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Treatment of House of Commons Staff

Volume 637: debated on Monday 12 March 2018

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. She and I worked together on the cross-party working group on an independent complaints and grievance policy. I thank her sincerely for her work on it.

Reports of bullying of House staff are of huge concern to me and to hon. Members right across the House. I am committed to stamping out all kinds of bullying and harassment in Parliament in order to create an environment in which everyone feels safe and is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. We can only achieve our goals in this House with the support of others. A great debt of gratitude is owed by us all to the House staff who support us behind the scenes.

I myself have worked with a large number of civil servants and staff of the House during my time in Parliament. From the Clerks of the Treasury Committee to my private offices at the Treasury, Energy and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the team in the Leader’s office and the excellent secretariat who supported the working group, I have always been impressed by, and am very grateful for, the dedication, professionalism, high standards and courtesy that all the civil servants and House staff have shown. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members across the House, and in the other place, would say the same.

The House will be aware that significant progress has been made in recent months, following the shocking reports at the end of last year of sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation in this place. The working group I chaired, set up by the Prime Minister, has now published its report, and it has been agreed by both Houses. The work streams are now in place to get the new independent complaints procedure up and running within the next three months.

The hon. Lady will recall that the working group wanted House staff to be included in the new complaints procedure from day one. However, following evidence taken, and in consultation with the trade union representatives of House staff, it was agreed that the staff of the House would not immediately be covered by the new independent procedure, because they were already covered by the House’s own Respect policy. It was believed that the Respect policy was working well and that House staff were satisfied with it. However, it was acknowledged during the working group evidence sessions that the Respect policy did not cover complaints of sexual harassment and violence. The aspiration of the working group is to take up the question of whether House staff should have immediate access to the new independent complaints procedure now that the report has been agreed by both Houses. Following the “Newsnight” allegations and others, it is clear that the Respect policy may not be sufficient to protect House staff.

I am aware that, today, the Clerk of the House of Commons has written to House staff, saying that there are clearly unresolved issues over bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, that need to be addressed, and this will include a review of the Respect policy. The Clerk of the House of Commons has also reassured staff who wish to come forward with complaints of bullying that they will be dealt with in the proper manner, with the support of their managers and colleagues. It is right that everyone working for or with Parliament, regardless of position or seniority, should have the same rights and protections and should be held to the same high standards.

The House Commission next meets on Monday 19 March and I have given notice to my fellow members that I will be recommending a short, independently led inquiry by the House Commission looking into allegations of systemic bullying of parliamentary staff. I will propose that the inquiry should hear from past and current staff members about their experiences and help to provide them with closure wherever possible. I will also propose that it should take soundings from current and former House staff on whether the Respect policy is fit for purpose and whether House staff would be better served by having access to the new independent complaints and grievance policy from day one. Mr Speaker, I am more determined than ever that we banish all kinds of harassment and bullying from this place, because make no mistake, there is a need for change.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent, cross-party question. This is not about party politics and it is not about political gain; it is about doing the right thing by the staff who support us on a daily basis and ensuring that the House of Commons leads by example when it comes to robustly tackling workplace bullying and sexual misconduct.

Members and the public will have been shocked by the revelations of bullying at Westminster that were highlighted by “Newsnight” last week. I commend the Leader of the House for her ongoing work to establish an independent complaints and grievance procedure. The need for that arose in part because the 2014 Respect policy did not apply to large numbers of those working in Parliament. There are now considerable grounds to assert that that same Respect policy does not have the confidence of the staff that it is intended to protect and that the new independent procedure must immediately be expanded to avoid a two-tier system.

I am grateful that the Leader of the House broadly agrees with that and I am pleased to hear about the new short inquiry, but will she also confirm specifically that there will be a presumption in favour of historical allegations being thoroughly investigated, should those affected choose to make formal complaints, either under the Respect policy or the new procedure? Will she acknowledge that the positive work that she has led to date risks being undermined if we continue to allow sanctions to be determined by a Committee on which MPs effectively hold all the power? Will she agree that the whole process, including sanctions, must be handled by an independent body? Will she revisit whether good employer and consent training as an important part of culture change should start before the next election? I think the evidence is clear that it should, and in the meantime, can she assure staff that any further complaints will be treated with the seriousness and respect that they deserve and will not be dismissed, as they were last Friday, as grotesque exaggeration?

As I have already mentioned, I certainly agree with the hon. Lady. It was the aspiration of the working group to cover all staff working in Parliament, including staff of the House, in our independent complaints procedure from day one, and I share her concern that we should now take steps to ensure that it does as soon as the independent policy is up and running, which we intend to be the case within three months from now.

The hon. Lady will recall that the working group has made it clear that we will deal with historical allegations, and it will be for the detailed policies and procedures of the new working group to establish how exactly that can be done. The Clerk of the House of Commons has made it clear today that he will look to reassure House staff that any historical allegations will be properly dealt with.

The hon. Lady mentioned that sanctions must be independent. That has been a core part of the work of the working group. We are now looking carefully at how that impacts on the work of the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Standards Committee itself, on which there are both parliamentary and lay members, and that work is ongoing. In fact, I am looking forward to meeting the Standards Committee later today to start those discussions.

The hon. Lady mentions consent training. The working group was very clear that all people, not only those who employ staff in this place but those who come into contact with others, should be very clear about what constitutes consent and precisely what does not. I can assure her that I am very keen to provide the carrot to ensure that people want to take up that training, but, as the working group agreed, we did not have the levers at that time to make it compulsory. Finally, I totally share her desire to see all staff here treated with the dignity and respect that everybody in this place deserves.

May I welcome what the Leader of the House said about her short inquiry? It seems to me that a good test for her to adopt would be to see that the House does what all organisations should do, which is make sure that everybody who works here, whether for Members of Parliament or the House, have the same processes and can expect to be treated according to the same high standards. I urge her to bring in that measure as soon as she can.

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend, and I can assure him and all hon. Members that that is the working group’s aspiration and my personal goal.

It is noted, Mr Speaker, that you have granted the urgent question, even though you are one of the people mentioned in media reports. No one—critics or otherwise—can deny your commitment to accountability and transparency or your attempts to move the House forward in recognition of diversity and modern customs and practice.

The Opposition take all allegations seriously. We want a workplace that accommodates and supports everyone. I do not want to comment on individual cases—it is a matter for the House authorities—but is the Leader of the House aware of any formal complaints that have been instigated on the basis of those cases that have been reported and, if so, when? I note that she has suggested an inquiry. I am very pleased that we can have this discussion on the Commission and we look forward to that.

Some cases predate the Respect policy, and I know that, as a result of the work streams following the report of the working group on sexual harassment and bullying, that, too, is being amended and there will be a new behaviour code and procedure that covers everyone working on the estate and in our constituencies. It is imperative that all staff working here feel that they can raise any complaints and grievances immediately. Can the Leader of the House confirm that she will agree to the president of the staff side attending the steering group, which I have previously requested and support?

The working group published its report on 8 February 2018. The steering group is monitoring the work that will be carried out. I am pleased that there is now a permanent secretariat and that the further work set out in the report that needs to be done is being progressed to ensure that the complaints and grievance policy that will be put into place is fair and robust. Only when that is tested will we know if they work. There will be a continual process to refine them so that they are effective and everyone has confidence in them. Can the Leader of the House say—she mentioned three months, but we need to balance speed with making sure there is an effective process—whether this work will be completed by the three months, or at least by the summer, before the House rises?

The Labour Opposition take all complaints about sexual harassment and abuse, and discrimination, extremely seriously. We want anyone with a complaint to come forward so that all allegations can be fully investigated, and any appropriate disciplinary action taken in line with the party’s procedures.

We all have the utmost respect for the House Clerks. Any of us who have had dealings with them on the various Select Committees, as I have, know that they are experts in their field and offer vital assistance and advice to everyone. I know that everyone who works here, in whatever capacity, knows that they play a vital role in ensuring that our Parliament and our democracy thrive.

I thank the shadow Leader of the House for what she has said, and I am grateful to her for the part that she played in the working group on setting up an independent complaints procedure. It was notable that there was unanimous support for the establishment of the procedure, and I think the whole House can be very pleased about that.

The hon. Lady asked whether I was aware of specific formal complaints. Consideration of specific complaints was not in the terms of reference of the working group; in fact, it was specifically excluded. In my role as Leader of the House, I have had a number of people come forward to me, and I sought to deal, as I can, wherever possible, with complaints that have been brought to me, but I do not propose to discuss any specific allegations in the Chamber.

The hon. Lady asked about a review of the Respect policy for House staff. In his letter sent to House staff today, the Clerk of the House says:

“there are unresolved issues over bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, which need to be addressed…we will revisit and renew the Respect policy.”

The hon. Lady asked whether the House authorities trade union representative would be invited to join the steering group. I believe that that has already happened—he has been invited to join the steering group. She asked when the procedures would be finalised. At the first meeting of the steering group last week, we set an aspiration that the bulk of the work should be done within three months. There will be a final vote in the House on necessary changes in Standing Orders, and on the adoption of the behaviour code. We hope and expect that that will happen before the House rises for the summer recess.

Is it appropriate for Mr Speaker to remain in his place when there are allegations against him, which he is trying to suppress, using taxpayers’ funds, by sending letters through Speaker’s Counsel?

I think it vital for all colleagues to join together in supporting the efforts being made by the House to stamp out all bullying and harassment wherever we see it, and to ensure that in future everyone will be treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve.

I heartily congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this very important urgent question. She, like me, will find some of the issues that were raised by the BBC’s “Newsnight” programme depressingly familiar. It comes as little surprise to any of us who listened to the evidence that we secured on the harassment working group. It was only a matter of time before such issues would emerge, and it is quite surprising that it has been so short.

This endemic culture must be tackled, and I strongly support the call by the Leader of the House for an independent inquiry. Will she tell us a little about how it will be conducted? Does she agree that historical allegations must be considered, and does she support the view that we would be letting down victims past and present if we failed to respond to such allegations? Does she agree that this is all just part of the normalisation of bullying and harassment that continues to poison our politics, amplified by the archaic environment of grandeur and subservience in which we perform our roles as Members of Parliament?

Finally, will the Leader of the House ensure that all members of staff—whether they work for the House or for Members of Parliament—are covered by the new behaviour code, and have access to the new complaints procedure, as quickly as possible?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his part in the working group; he assiduously attended meetings and took a full part in its work, and I am grateful to him for his contribution. He asks how an independent inquiry will be conducted: my intention is to make the proposal to the House Commission, and it will then be a matter for the Commission to agree whether to do that or not. The House Commission is made up of a number of Members from across the House, including one from the hon. Gentleman’s party. However, I would like to see the inquiry carried out by an independent individual who can hear from past and current members of staff of the House, so that person is free of any input from either employers or parliamentarians and people feel they can come forward in confidence.

I completely agree that it would be letting people down if we failed to deal with this, and it is vital that those who have past allegations who feel the time has passed for them to be dealt with seriously can achieve some closure by being able to come forward and be heard in that way. I also agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is demeaning to this House and to all of us if we fail to get a grip on this, and that is why this House has shown such commitment to setting up an independent complaints and grievance policy, which is the right way forward.

I welcome the Leader of the House’s statement. Does she agree that sometimes the accused can be victims, too, and that is why it is so important that we have an independent inquiry? Does she also agree that the House of Commons Commission would not be an independent judge or jury, and indeed would not be seen to be such, simply because of the very membership of that Commission, and that it does need to be an independent individual or group of individuals?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and we were very conscious during the working group evidence sessions that it is important to protect both complainants, who are at the heart of the independent complaints procedure, and the alleged perpetrators. It is important that justice is seen to be done and that all parties are properly supported. My hon. Friend is also right that an inquiry led by the House Commission could not be independent, which is why my recommendation to the House Commission will be that it should be an independently led inquiry into allegations of bullying.

When the Leader of the House chooses, as she has done today, to focus on the thoroughness and decency of the process of dealing with these issues, she will get support from right across this House. She mentioned several times the involvement of trade union representatives, so will she join me in asserting that it is right that members of our staff and members of staff of this House are members of trade unions if they choose to be, and that their representatives ought to be involved at every stage of these processes?

The hon. Lady gives me the opportunity to thank and pay tribute to the very good staff representatives who were on the working group: a representative from Unite, who works as a researcher for a Member of the Labour party; a representative of MAPSA—the Members and Peers Staff Association—who works as a researcher for a Member of the Conservative party; and a representative of the National Union of Journalists, who works for the Scottish nationalists here. They all made a great contribution, and are to be commended on their efforts.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, unfortunately, under the current system House of Commons staff believe that if they make a complaint about bullying or harassment it will not be taken seriously, and, perhaps more insidiously, believe that it will be seriously detrimental to their future career? I welcome the fact that we are going to have an independent investigation into the allegations we heard on “Newsnight”. When will that start and when will it complete?

The House Commission meets next Monday; I will be making that recommendation there, and the investigation will start as soon as possible.

I think it is a matter of common accord that the House is exceptionally well served by the Clerk staff, so I hope it goes without saying that these complaints require to be investigated with rigour, in a comprehensive way and independently. Mr Speaker, when you and I first entered the House, it was almost entirely self-regulating. The position today is very different, but that change has been piecemeal. What is now required is a proper comprehensive reconsideration of the question of parliamentary privilege and self-regulation. I welcome the short independent inquiry that the Leader of the House seeks to establish, but once that is done she should apply her mind to revisiting the work of the Joint Committee set up in 1998 to look at the question of the extent and definition of parliamentary privilege.

Does the Leader of the House agree that every individual complaint made against a Member reflects badly on each and every one of us? Given the “Newsnight” allegation that the policy was simply not up to scratch, and that it was certainly something that we decided among ourselves, does she agree that we need not only an independent investigation, but an external independent body to establish our future policy?

I hope I can reassure my hon. Friend that the independent grievance policy that we are in the process of establishing will ensure that the culture in this place changes to the benefit of all who work here. Many hon. Members are troubled by the allegations. It is, as ever, a small minority of people who behave badly, and he is right to point out that it demeans all of us when a few of us behave badly.

Having been in the House quite a long time, I recall that, in the early days, the warnings to young women in the House were about not just a small group of Members of Parliament, but some senior Clerks who were known to be bullies. I was chair of the all-party parliamentary group on bullying for some years and have been fighting everyone’s corner, and I have never known a Speaker as strong on reform in that particular part of our lives. I urge the Leader of the House to get on with things quickly. We want justice to be done and to be seen to be done.

The inquiry should know that a tiny minority of Members have used this like a new form of McCarthyism by naming someone and putting them into purgatory. People on both sides of the House have been affected, but there has been no redress. Dreadful things have happened to them and their families, probably including things that we do not know about. There is a danger of a new kind of political McCarthyism, and we must stamp it out.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the independent complaints procedure will be exactly that. It will be independent and confidential, so that complainants, who often do not want to come forward for fear of then having to deal with the person they are accusing, can come forward in confidence. The alleged perpetrator will also be able to have their side of the story heard in confidence. Natural justice rules will therefore apply to the entire process, but there will also be serious sanctions for wrongdoing. I genuinely believe that this work will change the culture in Parliament, take us to a new stage where people can come forward, and make people think twice about some of their attitudes.

I appreciate that there may be problems with definition, that many cases will not have been investigated and that details will often be sketchy at best at this stage, but can the Leader of the House give an indication of the scale of the problem? How many cases of abuse of House or Members’ staff have been brought to her attention in her recent dealings?

I do not think that I can give my hon. Friend an idea of the scale of the problem. Different cases have appeared in the media, and it is difficult to understand the enormity and range of the problem. Suffice it to say, we are determined to see change for the better across the House.

I welcome the emphasis that the Leader of the House has placed on due process and the principles of justice. Complainants must be taken seriously, but the person who has been complained about also has rights, and it is important that cases should be heard on the basis of evidence. Will she also say a word about the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who hears complaints about hon. Members and can then put them to the Standards Committee? That route needs to be somehow incorporated into the new process that she envisages.

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right, and indeed that is part of the process. Very specifically, an independent complaint is heard in confidence; if there is a finding against the alleged perpetrator, in the case of a Member of Parliament being complained about, that would go to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who would either carry out an appeal and look at the evidence again, or find against the Member, or find that there was no cause to answer. She will have expanded sanctions at a lower level, or indeed she will pass it on to the Committee on Standards so that it can consider the matter, including recommending suspension to the House, which could lead to the Recall of Members of Parliament Act 2015 being invoked.

Does the Leader of the House agree that any member of staff who feels that he or she has been bullied must have an absolute guarantee that their career will not suffer in any way if they make a complaint? If they have that guarantee, does she agree that the reputation of Members of Parliament should not be sullied by accusations that they are bullies unless a complaint against them has been made?

My right hon. Friend sums up the position very well. It is vital that complainants are protected so that they can come forward in confidence and not be further victimised, but it is also essential that people who are complained about have the opportunity to put their side of the story and receive proper justice.

I commend the Leader of the House, her counterparts and you as well, Mr Speaker, on the response to these issues so far. Does the Leader of the House agree that this is a moment for each and every one of us to reflect on our behaviour, and that we should constantly reflect on our behaviour, because the critical issue is not what we judge or deem to be the appropriate behaviour, but how we make others feel? That is why the independent nature of the right hon. Lady’s proposals is critical, because this process has to be without political fear or favour, or political campaigns against opponents or anyone else, so that people can come forward.

The hon. Lady is exactly right. The power dynamic—the idea that how we behave is not necessarily how we are seen to behave—is incredibly important. Certainly, in working group evidence, we took a lot of witness statements about exactly that, and it is vital that we take that into account.

Due process sometimes takes a very long time. May I ask the Leader of the House to ensure that due process should be as speedy as possible in the interests of everyone?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We are quite proud that we moved very quickly with the independent complaints procedure, but at the same time we are doing a thorough job, and that is our plan.

Every industrial tribunal has to be registered under the Ministry of Justice. In the interests of transparency, will the Leader of the House publish all industrial tribunal applications that have been registered against Members of Parliament, or indeed against the House of Commons?

May I put on record my support for the work that the Leader of the House, you Mr Speaker, and all members of the working group have done since November on this issue? Does the right hon. Lady agree that we need to take the politics out of this altogether? If people are to have confidence that we are truly listening, that victims will be believed and that we will have a proper process, it is time for professionals—not the press or political expediency—to lead that.

I can assure you, Mr Speaker, that I have great respect for all staff I work with. I was the guinea pig in 2012 after a difficult phone-hacking report, for the original Respect policy. I was flayed by selective leaking six years ago, and it has happened again now. I ask the Leader of the House and hon. Members, before they jump to judgment after what was a very one-sided, selective BBC broadcast, to approach the cases that have been raised in a more balanced way, to consider the reasons why the original Respect policy was scrapped in the first place as not fit for purpose, and to give consideration to the disparity of support for MPs who are complained against, especially when complainants have the backing of the resourceful and very well-resourced First Division Association in particular? Finally, may I ask the House to consider why old, historical allegations like this are being selectively recycled now, and by whom, because whatever is at play this is not a game for reputations or families?

The advantage of an independent complaints procedure is that it will exist for people to be able to come forward with confidence and with confidentiality. That means that at long last they will have somewhere they can go to make their complaint without just going straight to the press, which, as the hon. Gentleman says, has caused some difficulties.

The working group report recommends training by the end of this Parliament. Clearly, that is inappropriate. Will the Leader of the House bring it forward to ensure that every Member and manager has face-to-face training within this year?

The hon. Lady is not quite right about that: the working group proposes that training is essential for all Members across the House in a wide variety of areas, and measures are being brought forward to encourage people to undertake training. We have said that in their induction new Members in the next Parliament will receive compulsory training in certain areas.

Will the Leader of the House clarify something: if a House of Commons staff member raises a complaint today, or in the next few days, under what policy or procedure would that complaint be dealt with?

Currently, members of House staff who are making allegations of bullying or inappropriate behaviour will come under the House Respect policy, which was established a few years back. What the working group is creating is an independent complaints procedure. The House staff were not going to be subject to, or able to take advantage of, the independent complaints procedure, and we now want to look at that again.

I have huge respect for the staff of this House—whether they work in our catering department or the Clerks department, my experiences of them have been excellent—but may I add my voice to those who are calling for absolute due process in this? We need to respect the complainant and the complained against; that is the only way to deal with allegations of this nature. Will the Leader of the House join me in issuing a word of caution to Members of this House about conducting these matters in the media, whether off the record or on it, not least because that might prejudice any process or give the impression that it is politicised or personalised in its approach?

The working group put the complainant at the heart of this procedure, and what was very clear from the evidence we took was that people will come forward only if they feel they will be treated in confidence and they will not then be plastered all over the front of the newspapers.

Bullying and harassment occur in all walks of life and in all professions. What is important is that the person is listened to and the matter is investigated independently, but I say strongly that we must also remember the golden thread that runs through our English law: someone is innocent until proven guilty.

Yes, and the laws of natural justice have certainly been applied to the new independent complaints procedure.

When I was a Unite rep in the NHS, I represented members on both sides of bullying and harassment cases. One thing that would have made my job as a workplace rep very difficult would have been having a two-tier system in operation. Will the Leader of the House assure us that she will move towards a single system, a robust policy and equal trade union recognition for everyone who works in this House?

I can certainly tell the hon. Lady that it was the working group’s ambition that all those who work here would have access to the independent complaints procedure. As I have said to other hon. Members, it is our intention to look at that again.

Even today, the vast majority of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in school will at some point or other in their school career face horrific instances of bullying, which is why they are six times more likely than their straight counterparts to take their own lives. Many schools have said, “Oh, let’s build a tolerant school,” but to homosexuals that sometimes feels as though we are being tolerated—we are being put up with. Is the key word not “respect”—respect for one another, whatever our political views, whatever our gender, whatever religious views we have or whatever any part of our background? The only way we are going to be able to change that culture in here is if we make sure that every single one of us is fully and properly trained, not only the first time we come into this House, but every time we are returned by our voters.

I do agree with the hon. Gentleman that respect is key. We are determined to achieve in Parliament a workplace environment that is among the best in the world and that treats everybody with the respect and dignity that they deserve.

Mr Speaker, we have known each other since long before either of us was elected to this place and I think it is fair to say that we have had strong and heated disagreements about lots of issues over the years, so I certainly could not be described as a cheerleader by any means, but I do think that there has to be a fair and proper process in all this. It cannot be based on anonymous briefings to the press, it cannot be based on political disagreements, and it cannot be based on score-settling, either.

I say again that the whole purpose of an independent complaints and grievance policy is to ensure that there is justice for the complainant and for the person alleged to have carried out the wrongdoing.