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Sexual Harassment in Parliament

Volume 785: debated on Monday 30 October 2017


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Leader of the House of Commons in response to an Urgent Question. The Statement is as follows:

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

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

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

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

As the Prime Minister outlined yesterday in her letter to party leaders, we must establish a House-wide mediation service, complemented by a code of conduct and contractually binding grievance procedures, available for all MPs and Peers, and their staff, irrespective of their party banner. This will reinforce to those who work here—and to the public—that we are serious in our treatment of wrong doing and support for those who suffer it.

I know all party leaders will work together with the House to reach an agreement and get these changes in place as soon as possible. As Members of Parliament, our constituents will be rightly appalled at the thought that some representatives in Parliament may have acted in an entirely inappropriate way towards others. These reports risk bringing all of our offices into disrepute.

I know this is an issue of great concern to you, Mr Speaker, and I know that you will do everything you can to tackle this issue. I know that Members from all parties will want to work alongside you—to investigate every claim, provide the right support in the future and ensure this never happens again.

It is a right, not a privilege, to work in a safe and respectful environment. These plans will ensure that Parliament takes a zero-tolerance approach. Parliament must take action in days, not weeks”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question today. It is clearly unacceptable and offensive to their office and to individuals for anyone, whether or not in a position of power, to act inappropriately towards another in a workplace. Such sexual and sleazy behaviour and abuse is highly intimidating for the person on the receiving end and it affects their colleagues.

This is not a party-political issue: it is a human and workplace issue that must concern us all. The workplace, especially here in Parliament, should always be one where the individual can give their best. No staff member or colleague should have to cope with or manage such inappropriate behaviour and no one should be frightened to speak up or make a complaint to do with any kind of harassment, bullying or sexual intimidation.

That means that the mechanisms for complaints, advice and support have to be in place. I welcome today’s Statement as a first step on this road. However, the third point of the guiding principles states that,

“the support team should have the ability to recommend onward referral of a case—to ensure appropriate investigation takes place”,

but I am not clear on how that will happen and what mechanisms the Government are suggesting or putting forward. Clearly the most serious complaints are a matter for the police but does the Leader of the House agree that, in dealing with any such complaints, the key has to be a process of good employment practices embedded in the whole culture of Parliament?

Does she further agree that it would be helpful for all political parties and the parliamentary authorities to publish their complaints procedures, so that anyone who finds themselves having to make a complaint can do so with the confidence of knowing how that complaint will be dealt with? Any such process has to be explicitly clear, sensitive and robust. I advise all staff and colleagues to be members of a trade union, which are experts in processes and procedures and are able to give advice.

Recent press reports of Ministers or ex-Ministers abusing their positions by behaving inappropriately damage not only those individuals but the institution of Parliament as a whole. From talking to colleagues I know that most parliamentarians treat their staff and colleagues with respect and decency and are appalled that such allegations have been made. However, there are those few who fail to meet appropriate standards. Parliament has always to aim for the highest standards.

I thank the noble Baroness for her excellent comments. She is absolutely right that this is not party-political but a human and workplace issue. Certainly her tone shows that we can and want to work together to ensure that we tackle inappropriate behaviour and that Parliament is an enjoyable place where people can come to work and feel safe.

She is right that the key will be the mechanisms and process. That is why we have set out the direction of travel today but we will need to work through the commissions with the House authorities, at speed, to ensure that we get a robust—and legally robust—procedure so that when people come forward with these kinds of allegations, which can be extremely difficult, they know that they will be treated fairly and properly, and that their comments will be properly reflected and action taken.

I assure her that I am looking forward to working with leaders across the House, the commission and, of course, our colleagues in the Commons. We have been very clear that this needs to be two-House-wide, working together. We need to come together as Parliament to ensure that we get the right processes in place.

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement and indeed for the speed with which the Government have responded to the allegations that were reported over the weekend. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has said, this is not a party -political issue and it is not even an issue for one House versus the other. The key line in the Statement with which we would all agree is, “There can be no place for harassment, abuse, or misconduct in politics”.

The truth is that political parties over a long period have been slightly slapdash in how they have dealt with staff and volunteers. They often operate under great pressure, so people have tended to look at inappropriate behaviour in a less serious light than they might have done in some other professions. I am pleased that the proposals include establishing a House-wide mediation service, although I hope that that means a Parliament-wide service, along with, “a code of conduct and contractually binding grievance procedures”.

My only questions concern process. I think that the noble Baroness said that as far as this House is concerned, the body that will take this forward is the House of Lords Commission. I should like to check whether that is indeed the intention. Also, has any thought been given to what dealing with this in a speedy manner might mean?

Again, I thank the noble Lord for his constructive comments. It will involve many of us working together. Our House of Lords Commission will need to be involved. I believe that the House of Commons Commission is meeting later today and this issue will be a key item of discussion. All of us on the commission will want to make sure that we can be involved in and oversee discussions, and of course the House authorities will also play a part. However, this will be very much a matter of cross-House working and it may be that we have to establish ways to ensure that dialogue can take place quickly between the two Houses, so that we move things along in a way that sometimes does not happen. I would not like to give the noble Lord an exact timetable because I do not have one at the moment, but I hope it is clear from the Statement that there is an urgency to this. We all agree on that and we will work together to move forward in a constructive way; that is certainly what we will be looking to do.

My Lords, if we are to have a procedure that results in adverse findings against an individual, perhaps I may ask my noble friend to ensure that we have due process. That involves having a proper appeal process where there is a re-hearing on the merits, preferably under a senior judicial figure. Does my noble friend remember the case of Neil Hamilton? I was in the House of Commons at the time and I am very far from certain that the process we had in place then was in any way fair.

My noble friend is absolutely right that it has to be a fair process for all involved so that we can be confident in the results. I am not aware of the details of the case he talked about, so I shall obviously bear that in mind. However, I can assure him that we want the process to be robust for everyone involved so that staff, MPs, Peers and the public can be confident that we are looking into these matters properly and dealing with them. I can give him that assurance.

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness will agree that we should be careful not to reinvent the wheel. I was the chair of ACAS for seven years, and we did a lot of work on the issue of power relationships, which is what this is about. It was something I was used to in the universities where I worked; namely, the power relationship between academics and students. Similarly, it has to be said that it would happen in the old days in the trade union movement. There is nothing new under the sun about this issue, but what is shocking is that our procedures are so primitive. The noble Baroness has said herself that it can be extremely difficult for someone to complain. It is difficult to do so even under a good procedure, so where it is not good, it is important to foster a climate of support so that individuals feel supported when they make a complaint. After all, in many cases it is they who will be sacrificing their rather junior careers. Will the Minister go to organisations which have experience of this, and confirm that we should attempt to create a climate of support, so that complainants feel they are not alone?

I entirely agree. We do not want to reinvent the wheel and we should draw on best practice. That is certainly something we will look to do. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness about culture; that is extremely important. We need to be leaders in helping to bring that culture change about. One of the other principles we mentioned was that support teams should recommend specialised pastoral support to anyone in distress, because having support during this time is extremely important. That is one of the elements and principles we will try to include in any new process that is developed.

My Lords, like many noble Lords in the Chamber I have worked in and out of this building for the last 40 years, but unlike most I was a very young PA when I started. I was regularly approached by what one might call the usual suspects, who are well known to most of us. I very much welcome the measures set out today. Forty years ago there were only 27 women MPs, totalling I think 4% of Parliament. My guess is that today it is a better environment than it was, although I am not denying that there is inappropriate behaviour. Across Parliament there are more than 200 women MPs, or about 30% of the total. Does my noble friend agree that a better gender balance will help to normalise the work environment and will lead to better behaviour, culture and decisions across the board?

I thank my noble friend and I pay tribute from this side of the House to the work she has done on this. She is absolutely right to point out the changing gender balance in both Houses. This House is a leader in this regard, with two female Leaders of the House, a lot of female representatives on our Front Bench and two female Speakers. As a House we can be proud of the work we have done on gender balance. We have more to do, but we can be a very good influence around this building.

My Lords, the Statement referred to the fact that a Minister has been referred to the Cabinet Office to see whether he has violated the Ministerial Code. Will the Leader of the House tell us which provision of the Ministerial Code is in play here?

I cannot go into the details of the investigation, but the Ministerial Code is clear that one of the things Ministers have an obligation to do is protect the integrity of public life, so we shall have to wait until the investigation concludes.

My Lords, will my noble friend explain what the relationship of the proposed new mediation service will be with the current HR provision? At the moment, any side, working for either the employer or employee—but particularly the employee, who is in a vulnerable position—can raise a grievance against their employer. How will this mediation service play into that existing system? What provision will be made against any potentially malicious allegations that may be brought on political grounds?

The details of the interaction are obviously something we will need to look at, but we are absolutely clear that we do not want a confused system. It must be clear where people with specific allegations or concerns should go, and that will need to be looked at. My noble friend’s point links to that made earlier by my noble friend Lord Hailsham. We need a robust system that both sides feel does the job well and properly, so we can all be clear that the decisions made have the trust of everybody involved in the process.

I strongly support this approach. It is long overdue. Having tried to deal with it before, I have a lot of sympathy with it. We are engaged in a very complicated process involving not just Members of both Houses, but members of political parties and relationships between parties and Members. On top of that, you have the complication that every Member—particularly in the House of Commons, but also here—is also an individual employer. There is not necessarily a clearly drawn-up contract of employment; it varies immensely. Going down the road of having a contract, which I am not unsympathetic to, has payment implications, which opens up a whole can of worms. I really want to support this as it is very important, but there is a complex set arrangements here that we need to tackle right the way through.

The noble Lord has highlighted exactly the complexity. It is critical that we get it right, which is why I did not want to give a false timetable. We cannot rush this, only to get it wrong, but we want to move along because we consider it important. I have been in a number of meetings today, and the points the noble Lord has raised are certainly things we are all well aware of. We will work across the House and across parties to make sure we have a robust system in place that Members, staff and the public can have faith in.

Do my noble friend and her colleagues think that standards of conduct have fallen, or that we are now facing up to the way things have always been and taking some action? Would these arrangements have any effect on relationships between Ministers and their officials? After all, I think we can all remember one rather notorious case—indeed, the noble Lord involved in it is not present today, I am not surprised to say—when certain things went on in a pretty blatant way during working time, paid for by the taxpayer.

My broad point is that we are determined to protect staff who work for MPs and Peers and want to make sure that people who work in the two Houses are treated properly and fairly. That is what we intend to do. We want to maintain the highest standards of behaviour within Parliament—I think everyone agrees with that.

Order. As noble Lords will know, there are supposed to be only 10 minutes of questions and we should try to get our business back on track. That is not because I want to interrupt this particular process, but I think we should go back into Committee to continue with the Bill, as the Statement that is to follow has not yet been started in the other place.