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House of Commons Hansard

Sexual Harassment in Parliament

30 October 2017
Volume 630

  • (Urgent Question): To ask the Leader of the House if she will make a statement about her plan to tackle sexual harassment in Parliament.

  • As you know, Mr Speaker, I was very keen to come to the Chamber to make a statement today, but I am delighted to respond instead to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and grateful to you for inviting me to provide a full response. It is absolutely right that the House must address the urgent issue of the alleged mistreatment of staff by Members of Parliament. These allegations make it clear that there is a vital need to provide better support and protection for the thousands of staff members working in Westminster and in constituency offices across the country. In tackling this problem, we also need to recognise that we have interns, those on work experience placements, House staff, clerks and civil servants, all of whom deserve to be afforded our care and our respect.

    I can confirm that the Cabinet Office is urgently investigating reports of specific allegations of misconduct in relation to the ministerial code. I am well aware that the public rightly expect MPs to display the highest standards, and, as the Prime Minister outlined in her letter yesterday, there can be no place for harassment, abuse or misconduct in politics. Your age, gender or job title should have no bearing on the way you are treated in a modern workplace—and nobody is an exception to that.

    As the Nolan principles outline, as public servants we must demonstrate accountability, openness and honesty in our behaviour. Regardless of role or position, a new approach will need to cover everyone working for Parliament. If someone is made to feel uncomfortable, or believes that others have acted inappropriately towards them, they should be able to contact an external, independent, specially trained support team—via phone, the intranet or face to face—so that any issue can be raised confidentially, and appropriate advice and support can be given. Everyone in this House must be clear that whenever a serious allegation is made, the individual should go to the police—and be supported in doing so.

    However, it is clear that the current system is inadequate. It is for Parliament to come together to resolve this, but the Government believe there should be some guiding principles. First, as in any other workplace, everyone in Parliament should have the right to feel at ease as they go about their work, irrespective of position, age or seniority. Secondly, although we have had a confidential helpline in place for several years, it must now be strengthened as a dedicated support team, made more accessible, given more resources, and with its role and responsibilities highlighted to all who work here. Thirdly, the support team should have the ability to recommend the onward referral of a case—to ensure that appropriate investigation and action take place. Fourthly, the support team should recommend specialised pastoral support for anyone who is experiencing distress as a consequence of their treatment in the workplace. Fifthly, the support team should recommend reporting any allegations that may be criminal directly to the police. Sixthly, and in addition, there may be further action that government and political parties themselves can take to ensure high standards of conduct and that inappropriate behaviour is properly dealt with. This is the very least we can do.

    As the Prime Minister outlined yesterday in her letter to party leaders, we must establish a House-wide mediation service, complemented by a code of conduct and a contractually binding grievance procedure, available for all MPs, peers and their staff, irrespective of their party banner. This will reinforce to those who work here, and to the public, that we are serious in our treatment of wrongdoing and in our support for those who suffer it. I know that all party leaders will work together, with the House, to reach an agreement and get these changes in place as soon as possible. We are Members of Parliament, and our constituents will be rightly appalled at the thought that some representatives in Parliament may have acted in an entirely inappropriate way towards others. These reports risk bringing all our offices into disrepute.

    I know that this is an issue of great concern to you, Mr Speaker, and I know that you will do everything you can to tackle it. Members from all parties will want to work alongside you to investigate every claim, provide the right support in the future, and make sure that this never happens again. It is a right, not a privilege, to work in a safe and respectful environment. The plans I have outlined will ensure that Parliament takes a zero-tolerance approach. Parliament must take action in days, not weeks.

  • I fully endorse the words that you said, Mr Speaker, and I thank you for the commitment you have always shown on these issues.

    I thank the Leader of the House for her answer. She is right: there is obviously a problem. It is a good thing that it has been exposed, and it has to be dealt with. No woman—or man, for that matter—who comes to work in this House should be subjected to unwanted sexual advances from those who are in a position of power over them. No one should have to work in a toxic atmosphere of sleazy, sexist or homophobic banter. No MP, let alone a Minister, should think this is something to make jokes about. This is not hysteria; it is something that is long overdue for all the parties in this House to deal with.

    Does the Leader of the House agree that all parties should agree on clear, strict rules about what is not acceptable, make sure that everyone knows about them, and that there has to be independence in the adjudication of complaints? Does she recognise that it is almost impossible for someone at the bottom of the system to complain and make allegations about someone at the top? That gives those at the top impunity, of which some—few, but some—will take advantage. A young researcher would fear that if she made an allegation about an MP, her name would be plastered all over the newspapers and she would never get another job. A young journalist would know that if she made an allegation about a Cabinet Minister, she would be subjected to an immediate assault on her integrity, and that would be the only thing for which anyone ever remembered her thereafter. We must, therefore, have complainant anonymity at the heart of this.

    Above all, does the Leader of the House recognise, as we all must, that Members of this House have an immensely important job and great responsibility? To speak up for our constituents and hold the Government to account—that is what we are here for. No one voted for me to come to this House to engage in high jinks; no one elected any of us to engage in sleazy, oppressive behaviour, so it has to be stopped. And now is the time to do it.

  • I absolutely share the right hon. and learned Lady’s concerns about allegations, and I share her determination to stamp this out. We are absolutely determined to get a grip on this. She is right that all parties must agree on the rules and that there must be an independent grievance procedure. I absolutely share the concern that it is particularly difficult for young people who come to work or to do work experience in this place to come forward themselves with allegations, for fear of what might happen to them. That has been the case throughout all areas of life in which those in power seek to abuse those who are younger and less powerful than they are. It is absolutely appalling and unforgivable. I also share the right hon. and learned Lady’s view that complainants should be given anonymity and that there should be proper and thorough investigations of all complaints.

  • May I, too, congratulate you on and endorse your comments, Mr Speaker? I thank the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for all that they have said. We do indeed need change; things cannot go on as they are. I very much welcome the notion that we are going to set up an independent grievance procedure to provide to everybody who works in this place the same protection as any other worker would have. Will my right hon. Friend look into extending that protection to every parliamentary passholder or parliamentary email account holder? Will she set out a timetable? Does she agree that this is not only about sexual harassment but extends to other forms of abuse? It is important that we recognise that.

  • My right hon. Friend is exactly right that this must include all passholders and all work experience people and members of the media who come to this House. It is absolutely clear that there needs to be a proper means for people to come forward with grievances. She is also right that this is a matter not just of sexually inappropriate behaviour, but of bullying, accusations and all manner of inappropriate behaviour. The procedure should be all encompassing, and that is exactly what we intend to achieve.

  • I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for raising this very important issue: 35 years in this place and she is trying to take society forward in a leap. May I also thank you, Mr Speaker, for your statement? I welcome the statement of the Leader of the House and thank her for early sight of it. We on the Labour Benches are ready to work with the Government and with all parties on this, as the Leader of the Opposition made clear in his statement at the weekend.

    We all need to come up with an appropriate safeguarding policy for everyone who works in this place. In her letter to you, Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister mentioned that there may have to be a new body. Any new body must encompass everyone who works in the House: it must look at complaints about Members, the staff of the House, including contractors on the estate, and Members of the other place. It must also work with trade unions, which certainly helped the Labour party draw up its code of conduct.

    There must be due process: any allegations must be made and there must be a proper process of investigation, and some serious allegations may be referred to the police. If we have a streamlined process, everyone will be aware of it. I know that the House currently has the employees’ assistance programme, which was set up by you, Mr Speaker, in 2014 for Members’ staff, who also have a free confidential phone line, but it needs to go further. The new body needs to build on that. The Leader of the House made a number of recommendations, which need to be looked at by a working party, or another body, so that we ensure that we do not just react to the situation, but deal with it appropriately.

    I ask the Leader of the House to ensure that the House looks at widening the scope of this helpline to include independent advice, including legal advice, on the next steps for the complainant. Currently, all the helpline can do is to give counselling to complainants and then refer the matter to parties. I am not clear what other parties do, but the Labour party has a code of conduct that is signed up to by every single member of the party—MPs and members of the party. This code has been sent around a number of times since I was first elected in 2010, and it has been sent around again today. If anyone wants to raise anything under that code of conduct, it is referred to the head of complaints at the Labour party, who will look at the nature of the complaint.

    May I ask the Leader of the House whether she has seen the letter from the shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), to the Prime Minister? Will she ensure that, when a Minister is said to have broken the ministerial code, it is clear that they were actually a Minister at the time? Can the Prime Minister’s response be placed in the Library?

    It is not acceptable that, now in society, women are not treated equally even when we do the same work; it is not acceptable that names for women’s anatomy are used as swear words; and it is not acceptable that, every time unacceptable behaviour is challenged, it is closed down as political correctness. I know that all of us—every single one of us from all parts of the House—will use our strength and experience to protect the vulnerable.

  • I share the hon. Lady’s concerns. We met earlier today, and I am pleased that we are absolutely in the same place regarding our determination to tackle this issue very quickly. The hon. Lady is right that the House needs to look at broadening the resources available to the helpline so that staff in this place can get better support and more advice. The Prime Minister has not yet seen the letter from the Opposition Women and Equalities spokeswoman, but she will, of course, look at it very carefully. I share the hon. Lady’s concern about the way in which women’s anatomy is used as a swear word. She is exactly right that it is deeply frustrating and irritating for women and for men. We must recognise that this issue does not just affect women; it also affects men. In dealing with the problems across both Houses, we need to have respect for all people—women and men.

  • In echoing the shadow Leader of the House, I should congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) because I think she marked—and, I hope, celebrated—the 35th anniversary of her election to the House on 28 October. That is a very remarkable achievement.

  • I welcome the statement made by the Leader of the House, and particularly the leadership shown by the Prime Minister on this issue. I welcome the idea of an independent grievance procedure for everybody who works in this place, but I also gently remind hon. Members that two thirds of girls in our schools experience sexual harassment on a regular basis, half of university students experience sexual harassment and half of women in work experience sexual harassment. What more support might the Leader of the House be able to give to debates on those issues and to encouraging the Government to take action? Mr Speaker, you will be aware that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and I are holding a debate in the Chamber on Thursday on sexual harassment in schools.

  • My right hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point, which highlights that we should be role models and that what we do in this House sets an example to those in the rest of the country. It is a pretty poor show if we cannot sort out our own house, particularly at a time when we are so concerned about sexual harassment in schools.

  • I very much welcome the statement from the Leader of the House and, indeed, your statement, Mr Speaker, which helpfully makes for a positive way forward. We support any call for a whole House response to this issue and the establishment of an independent grievance procedure.

    Sexual harassment or abuse of any form and in any workplace must be condemned in the strongest possible terms, and this House is no exception. The Scottish National party agrees, of course, that we should adopt a zero-tolerance approach. We will ensure that any issue in the Scottish Parliament is robustly investigated. Indeed, the First Minister has written today to the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament in regard to this. Will the Leader of the House confirm, and perhaps tell us a little bit more about, her plans to involve all the parties in this House? How will these talks be progressed? Does she agree that all staff working on the estate must have access to information, impartial advice and a means of raising these concerns, and that a safe space must at this point be created so that any concerns can be raised confidentially right now, immediately after this urgent question? Finally, does she agree that this is a watershed moment for the House—an opportunity for an institutional shift, whereby the historical culture of this House can be tackled positively—and that there must be no suggestion that this House considers itself above any investigation?

  • I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. He asks what plans there are to involve all parties. Obviously, this is all very recent news, and it is vital that we tackle it urgently. Meetings will be arranged between all parties in the very near future—I mean within days—to ensure that we are all agreed on a common approach. He is absolutely right that all staff must have suitable information and a safe space. I urge people, if they have allegations or if they feel they have been made to feel uncomfortable, to come forward and speak to my office, to their Whip or to your office, Mr Speaker. It is absolutely essential that people feel they have somewhere to go. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out again that the employee helpline must be more widely communicated to staff, and we will see that that is the case.

    Finally, the hon. Gentleman made the point that this is an opportunity for Parliament to show that we can react quickly to problems and take a quantum leap forward in our approach to dealing with this terrible issue, and I would like to think that we can and will do just that.

  • May I first pay tribute to the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister for grappling with this issue so swiftly? The Leader of the House talked about this being a modern workplace, and is that not the rub? This is not a modern workplace; it is a very strange workplace. It is strange for Members and it is strange for our families, but most of all it is very strange for these members of staff. You, Mr Speaker, hinted at that when you talked about Members of Parliament being individual employers. There are 650 different employment relationships, so I urge the Leader of the House to reflect on the fact that any new organisation, which I warmly welcome, and which must be independent, needs to be nimble enough to consider how this place actually works and to deliver the institutional shift the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) has just talked about, and must not be like the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, costing the taxpayer £6 million a year.

  • My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Any new body across both Houses will need to be nimble, it will need to have an understanding of parliamentary procedures and it will need to offer good value for taxpayers’ money.

  • Would the Leader of the House accept that, in any debate on sexual harassment, there is too much victim blaming? People blame women for not speaking out about harassment, rather than asking why they did not. We have seen young women who did speak out being targeted with abuse on social media. If we are to get the right kind of reforms—independent reforms—to processes, or the right kind of culture change in not just this place but institutions right across the country, there has to be a much stronger voice in any reform debates for the young women and men and the junior staff who too often end up being the victims of unacceptable abuses of power. Their voices must be heard.

  • The right hon. Lady makes a very good point—that it is vital that victims feel they have a safe place to bring forward allegations and that they are not the ones who end up being blamed for failing to come forward or for presumably making false allegations, which too often seems to be the case. I highlight the situation of my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), who tried to raise some allegations and suffered unbelievable abuse for it. It is an appalling cultural trend in this country, and it really has to stop.

  • Sadly, those of us who have been in the House for some time know that there is nothing new about the exchanges today. I therefore welcome your statement, Mr Speaker, that of the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister’s intervention; indeed, I have agreed with all the exchanges in the House today. We should not forget that this issue applies to both Houses. We should not forget that it applies to our constituency staff and people beyond here. May I urge the Leader of the House, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) did earlier, to come up with a timescale, because the matter is pressing? In the meantime, could she also make it clear to everybody working in this estate or connected to it what the interim procedures are for individuals who may be at the receiving end of the appalling treatment we have been reading about in the papers?

  • My right hon. Friend mentions the fact that any new procedure needs to cover both Houses, and she is right. She is also absolutely right that it needs to cover all staff working here and in our constituencies. She wants interim procedures to be clarified, which we will absolutely do. However, I would just point out to her that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has absolutely gripped this issue. While it may have been rumbling on for many years, we should all be pleased that we will be addressing it in the very near future.

  • I welcome these steps to eradicate harassment from this place. However, when I complained recently to an officer of Parliament who had some responsibility in this area that I knew a number of researchers, male and female, who had been made to feel deeply uncomfortable in the Sports and Social club by Members of Parliament, I was told that that happens in pubs all over the country. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the duty of care that we owe extends 24/7 and to every restaurant and bar in this place?

  • I am very happy to give that absolute assurance. There should be no place here on the estate, or in our constituency offices, where people can be abused or their allegations not taken seriously. I can assure the hon. Lady that I will be meeting Lord McFall to discuss the specific issues around the Sports and Social bar tomorrow.

  • Thank you for your statement, Mr Speaker. I am grateful for the consensus so far in all the statements made and questions raised in these exchanges. Let me point out that we would not be having these exchanges if the document I have here—the code of conduct of the House of Commons—was actually working and the machinery around the code was effective. May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is conducting a review of the code of conduct? The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has submitted quite radical suggestions about how the code, and the machinery around it, should be reformed so that we spend far more time in this House as Members of Parliament experiencing proper professional development and understanding the code of values at the front of this document—what they actually mean and how we should live those values as Members of Parliament—than just concentrating on all the other pages, which are about declarations of outside earnings, Members’ interests and all the other stuff that seems to preoccupy the regulatory authorities of this House.

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that there is already a code of conduct. I am grateful to him for sending me his Committee’s report on this matter over the weekend. I will certainly look at it carefully over the next couple of days.

  • Much has been made in the media this weekend of the inability of the Standards Commissioner, and therefore the Standards Committee, to look into many of the issues raised over the past week. In a report debated in March 2012, the Committee tried to give the commissioner a wider scope over these issues, but an amendment tabled by the three major parties’ parliamentary shop stewards and supported by Front Benchers was introduced to block this, and therefore the commissioner was left unable to look into these very important issues. When the Standards Committee re-forms shortly, we will again look at the code of conduct, and I hope that all parties represented here will be a lot more receptive to necessary changes.

  • The right hon. Gentleman raises a really important point. I can assure him that the Commission will meet under the chairmanship of Mr Speaker this afternoon and we will discuss these matters there.

  • I am delighted to hear that the Leader of the House will extend these measures to other forms of abuse. Will that include those MPs who go on rallies endorsing the lynching of other MPs? It is an absolute disgrace that senior MPs go about their business inciting violence against female MPs.

  • My right hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point, again, about the vital significance of what we do as MPs. Certainly, repeating slogans about lynching other MPs is incredibly despicable behaviour that is occasionally encouraged. That is deeply regrettable, and we all need to look very carefully at what sort of behaviour we endorse in this House.

  • Sexual harassment is a problem in Parliament—as it is, indeed, in workplaces and schools right across the country—and it is often worst where there are big discrepancies of power. I really hope that the news reports of the past few days will act as a watershed moment and help to catalyse the change that we so clearly need, not least in the outdated attitudes that exist, still, in some quarters. I welcome the cross-party agreement that we need an independent reporting mechanism for investigating complaints, but does the Leader of the House agree that if people are to have confidence in using it, the process needs to be very clearly set out, as do the outcomes, because repercussions in secret via the usual channels will not cut it in 2017?

  • The hon. Lady has been a big champion for women over several years, and I applaud her for that. She is absolutely right. The grievance procedure will need to be very clear and very well communicated. It will have to set out clearly established principles about how the procedure escalates, with very clear “So what now?” results at the end of it that everybody who participates in it can see for themselves.

  • Urgency is very important in how we deal with this issue. Nevertheless, will the Leader of the House confirm that it will not be dealt with simply by House officials and those working in the Palace of Westminster, but that best practice will be utilised and advice will be sought from external organisations as to how they deal with it? We need to get this right first time around.

  • Cross-party agreement and working closely with your office, Mr Speaker, are vital. Of course, the House officials themselves have some expertise in this area, but all ideas will be welcomed—bearing in mind, as a number of Members have said, that this is a very unusual workplace.

  • I welcome what has been said here today, and I look forward to working with you, Mr Speaker, on the reference group on this issue. As I rushed in here for this statement, I overheard two male colleagues walking through the halls wittering about a witch hunt that was going on in Parliament. We in this building must think of this not as a party political thing, but as something that absolutely has to happen. We should not just cheer when one of our opponents is the person getting attacked; we should cheer when everybody is bang to rights.

    Will the Leader of the House touch—she did not mention this when she outlined what she and the Government felt needed to be done—on what she believes should happen to perpetrators of this crime? Good referral lines and support for victims are obviously things that I support, but the fact of the matter is that nothing hurts a victim more than watching a perpetrator getting away with it.

  • The hon. Lady is exactly right, and I certainly welcome her desire for a non-partisan approach to the resolution of this matter. It affects all parts of the House, and we need to work together on it. What happens to the perpetrators is, of course, a matter for the House to debate, but it will include the following: where staff are the perpetrators, the normal contractual potential for losing their job, and where the perpetrator is an MP, the possible withdrawal of the Whip or the sacking of a Minister and so on. All those well-known things that can happen from time to time must and will be in scope.

  • I very much welcomed, Mr Speaker, your mention in your speech of bullying and other forms of harassment. Sometimes victims are not empowered to speak up and make a complaint, so can we make sure that there is a form of reporting for other people who may observe harassment and bullying within an office or workplace and feel they could alert someone to it?

  • Yes. I think that if we can establish a proper grievance procedure, it should be perfectly possible to report observed behaviour, not just personal experience.

  • I welcome your statement, Mr Speaker, and the statements that have been made today. As others have said, this is nothing new. It comes about because of a political culture of preferment, in which people cannot speak about what has happened to them for fear of their career being stifled. To change that political culture requires all of us to show very strong political leadership. I say to the political leaders from all parts of the House that that means taking decisions against colleagues and others, even when that is inconvenient and even when it goes against their own allies or their own supporters. Does the Leader of the House agree that that requires strong leadership?

  • I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady.

  • I, too, welcome the statements and comments that have been made today. When I was speaking to my own researcher earlier this week, she highlighted some of the experiences that she has had in this place. As a new MP, I definitely find such experiences shocking and unacceptable. May I highlight the importance in the code of education both for staff and for us as Members? Many coming in as Members have not had the experience of employing people before. We need to be kept up to date with what is happening in society, including about what constitutes harassment. We may think such phrases are innocent, but they are not perceived as such. Our staff also need to be empowered completely to bring forward complaints. Does my right hon. Friend agree?

  • My hon. Friend raises a really important and thoughtful point. Very often, Members have not had experience of employing staff before coming to this place, and they themselves need some guidance. That could be a very useful contribution as a result of this experience.

  • A worker employed as staff of a Member told me today that she reported being sexually assaulted to the proper authorities earlier this year, who did nothing. She is deeply disappointed and distrustful, and she tells me that distrust is endemic. How can I assure her that her complaint would now be treated differently?

  • I can say to the hon. Lady that if the member of staff would like to talk to me about it, I will certainly take up her complaint personally.

  • I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement sending a clear message that sexual harassment is never acceptable. Who would have thought that, as we celebrate the centenary of women getting the vote, we have to address in this Chamber the conduct and language that intimidate and control women in particular? This is about the abuse of power and the status of women. I welcome the cross-party agreement to stamp this out, especially as we are all working in a climate where women on both sides of the House are being abused just for being in public office. Perhaps we can start by referring to the code of conduct, which I raised with the Leader of the House in business questions last week. With the privilege of being elected comes a duty, and that does not involve sexist language and behaviour, because all of us who have been elected know the power that we hold.

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I deeply regret the horrible experience she has had in recent weeks merely for trying to raise her own disgust at the sexual harassment going on.

  • Parliament must act, but all political parties must act, too. Does the Leader of the House agree that every party should introduce independent reporting, so that women have the confidence to come forward not just in Parliament, but in local councils and our party activist bases, too?

  • The hon. Lady raises a really interesting point, which I will certainly take away and think about. My perspective is that we need independent review, because the problem with parties marking their own homework is always that that can in itself create an underlying lack of confidence on the part of victims. Having an independent review—a third-party, professional view—will be very important in resolving this.

  • The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) was quite right to talk about confidence. There needs to be confidence in the system, and that is why there needs to be an independent body, because justice must not only be done but be seen to be done. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) talked about witch hunts, and we have to be careful to avoid them. One of the advantages of having an independent body is that it avoids just that: allegations made will have to be properly substantiated.

  • Yes, my hon. Friend is right. We do not want false allegations to be made and then become “facts” just as made, so absolutely proper investigation is essential to get to the bottom of allegations and find out whether or not they are true.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your leadership on this issue. I think we need to be clear that we are talking not just about activities that are criminal, but about making sure that a culture of sexual violence, harassment and misogyny and not believing those who come forward is not considered the norm. To do that means being clear about what happens not just to those who come forward, but to those who participate. Following up on the questions asked by my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) and for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), I would like to hear from the Leader of the House a bit more clarity about what measures she expects political parties to take to make sure that we keep employees and volunteers not just safe from illegal activities but protected from a constructive dismissal case, or are we simply expecting the electorate to pick up the slack?

  • I have been clear that the issue is around, first, those who are made to feel uncomfortable: I am setting the bar significantly below criminal activity. If people are made to feel uncomfortable, that is not correct. In terms of the consequences for the perpetrators, I have also been clear that staff could forfeit their jobs, Members of Parliament could have the Whip withdrawn and Ministers could be fired from ministerial office.

  • If we do not call out bad, irresponsible or criminal behaviour, which we do weekly in our constituency surgeries, we are all part of the problem. The right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) rightly raised the question and has used her gravitas to highlight the issue. I have the pleasure of serving on your diversity committee, Mr Speaker, which looks at these issues, and we have made some great strides in making this a positive workplace for all.

    Can I ask the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister to work with me and all Members from all parties to make sure that we have a strong voice on all the separate issues—whether misogyny, poor language or criminal behaviour—and do everything to give the public confidence in every party?

  • My hon. Friend has been a great champion of treating others with respect, and I would personally be delighted to work with her on this.

  • Will all cases that have been reported and not actioned—not just the one in north Wales, but others—be reopened? Will anybody who has been sexually assaulted have the right to say, “No, I don’t want the issue to go to the police. I want it treated in other ways.” In other words, will the victim control what the action is? Will compulsory training on the implications of the duty of care under the Equality Act be brought in immediately for all MPs, and if someone wishes to have trade union representation to assist them, will that be allowed?

  • The hon. Gentleman raises some really important and sensible ideas, and I will look carefully at them all. I urge anyone who has been made to feel uncomfortable or who feels that they have been improperly treated to come forward, and those issues will be taken up through the right channels. Until we have a proper independent grievance policy and a group of people able to take that up, the existing policies of the employee helpline, which can be expanded, and my offer that people can come to me personally will be appropriate ways to take things forward.

  • May I gently remind the House that this issue is not just about sexual harassment and it is not just about women. Bullying is systemic in the House. Earlier today, I received a text from someone describing a problem that he saw in this place. It said of a current Member:

    “He is utterly foul and I am sure it’s a pattern of behaviour on his part, but in this instance I don’t think it would be fair on the woman in question”—

    to name him. My friend continues:

    “Still, do your best to widen this to bullying and treating your staff like”—

    I think he means dirt. I ask the Leader of the House to widen this issue to bullying, including historical allegations.

  • It is absolutely the intention that the review look at all issues of misdemeanour and misconduct, including sexual harassment and bullying, as well as other forms of uncomfortable behaviour that is perpetrated on members of staff in this place.

  • When I was a curate in the Church of England 30 years ago, one of my very close colleagues confided in me that he had been raped by a very senior member of the Church of England clergy. My friend was understandably terrified about telling the police or anybody else that this was the truth. He felt suicidal. He did not want others to know what had happened to him, quite understandably—he was the victim, not the perpetrator. I make absolutely no criticism of my friend. The senior cleric concerned had a great deal of protection from the establishment, including from certain members of the royal family. He subsequently —thank God—went to prison. The Church’s instinct was to protect itself as the institution. Is that not always the danger? Is not the one thing we must learn from all this that the best way to protect the institution is actually to protect the victims and to put our own house in order? May I make just one tiny suggestion? Anytime an MP interviews somebody for a new job, they should have a human resources professional sitting alongside them at the interview.

  • The hon. Gentleman raises a terrible and horrifying case. He is right to point out that the victim should not be the one to suffer in the way that his friend obviously did. The point he raises is very important. We need to ensure that this is not the House protecting itself, but Parliament protecting all those who come here to work and to try to make their country a better place.

  • I congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) on asking the urgent question and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on her response. How many calls have been made to the confidential helpline? If we are to get rid of this unacceptable behaviour, would a good place to start not be to contact those who have contacted the confidential helpline, to see how their cases might now be taken forward?

  • The employee assistance programme is intended as a safety net to complement the existing pastoral care and internal processes put in place by MPs themselves and the main political parties. In response to my hon. Friend’s specific question about how many calls have been made to it, I do not know but I can find out and place the figures in the Library.

  • When I visit one of the schools in my constituency, as we all often do as MPs, I am required to sign in and I am made aware of the safeguarding policies each and every time. I recognise that Parliament is not exactly the same as a school, but I am concerned that visitors brought on to the estate to socialise late at night must also be held responsible. How will the Leader of the House ensure that this is a safe place for all, by all, all the time?

  • The hon. Lady raises a different but equally very important point, which is the safety and protection of those who come on to the estate. I am looking at that carefully. As I mentioned to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), I will be meeting Lord McFall tomorrow to discuss exactly how we protect those who come on to the estate to socialise, often quite late at night.

  • I came to this place after working for some years at the BBC, an institution that has had its own challenges in this area. With that experience in mind, I want to endorse what the Leader of the House and you, Mr Speaker, have said about the importance of this institution having a robust procedure. It must not be left to individual components, whether individual employers or political parties. It is this institution, Parliament, that has to have a robust governance procedure. There are a few specific categories of people that this process must be sufficiently fleet of foot to be able to help. The first is members of staff who work in our constituency offices, who often feel isolated and vulnerable. The second is students who come here on work experience or to do internships. I would like to suggest that whenever a student, an intern or someone on a work placement begins here, there should be, as part of the basic induction process, a very simple instruction about where they go if, at any time, they feel vulnerable. I think that that is lacking at the moment.

  • Yes. My hon. Friend is right. I think some of us do have clear guidelines for the very often quite young people who come to this place for work experience. Having something we can all give to young people to provide them with reassurance is an extremely good idea.

  • I think across the House we all recognise that this is a fault of undiluted power: when someone holds another’s entire future in their hands, it is difficult to refuse or speak out. While it is sexual abuse and harassment that has brought this issue to people’s attention today, it is also about misogyny, dismissal and gender discrimination —and it is not just here. This place needs to start the change, but in the law, in the NHS—in any hierarchical system—we need to see change.

  • The hon. Lady is right that it starts at the top. If those in power abuse those beneath them, it creates a culture where abuse becomes endemic throughout the system. I would not say it is only from the top, but that is certainly where it starts and where leadership needs to be shown.

  • Those of us who have been in this place long enough to have seen the expenses scandal saw how that long-drawn-out process, often subject to apparent obfuscation by this place, was deeply damaging to the integrity not only of this institution but, by implication, of every Member, despite how innocent they might have been. Does the Leader of the House agree that if we are to tackle this problem, it is absolutely essential that our response be swift, robust and wholly transparent? We send out a message to the way the rest of society happens, and we all, however innocent, have a duty to perform in that.

  • My hon. Friend is exactly right. It is absolutely our intention to make very swift progress—within days. He is also right to point out that there is agreement across parties that this needs to be resolved, and I think, if we all work together, it can be.

  • I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your statement and the Leader of the House for her very forthright statement. She said earlier that this issue not only focused on Westminster but applied to politics across the country. In my own local authority, two female councillors were recently abused in a most sexually derogatory manner online, and the abuse was initiated by a fellow councillor. Will she talk to her colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that the same robust policies and procedures she is outlining for this House apply equally to local government—councillors and staff?

  • The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government would be happy to meet him to discuss it.

  • I welcome the cross-party approach discussed today. As a doctor entering the House, I was quite concerned from my constituency experience to find that disclosure checks are not mandatory for staff in constituency offices, although such checks are quite rigorous for those working in Parliament. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is important that staff are kept safe right across the board and that we have a duty to protect constituents?

  • The hon. Lady raises a very interesting point, and I will certainly look into it.

  • I draw the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. You, Mr Speaker, and many other Members have mentioned the fundamental imbalance between parliamentary staff and Members’ staff. The former have one employer and are members of recognised trade unions, if they wish to be. There is, however, an active and well-organised trade union representing Members’ staff—I know because I used to be branch secretary. Would you, Mr Speaker, and the Leader of the House be willing to meet that union to discuss recognition? Such a thing would not be without precedent.

  • I cannot speak for you, Mr Speaker, but I certainly would be happy to meet the union.

  • Similarly, I am very happy to meet the union, and I look forward to hearing from the hon. Lady. There should be an opportunity for a troika, a quartet, or perhaps something larger—I don’t know. It is important and should happen sooner rather than later.

  • Many employers, as well as independent grievance procedures, have stand-alone independent bullying and harassment policies, so that complaints of bullying and harassment are dealt with separately under a different procedure. Is the possibility of a separate policy being explored, and does the Leader of the House agree that trade unions, if they have any Members’ staff coming to them with complaints, should be invited to bring them to you, Mr Speaker, and herself?

  • As a constituency MP myself, I am certainly aware that some trade unions have done excellent work in protecting their members from bullying at work, and in doing so they fulfil a vital role. As for how we should go about resolving our own House issues, I incline towards a two-House solution. I think that there should be an independent grievance procedure, allowing anyone to make any allegations about bullying, intimidation, sexually inappropriate behaviour and so on, rather than separate streams of activity.

  • Will the Leader of the House consider providing assertiveness training for staff, so that they may be better equipped to decide for themselves what constitutes good-humoured high jinks and what constitutes sexual harassment?

  • That is a very good suggestion, and I would certainly support it. Such courses are often made available, and individual Members can choose to send staff on them. I myself have sent staff for assertiveness training. Another Member raised the issue of training for Members of Parliament in how to treat their staff, and I think that that has equal merit. All these suggestions should be up for discussion.

  • May I add the support of DUP Members to the cross-party focus that we have seen this afternoon? May I also introduce a note of caution, and ask for a bit of clarity? Earlier, we were promised a completely confidential reporting mechanism. Can I assume that that would focus solely on the lack of reporting or publication of the name of a victim? I cannot see how it would be possible to proceed with a full accusation without revealing the victim’s identity.

  • l understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. What I suggested was that it should be possible for the accuser to remain anonymous, at least in the early stages. All too often, people have been afraid to come forward for fear of their names being all over the front pages of the newspapers.

  • When reflecting on the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), will the Leader of the House also take into account that if we take a step forward here in Westminster, it will further perpetuate the gap, in terms of protection, between people who work in this place and our wider political constituencies—in other words, the culture of our political parties? We have a real duty of care to those activists, and bullying, intimidation and other forms of bad behaviour can often spread very easily against the background of a culture in which political parties seek to shut down allegations rather than bringing them into the light.

  • The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that point. I hope that if we can show leadership in this place, we shall then be able to tackle the wider ramifications throughout the country.

  • I agree with much of what has been said today, but I find it hard to believe that other Members were unaware of allegations such as those that have been made in recent days. The fact that incidents of this kind have not been reported until now indicates not only the macho image and atmosphere of this place, but the unwillingness of far too many men to report such behaviour. Does the Leader of the House agree that, in some cases, the men who remain silent are just as culpable as the perpetrators, and that men in this place and elsewhere must come forward to challenge and report abuse if we are to stamp it out once and for all?

  • I urge those who feel uncomfortable, and feel that they have been abused, bullied, intimidated or harassed, to come forward. However, I do not think the hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that the victims are somehow themselves guilty of anything in failing to come forward.

  • Will the Leader of the House ensure that the promised new procedures involve action on racism, misogyny, homophobia and bullying as well as sexual harassment? None of those types of behaviour has any place in our democracy. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) mentioned local government. Can guidance be issued so that other levels of government adopt similar procedures? We should also bear in mind that Members of the European Parliament still exist. Unless swift action is taken, politics as a whole will be brought into disrepute.

  • I can absolutely confirm that all issues involving homophobia, racism, bulling, sexual harassment and so on will be within the scope of the work involved in the creation of an independent grievance procedure. The hon. Lady is exactly right: treating one another with respect throughout our politics is absolutely essential, and we will see what more can be done to ensure that that happens.

  • I welcome your leadership on this important issue, Mr Speaker, and the statements from hon. Friends on both sides of the House.

    Is the Leader of the House aware of any allegations that would warrant police investigation?

  • I am not aware of any specific allegations that would warrant criminal investigation.

  • With my teacher hat on, I endorse what has been said about young inexperienced staffers often not knowing their rights, and also the idea that there should be some kind of induction. This House should be leading from the front, and there is something else we can do: ensure that sex and relationship education in schools is finally enacted so we can start to tackle this from the bottom up as well.

  • I share the hon. Lady’s concern that we need to set a good example and be good role models, and we need to do more to protect children and young people. On sex and relationship education, I agree with her up to a point: it is vital that relationship education is put up alongside sex education and the two are taught hand in hand.

  • I am beginning to realise the scale of the challenge you face in your attempts to modernise this place, Mr Speaker.

    Will the Leader of the House work with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, by way of example, to audit fully what procedures are in place and ensure that best practice is introduced, and to help modernise and professionalise this place?

  • The hon. Gentleman’s view will be shared by many across this House, in that it is difficult to pin down exactly who is responsible for what, which is why this urgent review is absolutely necessary. We are determined to come up with a coherent grievance procedure to which all Members and staff across both Houses can refer.

  • The proposal for an independent grievance procedure is a positive step, but we also need to consider what happens after it has been completed. It is quite possible that the complainant will still be employed by the person they have made a complaint against, which will make employment relations very difficult at best, and at worst they will have completely broken down. The Leader of the House has said that in certain circumstances the whip might be removed from a Member, but if the person who has made the complaint is still employed by that Member, that would put them in an impossible situation. Surely that cannot be right?

  • I certainly share the hon. Gentleman’s concern, and he will be aware that members of staff often move around and work for other Members of Parliament. Clearly, there should be different outcomes for different situations, but it is very important that victims feel that they are heard, understood, listened to and supported, and that their concerns are then acted upon.

  • Thank you for your statement today, Mr Speaker.

    May I caution the Leader of the House about her focus on mediation? Mediation assumes there is an equality of power. Where there is a perpetrator and a survivor of sexual abuse there is a clear inequality of power. Will she look at this again?

  • To be clear, I am not talking about mediation; I am talking about an independent grievance procedure where independent people would investigate a particular situation, quite apart from the Members in this House. The victim would absolutely not be mediated with the alleged perpetrator of the crime against them.

  • I welcome the Leader of the House’s constructive proposals to tackle this serious issue, but over the weekend I read some worrying articles saying that Whips’ offices from all political parties and senior members of the Government held information about sexual misconduct by their own MPs but stayed quiet because of fear of sabotaging their career and bringing the Government into disrepute. Is the Leader of the House aware of these reports, does she believe them to be true, and if so, what is she going to do about them?

  • I am absolutely not aware of any such wrongdoing, and I am absolutely confident that anybody who had serious allegations would be directed by the Whips Office or by Members of Parliament to go directly to the police.

  • Further to that question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), may I press the Leader of the House a little further? Just yesterday, a current Government Minister appeared on the broadcast media and said that he was clear that what went on in the Whips Office stayed in the Whips Office. Can the Leader of the House tell us whether she still considers that approach to be appropriate in the light of these serious allegations? Furthermore, can she respond to the suggestion that the Prime Minister receives a briefing every week, perhaps from the Chief Whip, to advise her about spurious behaviour within the House?

  • The hon. Lady should really consider the logic of what she is saying, if she really thinks that the Prime Minister would be sitting there chatting with the Chief Whip in the way that she suggests. That is quite clearly not true. It is absolutely vital that we all take this seriously and give proper consideration to the allegations against Members of Parliament by their staff. Anybody who had prior knowledge of those things would encourage those individuals to go to the police or provide them with the support that they need. There is absolutely no covering up going on.

  • The Leader of the House has rightly recognised that these situations arise out of imbalances and abuses of power, and I therefore endorse the question from my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) about completely outlawing the use of mediation in the circumstances. Its use would be wholly inappropriate. Does the Leader of the House not recognise that this goes to the heart of the victims being believed when they make their allegations, and that it is important that that message is sent out loud and clear as part of this exercise that she is now undertaking?

  • I say again that it is important that there are independent investigations of allegations, not mediation, and that we use every effort to ensure that those who make allegations against another individual are properly listened to and supported, and that those allegations are properly investigated.

  • On the way to this debate, I overheard two Members joking about this issue and asking, in humour, about whether they had “fessed up” to their sexual harassment. As a man, I stand up to call that out. It is not “bantz”; it is unacceptable. I also understand that in response to some journalists presenting testimony from victims with evidence of sexual harassment, some Members of this House have instructed lawyers to gag the stories that those journalists are pursuing. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the members of staff who use this service will have access to legal advice? What will she do to ensure that victims’ voices are not silenced due to legal process?

  • I say again that it is vital that we take a grip of this issue and that we look quickly—I mean in a matter of days—at what can be done cross-party to establish a proper, independent grievance procedure that all staff across both Houses can access, so that their concerns can be heard, properly investigated and properly acted upon.

  • I am grateful to all colleagues who have participated in this important exchange.