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Conduct Committee

Volume 807: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2020

Motion to Agree

Moved by

To move that the Report from the Select Committee Valuing Everyone training; ICGS investigations—former MPs be agreed to. (5th Report, HL Paper 158)

My Lords, the fifth report of the Conduct Committee is short and focuses on two issues: first, Valuing Everyone training and, secondly, the investigation of Members of one House for behaviour that took place while they were a Member of the other.

As to the first, our recommendation is that attendance at the Valuing Everyone training course should become a requirement of the code of conduct, and it should be a breach if a Peer does not attend. That course was introduced as part of the drive to tackle bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct throughout Parliament. It was a key recommendation of the report of Naomi Ellenbogen QC that all Members should attend such a course. In March this year, the Conduct Committee agreed a target of at least 50% of Members having attended the training by Summer Recess 2020. In the event, that was nearly met: some 47.8% of Members had attended, and 50% was almost reached by the end of the Recess.

We then had to decide what steps, if any, needed to be taken next. In that respect, we took on board the views of the Steering Group for Change, which is chaired by one of the members of my committee and is the group of Members and staff who are keeping under review the progress towards implementing the recommendations of the Ellenbogen report. It is the view of that group as well as of the Conduct Committee, after debate, that we need to move more quickly towards all Members undertaking the training. Undoubtedly, the remaining 50% would have taken longer than the first.

We therefore recommend that this House should make it a breach of the code not to have undertaken Valuing Everyone training by 1 April 2021. Of course, Peers who come back from a leave of absence or join the House thereafter will be given a three-month period in which to undertake the course. The date of 1 April 2021 provides sufficient time for all present Members to attend such a course, or at least to sign up to do so, and we sincerely hope that all Members will. There is capacity; the course is currently being run virtually, of course.

Our second recommendation is to amend the code of conduct to close a loophole so that former MPs who come to or are now in the Lords, and former Lords who become MPs—in the rare cases that that happens—are no longer exempt from investigation and no longer fall into a loophole if the complaint concerns bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct while they were in their former House.

The independent complaints and grievance scheme is a cross-parliamentary scheme, providing that former Members of either House can be investigated for alleged bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct during their time as a Member. This is the only loophole, and we invite the House to close it. We understand that the Committee on Standards will shortly be seeking the agreement of the House of Commons in similar terms. I beg to move.

I will call the following speakers: the noble Lords, Lord McConnell, Lord Cormack and Lord Newby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon. I call the noble Lord, Lord McConnell.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, for introducing the report and very eloquently explaining why these recommendations are in front of us today. I will ask two questions and make one additional point. I hope these are all helpful.

First, I strongly support the recommendation in the first part of the report that this should be a subject for the Code of Conduct. I look forward to the implementation of action for those who do not want to take part in this training. I wanted to ask about paragraph 11, where there is a reference to

“restricting their access to certain services”

for Members of your Lordships’ House who face investigation, having not attended this training by the end of March next year. I wondered which services would be the subject of that restriction and whether it would include the ability to employ staff on the Parliamentary Estate, which seems fundamental if someone is not attending training in relation to bullying or other bad behaviour?

My second point on that first part of the report is that, during the discussion to which I was party on the Valuing Everyone training, there was a specific discussion about the situation faced by individual members of staff of individual Peers, who are very vulnerable because they do not have access to managers or supervisors, particularly if there are different members of staff sharing the same offices. If they have problems between themselves, there is no system in your Lordships’ House for dealing with those difficulties; there is no one arbitrating or discussing with those involved how to resolve any differences that are occurring.

I have raised this a number of times with senior figures in both main parties and the House, and we do not yet have a resolution or a system for dealing with this. Since our training session, I have discussed it with the human resources department. I hope they are going to take some of these points on board and that, in looking at this issue, the committee will look at the impact of the training and the issues that are coming out of and arising from it, which could be tackled. I hope that at some stage, perhaps, it will prepare a report on the lessons that have been learned and the action that has been taken.

My second question relates to the second part of the report. Again, I strongly support the recommendations here: they are excellent and well thought through. I wanted to ask a specific question about the situation with Members who will serve, or have served, in the devolved Parliaments. This section of the report covers Members who have served in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords and have transferred between them.

However, there have been a number of Members of the House of Lords who have then gone on to serve in the devolved Parliaments and, increasingly, previous Members of the devolved Parliaments who have come to serve in the House of Lords. I wonder whether the committee has ever looked at that issue or would be prepared to look at it and some relationship between the devolved Parliaments and your Lordships’ House in the future, where issues of conduct could be considered by either House in order to make sure that nobody falls through the cracks?

My Lords, it is a great pity that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, could not be present in the Chamber, as Ministers are, when this important report was presented to us. I take no issue with the second part of the report: if a Member of either House is accused of behaving improperly, it is of course right that that Member should be thoroughly investigated and appropriate action taken.

However, I want to concentrate my few remarks on the first part of the report. Speaking as one who has served in Parliament for over 50 years now, it is a very sad day when I am told that I have to be trained on how to behave. That is extremely unfortunate, and I believe that it is unnecessary. Of course, if the House passes this resolution, which I am sure it will, I will be obedient, just as I am being obedient at the moment to the edicts of the benign police state that I now live in.

However, I regret and deplore it. After all, it is right that people accused of any offence should be appropriately dealt with, but I do not suppose that it would be thought appropriate for your Lordships to be given a course in how not to burgle. I really think that, when you cannot take it for granted that people in public service—and we are all public servants—should behave properly and be pursued if they do not, that is a very sad day, and I thought it appropriate that someone should put this on record.

I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, for presenting the report today. He does a service to the House in doing so, and I am grateful to him for his comments. The comments made by the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, are useful, particularly in reference to sanctions, and I wonder if the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, has considered or looked at them. He talked about mediation, which will come to the heart of my comments about the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. Prevention is always better than cure, and if there is a way to prevent or mediate, when there are problems, it would be helpful for the committee to look at. It strikes me that it is the kind of issue that might be appropriately raised and taken further in the Ellenbogen report, as we are currently looking at that and there are workstreams on it.

The noble and learned Lord made particular reference to Peers’ staff, and there are very few staff working for Peers, as he will know. If somebody is found by the committee to be treating staff badly, is there a mechanism by which they can be denied a pass to employ staff on the parliamentary estate? I do not know if that is possible, but it has to be looked at.

I also understand that ongoing work is looking at whether third-party complaints can take place so that, while an individual may feel unable to make a complaint due to a power relationship with an employer, someone else can do so on their behalf. That would be a welcome step. On the issue of devolved Parliaments, this issue tends to rise in the same way as it does with MPs, but I am sure the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, will respond to that.

I found the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, disappointing and less constructive. I understand that he prides himself on being courteous, so he thinks he does not need the training. I did not feel I needed much training either, and my parliamentary time has not been as lengthy as his—I have only been here a mere 23 years—but having undertaken the training, I found it worth while. There are things we can all learn in our relationships with others, those we work with and those we work alongside. It is not a criticism of anyone at all to suggest such training around how the modern workplace works and what employees can expect of us. Not just direct employees, but those who work around the House, are entitled to the courtesy and respect of everybody else here. The noble Lord nods at me, but I do not know the alternative. It is fair to say that everybody should do it—or does he just want to single out people he thinks may not have shown that respect for others? The approach of asking everyone to do it is a fair one; it is respectful to the staff of this House.

One thing I would pick up with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, if he could look into it, is that there are those who say that they found the training not quite as relevant as it could be. It dwells on the role of Members of Parliament and the relationship that Members of Parliament have in the House of Commons with their staff and those they work with. It might be worth looking at the training to see if there is anything bespoke about the work of the House of Lords, so it is directly relevant to the relationships we have here, which are often different, because we do not have the same direct employment issues. Obviously, I would have thought that everybody should welcome that we make it a priority in this House that everybody we work with and alongside has the right to be treated with the utmost respect and courtesy at all times.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, says it is a sad day when people need to be trained how to behave. It is—but, unfortunately, it is not the case that Members of your Lordships’ House always behave in an acceptable manner. I undertook this training with a group of people from both the Commons and the Lords, staff and Members, including one of the most senior members of the noble Lord’s party from your Lordships’ House, who is one of the most courteous people in Parliament. During the course of the training, a number of real-life examples of the kind of harassment that has happened in Parliament was explained by the facilitator. The noble Lord’s colleague said, “I can’t believe that’s going on”, and he could not, because he does not behave like that any more than the noble Lord would. But the truth is that it is going on, and it goes on in all parties.

I have to say that some of my colleagues, when they get very tired towards the end of a session, behave towards other people, not just colleagues, in manners that are, frankly, unacceptable. We have somehow, in this day and age, got to bring ourselves up to a system of behaviour that is expected of everybody in whatever workplace or situation they find themselves in.

I do not think the noble Lord should think this is a terrible imposition. I get pretty irritated when I wash my hands and see on the wall a laminated sheet telling me how to wash my hands. I sort of think, “I do not need to be told how to wash my hands, because I have been doing it for quite a long time.” This is just another variant of that, because clearly some people do not know how to wash their hands, or else we would not have the spread of coronavirus that we have. I urge the noble Lord to be sympathetic towards it and recognise that, in reality, Members of your Lordships’ House have behaved, and do behave, in some cases, towards staff and others in manners that, in this day and age, are, frankly, unacceptable. The only way in which we are going to be able to begin to get them to realise that it is unacceptable is to have them think about it—and the way in which you have them think about it is to put them before this sort of training.

I was not going to speak on this particular issue, but I have listened with interest to what the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Newby, have had to say, and I have some sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, but I think the noble Lord, Lord Newby, answered it appropriately.

The question I raise to the House at large is: if it is necessary for Members of your Lordships’ House and the other place to undergo such training for their behaviour to be acceptable in the modern world, does this not say something about our wider society, and is not this an issue that, at another time, we should look at more seriously and deeply? Clearly, we have a society and educational system from that is turning out people who do not know how to behave. Perhaps this is not such a narrow issue as we believe it is, and one to which we should turn our attention in due course.

I must say I took part in one of the pilots for this programme. It seems an awful long time ago—I think it was the summer before last. But I have also recently undergone some training programmes. I am a trustee of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, and we have covered whole areas to do with working with staff and with racism and bias. The fact is that I have learned a lot from them, and there are lots of things you can learn.

I wanted to come back to the point raised by my noble friend about whether it is tailored enough towards your Lordships’ House. I think there has been real benefit in us sitting around with other Members of Parliament, because there is lots to be learned from the interaction. I would say to the noble and leaned Lord that the programme needs some reflection of the specific circumstances in which the Lords works. The examples they use just need development to embrace some characteristics of working in your Lordships’ House. But I would encourage us to continue having these programmes across both Houses.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is absolutely right in that I regret the compulsion attached to this training. I have done the training. It was largely irrelevant; most of it was about the House of Commons, or appeared to be. I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, would like, on the basis of these comments, to take his report back, edit it, change it a bit, then present it to us again.

I am grateful for the points made by noble Lords, and I will, of course, take those back to the Conduct Committee, as the House would wish me to do. I shall take the points in turn. I am grateful for the support from my noble friend Lord McConnell, in particular, but others, too.

The restriction of services, which lies within the commissioner’s jurisdiction as a result of an amendment to the code and guide that the House accepted at our suggestion earlier this year, is, of course, according to the circumstances. The commissioner has to tailor any restriction to meet needs. In one case that she considered, which we considered on appeal, our report indicated that while we would have had sympathy with the idea of a restriction on services, it did not meet the particular case, it was not obvious which services should be restricted, and they were not apparently being used anyway. However, this is undoubtedly a valuable tool, as much during investigations as after a conclusion that a Member of the House has not behaved appropriately. During investigations, staff are naturally particularly anxious, and we intend to look at the question of sanctions generally and to issue some further guidance on them.

The suspension of staff passes probably does not lie directly within our jurisdiction, but it is certainly a point that should be attended to. I take on board the forceful comments that have been made. It may already be covered by restriction of facilities, but it is of a slightly different nature and will be given consideration.

On the second point made by the noble Lord, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, about relations between Peers and other relations that might merit mediation, obviously, as far as possible, amicable resolution of minor problems is, one hopes, something that occurs discreetly. I know that the Clerk of the Parliaments is very concerned to speak, where appropriate, to Peers. I know also that the leaders of parties and the Convenor of the Cross Benches would act, in appropriate circumstances, where a matter was not going to be made the subject of a formal complaint. Looking at the picture slightly more broadly, the steering group for change is a holistic task force, with Peers, clerks and members of staff on it. It is tasked, in particular, with cultural change.

I move on to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. First, I regret that I am not in the Chamber; I had understood that we were not exactly encouraged to attend. I take his point on board, but I ask the House to reject his broader argument that this is unnecessary. Only too sadly, I am sure that some if not all noble Lords have read some of the reports that have so far been issued. I shall not name names, but as others said, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Newby, very forcefully, it is not so simple. There is, unfortunately, a clear problem, even in this House. People sometimes behave in ways that one may not conceive of oneself, but that are recorded in great detail in the press and in the reports issued by the commissioner. Unconscious attitudes, and lack of consciousness of a problem, are real issues that the Valuing Everyone training is designed to address.

The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, mentioned concerns about the scope of training. This was again picked up by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. The point has been taken on board. It is a point that was made from a reasonably early stage, and we have urged that the model should be House of Lords oriented, that it should not be employment oriented, at least primarily, and that it should cater for our particular position. I believe that it has been adapted appropriately and I hope that more recent attendees have found this.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, mentioned third-party complaints. They have not so far been recommended, but it is a matter that we are intending to give further consideration to. I think that no report has so far said that this is a line that we should pursue. There would, of course, be considerable problems if a potential victim did not want to complain about someone else making a complaint: that could itself be not merely upsetting but even damaging to the victim. Those are the contrary considerations, but we are going to look at that again. Indeed, we have already looked at the problem of cluster reporting, which I hope we have dealt with in some measure by making suggestions for a relatively informal system, again operated primarily through the Clerk of the Parliaments.

I move on to the second area of our report. On the point about the devolved Parliaments, the scope of the code and the guide is, again, something we have under review. We extended the scope, with the House’s agreement, earlier in the year, or last year, to include not merely parliamentary duties but parliamentary activities. Parliament as a whole is a unit, and the code and guide can be seen as embracing the whole parliamentary community, as our second recommendation indicates. However, to embrace within the scope of a parliamentary code of standards and behaviour outside misbehaviour that might be not just in a devolved Parliament, but in some professional body—architects, barristers or whatever—is a considerable step to suggest. As I say, we are going to consider the extent to which certain gross misconduct outside parliamentary duties or activities should be brought within the scope of the code. I do not say that it should be, but we are going to consider that and report on it.

The final point on that is that there is already automatic expulsion when a term of imprisonment of longer than a year is imposed for a criminal offence; if it is less than a year there is discretionary disciplining. I hope that that answers that question. I believe I have covered all the points that noble Lords have made and have not missed any, but I ask any noble Lord who has a point they would like me to elaborate on to please write to me. I beg to move.

Motion agreed.