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Working Group on Independent Complaints and Grievance Policy

Volume 788: debated on Thursday 8 February 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Leader of the House of Commons in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“Thank you Mr Speaker. Today I am pleased to announce the publication of the report on an independent complaints and grievance policy. In this week of celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage, it is right that we recognise the bravery of the suffrage movement and praise the great strides we have taken in our politics and in our society over the last 100 years. But we are also all too aware of the unacceptable level of intimidation and aggression being shown towards people in public life—often directed particularly at women, BAME and LGBT+ candidates. This behaviour clearly deters people from entering politics and threatens our democracy. When dealing with this very real issue, our Parliament must lead by example.

The working group was set up last November by the Prime Minister, and with the support of all party leaders, in response to the very troubling allegations of sexual harassment and bullying taking place on the Parliamentary Estate. We all recognised the need for robust procedures to change the culture in Parliament, and for this place to set the best example of a workplace that protects and supports all those working in it.

In my first Statement, I said urgent action would be taken and that was the case. The staff helpline was extended to include staff of Peers and others, with face-to-face counselling made available on the estate. Party codes of conduct were updated and published online and, since Christmas, interim HR guidance has been made available to Members’ staff.

However, it was clear from an early stage that there was a substantial amount to do if we wanted to create a sound working environment that properly supports the more than 15,000 people who work for or with Parliament. I am hugely grateful to all members of the working group for their time, consideration and indeed patience as we worked towards the publication of this report. Mr Speaker was clear that for the House Commission to take up the new scheme, the response to this had to be cross-party and, while there have been some challenging discussions, I am pleased that this is what we have been able to achieve.

The group took extensive evidence, both in person and in writing, from a wide variety of stakeholders including parliamentary officials, the staff of MPs and Peers, unions, academics, authorities on sexual violence and legal professionals. The group also conducted its own survey, which was open to a wide range of people and included a number of passholders who had not previously been asked for their experience of bullying and harassment. Many people have devoted a considerable amount of time to this over the last three months and, after more than 100 hours of discussion, consultation and consideration, I believe that we have proposed a set of policies that will fundamentally change the working culture in Parliament.

I would now like to turn to those proposals, which are as follows. First, Parliament will agree a shared behaviour code. It will apply to everyone on the estate or engaged in parliamentary business, regardless of location, and it will underpin the new policy. It will be consulted on and will make clear the behavioural expectations of everyone in the parliamentary community. Secondly, the new complaints and grievance procedure will be independent from political parties. Thirdly, it was acknowledged that sexual harassment and sexual violence are different from other forms of inappropriate behaviour such as bullying and intimidation. Therefore, separate procedures will be agreed for those looking to raise a complaint regarding sexual harassment from those with a complaint of bullying. This is an important distinction and while everyone has acknowledged the severity of complaints of sexual harassment, evidence from staff made clear that instances of intimidation and bullying are in fact more prevalent. Fourthly, MPs’ staff require proper HR advice, something that has previously been lacking and will go a long way towards helping to resolve workplace grievances.

Importantly, the new system will be based on the principles of equality, confidentiality and fairness to all parties, and it will be in line with the laws of natural justice. It must command the confidence of all those who will use it. The working group took advice at an early stage that rather than reinventing the wheel, we should work with and build on the many sound processes and systems that we already have in place.

For the benefit of Members, I will turn briefly to the process for making a complaint or raising a grievance against a Member of this House. As colleagues will appreciate, the process for raising complaints against other members of the parliamentary community such as Peers, Members’ and Peers’ staff, journalists and contractors will each differ according to their particular role. All the procedures are designed for the protection of staff and parliamentarians alike and have fairness at their heart. It is intended that the House authorities will procure two independent services, one to consider allegations of sexual harassment and violence and the other to consider workplace bullying and intimidation. Both avenues will provide support and, where needed, will investigate the complaint.

Where informal resolution is not possible and the complaint is upheld, it will be referred to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in the case of a Member of this House. The working group proposes that the commissioner’s role will be expanded and reformed. She will have access to legal advice and will be able to impose a new range of lower-level sanctions that may include a written apology, mandatory training or future behaviour agreements. The commissioner will be able to review any finding by the independent investigator and, where she does so, she will ensure that her investigations are confidential, that both the complainant and the alleged perpetrator have access to all evidence and, crucially, that each has the right to representation or to represent themselves. These measures will ensure fairness.

In the most serious of cases the commissioner will refer her findings to the Committee on Standards. The committee can recommend to the House that an individual is suspended and the House will vote on the recommendation. It is through this route that the existing Recall of MPs Act 2015 could be invoked. The trigger for recall remains the same as it is now and there is no plan for changes to primary legislation. The working group fully recognised that those who work in this place are often in the media spotlight and that vexatious and malicious complaints are a risk. The new procedures will therefore ensure that checks and balances are in place to guard against such complaints.

Finally, I will briefly outline the next steps. A Motion will be brought before the House and a debate will take place in the first two weeks after the Recess. Any necessary equivalent steps will be taken in the other place. It will then be for the House Commission to instruct the House authorities to finalise the agreed processes and carry out their implementation. I am grateful to the Clerk of the House for confirming that the House authorities are ready to begin this work via a series of workstreams that will include: first, developing and consulting on a behaviour code for Parliament; secondly, procuring the two separate services required to support and investigate complaints of sexual harassment or bullying; thirdly, procuring an HR guidance service for Members’ staff; fourthly, developing a staff handbook; and fifthly, identifying and drafting changes to the Standing Orders to finalise the amendments necessary to the procedures of the PCS and the Committee on Standards. The working group will continue as a steering group to oversee the work of the House authorities. It is our intention for the work to proceed at pace over the next few months. Finally, six months after the start of the new scheme, an appropriate body, covering both Houses and having direct staff representation, will review the operation of the new processes.

In conclusion, the working group was formed to bring about change. It is a right, not a privilege, to be treated with dignity and respect at work and this ambitious report is a major step towards a safer, more professional environment. I hope that honourable and right honourable Members across the House will welcome the report, which will, I am confident, ensure that our Parliament is among the best in the world, demonstrating our commitment to equality, justice and fairness. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement, and certainly welcome the general point she made at the beginning of her remarks about the intimidation and aggression shown towards anyone who seeks to become involved in public life and expresses a view that someone else does not like. People who involve themselves in public life should be celebrated, not denigrated.

I said in response to the repeat of the Urgent Question last year that this is a human and workplace issue. It cuts across parties and clearly the actions have to cut across the parties as well. We have a duty to address any issues robustly and find mechanisms for advice, making complaints, seeking support and taking action. We are all agreed that the workplace should be somewhere where every individual feels that they can give their best and no staff member or colleague should ever have to cope with or try to manage inappropriate behaviour. Further, no one should be frightened to speak up or make a complaint to do with any form of harassment, bullying or sexual intimidation.

I thank the committee for its work but I place on record because it is worth noting that, even during the time that this committee was working, leaks that were usually inaccurate were made to the press from the committee in an attempt to undermine its members. I know that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House had no responsibility for this—she was quite clear on that—but that one member of the committee should be targeted in national newspapers when everyone was trying to grapple with the problems and deal with them was something I found unacceptable. This was difficult and challenging to get right so I acknowledge, recognise and thank the committee for the care and commitment it and the staff who served it in its work showed in putting in place procedures and safeguards to deal with bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment at Westminster. It is an important first step, and we welcome the report.

At the outset, we called for the immediate establishment of an independent specialist adviser on sexual harassment and, although we would have preferred that to be done immediately, we welcome the fact that it is acknowledged in the report. We hope that the adviser will be put in place as soon as practicably possible. As the noble Baroness said, the scheme is to be underpinned by an advice service for MPs’ and Peers’ staff. I recognise that most Members of your Lordships’ House do not have staff but obviously, even if the numbers are far lower, the same principles and expectations of behaviour still apply. Can the noble Baroness confirm that as well as advice for the staff of MPs and Peers, advice on HR issues will be available for MPs and Peers themselves? That could help to avoid inadvertent mistakes or misunderstandings. I welcome her acknowledgement of the need for a comprehensive culture change, and providing advice for all Members could be very helpful in that.

This new scheme has been no small undertaking. As the noble Baroness said, it will cover approximately 15,000 people working across the Parliamentary Estate and it is hoped that in addition it will form part of any contracts let for the building programmes. I think what I am looking for is an assurance that it will involve anybody who is employed by anybody on the Parliamentary Estate because a number of workers are not employed by Parliament but by contractors, whether they are cleaning, catering or building staff. I hope that they will be included and thus will be able to have the same expectations of behaviour.

I will ask a couple of questions. One is on the possible sanctions. Understandably there is a lack of clarity in the report and more work to be done, but my question concerns what sanctions apply in what circumstances. Inappropriate behaviour of any kind ranges from the relatively mild to the very serious. I hope that the commission has been involved in this. Was there any discussion with the commissioner prior to the report coming forward on how the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges as well as the House of Lords Commission could be involved in this?

I will also ask something about the role of the commissioner. I appreciate that this is a Commons Statement and any references in it probably refer to the Commons commissioner, but it says that the commissioner’s role, which I took to be that of the Lords commissioner as well, would be “expanded and reformed”. Has what form that will take been discussed with the commissioner? Will resources be made available for that and will the time of the commissioner be made available? I am concerned about any delays. Having spoken to colleagues who have had issues considered by the commissioner in the past, I know that they can take a long time to resolve. If we are expecting more from the commissioner we should make sure that the resources are there for that work to be undertaken.

I also raise trade unions; I have raised this before. There should be trade union recognition by Parliament. I may have missed it in the report and I apologise if it is in there—I have not had time to read every word in detail. There has to be the opportunity for staff to raise concerns and grievances collectively, not just as individuals. I know that there have been some issues around the anonymity clause in here—that if somebody is reported for bad behaviour they should remain anonymous. It is worth emphasising that in the environment we work in, where there might be one or two people working to an individual MP or Peer, to identify the person being complained about often identifies the person complaining as well. I would be very concerned if that was a barrier to somebody bringing forward complaints. In this instance it is entirely justified.

I am grateful that the noble Baroness acknowledges that this is not the end of the process. There are timescales for the various work streams because there is still a large body of work to be undertaken. Could I have an assurance that this work will be undertaken speedily to try to put in place these recommendations? Having the recommendation is all well and good, but we need action. I hope a progress report can be made.

As I have raised before, I am still concerned about how the mandatory training of Members will be enforced and what sanctions there will be if that training does not take place, but it is right that training is available for Members of your Lordships’ House and to our staff on issues concerning consent, equalities and how to tackle bullying and harassment.

It is always worth saying that I am still of the view that, for most people, working on the Parliamentary Estate is a positive experience and one that they enjoy. Most of our Peers and MPs are good employers and they enjoy the relationship that they have with their staff, which is positive and productive. But that makes those who fall short of those standards even more culpable in many ways, because the culture should always be one of respect and one where we should aim for the highest possible standards. We have a duty as a Parliament to set the highest standards and, where people fall short of them, to ensure that it is dealt with appropriately.

There is still much to do to tackle pervasive prejudices and unacceptable behaviour. They must be tackled at every opportunity. This report is an important start, but we need to continue to work across parties to ensure that we provide the best possible working environment for everybody who works in the Palace of Westminster.

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement and I thank even more the members of the working group who have worked very hard on an intensive programme to produce this report. I begin by associating myself with what the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, just said about the behaviour that we see from the majority of people who are Members of or work in these institutions. That is what we would expect. But the report underlines—as if we needed telling—that not everybody meets those standards. The number of people who claim to have been the subject of sexual harassment or intimidation and bullying is shamefully high.

Any of us who have been around Parliament for any length of time are not totally surprised, because the abuse of power that it is possible to use as a Member of either the other place or here is pretty considerable. If we search our memory, all of us can think of people who have abused that power for a number of unsatisfactory purposes. It is very good to see that at the heart of these proposals there are sensible and comprehensive ways in which people can complain and have those complaints dealt with.

As I said when we discussed this before, underpinning all of this and more important than the complaints procedure is improving the culture of this place. The complaints procedure is dealing just with what happens when things go wrong. The key thing is to ensure that things do not go wrong to the extent that they have in the past. For this, the Code of Conduct is absolutely key. We have seen how the Code of Conduct of your Lordships’ House, which has been strengthened during my time here, has had a very significant impact on the way Members view their role and how they approach some potential conflicts of interest, for example.

The code and the importance attached to it are fundamental elements of these proposals. For example, I hope that all Members and members of staff will have to sign it in a somewhat formal way. In his last intervention in Parliament, Lord Callaghan wrote to the committee considering the Bill that was bringing together the Inland Revenue and HM Customs and Excise. He said that he hoped that the new merged department would keep the oath that all members of the Inland Revenue had had to sign on joining the department. He told how, as a young man, having formally to sign something that said “I will keep taxpayers’ information confidential” and “I will be honest” had a profound impact on him. Although on one level it seems a small thing, formally getting people to sign something will be very important.

When things go wrong we have very sensible ways to start to deal with them, but like the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, I question the role of the commissioner here. The Statement says the Commons commissioner will,

“have access to legal advice, and will be able to impose a new range of lower level sanctions that may include a written apology, mandatory training or future behaviour agreements”.

The idea of having future behaviour agreements for Members of your Lordships’ House rather appeals to me, but it is quite a change. If we are to do it—this will no doubt be one of the things that we will discuss in our debate after Easter—we will need to make sure that the commissioner here has a very clear remit and that all noble Lords and staff are absolutely clear what that remit is and how it should be exercised.

There is also a question for us as to which body will be reviewing this on a regular basis. The idea of having a six-month review is great, but which committee will have this formally in its remit? I suspect it is the House of Lords Commission but I am not absolutely sure. Some body here has to own this policy or it will not be properly implemented.

However, these are largely questions for the future. Today, we must simply welcome the Statement and the substantive work that underpins it and commit ourselves to do whatever we can to make sure it is properly implemented.

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments. Although he is not in his place, I want to put on record my thanks to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, who has played an important role in the working group and been extremely helpful. He has dedicated a lot of his time to it. I also echo the noble Baroness’s thanks to the staff and the secretariat, who have worked incredibly hard on this important report.

The noble Baroness asked about advice for MPs and Peers. That is a key thing that the working group wants to make sure is available, as will be much more extensive training on a whole range of issues. On her question on sanctions, the working group did not propose any new sanctions for this House or the other place—this House already has the power to suspend or expel a Member who is guilty of misconduct—but the noble Baroness is absolutely right: there will be a range of sanctions at different points. As I mentioned, perhaps an apology will be enough; if not, sanctions will be graduated. As the investigations go through and the seriousness of the offence becomes clear, the sanctions available in relation to it will change.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the role of the Lords Commissioner for Standards. She gave evidence to the committee and has been involved in conversations, as has been the Commons commissioner, and of course she will be involved in any developments going forward. Investigations, sanctions and the Code of Conduct will need be reviewed by our Commissioner for Standards and the Lords’ Conduct Sub-Committee. The sub-committee will then need to make recommendations to the Committee for Privileges and Conduct. At the end of the process, the House will take decisions on what changes are necessary. Our commission will be involved in discussion and in helping set things in motion, but if changes are to be made to the Code of Conduct, we will of course go through the proper channels so that the House has the opportunity to accept and approve what may happen.

The noble Baroness might like to look at paragraph 84 in relation to trade unions, although I fear it will not go quite as far as she might like. But there is reference in there. I certainly agree with both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness that work needs to move speedily. The noble Lord is right about the need for a culture change, which is why there is specific chapter in the report on that.

I thank noble Lords for their support and once again thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for his help on the committee.

My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. I immediately declare an interest as chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Following our meeting this morning, our committee has already issued a warm statement of support for this document. There is a laconic reference in the Statement to “challenging discussions”. I indeed attended one such discussion chaired by the Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom. I offer my personal congratulations to her. On 21 December, she made a Statement and then everything seemed to get stuck for quite a time. It is now unstuck; we now have real progress. I add to that my congratulations to all the other parties in the House of Commons, who after a vigorous debate have contributed to this agreement. The Speaker in the other place was quite right that there was no possibility of any real progress on this matter unless there was cross-party agreement. Yesterday afternoon, that finally materialised.

The great thing about this document is that it echoes the best practice of the best employers outside the House, which is what is so important about it. It is also important in that it strengthens the role of the parliamentary commissioner. I suspect it needs to be strengthened in other ways as well, but it could be seen as an important moment in that process.

Perhaps I may set out one final proviso, for which the committee has expressed support—points in that regard have already been made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby. I hope the noble Baroness accepts that much will continue to depend on the leadership culture in the House. These proposals are excellent, but they will depend on a continued transformation of the leadership culture in both Houses.

I thank the noble Lord for his comments and for his evidence to the committee. I am sure we will work closely with his committee as we move this work forward. He is absolutely right about the need for leadership, which is why I hope, and am sure, that our House commission will play a role in helping to make sure we can oversee these changes. It is partly why the working group will become a steering group: to make sure that we see the rapid progress that the noble Baroness was talking about and that we continue to provide leadership and representation across both Houses to get these processes in place.

My Lords, as I am sure most noble Lords do, I welcome the report; it takes a difficult matter very seriously. However, there are a couple of points on which I would be grateful if the noble Baroness could provide us with some further information.

The Statement says that the working group recognised that those who work in this place are often in the media spotlight and that vexatious and malicious complaints are a risk. It goes on to say that procedures will ensure that checks and balances are in place to safeguard against such complaints. Can the noble Baroness say a little bit more about such checks and balances? It has perhaps been felt that once an individual is targeted, all sorts of other people will then say, “Yes, this dreadful thing also happened to me”. I am sure that is often entirely true, but on the point made in the Statement about vexatious complaints it would helpful if the noble Baroness could say a little more.

My second point is about what we call “inappropriate behaviour”. As my noble friend Lady Smith said, it can mean different things to different people. It might be an inappropriate remark to somebody which is embarrassing or just plain silly. That is very different from bringing pressure to bear on an individual to respond to a sexual advance. Will the noble Baroness say a little more about the definition of what is really inappropriate?

On the noble Baroness’s second point, about inappropriate behaviour, she is absolutely right, which is why we are procuring external experts, one with specific expertise in sexual violence and sexual harassment and another to look more at bullying and harassment. They will have the expertise and knowledge to help those who wish to complain work out what they want to do and to give them support and guidance. That is part of why we are going externally to deliver these services: to make sure we have experts who can help victims and complainants navigate the process.

On vexatious claims, the noble Baroness is absolutely right: it was a concern raised within the working group and by various people who gave evidence. Obviously, confidentiality throughout the process will be key. As the Statement made clear, we will also make sure that both victims and alleged perpetrators have access to the information available and to support, advice and representation if they need it. That way, we can make sure that everyone is able to put their case forward and that both parties can respect whatever decision is ultimately made and deal with its outcome, be it the perpetrator having a sanction imposed or the victim feeling that they have had their case properly heard.

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I welcome the Statement and the report. The noble Baroness was very clear that the new procedure will apply to behaviour not just in this place but elsewhere—I think she referred to elsewhere in connection with a person’s role as a parliamentarian. Can she add some more information and detail to that? Also, how will people who believe themselves to have been victims of abuse elsewhere be enabled to access the new procedures, which, as I understand them, will operate largely within this building? How will people from outside access the new service?

One issue that we were unable to resolve within the group because it was complex was around constituents and constituency offices. On that side of things, there is further work to be done, because it was clear that it is a complex area. Obviously, underpinning all this is a new behaviour code which everyone will sign up to. That will be around behaviour within one’s role, which will obviously apply to behaviour outside Parliament.

My Lords, this may be a point for the later debate but it occurs to me that it might be useful to have a slightly more defined statement than that one of the sanctions might be apology. A private apology, a public apology and an apology in the House are three totally different things.

My noble friend is absolutely right and that is why the Commissioner for Standards, the Lords’ Conduct Sub-Committee and the Privileges and Conduct Committee will be involved in developing what type of sanction, as my noble friend points out, is relevant and appropriate at various stages. Again, that is something that will then come back to the House if we need to make changes.

My Lords, I apologise for not having read every detail of the report but, going back to the answer that the noble Baroness gave to my noble friend Lady Symons, I am slightly puzzled by the role of the independent experts she mentioned. I can see that there is value in people who are thinking about making a complaint or have already gone some way towards doing so being helped to understand what the process would be for doing that, but is there, anywhere in the continuum envisaged, a role for mediation that would include both, as it were, complainer and complained against? I ask because I think it is a matter of fact in law that harassment is in the mind of the beholder. That is to say that it is not for the person doing the harassing to determine whether they have harassed somebody; it is in the first instance for the person who feels themselves injured to determine that that is the case. Sometimes, in order to resolve it, it is necessary for both parties to see their own behaviour differently. Can the Minister tell us how that is likely to work in practice?

Yes, the noble Baroness is absolutely right. The intention is to procure two independent services, including one independent sexual violence adviser service and another workplace dispute resolution service. So there will indeed be opportunities for mediation and if that can solve the issue, that is fantastic. The services will also mean that if that cannot happen, the complainant can move forward and if worse things have happened, further sanctions can be involved. That is at the heart of what we want to do: we want to make sure, obviously, that everyone has a workplace in which they feel safe and valued.