Scottish Parliamentary Standards (Sexual Harassment and Complaints Process) Bill: Stage 1

– in the Scottish Parliament on 16th December 2020.

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Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a stage 1 debate on motion S5M-23672, in the name of Bill Kidd, on the Scottish Parliamentary Standards (Sexual Harassment and Complaints Process) Bill.

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party

Back in September, the Parliament agreed to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s proposal for a committee bill that would allow the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland to investigate complaints of past sexual harassment made about members of the Parliament in respect of behaviour towards members of their own staff. The bill also removes the default time limit for making complaints to the commissioner and removes any requirement for the complainer’s signature.

The bill and its accompanying documents were introduced on 13 November, and I am very happy to be in the chamber today to invite the Parliament to agree to the bill’s general principles. The bill is the result of work initiated by the Parliament in 2017 to address sexual harassment after press reports that there were issues that needed to be addressed within public institutions.

Since then, a series of changes have been made to the “Code of Conduct for Members of the Scottish Parliament”, with the aim of ensuring that MSPs, MSP staff and parliamentary staff who experience sexual harassment can be assured that their complaint will be investigated independently and in confidence.

A joint working group on sexual harassment was established by the Parliament in February 2018. It was made up of representatives from all parties, as well as senior members of parliamentary staff and a representative from Engender.

The joint working group reported in December 2018 and made a series of recommendations. Following a consultation on those recommendations, its report was referred by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body to my committee—the SPPA Committee—to implement the recommendations relating to the standards regime in the Parliament.

The committee considered the joint working group’s recommendations before consulting all MSPs on proposed revisions to the code of conduct in order to implement two of the working group’s key recommendations. Those were 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 would be for their behaviour towards anyone else working in the building. 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, and the Parliament agreed, a number of changes to the code of conduct. Those changes made it possible for the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life to investigate complaints about an MSP’s conduct towards Parliament staff or the staff of other members. 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 the 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 or lawful, sexual misconduct by an MSP toward his or her own staff was explicitly prohibited by the code of conduct from that moment forward.

However, the bill is needed so that complaints can be made about historical conduct by MSPs, including former MSPs, towards their own staff members. That is because the act governing the remit of the standards commissioner allows her to investigate only breaches of a “relevant provision” of the code of conduct, standing orders, or legislation relating to members’ interests in place at the time of the alleged misconduct.

The joint working group also specifically recommended the removal of an extra barrier 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 the measure should be applied to complaints of any breaches, not just those relating to sexual harassment, so that all complaints are on an equal footing.

Back in September, I outlined the committee’s consultation with political parties, MSPs, MSP staff, those who responded to the committee’s 2018 inquiry, and anyone else with an interest in responding to its proposals. The responses are published on the committee’s web page. Zero Tolerance told us that sexual harassment in the workplace is both a cause and a consequence of women’s inequality. It recommended that the Parliament should make sanctions clear and visible, and that there should be a trusted, single focal point for reporting that type of misconduct. The Scottish Women’s Rights Centre spoke to survivors of sexual harassment in the workplace before submitting evidence. It underlined the importance of an avenue that victims can pursue free from the fear of repercussions. The bill removes some of the barriers to complaining about sexual misconduct by MSPs, and places its survivors on a more equal footing, if they decide to take that step.

I thank the Finance and Constitution Committee for its report on the bill’s financial memorandum, and note that it had no comment to make on it.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Scottish Parliamentary Standards (Sexual Harassment and Complaints Process) Bill.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. However, as was the case when Parliament considered the proposal for the bill, I will keep my contribution short in order to provide members with more time to have their say.

Parliament agreed to the committee’s bill proposal without division, and I have no reason to believe that the outcome will—or indeed should— be any different today.

The Government’s stance on sexual harassment is well known, as is that of this Parliament. That message was sent out loud and clear back in September and it of course remains the same today: sexual harassment or abuse in any form, whether in the workplace, in the home or in society, is reprehensible and cannot be tolerated.

The Parliament has already established many new measures to tackle head on any accusations that might unfortunately arise. The committee’s bill seeks to deliver the remainder of the recommendations that the joint working group made.

The content of the bill is a matter for the Parliament. However, I consider it important for Parliament to complete the implementation of the measures that the group saw fit to recommend. The Government supported the committee’s inquiry into sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour in the Scottish Parliament. The work of the committee, and of Parliament in general, reflects everyone’s right to work and live their life free from abuse, harassment and intimidation. I commend that activity and welcome the strong emphasis on ensuring that rules and practices are fair, sensitive and supportive, which is an essential feature of an entity at the centre of Scottish democracy.

The committee’s inquiry into sexual harassment and, as we have heard, the recommendations of the Parliament’s joint working group shaped the committee bill. The Government is supportive of the proposed changes to the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Act 2002, which will allow for the investigation of historical complaints, remove extra requirements for the investigation of older complaints in general and—through the committee’s own proposal—remove the requirement for complaints and complaint withdrawals to be signed.

Although this is not a matter for the bill itself, I thank the committee for its confirmation that it would consider the need for changes to the MSP code of conduct to ensure that any new arrangements would cover Scottish Government officials as well as MSP staff and staff of the parliamentary service. The Government welcomes and is supportive of the committee bill, and I look forward to hearing the views of other members.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

It has been some time since the committee started to look into the improvement of the Parliament’s processes around sexual harassment. Since then, a great deal of water has flowed under the bridge and institutions in Scotland, across the UK and around much of the world have considered how to strengthen safeguards and how to best recognise, investigate and handle accusations of historical wrongdoing.

Out of the committee’s deliberations, the need for the bill has been clear. One of the central roles of the standards committee since devolution has been to protect the reputation of the Parliament, to ensure that it is transparent, fair and takes its wider responsibilities to society seriously. We all appreciate how important that reputation, which ensures that we have a representative Parliament that can be respected, is to our work.

Just as importantly, we are all committed to ensuring that the victims of improper behaviour are justly represented. Extensive engagement across the Parliament informed the joint working group’s report, which was published two years ago this month. The core of the bill has emerged from its recommendations.

Many of the report’s other proposals have already been implemented and absorbed into the working practices of the Parliament. As our convener, Bill Kidd, mentioned at the proposal stage in September, the bill is

“the last piece of the jigsaw”—[

Official Report

, 29 September 2020; c 41.]

of dealing with the working group’s recommendations.

Those recommendations are a package—a good one—but they will not be the last word, because if this process has taught us anything it is that work to improve the Parliament as a place to engage with, and in which to work, must be on-going.

I do not intend to dwell on the contents of the bill itself, which have been well covered at the proposal stage and in other speeches. To bring issues around the treatment of a member’s own staff under the remit of the commissioner to investigate is appropriate and reflects what we should have already assumed to be part of the role and requirements of being an MSP—to treat people, including our own staff, with the respect that they deserve.

When they work in or outside Parliament, elected members have a duty to hold themselves to a high standard of conduct. That duty is not only what our constituents expect; it recognises that our actions reflect on the Parliament as an institution.

The bill will improve things, but it must not be seen as the end of the process. If we are to meet the standards that are expected of us, we must ensure that every complaint is dealt with justly and that no improper behaviour goes unacknowledged on the basis of process alone. I thank the committee, the joint working group and others for the significant work that they have undertaken to lead us to this stage. I am pleased to support the bill.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

It goes without saying that sexist behaviour and sexual harassment, or any bigoted and abusive behaviour, do not belong in our national Parliament or anywhere else in our representative democracy.

Equality is supposed to be one of the Parliament’s founding principles. As we all know, on the mace at the front of the chamber are inscribed the words “wisdom”, “justice”, “compassion” and, importantly, “integrity”. Every person, no matter where they work or who they work for, has the right to work in an environment that promotes respect, fairness, equality and dignity, and enables them to make the best contribution that they can to their work. As a trade union member all my working life, those principles are important to me. Indeed, the advances that we have made over the centuries, including ending serfdom, slavery and bonded labour, winning advances in health and safety, welfare, equal pay, pensions and the minimum wage, and introducing legislation on equalities, were all won by brave people and organisations refusing to accept the status quo, challenging powerful individuals and institutions, and forcing change. Such progress was not, and never will be, won by the benevolence of those who hold power, and so it is with this Parliament. The bill comes about because we have been forced to change by brave people coming forward.

When the sexual harassment survey was issued to just over 1,600 people, the response rate was 62 per cent, with 81 per cent of parliamentary staff and 76 per cent of MSP staff responding. We might take some comfort that 78 per cent of respondents said that they had never experienced any sexual harassment or sexist behaviour, but it is dreadful that 20 per cent had. That means that more than 300 people have experienced such behaviour while working in our Parliament, which we often think of as a place that has a moral superiority over other institutions. Thirty per cent of women and 6 per cent of men reported experiencing such behaviour in some form, and the survey also showed that, although knowledge of different reporting procedures was high, the percentage of those who used them was low. Crucially, those who had experienced such behaviour were the least likely to have confidence in the reporting process. That does not paint the Parliament in a very good light.

We have seen some revisions of the code of conduct such that complaints under the code about an MSP’s treatment of a member of the Parliament’s staff, or of a member of staff of another MSP, can now be directly made to the commissioner. MSPs’ own staff are now included in order to give effect to the recommendation of the joint working group that such complaints be dealt with under the code. That means that Parliament will 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. That is a good thing.

Although the changes to the code place the parties who experience misconduct by an MSP on an equal footing, the code does not address complaints about historical misconduct towards an MSP’s own staff, and that is where the bill comes in. It amends the 2002 act to allow the commissioner to investigate complaints about past instances of alleged sexual harassment by MSPs towards their own staff. That is achieved by adjusting what is treated as a relevant provision for the purposes of the commissioner’s investigations under the 2002 act. The expansion of what is deemed as a relevant provision will apply only to complaints of sexual harassment, and not to other forms of misconduct. The change means that complaints about MSPs’ treatment of their own staff, if they relate to sexual harassment, will be treated as though they have always been covered by the code of conduct.

The committee inquiry identified that there are various barriers to people bringing complaints and that it can take time for people to do so. To address the issue and deliver the recommendation, a change to the admissibility criteria is required. The criteria normally require a complaint to be

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

If the commissioner considers that the one-year requirement has not been met but the complaint is otherwise admissible, they are obliged under the 2002 act to seek a direction from the Parliament to either dismiss the complaint or treat it as admissible. The committee views that requirement as a deterrent to anyone who is considering bringing a complaint about historical misconduct, and the bill removes that step. That is a good move.

Dealing with sexual harassment is not only a case of revising policies; it is about creating a change in culture so that people are treated with dignity and respect regardless of who they are.

Scottish Labour supports the general principles of the bill and will vote for it tonight.

Photo of Alex Cole-Hamilton Alex Cole-Hamilton Liberal Democrat

It falls to us in this chamber to legislate for people as we sometimes find them and not as we wish them to be—that goes for MSPs more than most—so I welcome the bill.

As we heard in Neil Findlay’s very good speech, the Parliament is at the centre of our democracy. We should set the highest standard and best example of good working practice and culture, and we must reflect the better nature of the communities that we seek to serve.

Sadly, we have seen from the results of the staff survey that the system here falls short of that.

The sexual harassment and sexist behaviour survey that the Parliament conducted found that a fifth of respondents—30 per cent of women and 6 per cent of men—had experienced harassing behaviour, which is shocking. In 45 per cent of cases, the perpetrator was an MSP, and in 40 per cent of cases, the perpetrator was a member of MSP staff.

The Parliament must act as a leader for other employers, including public bodies, through its refreshed policies for workplace harassment. The bill will be a start in achieving that, but it must be joined by strong responses to sexist and misogynistic voices, as well as by the promotion of measures to advance women’s equality in all arenas.

I will pick up on the committee’s recommendation to consider an ultimate sanction for MSPs that is akin to dismissal for gross misconduct, which sits in the same groove as my party’s call for a recall procedure for the Scottish Parliament. Putting something in place in that regard will certainly be challenging, as the job of MSP does not come with a conventional interview process or the sort of performance appraisal that is attached to jobs in other walks of life. Rather, the public put their trust in us by electing us to the office of MSP.

If we do not manage to conclude the process following a serious breach of the code of conduct with a serious professional consequence to match, we will fail to achieve our goal of having a high standard of working culture, and it will signal that the Parliament does not take matters of that nature as seriously as it should. Whether that professional consequence turns out to be suspension or another mechanism—potentially even recall—the public will expect follow-up actions to harassment and sexual harassment cases in the same way that we expect such action from employers in the private and public sectors.

It is worth remembering that unwelcome behaviours cover a wide spectrum. Although more serious incidents are thankfully rare, sexism and misogyny are sadly far more commonplace, which is why it was so valuable that the entire workforce of the Parliament was offered the same training on sexual harassment in order to challenge outdated cultures and to develop a healthy culture of respect. I hope that, having taken part in the training, employees and MSPs now feel informed and comfortable enough to call out unwelcome behaviour when they see it.

Training will be an on-going process, not least because, in a few months, the parliamentary session will end, we will have an election and there will be many new first-time MSPs and brand new members of MSP staff. It is an iterative process and one of continuous improvement and re-education.

Although this work is a challenge, it is also an opportunity to recommit to the high standard of working culture that we all want. It is a privilege to work here and we must strive to have full confidence in saying that there is a healthy working culture and an environment in which complaints are followed up and taken seriously. For that reason, the Liberal Democrats look forward to the progress of the bill.

Photo of Gil Paterson Gil Paterson Scottish National Party

The bill is an important piece of legislation that will bring about major changes to the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Act 2002, in that some of the limitations of the previous legislation will be withdrawn and replaced with a much more robust and transparent process.

As society has become more aware of the impacts of historical sexual harassment, bullying and abuse on the wellbeing of individuals, and of how their careers can be damaged, it is necessary that the Scottish Parliament demonstrates that it is in the vanguard of reducing this unequal abuse of power.

The retrospective provisions of the bill are extremely significant, in that the bill makes the point that, even if the previous legislation had time barred a complaint of sexual harassment by an MSP staff member because the complaint had not been raised within a year of the harassment event, that is no longer a reason not to investigate a complaint.

In fact, the bill enables historical harassment to be investigated by extending the definition of “relevant provision” to cover not just provisions that were in force at the time of the alleged harassment but those that are proposed in the bill. To me, that is a sensible revision, because many sexual harassment claims can take years to surface for a variety of reasons and, as can be seen in the media, intimidation at the time is a real issue for the victims. Removing a time bar for sexual harassment and abuse claims is the right thing to do and is very much in tune with public sentiment.

The clarification that MSPs’ own staff are included as individuals who must be shown courtesy and respect and must not be subjected to any inappropriate behaviour is welcome. Withdrawing the requirement that a complaint and a withdrawal of a complaint must be signed by the complainant is in keeping with the technological practice of electronic communication.

I very much stand behind the bill, Presiding Officer. Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to speak on it.

Photo of Margaret Mitchell Margaret Mitchell Conservative

The Scottish Women’s Convention stated in its submission to the committee on the bill:

“As the democratic leader within Scotland, the Parliament must take note that whilst many of the work practices within its boundaries are relatively unique, the significant findings of sexual harassment uncovered within the past few years is conducive of a wider prevalence of sexual harassment within all workplaces. Analysis is needed of the power imbalance, the deficiency of equal representation at a parliamentary level and women’s inequality in general in order to gauge the responses and the lack of such thereof to sexual harassment within the Parliament at all levels.”

That evidence followed on from a survey that the Scottish Parliament launched in 2017 of all those working in the Parliament, including members and their staff. The findings revealed that a fifth of respondents had experienced sexual harassment or sexist behaviour while working at the Parliament and that 40 per cent of respondents had not reported that sexual harassment or sexist behaviour.

Many of the victims of sexual harassment do not report sexual harassment in the workplace when it occurs. The reasons include the imbalance of the power dynamic and concerns about the impact that a complaint could have on their career prospects. It was for that reason that the joint working group recommended in its report that

“there should be no time limit applied to complaints of sexual harassment.”

Therefore, the one-year time limit for any complaints regarding a breach of the code of conduct, including sexual harassment, will be abolished. That is welcome. However, having no time limit introduces retrospectivity and the possibility of complaints of sexual harassment being brought against former members. I therefore seek some clarification about the intent of the legislation and the possible retrospective consequences. In particular, how far back can a complaint go? Can it go back to 1999? Will former members who are now deceased be included? Was a seven-year time limit, which exists in similar Westminster legislation, considered and ruled out?

I would be grateful if those issues could be considered at stage 2, if the convener or deputy convener is not able to speak about them this evening. In the meantime, Presiding Officer, I welcome the bill and confirm that the Scottish Conservatives will be voting for its general principles this evening.

Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

I am pleased to speak in this debate on the Scottish Parliamentary Standards (Sexual Harassment and Complaints Process) Bill. It is very important, and I will be happy to support the general principles at decision time.

In a civilised society, everyone has the right to work and live their life free from abuse, harassment and intimidation. Sexual harassment or abuse of any form, whether in the workplace, at home or in wider society, is abhorrent and cannot be tolerated. As MSPs and employers, we must ensure that the highest standards of conduct are upheld among elected members, particularly with respect to sexual harassment. We have a duty of care to all employees to create a culture in which such behaviour is simply not tolerated and people can come to work to experience a happy and inclusive workplace.

It is crucial that, when complaints are raised, they are investigated, and there must be a clear pathway for raising them. I am therefore pleased that the bill’s focus is on encouraging individuals to raise their concerns with an assurance that such issues will be handled sensitively and discreetly. We know that sexual harassment is an abuse of power in all cases. That is why it is essential that staff are protected. They can often feel intimidated and can have fears about what will happen to their job if they come forward, which is totally unacceptable.

One of the most important aspects of the bill is that the committee believes that it is in the parliamentary and wider public interest to allow anyone who might have been sexually harassed by a serving or former member to complain with no time bar. That means that a complaint can be made and investigated no matter when the alleged harassment occurred. I welcome that, because time should be no defence. A victim of harassment might feel too traumatised to complain immediately, but there should always be access to justice when they feel strong enough to pursue a complaint.

The bill proposes allowing the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland to remove any requirement for the complainer’s signature. Again, that is a sensitive and sensible proposal.

I warmly welcome the further strengthening of Scottish parliamentary standards regarding sexual harassment and complaints, and I will be happy to support the general principles of the bill at decision time.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

The debate has been a positive one with thoughtful contributions, starting with that of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee convener, Bill Kidd, through to that of Rona Mackay.

It is a privilege to be elected to serve as an MSP. As we all know, it is a lifestyle and a political vocation, not a 9 to 5, Monday to Friday job.? Although it is well paid, the hours of work are long, commitment is needed and there can be intense pressure. There is no detailed job description or training, and there are no defined employment rights. Of course, members do not stand for election to become employers, and many will have no management experience.

Serving as an MSP gives great job satisfaction in making a difference every day. We advocate directly for our constituents in our area or on Scotland-wide issues, and we give a voice to the unemployed, the homeless and the hungry. With that privilege comes enormous responsibility to our constituents, our colleagues and staff, including those whom we directly employ. As Alex Cole-Hamilton said, we should set the highest standards.

The MSP code of conduct was revised in January, but that did not address complaints about historical misconduct towards MSP staff.? That requires legislative change, which is why the bill is necessary and welcome. It brings us towards completion of a process that, as several members have said, started in 2017 following press reports of sexual harassment in the Parliament.

Sadly, we know that sexual harassment is a routine part of many people’s working lives. A 2016 Trades Union Congress report on sexual harassment in the workplace confirmed that 52 per cent of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment.? Polling in Scotland in 2019?showed that almost 40 per cent of workers have witnessed a colleague being sexually harassed and that 68 per cent of those who have been harassed did not report it to their employers.

As we know, the Parliament is not immune to that sort of behaviour, despite our founding principles and efforts to be an exemplary workplace. As Neil Findlay and Margaret Mitchell said, a survey by the SPCB found that 20 per cent of respondents had experienced sexual harassment or sexist behaviour, and, when that was broken down by sex, the vast majority were women. Therefore, the bill is an important step towards creating a zero-tolerance working environment and allowing the commissioner to investigate complaints of past behaviour, which will grant rights to MSP staff that are similar to those that have already been given to other Scottish Parliament staff.?

Let us remember that sexual harassment is about power and that MSPs are senior figures in this institution, whereas MSP staff are often regarded as junior.

Within that power imbalance, I would say that women are at more risk of harassment and abuse. Concerns about damage to career prospects or working relations were raised by several respondents to the original SPCB survey, and concerns about complaints not being taken seriously were also raised. Although the Parliament has worked to change perceptions, I think that we all recognise that there is a lot more work to be done to make women—and, in some cases, men—feel confident about coming forward.

The removal of the admissibility criteria is not only welcome but essential, as some people might not be aware that they have experienced actionable sexual harassment until a much later date or might not have felt able to make a complaint. It might also encourage others to come forward in circumstances in which behaviour by a perpetrator has been experienced by multiple people.

The removal by section 3 of the bill of the requirement for a signature will facilitate the use of electronic means to submit and withdraw complaints, which I hope will make it easier for people to come forward. However, I note that complaints must still be made by an individual person whose name and address are stated. In its submission to the consultation, the Scottish Women’s Convention pointed out that the lack of anonymity within reporting processes continues to act as one of the most significant impediments for women who have experienced sexual harassment. Perhaps the convener or the deputy convener would like to comment on that, depending on who sums up the debate.

It takes a lot of strength and resolve for any woman to raise a grievance against her boss, and even more to follow through with it, so we should do all that we can to make that process less difficult.

On behalf of Scottish Labour, I thank the committee for proposing the bill, the working group for all its work and everyone who has worked on these issues over a long period and striven to make the Scottish Parliament a zero-tolerance workplace. I confirm that Scottish Labour will support the general principles of the bill at decision time.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

As the closing speaker for the Scottish Conservatives in this stage 1 debate, it is important for me to reiterate that our party welcomes the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s Scottish Parliamentary Standards (Sexual Harassment and Complaints Process) Bill.

For my part, I initially questioned the need for such a bill, but like other members, including Neil Findlay, I was horrified to learn that 20 per cent of our staff had experienced sexual harassment or sexist behaviour while working in the Parliament, which I take such pride in. That the further analysis of the Scottish Parliament’s sexual harassment and sexual behaviour survey showed that 30 per cent of women and 6 per cent of men experienced that form of behaviour was both staggering and shaming, and it demanded that our Parliament act to protect our women and men, and our reputation—which Jamie Halcro Johnston referred to—as a Parliament that strives to be an example of best practice. As Margaret Mitchell said, the written submission from the Scottish Women’s Convention of January 2020 further highlighted the need for action in our institution and our workplace.

The bill will allow for the investigation of complaints about current and historical sexual harassment of their staff by MSPs. Specifically, section 1 enables the commissioner to investigate historical complaints that allege sexual harassment of their staff by an MSP, which is a matter that was previously dealt with under employment law. Section 1 also adds MSPs’ staff to the list of people members must treat with dignity and respect. That is long overdue, as Bill Kidd, Jamie Halcro Johnston and Neil Findlay said.

Section 2 removes the one-year time limit for complaints to be made and will make it possible for historical complaints that date back to the very beginning of the Parliament, more than 20 years ago, to be made. Although the evidence that was given to the joint working group suggests that it will not be the case that a huge volume of historical complaints will be made, some such complaints may be made as a result of the changes in the bill.

That we all have a duty of care and respect towards our staff should not need to be laid out in legislation. However, the facts appear to be that, allegedly but regrettably, members of this place have fallen short of an acceptable standard of good behaviour towards their staff, and it is essential and right for that poor behaviour to be addressed in the bill, as Alex Cole-Hamilton and others have stated.

Section 3 removes the requirement for complaints and withdrawal of complaints to be signed, although the person who makes a complaint will, of course, need to identify themselves when they make the complaint. The purpose of that section is to allow complaints to be made electronically—the expected route is by email—and thus to make it easier for complaints to be made to the commissioner in the future.

It is a fundamental change in practice that we are proposing today, in that the new, streamlined complaints procedure for MSP staff will allow them to make complaints direct to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland, instead of having sexual harassment complaints dealt with under employment law, as is currently the case. That change will give MSP staff the same right of complaint as is currently held by Parliament staff. In all honesty, that should have been the position from the beginning of this Parliament.

The Scottish Conservatives will unreservedly support the bill at stage 1 at decision time.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I again thank the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for its work on its inquiry into sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct at the Parliament, and for enabling the bill to progress to its current point and beyond. The bill will send an important message to ensure that the highest standards of conduct are upheld among MSPs and that no individual should be subjected to any form of abuse, particularly in respect of sexual harassment.

There have been many fine contributions to this short debate, but I will focus on one or two. Like Jamie Halcro Johnston, I welcome what he described as the last piece of the jigsaw, which is the joint working group’s recommendations being put in place. That undoubtedly sends a clear message to staff and, just as important, to members about the expectations that staff should have for how they should rightly expect to be treated and how members should conduct themselves.

Alex Cole-Hamilton was also right when he expanded on that point, noting that, as well as putting down a marker for those of us who currently work here or who have worked in this institution in the past, the proposals send a message to those who will enter the Parliament or might consider seeking employment here post the May election.

Appropriate standards of behaviour will be demanded of the new MSPs, and staff who enter this place will do so knowing that, if they have an unacceptable experience—one would hope that the deterrent effect of the measures in the bill and the measures that were introduced previously will ensure that that does not happen—they will be able to raise their concerns and have them dealt with properly.

As I said, there have been many fine contributions to this short debate, but I think that John Scott summed things up perfectly for us all when he described the findings of the survey that have driven the bill as “staggering and shaming”. They were unacceptable, and the measures in the bill are necessary.

I look forward to the bill’s progress. It is normal for bills to be subject to amendment at stage 2. That could happen to this bill, but I suspect that it is unlikely, because we have captured in the bill before us the essence of what requires to be done. However, I agree with other members that more must be done going forward.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Patrick Harvie to close for the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

The bill is, as the convener reflected, the last piece of a jigsaw that delivers on the recommendations that were made by the joint working group, whose membership included representatives from all the political parties. We should expect everyone to support high standards for MSPs and for that to be the experience of their staff members. The bill signals that we take sexual harassment seriously and that there is no place for it in the Parliament.

I think that every member who spoke in the debate made similar points on that high expectation that we wish to set and said that everyone should have the right to come to work in an environment that is free of sexual harassment but that, where someone needs to make a complaint, it should be taken seriously and dealt with in a professional manner.

However, several members, including Neil Findlay and John Scott, also reflected on the reality that that high standard that we aspire to is not, in fact, the norm either in our society or in our Parliament. Passing the bill will be one more step in taking responsibility for that situation.

The bill opens up a historical conduct complaints route that was previously unavailable to one group of staff: those harassed by their employing MSP. The committee felt confident in introducing the bill because, of course, it has never been acceptable—or even lawful—for an MSP to sexually harass their staff. However, such cases were previously dealt with through employment grievance procedures. We do not think that that is fair, and the committee agrees with the joint working group that the Parliament should be able to hold members to account for their behaviour towards their staff in the same way that it can hold them to account for their behaviour towards other people working in the Parliament. I think that most people would expect the Parliament to be able to do that, and they might be shocked to learn that that gap in the system existed.

The Parliament aims for a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment. Such conduct is, of course, harmful to individuals, but, as several members have said, it also brings the Parliament itself into disrepute. Consequently, there is a compelling public interest in bringing past cases within the commissioner’s remit.

It is unhelpful for there to be such a range of options for bringing complaints depending on someone’s job role, who harassed them—or is accused of doing so—or when it happened. That type of clutter and confusion will only inhibit people from coming forward and making a complaint when they feel that they need to. The bill will ensure that there is one coherent approach in relation to historical complaints.

I turn to the provision on the one-year admissibility step for all MSP complaints. The commissioner is currently obliged to seek a direction from the SPPA Committee to investigate any complaints made within one year of the complainer becoming aware of the conduct. It has always been possible for complaints of a historical nature to be made, but the change is that the commissioner will no longer be required to seek a direction before investigating them. That will further ensure the independence of the complaints process.

The Parliament’s joint working group on sexual harassment recommended that the one-year 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 and how far back the allegations go, whether it was a one-off incident or whether the behaviour has recurred can all be taken into account during the investigation to determine whether there is a case to answer.”

It also said:

“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 Parliament and the political parties have all signed up to the joint working group’s recommendations.

The bill puts everyone on the same footing when it comes to complaints of this nature. There should not be different processes for different cases. A Parliament, our Parliament, should be able to hold its members to account for conduct that falls short of that required of elected members and falls short of the standard that, as is clear from the debate, we all wish to set. The bill will allow the Parliament to learn lessons and apply the sanctions that it sees fit to apply.

I reiterate the remarks that the convener made in his opening speech: the bill is the culmination of a series of measures designed to ensure that, with respect to sexual harassment, the highest standards of conduct among MSPs are upheld.

I am pleased to close the debate on behalf of the committee and I invite the Parliament to agree to the bill’s general principles.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That concludes the stage 1 debate on the Scottish Parliamentary Standards (Sexual Harassment and Complaints Process) Bill. We are a little bit ahead of time.

16:43 Meeting suspended.

16:49 On resuming—