult to deal with what happened—they lock it away in some shape or form. It may take years for them to come forward, challenge what happened and engage. It may be that other people have helped and supported them through that. We need to have confidence in the whole process. I am sure that the proposed bill will deliver that.

Bill Kidd talked about the joint working group. He mentioned the time limit, and said that members should be held to account for their actions—that is vital.

Jamie Halcro Johnston talked about the reputation not only of the Parliament but of other institutions. They have to be involved, too, and action must be taken to ensure that that happens.

Rachael Hamilton talked about people having a safe place to work. People coming to work for individuals who may be perceived as powerful should be able to be confident about their working environment; those individuals have responsibilities to ensure that they take care for and look after those who work for them.

We in the Scottish Conservatives are fully supportive of the proposed bill and what it seeks to achieve. Sexual harassment and misconduct cannot be tolerated in any way, shape or form. People should be able to challenge people in power. It is vital that staff have the confidence to do that.

The bill is an important step in the right direction. We cannot and must not be complacent about these issues. We must continue to do all that we can to tackle them. We must make it clear that we are taking the matter seriously in this place, because that is vital for our reputation as parliamentarians.

I very much support many aspects of the proposed bill, and so does my party.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Graeme Dey. You have five minutes.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I will take a lot less time than that, Presiding Officer. I kept my opening speech short because I do not think that there is anything at all that divides us on the issue, and the contributions from members have confirmed that.

I was particularly struck by Rachael Hamilton’s comments about this not being a party-political issue. She went on to talk about how the issue criss-crosses society and impacts workplaces the length and breadth of Scotland. Sadly, that is correct, but we have a responsibility as the Scottish Parliament to take the lead, and the proposed bill will allow us to do that.

I very much welcome the proposed bill and the tone of the debate, and I look forward to the proposal coming to fruition.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Bill Kidd to wind-up the debate on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. You can have as long as you like, Mr Kidd. [

Laughter

.]

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party

I will aim to be popular and not take too long.

I will cover two issues quickly before I get into the meat of my speech. In response to Mike Rumbles, I say that, as mentioned by my committee colleague Neil Findlay, yes, the proposal is to cover former MSPs. I should have been able to say that off the top of my head but, for some reason, I could not remember. That is that issue put to bed.

At one point, the minister asked whether Scottish Government officials would be covered in the work that the SPPA Committee is due to consider. Yes, they will. That will require changes to the codes rather than legislation, so we will be able to do that, too

In closing for the committee, I reiterate that the proposed bill is not an isolated piece of work but the last piece in the jigsaw to deliver the recommendations of the joint working group on sexual harassment. The joint working group consisted of representatives from all the political parties, and I am pleased to hear the same cross-party support echoed in this afternoon’s debate. It goes without saying that everyone in the chamber supports the highest standards for MSPs, and the legislation will signal that we take the issue of sexual harassment seriously and that there is no place for it in the Parliament.

As I said earlier, the proposed bill will open up a route for complaints about historical conduct that was previously unavailable to one group of staff—that is, those harassed by their employing MSP. When legislation makes changes about historical cases, questions of fairness naturally arise. However, the committee felt confident in bringing the proposed bill forward, because, of course, it has never been acceptable—or lawful—for an MSP to sexually harass his or her own staff; it is just that cases of that nature were previously dealt with through employment grievance procedures. We do not think that it is fair to single out one group for different treatment, and we agree with the joint working group that the Parliament should be able to hold members to account for their behaviour towards their own staff, in the same way as for their behaviour towards anyone else.

I hardly need to remind members that the Parliament has a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment. Such conduct brings the Parliament into disrepute. As such, there is a compelling public interest in bringing those past cases into the remit of the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life.

It is not helpful for there to be a range of options for bringing complaints, depending on someone’s job role, who harassed them and when. That type of clutter and confusion only inhibits people from coming forward.

On the proposed provision on the one-year admissibility step for all MSP complaints, the commissioner is currently obliged to seek a direction from the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee to investigate any complaints made within one year of the complainer being aware of the conduct. It has thus always been possible for complaints of a historical nature to be made. The only change is that the commissioner will no longer be required to seek a direction from the committee before investigating those. That will further ensure the independence of the complaints process.

I remind members that the Parliament’s joint working group on sexual harassment recommended that that hurdle be removed. It said:

“there should be no time limit applied to complaints of sexual harassment ... Each complaint should be dealt with on its own merits” regardless of

“how far back the allegations go ... If our aim is to create a culture where people feel more confident to report, we believe it would be counter-productive to set a time limit on making such complaints.”

The bill is the result of a long and carefully considered piece of work by the committee. It gives me pleasure to close the debate on behalf of the committee and to invite members to support the motion, which seeks the Parliament’s agreement that the bill be introduced.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That concludes the debate on complaints against MSPs

amendment of the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Act 2002.

We move to the next item of business.