I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Dame Laura Cox report on the bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff.
Most people who work here in Parliament fully realise what a privilege it is to do so and that whether we are MPs, peers or senior management of the House, we should all carry out our work to the highest possible standards, both professionally and morally. We should behave in the way set out for us by the Nolan principles, and we should lead by example. Most of us fully accept that when we fall short of the high standards rightfully expected of us, we should be held accountable for our actions and that, as part of playing a role in public life, we should also challenge poor standards and poor behaviour when we see them.
As I said in response to the urgent question on 16 October, I welcome Dame Laura Cox’s report, “The Bullying and Harassment of House of Commons Staff”, and I would like to thank her for her important work. As her hard-hitting report recognises, the House of Commons has fallen woefully short in supporting and protecting its staff. It has failed the people who work here. The fact that some of those in positions of power or authority have bullied, intimidated and harassed those who work alongside them and perpetuated a culture where that behaviour is not only tolerated but comes to be expected by members of staff as “the norm” is outrageous. There is no place for abuse or harassment in Parliament. That applies to everyone, without exception.
Today’s debate is undoubtedly an important one, but it must form part of a bigger picture. We need to continue to hear the views of every person who works in or for Parliament, especially those who have struck up the courage to speak out about the unacceptable behaviour that they know must be challenged. It is to those people that I especially want to speak directly today. Thank you for your courage in speaking out. I know how difficult the decision to do so will have been, and I am absolutely determined to make your working lives and the working lives of everyone in this place as fulfilling and as dignified as they unquestionably should be. I am so sorry to hear of your experiences. You should never have been treated unjustly.
This is an amazing place to work in many different ways—something that the report brings out—but Dame Laura’s report also shows a dark side and makes clear that we must not rest until all people working here are treated with dignity and respect. I give my personal commitment to the House that I will not stop until that is the case. Anything that falls short of that goal is not acceptable.
Today, we are debating this important report, how its recommendations will be taken forward and what more we can do. Before we turn to that in earnest, I want to outline briefly the action that has been taken so far to change Parliament for the better—and make no mistake, we are taking action. As Members are aware, the Prime Minister convened a working group a year ago to establish a new independent complaints and grievance procedure for Parliament. A first-rate programme team made up of senior House staff, for whose work I am very grateful, took forward the implementation of the working group’s recommendations. That was overseen by a cross-party steering group made up of representatives from all parties, trade unions and staff.
A new Parliament-wide independent grievance scheme was launched by a vote of the House in July. The scheme, now known as the ICGS, has a number of key features. First, the House has agreed a shared behaviour code that applies to everyone in the House, with no exceptions, and holds all of us here, unequivocally, to the same high standards of behaviour.
Secondly, there are two new independent helplines and investigative services, with corresponding policies in place—one to deal with bullying and harassment, and a separate one to deal with sexual misconduct. Those policies underpin the behaviour code and ensure that everyone in this House now has access to an independent scheme that will handle their complaint or grievance. The number for those helplines can be found on the parliamentary intranet.
Thirdly, it was very important to ensure that Members’ staff had access to independent human resources support, which has never until this point been available, so a human resources support service has now been established for Members’ staff. Lastly, there is a significant programme of work under way to develop better training, both mandatory and optional, to equip all those who work in this place to manage staff appropriately and promote the culture change we all want to see.
This is an important report. I have three daughters and four granddaughters, and we want people to be treated the way that members of our family would be treated. It is all very well calling for a change in culture, but we need good management to deliver that. I welcome most of the report, but that was one of the disappointing bits. What management steps are being taken to ensure that this works positively for anyone who is at risk?
The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point about changing the management of the House and not just the processes. I will come on to that, if he will bear with me, but I want to first finish talking about what is currently available, because it is incredibly important for all those who want to come forward with a complaint.
The point raised by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) is a very salient one. We spend an awful lot of time looking at processes and procedures, writing down codes and adjusting rules, and very little time thinking about how we change the culture. It is not about the management of this place; it is about every single right hon. and hon. Member in this House. We lead this place, and we set the example and the tone. The question is how we want the governance of this place to change the culture, and that falls on us, not on some obscure committee elsewhere to take that responsibility away from us.
My hon. Friend makes a really important point. I will come on to governance issues, but I would like to finish talking about the processes that we have put in place since July this summer.
Dame Laura Cox refers in her report to the Parliamentary Health and Wellbeing Service helping staff who have been subject to bullying and harassment, and she comments that the service is
“overworked, under resourced, under promoted and undervalued by the senior administration.”
Will my right hon. Friend meet Dr Madan, who heads up the service as the leading occupational physician? She has a unique insight into the culture and sees staff who might not feel confident to come forward.
I would be delighted to meet the head of the Parliamentary Health and Wellbeing Service. My hon. Friend is right to point out that the service has been overworked. As part of the new complaints and grievance procedure, resources will be made available, but nevertheless I would be very happy to meet the lady she mentions.
I bring the House’s attention to paragraph 418 of Dame Laura’s report, which says:
“In relation to allegations made against Members of Parliament, it is readily acknowledged and should be emphasised that the overwhelming majority of Members behave entirely appropriately and courteously towards members of House staff. However, their collective reputation is being damaged by the allegations of unacceptable behaviour made against some of their number and by the inadequacy of the procedures in place to deal with complaints. I have no doubt that they will regard this as intolerable.”
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a relatively small number of rotten apples, but the problem with our particular barrel is that those rotten apples are quite near the top?
Again, my hon. Friend makes a really important point. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, most of us here absolutely accept that we need to behave with the greatest of professionalism and moral authority. It is only a few who let us down, but nevertheless, when they do so, they have to be called out, counted and dealt with appropriately.
I would like to return to discussing the independent complaints and grievance procedure, which is known as the ICGS. I can report to the House that, from the launch of the ICGS in July to the end of September, a total of 51 calls were made with complaints and concerns, and a small number of investigations into complaints are currently under way. Initial indications for October show that the call rate is continuing at the same level. I can tell the House that we intend to publish the reporting data quarterly.
Vitally, the ICGS is confidential, which encourages complainants to come forward without any fear of publicity or retribution. The investigation process is also completely independent. Where the finding against any individual is so severe as to require consideration of terminating their employment, there is a clear route in all circumstances. Specifically in the case of MPs who are accused of wrongdoing, that route is currently to the Committee on Standards, which has taken steps to allow the seven lay members to have a vote in addition to the seven elected members. This is an important step. I am aware that some want to see further independence from Members themselves, and the House of Commons Commission and the Standards Committee will look at how this can be achieved while still upholding the principles of democratic accountability. To be absolutely clear: we are fully committed to ensuring that the accountability of MPs is enforced.
As I have said, ever since taking on the chairmanship of the working group, establishing the complaints procedure has been the first, and not the last, step towards the culture change we all want to see. There are three crucial next steps that we agreed earlier in the year. First, there should be an independent inquiry into allegations of bullying of House staff, and it is this report that we are debating today. Secondly, there should also be an independent review of historical allegations of Members and their staff, which I understand is to be publicly launched tomorrow. I do urge all those who have experienced bullying and harassment in any way to come forward to give evidence to that inquiry. Thirdly, there will be a review of the ICGS after six months of operation, and again after 18 months. I will be meeting with the ICGS steering group shortly to consult further on how we take forward that first review.
On an important factual point, the right hon. Lady may remember that I chaired the anti-bullying group in Parliament, a cross-party group that was very much supported by the Speaker. Some of its members are no longer Members, but will they be eligible to give evidence? Having such a parliamentary group was a very important turning point psychologically. We were accepted as having a contribution to make, and we started to look at the behaviour of Members of Parliament. Some of us knew about their behaviour, but could not actually drag it out into the daylight.
I would certainly be very happy to discuss how the hon. Gentleman and colleagues can feed into the review. As he will be aware, the ICGS steering group is made up of Members of this House and of the other place, as well as trade union members and members of staff of MPs and peers. Nevertheless, it will be for a wide variety of stakeholders to feed into that process, and I would be delighted to discuss that with him.
Turning now to Dame Laura’s report, its findings are shocking. As I said on 16 October, it was important that the House leadership responded promptly and comprehensively. The House of Commons Commission has met twice since then and has agreed in full Dame Laura’s three key recommendations. The commission has further directed the Commons Executive Board to produce a speedy action plan in consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, which will be taken forward with the help and support of the external members of the Commission.
I would now like to turn to each of Dame Laura’s key recommendations. First, she recommends that the Valuing Others and Respect policies, which were available to House staff, are discarded. House staff have been able to access the ICGS since it began in July, so the House of Commons Commission has agreed that the pre-existing policies should be discarded.
Secondly, Dame Laura recommends that the new ICGS is amended to ensure that those House employees with complaints involving historical allegations can access the new scheme. I think it is important to clarify that House staff already do have the same rights of access to the ICGS as everyone else here. The steering group agreed that historical allegations would be accepted by the new scheme. However, legal advice taken advised that allegations referring to events that predate the 2017 Parliament could be considered only under any sanctions available at the time of the offence. Dame Laura’s report suggests that the House of Commons Commission look at this again. It has agreed to do so, and that will be taken forward.
The Leader of the House mentions the important fact that if anybody has allegations, those allegations will be judged against what was right at that time. However, surely it was always wrong to harass and bully people in this place. That is the standard against which we should treat everybody.
My right hon. Friend is exactly right. That is a very helpful clarification because there has been some misunderstanding. Anybody with a historical allegation that predates July 2017 can and should come forward under the complaints and grievance procedure. The difference is that the behaviour code itself cannot be applied pre-July 2017. However, as my right hon. Friend points out, exactly correctly, most of the sorts of behaviours that people will expect to come forward to complain about would already have been captured under a pre-existing code of some sort—either the code of conduct for MPs or, indeed, employment contracts. I do encourage anybody with any complaint to come forward under the complaints procedure and not be put off by the fact that the behaviour code itself—this new creation of the House—applies only from July 2017. This is an incredibly important point, because there has been some misunderstanding about it. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for clarifying that point.
On the scope of the scheme, will my right hon. Friend confirm, as many of us spend a lot of time in our constituencies, that it also includes our constituency staff and offices?
Yes. Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for another point of clarification. The scheme absolutely includes everybody who works for or with Parliament, including members of staff in our constituency offices, pass holders and indeed those who work on a voluntary basis, provided they are actually employed here. There are some limitations, but it also applies to visitors to this place. It is all-encompassing—it covers all those who come here or work for Members of Parliament.
Dame Laura’s third recommendation is that complaints brought by House staff against Members of Parliament should be subject to an entirely independent process in which Members of Parliament play no part whatsoever. I can tell hon. Members that, before establishing the ICGS, there were several productive meetings with the Committee on Standards. The then Chairman, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Sir Kevin Barron), recognised the need for lay members to have a majority vote on sanctions against MPs and took steps to ensure that this could be the case. I have recently met the new Chair of the Standards Committee, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who is in her place. I know she has further suggestions on how to ensure greater independence of the process, so I look forward to hearing the hon. Lady’s contribution today.
Dame Laura’s key recommendations are clear and have been agreed by the House of Commons Commission. What is less clear, however—but this is definitely the most important part of today’s debate, as some hon. Members have already said—is how we can change the culture of Parliament that has made these recommendations necessary. The failings are institutional: they are systemic, they have become embedded and, as noted by Dame Laura, they cascade “from the top down”. It is my strong view that we need to look at the governance of the House of Commons, and we need to democratise it to ensure that with authority comes full accountability.
The truth of the matter is that it is down to leadership. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin): we are talking about leadership, and all the rules count for nothing if our style is wrong. We know what is right, and people who do wrong should be called out by the rest of us and dealt with. We do not need commissions or rules for that. What is right is right and what is wrong is wrong. We should know that as MPs.
My hon. Friend is right: it is about leadership. The complaints procedure is vital to give satisfaction, justice and clarity to those who have suffered at the hands of any Member or, indeed, any member of staff, but my hon. Friend is right that leadership is key.
I would like to make one point—I think the hon. Gentleman will be interested to hear it—before I give way.
We need to democratise the House of Commons, but governance change cannot and should not happen overnight. The then Public Administration Committee, chaired, as the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is now, by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), said in written evidence to the House of Commons Governance Committee, which held the last review of House of Commons governance in 2014:
“Any structural or organisational change should only be considered as a consequence of a full understanding of the underlying causes of difficulty or failure. If this is not done, structural change, with all the disruption which that involves, will become no more than a distraction. This may be welcomed by those who want to avoid the more difficult, personal causes of problems in the organisation, which are likely to be in the culture. By culture, we mean what is embedded in the attitudes and behaviour of the people in the organisation, and PASC has found this is by far the most important determinant of organisational effectiveness.”
That still rings true—structural change needs to be considered in the context of an organisation’s culture.
I completely agree with the point that the right hon. Lady just made.
Leadership comes in many different styles. There are autocratic styles of leadership: when I was on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee many years ago, our Committee was run in that way and it was inappropriate. Now most Select Committees are much more likely to work as a team. I wonder whether the House of Commons Commission would be better if it were constituted more like a Select Committee that worked as a team of people, throughout a Parliament, with each individual in the team able to assume responsibility. That might be a better way of leading change within the House.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point and I am keen to hear all Members’ views on how we can improve the democracy in this place.
Dame Laura’s report has made it clear that we need to consider first, changing the power balance in this place; secondly, giving staff a stronger voice; and thirdly, addressing how to stop failures at the top infecting our entire workplace. Therefore, one of the questions I would like the House to consider and give views on today is whether the current structure of the House of Commons leadership is fit for purpose.
The Commission has tasked the Commons Executive Board with bringing forward a speedy action plan, and I support that. My vision for a future democratisation of governance is a leadership structure that is fully and fairly representative of all who work here, and accountable for all actions and decisions. Any changes to governance need to be carefully considered, and they need to be fit for a 21st-century Parliament. My three personal tests for considering future proposals for change in the House’s leadership are, first, will they mean that everyone who works here can expect to be treated with dignity and respect? Secondly, will they rebuild the confidence of those who have suffered in the past? Thirdly, do all those who work here feel they have a proper stake in the decisions that affect them?
My perception is that if we are to democratise the House, whatever system we use must be simple, not bureaucratic. We have a tendency in the House when we look at new ideas and introduce new institutions to get very bureaucratic. Any new structure must be a simple one that everybody understands, not top-down and overburdened with people at the top.
I completely agree and I will be interested to hear whether the hon. Gentleman has further thoughts on any changes he would like to propose.
In opening today’s debate about Dame Laura’s report, I welcome not only her specific recommendations for urgent change, but her broader conclusions about accountability and leadership in this place. I look forward to hearing views from all colleagues.
I thank the Leader of the House for opening the debate. I hope that she will join me in sending good wishes to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who is not very well. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) who is taking his place.
Once again, I, too, thank Dame Laura Cox QC OBE for her diligence in carrying out this inquiry. As the Leader of the House said, the report is important. The Opposition accept the recommendations in full, immediately. It is vital that victims of abuse have their voices heard and that we get it right now.
Does the shadow Leader of the House agree that the crux of the problem is that, until we have a culture in this place whereby a member of staff who makes a complaint about a senior manager or a Member is confident that they are not ending their career, nothing will happen?
The Leader of the House has set out the new process, so people should feel confident.
The Opposition are grateful to all those who contributed to the report. I say to those members of staff: I acknowledge the hurt that you have suffered and the courage of those who have spoken up. Those who work in the canteens and throughout the House, you undertake your work professionally and with integrity. You are helpful, creative, and supportive of Members. There is a very high standard of work here, which is appreciated. This place simply would not function without you.
I hope that the debate will do justice to the responses and the work that was put into the report, and I will highlight just a few areas. The report notes that a cultural change needs to happen. In paragraph 67, Dame Laura Cox says that,
“structural and governance arrangements have changed several times over the years, while the organisational culture has remained firmly in place.”
I know that the Leader of the House agrees that a culture change is needed and has previously said in the House that it will “not happen overnight”. However, will she update the House on how a cultural change will be measured so we know we are making progress?
Dame Laura Cox highlighted the gender and racist dimension to bullying and harassment. Paragraph 123 states that,
“some areas of the House were described as having a particularly bad reputation for sexist or racist attitudes”.
Of the 200 people who came forward to give information to the inquiry, the majority, nearly 70%, were women. The House of Commons and Parliamentary Digital Service diversity and inclusion strategy 2019 to 2022 is evidence of the House service’s commitment to ensuring that this place is a positive and inclusive environment to work in. Jennifer Crook is head of diversity and inclusion, and work is already under way. She has produced a very good report highlighting successes in, for example, talent management, and rolled out unconscious bias training.
According to the recent staff survey, staff with disabilities have the highest rates of experiencing discrimination, bullying and harassment and are less likely to agree that the House service provides an inclusive environment. That is followed by black, Asian and minority ethnic staff, particularly black British staff. The Cox report, taken together with results from the staff survey, which suggested that 18% of staff had experienced bullying or harassment in the past 12 months, most of it at the hands of other staff, and that 3% had experienced sexual harassment, shows we clearly have a long way to go before we can claim we have an inclusive workplace.
Dame Laura Cox raises the need for training. In paragraph 311, she states:
“Even those Members most implacably opposed will gain from it, despite any current intransigence.”
At the urgent question on 16 October, the Leader of the House said:
“available is a wide range of optional, voluntary training in how to carry out appraisals, how to lead an office and so on.”
She went on to say:
“Compulsory training for new Members will be introduced after the next election. It was decided that there was no consensus in favour of compulsory training for those who were already Members”.—[Official Report, 16 October 2018; Vol. 647, c. 541-2.]
In my view, if we want cultural change everyone should have training and it should be compulsory. Will the Leader of the House please reconsider, in the light of the Cox report, that compulsory training should be discussed again?
My personal suspicion is that if we made training very available so it was easy for Members to attend, the vast majority of Members would sign up to it without us having to get to the compulsory stage. I am up for making it compulsory if we have to do that, but I am sure the vast majority of Members would not be intransigent. Most of us would not even know whether we had been inappropriate because we have not had proper training and we would be delighted to do it, but it needs somebody to get on the phone and persuade us all to turn up.
I think my hon. Friend is saying two slightly different things: that someone has to get on the phone and that Members will do it. We could say to people that training is available and that everyone has to undertake it. For example, people in the civil service have to go through training before they can interview anyone. I think it is perfectly reasonable to say to Members that they should undergo some training.
This point about training is very contentious. I am afraid that Members of Parliament are not civil servants. It is only recently in the history of the House of Commons that Members of Parliament were considered even to be employed in legal terms. Until the mid ’60s we were self-employed. The idea that we should be treated as civil servants is not right. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is completely right. If training were available and those in leadership positions in this House set the right example, by taking the training themselves and telling junior Members that they are expected to be trained in these matters, training would become part of our culture. It depends on the leadership, not compulsion.
I was not suggesting that this is like the civil service. I was just saying that if you are going through a process you need to be trained in it. I think that some people do not understand what sexism or racism is. They do not understand certain behaviours. If people at the top are expected to do it, everyone should do it. There is not an issue; half a day should be acceptable.
May I suggest that the hon. Lady takes a leaf out of the Canadian Government’s book? They put in place training for every Minister within weeks of the #MeToo campaign kicking off. Everybody did it and they actually thought it was a good thing to do.
I thank the right hon. Lady. I will come on to that later. That is a very good point.
The House of Commons Commission met on Wednesday 24 October 2018 to discuss the report’s recommendations and consider a way forward. The meeting was chaired by Jane McCall, the senior external member of the Commission. The task is falling to Jane McCall and Rima Makarem to oversee the work. Quite rightly, there will be no Member involvement. At this point, I want to thank Dame Janet Gaymer for her involvement and for all her work on the Commission. The Opposition welcome the decision by the Commission to accept the recommendations of the Cox report. The Commission is terminating the Valuing Others policy and has suspended operation of the Respect policy, recommending that the House terminate it as soon as possible.
Dame Laura’s report was critical of the independent complaints and grievance policy. The Commission recommends that the House amends the new independent complaints and grievance scheme to ensure that those House employees with complaints involving historical allegations can access the new scheme. The Commission rightly recommends that the House considers the most effective way to ensure that the process for determining complaints of bullying, harassment or sexual harassment brought by House staff against Members of Parliament is an entirely independent process in which Members of Parliament play no part. The Commission agreed not to wait for the six-month review of the independent complaints and grievance scheme, due to start in January 2019, but to identify a way to give those with historical complaints access to the scheme. Could the Leader provide the House with details on what work is already under way? She said that she will report quarterly. When will we get the first report?
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene. I fear she is in danger of perpetuating the mistake that currently people do not have access to the complaints scheme for historical allegations. They absolutely do and I urge anybody with any complaint to come forward to the complaints scheme now—they do have access to it.
I am not perpetuating a myth. I am reporting factually what the Commission decided. That is exactly what the Commission decided: to look at the scheme to ensure that people can do that. The Leader of the House did not answer my question, but maybe she will answer it at the end.
In respect of historical allegations, there should be a fair process. In paragraph 401, Dame Laura Cox suggests that
“Distinguished senior lawyers or retired judges, highly experienced in handling these sensitive cases and in analysing evidence and finding facts, would ensure that the investigations…were treated with respect.”
She also suggests that everyone will have confidence in such a process. Investigators currently in place do not have that experience. Will the Leader of the House ensure that investigators with sufficient experience will handle those cases? In paragraph 379, Dame Laura Cox highlights the general reluctance of Members to judge the misconduct of other Members or even to assist in investigations. She makes reference, as the Leader of the House did, to the Nolan principle of leadership, which
“requires all holders of public office to be willing to challenge misconduct or inappropriate behaviour, wherever it occurs.”
That includes Member on Member, which we should remind ourselves of.
“There is now an institutional responsibility to act to restore public confidence in the central institution of our representative democracy.”
I hope that is respected with the widest consultation on any new process with a broad range of the trade unions that operate in this workplace and other stakeholders, and, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), that the current and new system have sufficient resources. What discussions has the Leader of the House had with the Government to ensure the allocation of proper resources and extra staff to make this work?
There should be time to look at best practice around the world—the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) suggested looking at Canada—and in other public organisations. Democracy is stronger when it is inclusive and reflects all the people it seeks to serve irrespective of age, disability, ethnicity, faith, gender identity, sex, sexuality or socio-economic background. It is vital that everyone working in a modern Parliament knows the boundaries of acceptable behaviour in a safe and secure workplace, and that we all play a vital role in ensuring that our Parliament and our democracy thrive.
We will start off with a seven-minute limit.
I pay tribute to the tenacity and commitment of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I do not think anybody has done more to try to deal with the situation we face. She is absolutely right that being a Member of this place is a privilege. It is like no other job. We represent our community, but we also speak truth to power. Today’s debate cannot fall shy of that.
The people who work here have a right to expect to be treated in accordance with the law, as they would be elsewhere. They want a safe workplace. The people I have worked with as a Member of Parliament, whether Clerks or anybody else, are an extraordinary bunch of people with the most extraordinary commitment to supporting the work of this place in whatever role they have. I very much welcome Dame Laura Cox’s report and I, too, pay tribute to the 200 or so people who gave evidence. Nobody but nobody today should even attempt to dismiss this report because of that enormous commitment from our members of staff.
Many staff have approached us as Members and welcomed the proposed changes, but there is a toxic lack of trust in management about whether the changes will actually come into effect. I will come on to the point about culture in a moment, but it is important to point out that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) said, culture is something that we all have ownership of and all shape, but we shape it at a very high level. When it comes to shaping that culture for a working environment, staff are much more likely to see that coming from their direct management, and that direct management culture prevails for the vast majority of members of staff in this place. What has been most revealing about the Cox report is that, although there are of course issues about the behaviour of Members of Parliament, there are also significant issues about the behaviour of members of staff as well, and we should not be shy about discussing that.
Dame Laura Cox’s report talked about a culture of complacency, cover-up and denial that has allowed the abuse and harassment of staff to thrive for so long. I believe that that culture still pervades. We have only to look at the way in which the management here reacted to the “Newsnight” allegations in March: they were immediately dismissed as a “grotesque exaggeration”, yet the Cox report categorically exposes the fact that, far from an exaggeration, all those allegations are much more likely to be an accurate depiction of what is going on for too many people in this place. Indeed, the problems run deeper than just the abuse, to the dismissive way in which allegations are handled, and that has created a toxic lack of trust in senior management. Why does this matter? It matters because our staff have a right in law not to suffer discrimination and management have a duty in law to treat people correctly, and make sure that they are treated correctly. However, we also have a duty to make sure that we set the best of examples—indeed, so that we can attract an even more diverse cross-section of MPs to this place.
The current situation risks bringing the House of Commons and, thereby our democracy, into disrepute. The media revelations in the spring were a real wake-up call, but why did it take “Newsnight” to report this and to prompt Dame Laura Cox’s report? According to data given to the Cox inquiry, despite an increasing number of complaints under “Valuing Others”, there had been no findings and external investigations of bullying or harassment for the past four or five years. Why did management systems not pick this up? This is why, while the Leader of the House is right to talk about changes to process, the issue of culture and management is really important, too.
The laws passed in this Chamber are being wilfully ignored by the people tasked with running the House of Commons. The laws that we insist are enforced in the courts are not being enforced in this place. In particular, the House of Commons is subject to the law under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 on the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, as the regulator, is now threatening to take action against the House of Commons. That is a disgraceful situation for us to be in. How can we be in a situation where we are in breach of the laws that we have agreed on the Floor of the House? This is serious.
I very much welcome the clarifications from the Leader of the House on the work that she is doing to make sure that the independent complaints and grievance scheme can address historical allegations and that it will be clear to everybody that it does so; that it has built-in independence; and that things will not be delayed unnecessarily. However, Members cannot allow the Commission to cherry-pick from the Cox report. It has to be adopted in full if we are to get away from the disgraceful situation of the EHRC potentially intervening on this place.
The Cox report is absolutely clear that new processes are insufficient in their own right to bring about the culture change that we need. The report says:
“The House strategy…risks being thwarted without a change in the culture necessary to deliver it.”
Bullying and harassment continue to be regarded as a distraction from the real work of the House. Cox is absolutely explicit about the need for top officeholders to change—not in her recommendations, because of course, that was outside her terms of reference, but it is integral to the report—yet the Commission is silent on this. Paragraph 414 states:
“I find it difficult to envisage how the necessary changes can be successfully delivered, and the confidence of the staff restored, under the current senior…administration.”
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only way to give confidence to future complainants is to ensure now that historical complaints are dealt with effectively and efficiently?
I think the Leader of the House has already said that that is the case.
Turning to my concluding remarks, although I see that I did not get an extra minute for the question asked by my hon. Friend—[Interruption.] To quote again from the report,
“there are a number of individuals who are regarded as bearing some personal responsibility for the criticisms made, and whose continued presence is viewed as unlikely to facilitate the necessary changes”.
The report could not be clearer. We have to make sure that there is senior management change in this place before we can make sure that the important process changes come into play. We have to make sure that the Commission is democratically accountable in the way that the Leader of the House has talked about. I believe that we also have to insulate the role of Speaker from dealing with these sorts of organisational issues, which are an immense distraction from his main role, which is to be in here presiding over impartial debate.
In summary, we really need to make sure that nobody here today can dismiss this report; that the debate is focused not just on process, but on making sure that we have the right leadership in place to fix the issues as we move forward; that we tackle the culture that has led to devastating criticism of the management of this place; and importantly, that we focus on how we can build back the trust of staff. That has to be the focus of today’s debate. We need to consider how we can make sure that the root cause of the cultural problems that we face are dealt with systematically not only by every Member of this House, but in the management of this place.
I thank the Leader of the House; the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz); and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for their comments on these very serious issues; they have very much set the tone for the debate. I commend Dame Laura Cox for her report and every single person who has contributed to it and felt that they were brave enough to come forward to speak and share their experiences, as traumatic as they no doubt were. My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) cannot be here today—he is in his sick bed—but he very much agrees with what has been recommended in the report, and we in the Scottish National party give our backing to its findings as well.
When my hon. Friend last spoke about this topic in this place, he said:
“Historical patriarchy practically oozes out of the walls”—[Official Report, 16 October 2018; Vol. 647, c. 534]—
of this building, and I absolutely agree. I have no doubt that the ingrained masculine culture in this institution is a key factor in the shocking cases of bullying and harassment that have been brought to the attention of the House. This behaviour has to stop. Those perpetrating such bullying need to be under no doubt that their behaviour is unacceptable.
I question what the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said in an intervention about people knowing, of course, that their behaviour is unacceptable; I am not sure that they do. I think that is part of the problem and why I very much agree that training needs to be put in place, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) mentioned, because if we are not aware of the impact of our behaviour, we are not going to change it.
I absolutely endorse what the hon. Lady says. She is probably right that the people who are bullies do not even realise that they are bullying. It is tragic, but they do not, and they need that pointed out and to be educated.
Yes, I agree. Some people may be well aware of what they are doing and of the impact of their behaviour, but some may not. It is time that we were brave enough to point that out to them, and I will mention that later.
The report is damning. It has the potential to be very damaging to the public’s trust in the procedures and legitimacy of this place and of us as elected Members—a trust that has already been thoroughly ravaged by the expenses scandal a few years ago. It is vital that we take this report seriously and treat all those who spoke out with the absolute respect that they deserve.
I agree with the Leader of the House that solving this problem is a non-negotiable course of action, and we have to act now before any further damage is done. As well as the horrific personal toll that abuse and harassment take on individuals, there is the wider impact, as this culture has led to the discouragement of women in politics. The gender balance in this Parliament is nowhere near good enough. Although we have a record level of female MPs in 2018, it is still less than a third of the total number elected. Many women I come across say, “Oh, I couldn’t do your job,” and they do so not because it is a fundamentally difficult job—some aspects are—and not always because of the hours or the distance, but because of how they perceive the culture of this place. They see Prime Minister’s questions as men in suits shouting at one another, and they see no place for themselves here as a result.
Dame Laura Cox’s report is particularly enlightening on the broader culture in which this situation has been able to fester. She describes it as
“an excessively hierarchical, ‘command and control’ and deferential culture, which has no place in any organisation in the 21st century.”
This culture is our biggest issue as policy makers. It is no exaggeration to say it has wide-reaching detrimental effects on society. Unfortunately, trickle-down patriarchy has been much more effective than trickle-down economics has ever been.
There is gross over-representation in this place of a certain demographic—namely, upper-class, white men in suits. The report makes reference to certain public schools and Oxbridge universities as having a disproportionate influence. Of course, there are many among this demographic who are dedicated public servants whom I take no issue with and who work tirelessly for their constituents, and it is not my intention to single out any one person or party, but it is irrefutable that over-representation in one area leads to limited understanding of the experience of others.
I have spoken at length in this place about the terrible practice of retro-fitting women into policies. Women are not an afterthought to be tacked on to the decision-making process. That is how we have ended up with welfare reforms that make matters worse for abused women and immigration rules that discriminate, and it is why we have the two-child policy and the despicable rape clause—because these policies were not made to reflect the lived experiences of women.
It is really important to look at ways we can change the misogynistic culture in the House. Many women in my constituency and elsewhere would make fantastic representatives or members of staff, but without serious change they will not put themselves forward in a culture that does not respect their skills and experience. My former colleague Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, when she was elected to this place, was subject to woofing noises in this Chamber. If that is the example being set by Members, it reflects very badly on us all.
The Cox report described the experiences of female staff:
“Some women described always being asked to buy the coffee or make the tea, or take notes of meetings, for example, or being humiliated in front of colleagues by comments about why they needed to work or have a career if they had a husband, or ‘why do we need another woman in here, we already have two.’”
It is clear that the systems in place—the Valuing Others policy and the revised Respect policy—are not fit for purpose and need to be disregarded. We need to move on to something better.
A lot of the focus has been on the behaviour of MPs, but I want to be absolutely clear that this culture has deep roots. A lot of it is built on class hierarchy and misogyny, and bullying would appear to be rife throughout this institution. Those at the bottom of the wage scale in this place are those at most risk. I am deeply concerned about the caterers, the cleaners, the contractors—those people who are not as visible to the public as we are but who as a result are so much easier for the House to ignore. I want to ensure that their voices are heard in all future policies, and I want them to feel they can challenge unacceptable behaviour, regardless of who it comes from.
We need to recognise, too, that our own staff are vulnerable by dint of how they are employed. After all, how does someone challenge their employer directly and deal with something effectively within a very small team of staff? I have heard several times how MPs have treated their staff, and I think we all need to get a good deal braver in calling this out when we see it; not doing so allows it to continue. We need to stop making excuses for people. On page 141 of the report, Dame Laura highlights how unlikely we are to criticise our fellow MPs—the Leader of the House mentioned this, too, in the context of our procedures. We need to think about how we do this, without fear or favour and without risking our own personal relationships—a lot of us in politics grew up together and have those friendships and relationships.
The hon. Lady is making an important point. It is also part of our job to hold to account those managing this place. On behalf of the SNP, does she not find it very concerning that the Commission has not commented on the need for a complete management change here? What does she feel we need to do about that?
The report makes it clear that there has to be change and that we need to look at our policies and procedures and make sure that everything is fit for purpose, and yes the report falls short.
The report does not fall short.
Sorry, I mean the response to the report falls short—very short—in a number of aspects.
I do not have permission to name names, but I have heard testimony from a former member of staff in this place who was subjected to offensive sexist remarks by a more senior manager, used quite deliberately to undermine her position and confidence. She did not feel she could complain, and she did not want me to raise it further, but I fear that the person who made those comments will have thought little of them and will make them again to other women in his future career. As I say, if we do nothing, this culture grows and festers, and if people do not see their behaviour challenged, they believe that it is acceptable and that they can get away with anything.
Culture change would help participation in politics in the future, but it is of limited consolation to those who have suffered injustice in the past. Ours is often seen as rough-and-tumble profession with long and unforgiving hours and an immense workload, but that does not for one second excuse the unacceptable behaviour described by this inquiry, which is far reaching and fundamental. Discourse can be robust, but the allegations we are hearing about go far beyond what is acceptable during any normal disagreement.
Huge elements of this can be changed, and the Scottish Parliament, while not perfect, set itself up to avoid this kind of culture. From the outset, the Scottish Parliament made clear its commitment to inclusive and family friendly workplace practices, with key principles of accessibility, participation and equal opportunity. As the Leader of the House mentioned, best practice was drawn upon in its planning phase to ensure that the establishment of the new legislature could learn from the mistakes and successes of other legislatures, including this place. There was a firm understanding that Holyrood would not simply be a Westminster in the north.
Promoting a family friendly culture and work environment has been a key priority of the Scottish Parliament, and that is reflected in its sitting hours finishing at 5 pm, voting being fixed at a set time so that staff and MPs do not have to stay late into the evening, unlike in this place, where sitting hours can vary hugely. We also have in this building a pervasive culture of alcohol—this has been missing somewhat from the debate thus far. We have receptions at lunchtime serving drinks and people encouraged to hang around in bars while we wait for late-night votes, and this breeds a culture where we are not behaving as professionals in this building. We are then forced to spend a ridiculous amount of time in crowded voting lobbies, which is unpleasant and unsafe, particularly when some Members have been drinking for a good part of the day.
A lot of the reporting on this has been done in dramatic tabloid language, and the culture in the past has been to cover it up and pretend that it is all fine, which has led directly to the situation today where we worry too much about the reputation of the House, rather than the people who work within it.
Is this place not part of the problem? Members of staff have complained to me about the behaviour of other Members. I say, “Make a formal complaint,” and they say, “But I’ll lose my job.” We have to remember that if someone is employed by the House of Commons or the Palace of Westminster and loses their job, it will go on their CV and affect their future employment prospects, and that is why they will not make a complaint.
That is absolutely true, and it is reflected in the report in many ways. For example, people fear that if they were to complain or raise an issue, they would be seen as a troublemaker trying to upset the way things have been done—and from reading the report, it seems to me that the way things have been done absolutely has to be turned around.
On a point of clarification, the new ICGS is totally confidential. I want people to know that if they proceed with a complaint their name will not be mentioned and they need not fear retribution or publicity.
That is good to hear, although people have to have confidence in that anonymity, and we have to see results.
In moving away from the way things have always been done, we need to be frank with ourselves. There has been some discussion about the culture in higher education, and it has been suggested to me that the institutions with low levels of reporting of harassment are the ones we ought to be watching, rather than those that are prepared to report and to act on those reports. Unless we encourage reporting, the problem will continue and nothing will be done. I agree that staff must feel they have ownership of the system, that there must be accountability, that the implementation must be robust and that people must have confidence that they can report anonymously and that something will be done. During a conversation that I had earlier today, it was suggested that someone might not want an allegation to be made but would like it to be noted, so that in the event of any future allegations that tied up with the same person and similar circumstances, the link could not be overlooked. I think it important for that to be recorded in one way or another. I also want to ensure that if an allegation has been made, the person who has made that allegation is not forced to sit down with the perpetrator, because that would put them in a very vulnerable position.
No one should be too powerful to be beyond the reach of any new reporting system. We must ensure that members of staff who wish to complain about bullying and harassment have the necessary access and support, regardless of when the incident occurred and who it involved.
Order. May I suggest that we lower the speaking time limit to six minutes, given that there is so much interest and so many Members wish to speak?
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). She made what I thought was a rather hard-hitting speech, with much of which I agreed.
One of the themes that have emerged from most of the contributions today is culture. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) was the first to mention the “culture” word, and he was absolutely right to do so. Like others—including, I think, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central—the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), talked about the merits of looking at other systems, not just in the United Kingdom but around the world, to see how they work. I would like to extend that. The focus seemed to be on other legislatures or on public bodies, but I think we should be more ambitious and look at some of the best practice in the organisations in the private sector that have changed their culture.
Let me throw one example into the mix. One of the best culture changes that I saw took place during my time at Asda, when Archie Norman was the chief executive and Allan Leighton was his deputy. They transformed the strongly hierarchical culture in what had been a very “control and command” kind of business when they took over. They revolutionised the way in which managers treated their colleagues, and ensured that everyone was considered to have equal value within the business, whatever their role might be. I think that there would be a great deal of merit in persuading people like Archie Norman and Allan Leighton to come to Parliament and explain how they changed the culture of companies such as Asda. What was done there was a massive feat in itself, and Asda became one of the top businesses in the country in which to work, according to one of the annual polls carried out by The Sunday Times.
Let me stress, in the limited time available to me, that this is a very important issue and we all have a responsibility to try to put things right. Our staff, whoever they are, deserve to be treated properly and with respect. Indeed, why would people who want to get the most out of their staff not treat them properly and with respect? Any sensible manager would want to do that anyway. However, I do not think it helpful to try to use this issue as some kind of witch hunt, or as an attempt to settle scores with the Speaker of the House of Commons. I think that that has featured far too often in some of the contributions to debates on this subject. Whatever problems there are in the culture of the House, they almost certainly predate the Speaker’s time in the Chair. This is a long-standing issue in the House, and it is absolutely wrong to lay the blame for it at the door of the Speaker.
I have no qualms about criticising the Speaker. As it happens, I was one of those who put their names to the motion of no confidence in the previous Speaker, and I did not vote for the current Speaker to be in his position. At the time of his election, I spent an hour explaining to him all the reasons why I was not going to vote for him, although it was, strictly speaking, a secret ballot. So I have no qualms about, if necessary, telling people why I think that they are unsuitable for that particular role. However, I do not think it either fair or appropriate to use what is a long-standing issue in this place as a way of settling old scores with the Speaker. It is largely people who, like me, did not vote for him in the first place who are using this as a way to say that they still do not want him to be here. This is just a convenient stick with which to beat him. Such action trivialises what is a serious issue for everyone in the House, and I hope that we will caution against it. We all have a role to play in ensuring that we get the culture right.
It is clear to all of us that the culture in the House is not always right. Let us get in people who have expertise in changing cultures in organisations where staff are put at the front and centre. Let us do something positive as a result of the challenge that we face, and use the report to deliver that positive change. Please let us not use this simply as a way to do something negative—to settle scores with someone with whose present position some Members were never reconciled in the first place. I did not vote for the Speaker, but I recognise that it is not the Speaker who is responsible for the problems.
I did not intend to intervene, but my hon. Friend must recognise that the report contained some criticism. Is he just dismissing that? I hope that he would not characterise my comments as those of “one of the usual suspects”.
I know that my right hon. Friend has been outspoken on that particular issue, but she is certainly not at the forefront of my mind. [Laughter.] She has very considered opinions, and I appreciate that. I am not oblivious to it. My point is that whoever had happened to be the Speaker at the time when the report was written, the same issues would have been raised in it. I do not think that it constitutes a specific criticism of this individual Speaker. This is a much deeper and more widespread problem than that. Anyone who thinks that these issues have only arisen since the current Speaker took his position knows, deep down, that that really is not the case.
Given his argument, does my hon. Friend believe that the culture in this place can change if the current Speaker remains in position?
Yes, I do. I have no reason to think otherwise in my dealings with the Speaker. People take others as they find them. I think that this goes much wider than the current incumbent. As my hon. Friend knows, I agree with him wholeheartedly on virtually every issue, but I am afraid that on this one we must part company. I do not think it helpful to make it into a personal vendetta against one individual in the House. The culture goes much deeper than that.
Let us use the report to do something positive. Let us get people in who can help, but let us not make this into a personal vendetta on the part of people who were never reconciled to the current incumbent of the Chair in the first place. That is not helpful, and, to be fair, in many respects it does not do justice to the people whom we actually need to help: people who work in the House of Commons, either as the staff of Members of Parliament or as other staff members. We can do this without needing to go for what I would consider to be the very nuclear option that my hon. Friend proposes, which I do not think would make a blind bit of difference in itself. The problem goes much deeper than that.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to say a few words on behalf of the House of Commons Commission. I also thank Dame Laura Cox for her report on the bullying and harassment of Commons staff.
The Commission recognises that it has a statutory responsibility for the employment of House staff, but too often has failed in its duty to provide a workplace free from bullying and harassment. The report described an institutional failure to address a problem that has undermined the legitimacy and authority of the House. As others have said, bullying and harassment have no place in the House or in any other area of public life. The Commission is determined to take immediate steps to rectify past mistakes and offer robust protection and support to all who work here.
As Members will know, the Commission met on Wednesday 24 October to discuss the report’s recommendations and consider a way forward. Members of the Commission, including the Clerk of the House and the director general, were unanimous in recognising that it is time for a change, and agreed to the three fundamental recommendations in Dame Laura’s report. This decision was reinforced at a further meeting on Monday 29 October.
We agreed to terminate the Valuing Others policy and the Respect policy, to expand the new independent complaints and grievance scheme to enable House employees with historic allegations to access it—although we have heard the Leader of the House point out that that is available to them already—and to ensure that the process for determining complaints of bullying, harassment or sexual harassment brought by House staff against Members of Parliament is an entirely independent process in which Members play no part. Work will start on this immediately with the Leader of the House and with input from the Chair of the Standards Committee and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards—the widest scheme possible, perhaps in the way the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was asking for earlier.
The Commission is also committed to preventing any further bullying and harassment of, and sexual misconduct towards, staff, and has directed the Commons Executive Board to produce an action plan, in consultation with a wide range of stakeholders. This will be taken forward under the auspices of the external members of the Commission, drawing on independent and external advice.
Since the publication of the Dame Laura Cox inquiry report, the Commons Executive Board has been leading events with House of Commons staff to hear their reactions. Judging by their comments at these meetings, the mood of many staff members is a mix of anger at past events, disappointment at the failure of the House to deal with them adequately, and concern about whether lasting change can happen. This is perhaps an example of the toxic lack of trust that the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) referred to.
The right hon. Lady also referred to section 149 of the public sector equality duty and said that it applies to the House. There may be an argument about whether that is the case, but clearly the House would always want to observe that even if there was not a statutory requirement for it to do so. The right hon. Lady might be interested to know that the Clerk of the House is due to meet the Equality and Human Rights Commission shortly to discuss this matter.
I gently remind the right hon. Gentleman that the EHRC has put in writing very clearly that the House of Commons is subject to the public sector equality duty. It is the regulator; it made that decision, not the House of Commons.
I thank the right hon. Lady for that intervention, and it is on the record.
There is concern, too, that these issues might be used as an opportunity to score political points, perhaps losing sight of the fact that this is about real people who are hurt and let down by their place of work and how their complaints were handled.
What is clear is that fine words are not enough: change must follow, and swiftly. As we move forward, the Commission has confidence that the new independent complaints and grievance scheme will offer far greater protection for staff members than ever before. The behaviour code, for example, is a set of inarguable standards by which we must all abide, regardless of rank, power or allegiance. The code has now been adopted by both Houses, and no one may regard themselves as exempt from these standards. However, as many Members have said, there is a deeper issue beyond policies and processes: this is about the culture of the House, especially in relation to deference, hierarchy and the abuse of power. This theme resurfaces repeatedly. We must collectively strive to change fundamentally a culture which has tolerated such abuses.
The sentiment in the Commission is to see swift action, but action that must be effective at securing lasting and permanent change. An action plan focused on addressing the cultural fault-lines that persist in dividing the Commons community is being developed with external input and individual staff input seen as critical. This plan will be informed by the voices of staff, who have signalled their impatience to see concrete actions—actions that will, once and for all, address the serious issues that undermine the quality of their working environment and make the change lasting and permanent.
But it would be foolish and foolhardy to suggest that an immediate action plan implemented over months will in itself change a culture that has developed over many, many decades. Lasting and sustainable culture change requires a movement. We all have a role to play. The bullying of House staff is perpetrated by both Members and by other House staff; these are equally unacceptable but will require different remedies. Soon, there will be decisions and choices to be made by this House, and I hope that all Members will recognise the responsibility they have and the role they can play in changing the culture of the Commons for the better and for good.
Every member of the parliamentary community has a right to feel safe and respected. The Dame Laura Cox inquiry report clearly shows that this is not the case. This must, and will, change, and that change starts now.
I follow the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) who sits on the Commission, and I am grateful for his account of the Commission’s discussions and intentions. He threw into his remarks references to culture, and “culture” is a word that drops into this debate quite easily. I will discuss later in my remarks how we should perhaps be exploring what we mean by the word and how we might address the culture. He said that
“deference, hierarchy and the abuse of power”
are in the culture and that we all have a role to play, and he went on to discuss what all Members must do, but I look around this Chamber now and do not see all Members here. In fact, I see a rather small minority of Members here, and part of the problem is that the whole of the House of Commons is not engaged.
I look upon Dame Laura Cox’s report as a very serious piece of work setting out very big challenges, but I do not think it is the first word and I doubt very much that it will be the last word; I gather we are to have another inquiry into a different aspect, concentrating more on the way in which Members treat their staff. It is important that we get above this and think about how we can develop a conversation about what sort of House and institution we want to be, how we are going to develop our personal behaviour—our individual values, our principles—in order to advance that objective, and how we engage all Members in that conversation.
I was very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for quoting words that I well remember drafting as part of the submission that the Committee I chair made to the Straw Committee on the future governance of the House. The point I was making in those words, which referred to governance, leadership, values, attitudes and behaviour, was not that the changes to the governance structure would fix the problems. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that we need to democratise the governance of the House, and I am certain that we do need to make transparency and accountability more evident, but these things in themselves will not solve the problem.
To some extent I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who referred in person to the office of Speaker. I have not been part of any campaign to remove the Speaker as a result of the Cox report, because he is but one figure in the House who is accounting for the culture of this place; there are far more people giving permission for the wrong behaviours and wrong attitudes than just one person, and we must keep that perspective in mind.
The question we perhaps need to ask about the House of Commons Commission if we are not satisfied with its conduct is that old friend Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Maybe there needs to be some kind of informal, or perhaps formal, oversight body that discusses what the Commission does and that gets it to report more formally than it does, but I do not suppose that that will actually deal with the problems we have got.
In the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee submission to the review of the House of Commons code of conduct we point out that governance and compliance are not synonymous, and that structures and procedures can embed change and culture but cannot on their own create the right culture. What we need to think and talk far more about is what we mean by our values. When we sit in the Tea Room with our colleagues we do not talk much about values. What do we mean by values? Values are about the way in which we should seek to live and, incidentally, to lead. Our values should be evident in the way in which we lead and in the principles by which we conduct ourselves in this place and in our lives. The rules, which are enforceable and whose breach will cause punishment, are a relatively ancillary question, yet so much of the debate is about creating new rules and punishments and not about explaining how we live our lives better in this institution.
The big question is: how do we hold this conversation? When the House divided on these matters a little while ago, barely 100 colleagues voted and I should not imagine that 100 colleagues took part in the debate either. How do we hold this conversation about the values and principles that we want to demonstrate in our leadership of public life and that should be evident throughout our entire institution?
Like everyone else who has read Dame Laura Cox’s report, the other members of the Committee on Standards and I were shocked by its contents. We were horrified to read of the extent of the bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff by some Members and by some senior staff, and dismayed that so many feel that they have been ill served by the House authorities in their attempts to be heard and to have redress. That cannot continue. Every single one of us bears responsibility in this matter, and all hon. Members need to read this report and reflect seriously on our own conduct. Could any of us have been guilty of bullying behaviour or harassment of staff? Have we witnessed or heard reports of such behaviour by others but failed to act? How, collectively and individually, do we change behaviours and, most importantly, the culture in this place?
It is barely three months since the House put in place the independent complaints and grievance scheme, which is aimed at tackling bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. While Dame Laura Cox acknowledges that the new process contains much that is of value—I commend the Leader of the House and her steering group for their efforts and determination in introducing the new scheme three months ago—she makes such fundamental criticisms of it that the House will have to revisit aspects of the scheme. Indeed, the House of Commons Commission has moved quickly to accept her three key recommendations: that the Valuing Others and Respect policies should be scrapped; that complaints relating to historical allegations should be heard; and that complaints by House of Commons staff against Members of the House should be determined through
“an entirely independent process, in which Members of Parliament will play no part”.
This gives rise to detailed questions about implementation, and about ownership and responsibility for driving forward the recommendations for the implementation of the Cox report. There is a danger that we will fall into a vacuum. Mr Speaker and the Members on the House of Commons Commission have, to a degree, and for understandable reasons, stepped back from the process, leaving the task to the two external members, who have asked the executive board to draw up an action plan. However, there are issues that go further than those that a board of officials can deal with. The wider House, the political parties, the Committee on Standards, individual MPs and individual House staff have responsibilities too.
The Cox recommendations must be implemented in a way that inspires the confidence of those who have made complaints of abuse, and of the wider public. The outcome that we seek might be no involvement by Members, but we need to recognise that Members will be involved to some extent in designing the process. The Committee on Standards, which includes elected and non-elected members, is the mechanism that the House has set up to advise it. Final decisions, particularly on a new system of sanctions, will have to be taken by the House. We will have to think carefully about how we can discharge those responsibilities in a way that inspires public confidence. The Committee on Standards has already begun to think about measures that we could take, which we might recommend in our report shortly, to strengthen people’s perception of and trust in the system that we hope will apply in the future, as well as the system that we brought in on 19 July. Existing complaints will have to be dealt with under that system until further changes are made.
I want briefly to mention two or three of the quick wins that I hope the House will consider in the near future when my Committee brings forward our report and its recommendations. We hope to do that very soon. The first proposal is to extend full voting rights not only to the elected members of the Committee on Standards but to the lay members as well. Dame Laura Cox has criticised the Committee as inadequate for purpose in its current form. Offering full voting rights to the lay members would strengthen and embed the independence of the Committee, because those members would form a de facto majority on the Committee. There would be equal numbers of lay and non-lay members, but the Chair has only a casting vote.
Other immediate and much simpler steps include giving the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards the right to go to the police with matters that she believes need criminal investigation without having to consult the Committee first, and abolishing the requirement that complaints to the Commission have to be submitted in hard copy only. I am sure that, in the 21st century, we can switch that so that complaints can be accepted via email. These proposals would be without prejudice to the further and more sweeping action needed to give the Cox recommendations full effect. Procedural changes such as these are essential, but as we have heard again and again tonight, it is painfully evident that Dame Laura’s report rings the alarm for the need for wholesale cultural change. This is not a political issue. It is not a constitutional issue. It is simply an ethical issue—an issue of values and morality—and every single one of us has an obligation to ensure that it is treated as such.
Order. There will now be a five-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. I call Gillian Keegan.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), and I congratulate her on her new role as Chair of the Committee on Standards. Having served as a member of Parliament for only a year and a half, I did wonder whether it was appropriate for me to speak in this debate. I personally have not witnessed many of the things described in the report. However, I do have prior experience of managing thousands of people from different backgrounds and cultures in large companies for more than 27 years, so I might be able to provide some useful insights into industry best practice. I completely agree with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that many companies have gone through this culture change, and that we can learn a lot from them.
As a new MP, however, I can safely say that Parliament is very different from any workplace I have ever seen, and it has a very distinct culture. Parliament is effectively a common workplace for what are in reality 650 separate small businesses, each with their own leadership and teams. This is unusual, and it is probably one of the reasons why this issue has not been effectively tackled earlier. There is no real central control, and certainly no central HR support. The reputation of Parliament is vital, because we have the responsibility to pass legislation—not least, employment law itself. Dame Laura Cox’s report shows us beyond all doubt that our present approach is not working. It is letting staff down, and we need to change.
So, what does good look like in the workplace and how can we achieve it? Based on my experience, and on the valuable insights I have received from professional organisations such as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, I believe that we need to approach our “get well” strategy under two headings: preventing bullying and harassment from happening in the first place; and dealing with them decisively when they do happen. Our prevention approach needs to start at the top, by which I mean all of us elected representatives as well as senior managers in the House of Commons administration. We need to show that we are serious about tackling this issue, and that means that we as Members of Parliament should lead by example and personally demonstrate the right behaviours and attend training programmes and awareness raising events. Best practice would include monitoring attendance at such events and even publishing a list of those MPs who are and are not attending them or, as happens in the workplace, completing online educational work modules. That is usual practice in other industries. If we conduct ourselves in this way, we can start to shift the culture away from where it is now towards a more inclusive diverse and respectful workplace.
Turning to the subject of what to do when it is alleged that bullying or harassment may have taken place, we should again follow best practice, with a simple, well understood, consistent, confidential, independent and, above all, fast escalation process. There are some existing policies in this area, but the Cox report clearly states that they are overly complex and do not enjoy the confidence of our colleagues working in Parliament. In order to cleanse the system, we need to show that we take the issue seriously, acting when required with full transparency, and we must be seen to do that.
Given my hon. Friend’s extensive experience in business, what does she think the House should do about historical allegations? What lessons can be learned from the private sector?
I had this conversation with someone at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and I asked what they do in business, and he said that there is no time limit for sexual harassment, but that they impose some kind of time limit on bullying and harassment, because cultures and expectations have changed over time. I am not suggesting that for this place, but that is what somebody at the CIPD advised, and we could examine what different industries do, because most people have already faced this issue.
The most basic thing that every serious company does is ensure that there is a proper HR function to provide support whenever it is needed. When new Members come into the House, some may have employed hundreds of people, but some may have never employed another person and may be desperate for more support. Should we not put far more energy into that if we are to prevent such problems?
I completely agree. It is unfair to expect a simple, well understood, consistent and fair process if we have not trained people about that expectation. In business, people would be given induction training on the standards and then top-up training every year, and whether the top-up training had been done would be publicised.
Dame Laura Cox’s report runs to 155 pages and I agree with all its points. The answer, however, is perhaps simpler than the length of the report suggests. This is about prevention and cure. It is about being seen to take action. It is about each and every one of us demonstrating the correct behaviours and showing, by example, our commitment to make this great institution a modern, respectful, inclusive workplace fit for the 21st century. It is not about trying to scapegoat individuals or outsource the solution to a Committee or indulging in a trial by media. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if we tried to suggest that others are responsible for our collective failings, we will certainly demonstrate that we have not at all grasped the systemic nature of the problem we face.
Let us remember that we are all collectively responsible for this system, and we must work together to improve it. Even though, as the report is keen to point out, the vast majority of MPs are courteous and entirely respectful of staff, our reputations sink or swim together. If each and every one of us takes steps to implement Dame Laura’s report, and if we report on progress at regular intervals, we will begin the journey to better support our staff and to recover our reputation, which goes to the heart of the credibility of this place.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan)—I will call her my hon. Friend—and I think she made some important points. I want to start by saying that I have absolutely every faith in the Leader of the House’s commitment to make the situation better. I also have every faith in the new Chair of the Committee on Standards, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). I do not think that many people could question her unfailing commitment to equality over the years, and people should feel real faith in those institutions and in all the people in the Chamber—there are not enough of us here—who have bothered to come to talk about this.
I say once again that anyone who has any historical complaints should absolutely come forward. In fact, the legal advice given during the creation of the system that we have now does not mince its words, stating:
“Retrospective effect is therefore regarded as desirable.”
It says that it is better that we look back in retrospect. Unlike some Conservative Members, I am not going to lean on business for the best option. Arcadia, for one, is an organisation that I would not currently be taking any advice from, but it is with my interest in Sir Philip Green that I want to ask some questions about how this House uses non-disclosure agreements. I am really interested in the subject, but I still have no idea about how most things actually work in here. It is a mystery to most people. I want to know who signs off a non-disclosure agreement in this building against a member of staff, because I do not have a clue. I know that in business, someone at board level would have to see some of that when big pay-outs are being made, but I do not know who has governance and oversight of that in this building. How will those things be dealt with going forward? Will any new inquiries report on whether we think it is appropriate to use NDAs in repeated cases where the perpetrator is the same person clearly showing a pattern of behaviour?
To answer the hon. Lady’s question directly, I have also been concerned about this matter. I asked the House authorities about it and was told:
“Like many other organisations, the House of Commons uses settlement agreements to resolve employment disputes under certain circumstances but these are not what are known more widely as ‘non-disclosure agreements’ and that settlement agreements do not in any way seek to prevent whistle-blowing or the disclosure of facts on public interest grounds.”
I thank the Leader of the House for that answer. I think some real clarity going forward about what we as parliamentarians in this place will and will not accept should certainly be part of how we improve something that I think we have already improved. As somebody who has been a critic of this place and some of the people in it, I want to say that I think that we have tried to make real strides. Historical cases have been talked about a lot today, but the situation needs to be made much clearer and more robust. I heard the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House sharing a real commitment to that today, which gives me hope.
I agree with the idea of democratising the House of Commons Commission because, once again, I do not know how someone gets to be on it or how to be the spokesperson for it. I will go on the Commission and on the Committee on Standards now that my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston has made a gap—I will go on all the Committees. Part of the problem is that there is no real accountability for who is on what and what is being said where, and if I do not know that, it is likely that the vast majority of Members will not know that, because I take an interest, and also that the public will not have a clue about what is going on.
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) made an important point about having a log on which things can just be recorded without action necessarily being taken. Third-party reporting is another issue, because I have received some harrowing reports of behaviour by people in this place, but I know that the people will never come forward and say anything. I am then left with my hands tied knowing some of those things, and we need some system so that we do not end up in a Jimmy Savile situation in which everybody says, “Well, we all knew. Everybody knew he was a bit like that. Of course he was.” We need a place where Members of Parliament and members of staff—anybody around this place—can, without prejudice, log something somewhere so that we can see the patterns.
It would be wrong of me to say that this process has been pleasant for all those who had to come forward, and who are still having to keep on pushing. Unless we get this right pretty quickly, trust and faith in this place will be gone—they are already pretty low. Each and every one of us should take on the responsibility of making sure this does happen.
I speak partly as Vicky Ford, but also as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament, which I am very honoured to have recently taken up. Since I have been in this House, a vast majority of Members have been hugely helpful and have shown great respect to me as a newish Member. It is a great honour to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who sits on the Women and Equalities Committee, the Chair of which is here today. There has been a huge amount of work on this debate.
The Dame Laura Cox report makes for harrowing reading. It cannot be swept under the carpet, and it is very clear that culture change is needed. Although the culture has gone on for many, many years, it cannot continue and, as Dame Laura says, the reset button has to be pressed. I am extremely pleased to hear that the Leader of the House has set up a new independent complaints and grievance procedure because, in the past, people who have suffered have not felt confident about coming forward with their complaints. People need a safe space, and the system needs to be confidential. Many people have spoken about that, but it is almost more important to make sure that we reset the culture so that such incidents do not happen again. We must try to make such incidents far less likely.
I have said before in this Chamber that we are living through an incredibly tense time in politics, and a very stressful time in British politics. My experience is that we often say things we regret when we are stressed. There is no excuse for that, but if we can work somehow to try to destress some of our working lives, maybe that will contribute to a change in culture.
Many people have said to me that one thing they find stressful about this place is the lack of predictability. It is not necessarily mothers wanting to have shorter hours—actually, a lot of people who travel from further afield say that they want to work long hours when they come to London—but not knowing what is coming next can be challenging. There are times when an urgent question is an important question but, Mr Deputy Speaker, urgent questions are not always urgent—sometimes they are just important—yet we all run around rescheduling our lives. If we could set time aside for important issues, without needing to have that higher level of stress—
I am sure you are not trying to influence the Chair in making decisions on urgent questions, as that is done in the morning and not at this particular time.
I am not suggesting it is you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was just hoping that you would register the point.
It has also been said that, as we often sit late, it would help people with caring responsibilities if more sitting days could start at 9.30 am and if some Select Committees did not always send out their reports for us to review over the weekend but gave us a bit more time to submit comments. There is also stress because of the nature of online abuse that Members receive. We need to be careful about the language we sometimes use—we saw this in the press the other day—because, if we use violent language, it can encourage violence against others.
Lots of people have spoken about the need to improve training and HR, and some of that is in place, but there is not a great deal of awareness of it.
I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to a report on sexual harassment and violence against women in Parliaments across Europe. The report looks at 45 different Parliaments, and there is great work happening in Switzerland, Sweden, France and Finland, and in the European Parliament. We have taken some of the same initiatives, but it would be worth looking at that report to see whether there are lessons that can be learned from those Parliaments, which all face similar issues to this Parliament. If we do not adopt similar procedures, we should give a jolly good excuse for why we have not, otherwise we could find that we have not taken on good practice.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I look forward to the next urgent question.
I thank Dame Laura Cox and all those who contributed to this report, particularly those who have been the victim of bullying and harassment. I appreciate that it cannot have been easy for them to come forward, even under the condition of anonymity, to recall experiences that we have heard about only in outline. I was disturbed to read that some people did not even wish to come forward to give evidence for fear of losing their job, which tells us about the mountain we have to climb.
As other Members have said, there are some fairly obvious procedures we could adopt to help improve the situation, but we are deluding ourselves if we think that introducing a few new procedures, or removing some high-profile people, will be enough. From what Members have already said today, it is clear that a few cosmetic changes will not have the desired effect if the same atmosphere that has allowed these problems to exist in the first place remains.
The bigger challenge for us all will be ridding this place of the culture that is described in the report as “widespread, enduring and profound”, and one that is
“as embedded as it is shocking.”
The unhealthy atmosphere of servility and entitlement leaps from the pages of the report. Perhaps when we become caught up in all the drama of this place, we forget that this is far removed from what a modern workplace looks like.
I am sure that most Members remember the whirlwind of the initial few weeks after first being elected to this place. The conventions, the courtesies and just trying to find the way around are huge challenges. In no time at all, a new Member has to get used to this place, start representing their constituents and, of course, recruit a group of staff to help them do so. I understand that new Members’ inductions have improved greatly in recent years, but even three years ago it was obvious to me that one area that is sorely lacking is employment guidance and HR advice. Basically, no advice was available. When a person enters an environment in which their power as an employer is absolute, and where there is a culture of impunity going back decades—for many new Members it will be the first time they have employed someone directly—it is little wonder that, from time to time, things go wrong.
There are two clear actions that we need to take following the Cox report, and I say that in a collective sense. One of the more unhelpful aspects of this has been the way reports have been sensationalised and individualised, with a one-sided trial by media that does no good for the victims, for the accused or for Parliament as a whole. Everybody deserves the right to a fair hearing, no matter who they are. Disputed allegations—as far as I can see, they are all disputed—require due process, and one of the recommendations of the Cox report will enable us to have that.
I am pleased that there appears to be no barrier to pre-2017 complaints, because I am concerned that the further review that we have talked about today will not be enough on its own. The only thing that will be enough is the sort of procedure that Dame Laura Cox refers to when she talks about the need for individual investigations to be conducted
“by someone whose status, independence, expertise and experience are beyond question”.
Dame Laura Cox says that it has to be a rigorous and transparent process that is seen to be fair to both sides. As the report makes clear, the person investigating complaints against Members ought to be
“more than capable of recommending an appropriate sanction.”
This process needs to start happening now, because some victims have already been waiting years.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) mentioned non-disclosure agreements, on which I have previously commented. I appreciate that there will be considerations when entering into such agreements, not least the complainant’s wishes. People who work here may be privy to information that is of interest to the outside world, but when it looks like every complaint is subject to an NDA, no matter what the complaint is about, it adds to the impression that this is an institution that does not like scrutiny of its internal workings.
Connected to that, staff have indicated to me that such is the insularity of this place, and such is the culture of fear about speaking out, that they do not want to be seen to be talking to Members about issues in case it gets back to their line manager. The fact that the staff handbook specifically prevents employees of the House from complaining to their own Member about workplace issues says to me that there is far too much defensiveness. If an employer in my constituency told their staff not to speak to me, I would be on to them straightaway. That is one huge reason why we cannot let this issue slip any further down the agenda.
I came to this place to fight for better working conditions for everyone in this country. If we cannot get our own house in order, how can we effectively challenge the worst employment practices out there? We should actually be more than that; we should be a beacon, an exemplar of best practice, and the standard others look up to and try to emulate. Yes, this is not like any other workplace, there are pressures here, and we are all human and sometimes standards can slip, but plenty of other workplaces face huge pressures and people there do not go round routinely bullying and harassing their staff, and then covering it up. So the toxic environment of deference and impunity has to go. We need to get the sense of pride people have in working here set through the whole place, so that everyone has a culture that we respect and so that they actually enjoy working here.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), who spoke with great sincerity. I also want to mention the speech made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), particularly as she is single-handedly doing a huge amount to change the culture of Parliament, just in the way she goes about what she does. I should also mention my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who is no longer here, but who has fought for years on these kinds of battlefields.
People look to this place to set the highest possible standards, yet we know that people who work here are being victimised, demeaned, bullied, harassed and, in some cases, assaulted—that shames us all; even if this is a case of a minority, it is a significant and important minority. Dame Laura Cox’s report makes for truly difficult reading. I found it particularly worrying that most of the bullying and harassment was targeted at women; that 68% of the contributors to the report were women; that more women than men have had their work undermined and their careers curtailed in this place; and that women were less likely to be taken seriously if they complained. Most disturbing of all, Laura Cox found that sexual harassment, which, to be clear, is an illegal form of discrimination, was pervasive, directed both by MPs at House staff and by House staff at their juniors.
MPs have many responsibilities: representing our constituents’ best interests, protecting their data, being honest and transparent with our expenses, abiding by the Nolan principles and upholding standards of public life. But we should also take seriously our responsibility to staff: those we employ directly ourselves and those whom we do not employ personally but none the less rely on. Progress has been made, and I pay tribute to the Leader of the House and the working group for developing the new independent complaints and grievance scheme and the behaviour code. I welcome the recognition that sexual harassment and sexual violence are different from other forms of intimidation and require different procedures, the introduction of an anonymous helpline, the support for people wishing to pursue complaints and the introduction of sanctions.
However, there is more to do. In particular, for staff to have confidence in the new system there must be a meaningful change to the culture of this place. The very fact that we are here debating this report, when one of its key recommendations is that complaints procedures should be completely independent of Members of Parliament, encapsulates the dilemma; we have a voice, while staff do not. Some of the things that make Parliament a unique place to work also perpetuate its toxic power dynamics. Hierarchy is written into the fabric of this building: there are Members-only bars and canteens; Committee Rooms have Members-only doors; there are Members-only lifts, Members-only corridors and Members-only stairwells; and one of only three showers in Portcullis House is reserved for “Female Members Only”.
All this compounds a sense of “us and them” for the thousands of non-Members who work here. Staff have told me that when walking around this building they feel like “second-class citizens”. When I have mentioned that, some MPs have told me that they think it is okay—I was staggered. Although I can see the case for access to be limited to some places, such as this Chamber, I do not know of any modern workplace that has so many no-go areas for the majority of its staff. It is time for us to face some uncomfortable truths about the culture of deference that has allowed bullying and harassment to thrive. We must make sure everyone can share more equally in the benefits and privileges of working here.
This is a unique institution, but it is also a workplace, like any other. Most modern workplaces of a similar size have a host of structures in place to protect staff and to support them, help them to cope when things get tough and make the most of their skills and potential. They have things like appraisals, performance reviews, regular staff surveys, informal check-ins and 360° feedback, and so how well a member of staff manages people counts in respect of their performance, pay and promotion prospects. All these things should be a formal part of changing the system and the culture fundamentally in this place. Everyone who works here, from caseworkers to clerks to catering staff, contributes to the effective running of our democracy, and they all deserve to be treated fairly and treated better.
Order. I am sorry, but I have to reduce the time limit to four minutes.
The power of the Dame Laura Cox report sits in the fact that the voices of staff across the House had the opportunity to be aired. As she held up a mirror to the institutions of this place, it spoke truth to power, which is why I am heartened by the fact that all in this House are listening carefully to the words she set out. The report cuts to the heart of what is wrong with the culture of this place: the huge inequality in power that sits in the seat of Parliament. Everybody is here to do a job and they should be valued equally, but we see a hierarchy of entitlement. We therefore have to see the structures move and the place move. I suggest to the Leader of the House that one way to do that is to start by looking at how reviews are brought about and to work with the trade unions and recognise them. They are the very voice of the staff in this place and we need to make sure they have got a seat at the table to take things forward. When they are involved, as they have been in this process, they add real value: they reflect exactly what is happening on the ground.
There are several points I wanted to make but time does not allow me. However, I say to the Leader of the House that we have no definition of “bullying” in statute; we have no recourse to legislation. Such a definition would seriously change the context, as we would have legal levers over what happens with bullying. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 is the lever that can be used, but it is totally inappropriate because it was set up to deal with stalking.
We do need to deal with processes in this place as well. I urge again that we look at the emphasis that is put on mediation when we are dealing with systems where there is huge inequality in power. There is too much in the report to highlight how mediation can solve problems—I say that simply because inequality of power will drive things forward. We need to heed the report when it talks in paragraph 227 about
“serious questions over the coherence of all the current arrangements in place for dealing with these cases”
and in paragraph 291 about how the processes will
“damage the prospects of success for this new Scheme”
if they are not right.
Of course that takes us on to historical cases, which absolutely must be looked at. The legal representation did not draw out the arbitrary date of June 2017 and nor should these processes, moving forward. Therefore, it is absolutely right that we do not just allow voice and agency over what has gone wrong in this place, but we see action. We need investigation and then to look at what penalties were available at the time the bullying or harassment took place. I have already made representations to the Leader of the House on the vital need to have a tariff of penalty across the House, so that different institutions are not applying different penalties and so that there is real transparency in the way this works.
I also want to raise my concern, as I have before, about the role of the Committee on Standards. We need to pull this process far more into an independent space than by having MPs arbitrating on the behaviour of their colleagues. That is completely inappropriate, and again it speaks of inequality of power in this place. I therefore urge the Leader of the House to look at that as she moves on taking forward the recommendations that Dame Laura Cox has diligently pored over, to start really bringing redress to this culture, because this is about our future and about the future of the staff who work so hard in this place.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who speaks passionately on this topic.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) referred to section 149 of the Equality Act 2010, which put a duty on organisations to eliminate unlawful victimisation, discrimination and harassment. The irony of the year of that law was probably not lost on those people who came forward with complaints. What the hell have we been doing? Apologies for that inappropriate language, Madam Deputy Speaker. What the devil have we been doing since 2010, when we imposed on the rest of the country laws that we cannot impose in our organisation?
I feel like I have been going through a degree of penance. I have five brothers, so I grew up in a very male household, and I went to an all-boy secondary school. I studied civil engineering at university, which was almost entirely male, and then worked on a building site. In fact, I did not come across women in the workplace until I was 27, and I have no doubt that I had developed some sexist attitudes. I then went to work for an American company that employed probably 70% women and my eyes were opened. I suddenly realised that women are not just the equal of men; in very many if not most cases, they are definitely our superiors.
We in the Conservative party frequently congratulate ourselves because we have had two female Prime Ministers, but although that is something to celebrate, it is certainly not something to hide behind. Frequently, when I stand in the Chamber at Prayers at the start of the day, as I turn to face the wall, I see only men on our side of the Chamber. That is terrible, because those members of staff who work in the rest of the House must see the Conservative party as one that has not done enough to promote and encourage women. That is why I am keen and proud to support the “Ask Her to Stand” initiative.
I come back to the legislation. Section 149 of the 2010 Act should have eradicated the problems that we are discussing today, but it has not. The problem we have now is that we need to move quickly enough to be seen to be acting promptly, but not to move so quickly that we make inappropriate laws or take inappropriate action, because the other thing of which the Laura Cox report was critical was the fact that we are so reactionary in this House. Something happens and we need to be seen to be doing something about it, so we implement some changes, but they are not embedded, sufficient or sustained.
Many people have said that we perhaps need some sort of HR training, but I think that as a bunch of adults we understand inappropriate behaviour when we see it, and we need to do more to call it out. It is simply not good enough. I speak from a privileged position because, as a male MP, I am perhaps least likely to suffer from bullying, but we certainly need to do more about it. We need to make sure that people are proud to work in this place and that in no circumstances do they ever come to work in fear of their jobs. We need to do more and we can do more. From now on, we will do more.
I agree with nearly every word that the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) just said, apart from one thing: I do not think that everybody does necessarily know what inappropriate behaviour is. He was right in what he said about women, and I completely endorse everything he said in that respect. When I first arrived here in 2001, as a gay man, I certainly faced bullying in this place. We have to be alert to the fact that we can all still learn more about the way we present ourselves and how we behave. There is not a single Member of this House who could not benefit from proper training, because the biggest driver of cultural change in any institution in the world is always education and training. That is what we need to do more of in this House.
I know that in a few moments the Leader of the House is going to mouth at me, “But we are doing it!” We are, and lots of training is available, but sometimes it is not very well advertised; sometimes people are not aware of when it would be available to them; and sometimes it is put on at a time when a Member simply would not be able to go. The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) was absolutely right to make the point about predictability. Sometimes, we might want to go and do a training programme and we simply cannot, because suddenly something happens in the parliamentary day that makes it impossible for us to go.
Incidentally, there is something that the Speaker could help us with. When a debate under Standing Order 24 is decided the day before and is it not going to be voted on, why do we not hold that debate at the end of the day, rather than at the beginning, so that Members can have the certainty of being able to go home at the time at which they thought they would go home? That would mean that we could still have important debates such as the one we had on Yemen, but it would not necessarily make life difficult for everybody.
I completely agree with the Leader of the House about democratising the Commission. I have worked in many institutions, including the Church of England and the BBC, and I am now here—it is like a Daily Mail terrible headline, is it not?—and in all those institutions, the problem is that all too often the institution’s first reaction when there is an action or story against it is to defend itself. That has happened here in the House, for the whole House, but it is also intrinsic in the nature of the Commission, because each of the Commission’s members is appointed by their party political leader. It would be better if we elected the Commission and it started to behave more as a team, rather than just one person leading for the whole House.
One thing that I have been asked by a large number of staff, particularly women, who work here is whether we could do something about lighting in the House. When we did work on disabled access to the building for the restoration and renewal report, the thing that came up most was that the building is very dark. People cannot read their papers. There are parts of the building that feel dangerous. If we are to talk about safety, why not light the public access ways and the corridors, so that the corridors of power are not a frightening place?
Finally, many members of staff have seen what has happened in relation to this issue and despaired because they think change is never really going to be possible. Do not despair. Even in the time for which I have been here, there have been changes. Portcullis House is a far more democratic space than many of the eating places and drinking places in this part of the estate—and guess what? That is where everybody gathers. MPs, their staff and people who work for the House all gather there together. Change is definitely possible. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) said, we now have an induction programme; we should have a really good induction programme. Would it not be great if every single member of the Cabinet and the shadow Cabinet and all the members of the Commission committed by the end of this week to do full training on bullying and harassment within the next 12 months?
With the leave of the House, I wish to make a few short closing remarks. First, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who showed some optimism and pointed to some good quick wins. He is right that things have changed. There is a lot more to be done, but things have changed.
Let me highlight some of the things that have changed. First, all staff here can access the independent complaints and grievance procedure, and I urge them to do so. Secondly, I would like people to be aware that all calls and complaints are strictly confidential. Nobody will have their details publicised or have to face retribution for coming forward with a complaint. Thirdly, historical allegations can and should be brought forward to the complaints procedure. They can already be brought forward. Finally, there is much more to be done, and the Cox report, plus the independent inquiry into complaints by Members’ staff that begins tomorrow, will guide much further work to change the culture here. Change is afoot and there is much more change to come.
I conclude today’s informative debate by thanking the House of Commons staff and everyone who works here for making our Parliament such a formidable pillar of democracy on the world stage. To all those staff, I say you are valued, you are vital to this democracy, and we will do better by you in future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Dame Laura Cox report on the bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff.