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Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme

Volume 663: debated on Wednesday 17 July 2019

[Relevant document: Extending the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, report from the House of Commons Commission, published on 15 July 2019, HC 2554.]

I beg to move,

That this House endorses the report of the House of Commons Commission entitled Extending the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, laid on Monday 15 July and approves the steps set out in paragraph 8 of the report to make the changes necessary to extend the scheme, endorsed under the resolution of 19 July 2018.

We have just debated the findings of the Gemma White report. In the course of her inquiry, MPs’ parliamentary staff came forward to discuss their experiences of working in the House of Commons, just as members of staff employed by the House of Commons came forward to speak to Dame Laura Cox last year. As I think all Members here today have recognised, even one case of bullying, harassment or sexual harassment in this place is one too many. I am grateful to those who have come forward to share their experience with these inquiries. As has been noted today, significant progress has already been made on these issues, and it has been made with cross-party support. In making this progress, it has been critical that the parties were able to work together to establish an independent complaints and grievance scheme for Parliament, which marks its first anniversary this week. I particularly my predecessor and colleagues from across the House for their work in setting up the scheme.

Now is the right time to make an important change to the function of the ICGS, to enable all those who came forward with past experiences of bullying or harassment to access the scheme and to have full access to an investigation where it is appropriate. I am determined that all those who have worked or are still working in Parliament should have an independent route to turn to if they have been bullied, harassed or sexually harassed. The opportunity for those with historical cases to access the ICGS was one of the three key recommendations made by Dame Laura Cox in her report of October last year. Gemma White has also recommended that the limitation on historical cases be removed, including to allow former members of staff access to the ICGS.

If we are to create a culture in Westminster in which everyone is confident that they will be treated with dignity and respect, we must continue to reform and also be prepared to confront the problems of the past. Today’s motion is about doing just that—giving complainants whose cases date from before June 2017 full access to the ICGS, along with providing access to this scheme to those who have left their employment here. There is certainly more to be done, but today’s motion is a huge step forward. By acting to address and face up to the past, we work towards creating a Parliament where all can rightly expect to be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

I thank the Leader of the House for tabling this motion, and all those involved with producing the House of Commons Commission report, “Extending the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme”, which was published on 15 July.

In May 2019, the Commission unanimously agreed to consult on its approved proposal for dealing with non-recent cases by using the existing ICGS and employing specialist investigators for both assessing and investigating non-recent and recent cases. The consultation was launched on 21 May and closed on 14 June. The responses to the Commission’s public consultation were overwhelmingly supportive of its preferred option. Respondents included current and former staff of MPs and the House service, the Centre for Women’s Justice, the trade union side, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Accordingly, at its meeting on 24 June 2019, the Commission agreed to include non-recent cases in the ICGS—hence, this motion. Until now, the ICGS has been available to all those who make up the parliamentary community. Paragraph 8 of the Commission’s report sets out necessary changes to open the ICGS to non-recent cases and to former members of the parliamentary community.

I pay tribute to the staff who are currently working on Dame Laura Cox’s third recommendation; we know how hard they work. Every time Members say that things have to be done quickly, there are a lot of hard-working staff who have to carry out that work as soon as possible. The staff team are currently working on ways to implement a fully independent complaints system, and will be helped by a working group of experts in constitutional law, constitutional history, human resources and procedure, as well as consulting Chairs of various Select Committees and party representatives. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) is one of those consultees. A statement has been published today, and I urge everyone to read it on the intranet and respond to it. She made a point about the Commission, but everything is open. The decisions are published on the intranet, and questions to the Commission can be answered in the Chamber by the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) or tabled.

I have a simple question for the Leader of the House: can he tell us the timetable for the report following the consultation and the completion of that work? He might know that, or he might want to ask his officials. In the circumstances, Her Majesty’s Opposition support the motion.

As I said in the previous debate, the SNP is very happy to support this motion and welcomes the changes to the independent complaints and grievance procedure, to open it up to cases that predate the 2017 Parliament. That is the most important way we can ensure that anyone who has been affected by inappropriate behaviour in the parliamentary community has access to and independent means of achieving justice, as well as the many excellent support services that have been put in place.

While I understand why the previous cut-off date was introduced to begin the process, it now feels arbitrary, and it does not recognise that investigations should be based on the weight of evidence, not simply the passage of time. That is why we are pleased that in the Commission’s statement, a key emphasis is placed on ensuring that the investigatory process at all stages is

“independent, impartial, thorough and fair, and evidence led”.

As was said in the previous debate, we have to remember that this is fundamentally about achieving not only justice for people who have been affected by inappropriate behaviour but longer-term cultural change in Parliament. Once again, the SNP is happy to support the motion.

I will not speak for too long, because I am sure the House has heard enough from me today, but I have a couple of queries, following what I said in the previous debate about this only being a staging post to our final destination.

The Gemma White report says that

“contributors to this inquiry have expressed considerable concern about using the new procedures and scepticism as to what the ICGS can realistically achieve. Many of them told me they would not contemplate making a complaint under the new ICGS procedure, because it would be ‘career suicide’… Some are concerned about the independence of the ICGS process… and the lack of clarity as to the sanctions which could be imposed on an MP.”

Those are still the issues with getting a process that we and, most importantly, staff can be confident in. Until we have a process that does not involve Members at all—I appreciate that work is going on in respect of that—staff will feel a bit inhibited in making a complaint.

The other issue is sanctions. I am not at all clear, and I hope the Leader of the House can clarify when he responds, what sanctions will be levied against an MP for a complaint being upheld under this procedure. For the procedure to have the confidence of staff, it must have proper sanctions.

To clarify, on behalf of the Committee on Standards, we are conducting an inquiry into exactly the question of what sanctions would be appropriate in a number of different situations. We would be more than happy to hear from my hon. Friend and, indeed, all Members.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am aware that a consultation is ongoing, but it begs the question of what will happen with complaints that are being dealt with now if sanctions have not been clarified. Presumably some complaints will be resolved before the Commission reports. If I am wrong about that, I am happy to be corrected. Will sanctions be applied retrospectively after they have been agreed, or will investigations be reopened? Those are the questions that I hope the Leader of the House can clarify when he responds.

Question put and agreed to.