Scottish Parliamentary Standards (Sexual Harassment and Complaints Process) Bill: Stage 3

– in the Scottish Parliament on 4th March 2021.

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Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

As members might be aware, at this point in the proceedings, I am required under the standing orders to decide whether, in my view, any provision in the Scottish Parliamentary Standards (Sexual Harassment and Complaints Process) Bill relates to a protected subject matter—that is, whether the bill modifies the electoral system or the franchise for Scottish Parliament elections. In my view, it does not, and therefore it does not require a supermajority to be passed at stage 3.

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-24038, 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

Last 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 and its accompanying documents were introduced last November, and I am delighted to be able to speak to the chamber today and to invite the Parliament to agree to pass the bill.

The bill also removes a default time limit for making complaints to the commissioner, and removes any requirement for the complainer’s signature. The bill, though important, is fairly narrow in scope. If passed, it will open up a complaint route for a member’s own staff, including any staff who are employed jointly by that member with other members under a pooling arrangement, in cases of alleged sexual harassment by that MSP. It does not retrospectively apply a new substantive standard of conduct—it has never been acceptable or lawful for MSPs to sexually harass their employees.

The bill is the result of work that was initiated by the Parliament in 2017 to address sexual harassment, after press reports that there were issues that required to be addressed in 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, the report was referred by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body to my 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 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 for their behaviour towards anyone else working in the building. The joint working group also wished to see consistency of approach in 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 made it possible for the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland to investigate complaints about an MSP’s conduct towards parliamentary staff or the staff of other members. Such complaints had previously been termed “excluded complaints” and were subject to different procedures. Only if those procedures failed to reach a resolution, could they then be referred to the Commissioner.

The changes to the code of conduct also brought members’ treatment of their own staff within the code for the first time. That provision, agreed by the Parliament, prohibits MSPs from behaving in a manner towards their own staff that includes bullying; harassment, including sexual harassment; and 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 staff.

The bill is necessary because the legislation 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 that 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.

The bill removes some of the barriers to complaining about sexual misconduct by MSPs and places potential complainers on a more equal footing if they decide to take that step. I was encouraged by the cross-party support that the bill enjoyed in previous debates, and I hope that I can rely on members’ support for it at decision time.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Scottish Parliamentary Standards (Sexual Harassment and Complaints Process) Bill be passed.

The Presiding Officer:

I call the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans, Graeme Dey, to open for the Government.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I attended this morning a meeting of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, partly to offer the Government’s thoughts on procedural changes that the committee has worked on throughout the current parliamentary session. I note the sheer volume of work that the committee has undertaken, of which the bill before us is a key strand.

The bill is certainly not the largest one to be scrutinised this session, but the Government would argue that it is among the most important. The bill is also one of the products to emerge from the Parliament’s wider work in response to the issue of sexual harassment. At stage 1, I and many others highlighted the importance of sending out a clear message that the Parliament would not tolerate any individual suffering such abuse. The bill plays a part towards achieving that aim.

The subject matter of the bill is for the Parliament. However, the Government welcomes the consensus that there has been around the bill throughout its passage, which has sent a powerful message. The judgment of the joint working group, as endorsed and delivered by the committee, has resulted in a bill that has remained free from any attempt to amend it, which is a characteristic that the Government considers only serves to further reinforce that the Parliament stands as one on the issue.

As I mentioned at stage 1, ensuring that our rules and practices in this area are fair, sensitive and supportive is essential for an entity at the centre of Scottish democracy. You will be pleased to know, Presiding Officer, that I will refrain from rehearsing the fine detail of the bill’s proposed changes to the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Act 2002. Suffice it to say that the Government considers that the bill will serve as a welcome enhancement of the complaints framework.

I should also note the committee’s work to amend section 7 of the code of conduct. The changes agreed by the Parliament earlier this week ensure that section 7 of the code covers members’ conduct towards individuals external to the Parliament. That approach is, of course, essential to the aim of assuring anyone engaging with parliamentarians that they can challenge any behaviour that they deem to be inappropriate or unacceptable.

In conclusion, I commend the committee, its clerks and the legal advisers for their work on this important bill, the terms of which are fully supported by the Government. I look forward to hearing the views of other members.

Photo of Oliver Mundell Oliver Mundell Conservative

Given the time available and the broad consensus that exists, I do not plan to speak for long or in any great detail. However, given the subject matter, it is important to put on the record, on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives, our support for the bill.

It is neither the time nor the place to go into the details of individual past incidents that have led us to today, but we must all recognise that the culture that was allowed to exist in our national Parliament—just as in many other parts of our society—was unacceptable and fell far below the standard required and expected. I am grateful to all those in the Parliament and in the committee who have worked hard to ensure that our procedures and processes are fit for purpose.

There is no room for complacency, but the changes represent a step forward. By extending the commissioner’s remit and removing the one-year time limit, the bill also allows for any concerns to be properly and independently investigated.

I urge all colleagues to support the changes, which are straightforward but much needed, at decision time.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

In this week of all weeks, it is important to reiterate that there is no place for sexist, racist, homophobic or any other such behaviour in our society, and especially in our national Parliament. The results of the sexual harassment survey that was issued in the Parliament have to be a watershed moment. This institution can never again be in a position in which members of staff feel threatened, uncomfortable, under pressure, victimised or subject to any other such behaviour by MSPs or, indeed, anyone else whom they meet during their working day.

The fact that more than 300 people reported that they had experienced sexual harassment while working in the Parliament is truly shocking. What is worse is that they said that they had little confidence in the Parliament’s procedures for dealing with it. That is simply not good enough.

People have gone through the detail of the bill and we have discussed it to death, so I do not intend to go over it. The bill is straightforward, the committee has dealt with it in a straightforward way, and there has been no need for amendments.

There is not much more to add, other than to say that I hope that all members will support the bill tonight.

Photo of Gil Paterson Gil Paterson Scottish National Party

Once the Scottish Parliamentary Standards (Sexual Harassment and Complaints Process) Bill is passed at stage 3, it will make significant changes to shortcomings in the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Act 2002, which we have been working under since the early days of the Scottish Parliament.

The new act will make the Parliament a much fairer place to work in and create an environment in which there is less fear, bullying and intimidation of employees. It will create a workplace that is more in keeping with the expectations of the Scottish people. It will also ensure that any sexual harassment predator cannot be absolved of their crimes by a technicality such as a time ban. The workplace will be a better place because everyone can be held accountable for their behaviour.

The people of Scotland have an expectation that they will be able to live their lives free from abuse, harassment and intimidation, and it is imperative that the Parliament and our wider workplace demonstrate rules and practices that are fair and supportive of everyone, including our employees.

The “Report of the Joint Working Group on Sexual Harassment” for the Parliament highlighted that, although 30 per cent of women employees surveyed had experienced sexual harassment or sexist behaviour, only a few had made a complaint. In my opinion, that sad state of affairs was undoubtedly a result of victims trying to protect their employment and avoid a blighted career. That was an entirely unacceptable situation in a society committed to eradicating inequalities.

This new bill complements work already undertaken by the Parliament to tackle harassment and now incorporated in the MSPs’ code of conduct, in that it includes those working group recommendations that can be delivered only through primary legislation. Although far reaching, the new legislative measures themselves are simple and straightforward and will be clear and transparent to everybody.

The previous legislation created a situation in which the commissioner could rule a complaint by an MSP’s staff member of sexual harassment by that MSP in the period before 7 January 2020 as inadmissible, on the ground that the conduct complained about did not breach a “relevant provision”. The bill will give MSPs’ staff the same rights as everyone else and will end that abuse of their human rights. I am sure that everyone will support that much-needed change.

In the current climate of historical sexual abuse claims and court cases worldwide, and with the subject of harassment and abuse very much in the public consciousness, it is a welcome provision that the bill eliminates any time limits barring investigation of complaints of sexual harassment or sexist behaviour. The provision will have a transformational impact on how historical allegations are dealt with. Victims who previously felt unable to make a complaint will be able to come forward, now that their career prospects are being protected.

The third change is a minor one to rules about complainers’ signatures and will ease administrative processes.

The bill will lead to a much-improved and more equal political institution which will make the Scottish people proud of their Parliament.

The Presiding Officer:

Patrick Harvie will wind up the debate.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I thank the members, officials and everyone else who contributed to the work on the bill and to its scrutiny. I am happy to close the debate on behalf of the committee.

Graeme Dey emphasised the consensus that has characterised the bill and said that he was pleased to see cross-party agreement not only on the principle of the bill but on its detail. I hope that that is shared across the chamber.

This is a shorter debate than most at stage 3 and we have seen shorter speeches than during most such debates, but some important points have been made. Oliver Mundell pointed out that, although it is not a contentious bill, it relates to important principles. We must acknowledge that. Neil Findlay reinforced that point and recalled the results of the survey carried out earlier in the parliamentary session, which should disturb us all. Gil Paterson noted that the survey suggested that a number of people had chosen not to make complaints, perhaps out of fear of harming their careers. None of us should be willing to accept that.

The bill delivers on some of the recommendations made by the joint working group, which included members representing all the political parties. I hope that a process that started and was completed consensually demonstrates that the whole Parliament wants to address longstanding and important injustices.

The bill has enjoyed cross-party support. The principle is that everyone has a right to work in an environment that is free of harassment. The legislation is a signal that we want to take the issue of sexual harassment seriously. I hope that these points also enjoy the same level of cross-party support.

The bill opens up a route for complaints about historical conduct that was previously unavailable to one group of staff: those who wished to complain that they had been harassed by the MSPs that they worked for. This is not a question of retrospectively applying a new standard. It has never been acceptable to sexually harass a staff member.

The bill will allow the Parliament to hold its members to account when sexual harassment of MSP staff has occurred or been alleged in the past. It opens up an additional route of independent investigation, supplementing existing employment rights and remedies to which staff have access.

The Parliament has, or certainly should have and should aim to have, a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment. Such conduct brings the Parliament into disrepute, and there is now a compelling public interest in bringing these past cases within the commissioner’s remit.

I am aware that there will be more substantive speeches in the next debate, so I am keen not to use all the time available. I will close by once again thanking those who have taken part in the development, scrutiny and passage of the bill and have recognised its importance. I also thank all members for the consensual approach that they have taken. I am pleased to close the debate on behalf of the committee and invite members to support the motion at decision time.