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Independent Complaints and Grievance Policy

Volume 785: debated on Thursday 16 November 2017


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, Madam Deputy Speaker. With permission, I will update the House on steps being taken to tackle harassment and abuse in Parliament.

As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made clear, there can be no place for harassment, abuse or misconduct in politics. I said we would take action in days, not weeks, and that is exactly what we have done. Getting this right matters to everyone, and I want to thank the honourable Member for Birmingham Yardley, who I know is taking a keen interest in this matter. I hope today’s Statement answers her questions.

Last week, the Prime Minister convened a meeting of the party leaders to discuss this matter. All party leaders attended, and there was agreement to work together to make swift progress. The proposals outlined by the Prime Minister for an independent grievance procedure have been embraced across the House, and I am reassured by the consensus. All parties have acknowledged that any proposal must adhere to three specific criteria: it must have cross-party agreement, it must include both Houses of Parliament, and it must be independent. The new system will be available to all who work here, including all MPs’ staff, Lords’ staff, including Cross-Benchers’, interns, volunteers, journalists and constituency staff. It was agreed that the political parties would establish a cross-party working group to take this work forward, and I am pleased to report that the group met for the first time on Tuesday.

The working group is made up of representatives from every party and from both Houses: Conservative, Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru, DUP, Green and the Cross-Benchers. Very importantly, MAPSA—the Members and Peers Staff Association—and Unite are representing parliamentary staff on the group, and are ensuring that their experiences and their requirements are taken fully into account. The first meeting of the working group made it clear that the voices of staff will be at the heart of this process. Any new system will need the absolute confidence of those who will use it.

The working group also agreed that the new procedure must be independent of political parties and that, to inform the group over the next two weeks, we will hear from a number of different contributors. This will include hearing from staff directly, as well as from groups, including ACAS, IPSA, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and experts on a range of topics that will help us shape a new process. Anyone wishing to submit their own thoughts or suggestions to the group in writing is also welcome to do so.

This is very early days for the working group, and we will certainly be working quickly but thoroughly to make sure we create a new procedure that provides confidence to all who use it. I know that, in addition, many members of staff have expressed an interest in the provision of HR training, as well as better employee support for staff. All those employing staff will need a certain amount of guidance and training to enable them to be good employers.

This week, the working group heard directly from the Clerks of the two Houses, who provided a very helpful account of the procedure used by House staff. While we have recognised that the Respect policy used by the House authorities provides an excellent reference point, the independent procedure we are seeking to build will take into account the specific needs of Parliament, and the group has acknowledged the need for more than just mediation. The working group agreed that a new system should provide support, advice and action on a wide spectrum of complaints around bullying and harassment. We will do everything in our power to ensure the solution is transparent, fair and effective. And this fairness must also apply to MPs and Peers because we recognise that, right across both Houses, we have many model employers who genuinely care about and look after their staff extremely well.

We are working to a tight timeframe, but we have all acknowledged that it is right we address this issue with urgency. The publication of the final proposal will balance the need for fast action with the need for due diligence. The working group, including its staff representatives, is considering the timetable carefully and aims to report back to the House before it rises for the Christmas recess. Madam Deputy Speaker, you and the Speaker have said you hope that all parties will live up to their responsibilities by demonstrating both an appetite for change and a practical means of delivering that change. That is exactly what we intend to do and I want to thank all parties for working together in a supportive fashion. We share this duty to bring about positive change. People come to work in this place for a number of reasons—out of public service, to support the party of their choice, or to gain new work experience. Nothing should deter them from pursuing those ambitions and I know we are all determined to ensure that this is a safe and fair place to work”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating today’s Statement. Before I make some general comments, I will put on the record my thanks to her because she pursued the issue of ensuring that the hotline—the reporting line—that is available to all members of staff in the House of Commons is also available to members of staff in the House of Lords. I know that she made a personal commitment to that and I fully support her on that. I am glad that the phone line is now available to Lords staff as well.

I am pleased that the working party is taking a proactive, robust approach in getting the first meetings and the subsequent meetings up and running, and scheduled so quickly. It is not all down to the House and Parliament as a whole, because individual parties must also review their processes and the support they offer. I am pleased that the Labour Party is appointing an independent, external adviser for both reporting complaints and to guide and support anyone affected by sexual harassment through our own party’s procedures. We also have an independent legal expert to review the Labour Party’s procedures and make recommendations of any further changes or progresses needed.

I mention this for three reasons. The working party cannot just respond to events: it has to have a clear process, which is what I think the noble Baroness was referring to—seeing what that clear process is. There has to be an evaluation of that process to ensure that it is respected and has the confidence of all parties involved, both those who make complaints and those who are subject to complaints. I also think the point about the guidance, support and advice is very important, because all the best processes in the world make no difference at all if there is no confidence in them and if people are not able to access or use them properly. Process on its own is not enough; it is about ensuring access to that process.

When people are reporting abuse—whether it is sexual, or inappropriate behaviour, or bullying—it is not easy and the first point of contact is often not the person who can take action or investigate it. So advice or reporting mechanisms have to be easily accessible and there has to be confidentiality in doing so. If it is a matter for the police, as the most serious cases would be, for so many people—I speak as somebody who was involved in Women’s Aid for many years—the first point of contact is not the person who can investigate a crime. It is often a friend, a colleague or their trade union. We have a duty of care to ensure that those people can engage with a friend or their trade union—somebody in a position who has a duty of care that can help and support them through the process. I emphasise that, whatever process is in place, there must be mechanisms, arrangements and indeed a whole infrastructure around it for support and guidance.

I have a few questions for the noble Baroness that I hope she can either answer or take into account and take back to the meetings. First, I would like clarification. I think she talked about everyone employed on the Parliamentary Estate, including the staff of MPs and Peers. What about the contractors who are employed not directly by Parliament but by agencies and third parties? Can we ensure that they are also included? The Statement referred to advice having come from experts on topics including violence against women and girls, employment law and best practice. Can she confirm that when we are talking about abuse, it is not just sexual abuse and bullying but also LGBT abuse and any form of racism at all? Abuse takes many different forms.

Secondly, I understand the need to move quickly, but it is worth spending the time to get this right. Planning well now to have the proper processes in place will avoid later problems in implementation. I am quite concerned that we should see a proper planning phase and then a swift implementation once we have got it right, not just a rush to judgment on the right process. If we get it wrong, the consequences for those who want to make a complaint and those complained about will be quite serious.

I am very pleased to see trade union representation on the committee. The noble Baroness will recall that last time I mentioned that my first piece of advice to anybody working in any environment is to join a trade union, because it can offer advice and has expertise in this area. For many who have a complaint to make, their trade union will be the first point of contact. I urge the noble Baroness to ensure that the role of the trade union representative is evident throughout the process, not just in the initial reporting for those who are members. Lastly, could she say something about the role, once the working party has come to its conclusions and has a process that it recommends, of the commissions of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords?

Working here in Parliament should be a great experience, and I think for most people it is. I worked for an MP for two years; we have remained friends for many years since and it was a wonderful experience. I want it to be a good experience for everybody. Somebody coming to work in Parliament should enjoy it, feel valued in the work that they do and feel that it is rewarding. I think most do—but, where that falls short and they do not, that is when action has to be taken and we must act. We in Parliament should set an example and aim for the highest standards.

I am grateful for the report today. I hope the noble Baroness will come back with further updates as the working party commissions its work. If she can answer my questions or write to me later, I will be very grateful.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. I pass on to her and the House the apologies of my noble friend Lord Newby, who is unavoidably—I stress unavoidably—not here.

From these Benches, we welcome the move to tackle harassment and abuse in Parliament, and agree that it is important—indeed, essential—to have an independent procedure. We believe it is important that the procedure and system are available to everyone who works here, so we welcome the inclusivity of what is proposed. We are keen for the cross-party working group to continue its work with maximum input from staff representatives. We, too, agree that it is vital that the new system comes into place as a matter of urgency but, like the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, we think it important that it is not so rushed that we make mistakes with the process. It is crucial that we get the process right and that we keep it and its implementation under review.

The need for diversity and for women in roles higher up in the structures in both Houses will not be lost on those who are speaking today. We are certainly working hard to achieve that within our own party’s structure. Like all parties, we have looked at our own procedures, which we have had in place for some time, to ensure that they are robust, competitive and fall in line with ACAS guidance. We are listening to our staff and our members to ensure that our procedures are truly effective and responsive.

I have a few questions. In the past, people have clearly been deterred from voicing complaints by the threat of these coming out in the media—or forms of media. What are the Government doing? Can they do anything to ensure that people are protected from this intrusion so that they feel able to come forward? Those who are more likely to have been or to be victims must not be punished either directly or indirectly for the actions of the perpetrators. After all, the responsibility lies with the perpetrators. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that victims do not feel any negative effects from having made a complaint?

What consideration is being given—the noble Baroness referred to this—to steps to be taken in the case of allegations that are later found to be unfounded? Our focus and concern is on and for the victims, and the starting point must be to believe what we are told, not to dismiss concerns, but that does not mean that there should be no concern for anyone who is accused and is subsequently found not to be a perpetrator.

I would like to add a personal comment. When we began to be aware of the abuses of power and position that have taken place, I felt very guilty. I thought, “How could I not have noticed this? Why was I not providing support?” It took about a week for me to remember that many years ago, I was subject to a minor act of inappropriate behaviour in the House. I realised not that I had put it out of my consciousness because it was trivial, but that I was so shocked that I buried it. That is what our minds do, and we need to recognise that the way people act when they have been subject to something so shocking is not necessarily what we might expect.

I am grateful to both of the noble Baronesses for their comments. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, in particular for her comments about the extension of the helpline. I appreciate the support of the leadership across this House. Everyone has been very supportive in helping us to move forward, and I am sure that we will be able to continue in that vein; that would mean that the voice of the Lords would be strong within the discussions that are going on.

As both noble Baronesses said, all parties have published their codes of conduct, which will make clear how complaints will be dealt with. I believe that they are now all available, so that people are aware of them and can use that route if they so wish. I totally agree with noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that confidence in access to the new process is key; I assure her that it is in the forefront of the minds of the group as we continue our work.

Turning to some of the questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, I will take the point about the contractors back to the group. I think it was raised in the other place as well, so I am sure that it will be discussed. I entirely agree with her point about racist and LGBT abuse; I can assure her that the group is considering harassment and bullying in the round. That is certainly something that we are considering. We expect the working group to submit a proposal to both Houses, including the commissions, for their agreement and adoption, so we will come to the House and the commissions with a proposal in order that we can ensure that both Houses agree to it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, rightly raised the question of confidentiality around these cases. I can assure her that that was something we discussed at the first meeting. We are very well aware of this issue, and we will need to bear it in mind throughout the process. In relation to her point about unfounded allegations, this was also raised at the meeting earlier this week, and we will be taking it into account. It was a very good discussion, and the representatives of the two staff organisations are certainly adding a strong voice to the group. They represented the staff very well, and I hope we will do them justice in the end.

I agree with what my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, have said, but can the Leader of the House help me? One or two references have been made to Peers’ staff. Can she help me find a way to employ staff that I could look after properly?

I am sure the noble Lord would look after any staff he had properly. There are lots of websites with people available who, I am sure, would love to work for him and I can certainly help by talking to him about that if he would like.

My Lords, I congratulate the leaders of all the parties for the action they have taken so far. One of the difficulties with this area is that all the confidence and access to the procedures in the world will not prevent this being very tough going for an individual complainant. There may still be stages at which, having raised the issue, formally or informally, they do not want to proceed any longer; we all have to recognise these things. It is frustrating, but sometimes people would rather not go through the ordeal that they feel they are going through, and the procedure has to take account of that. Secondly, a good procedure will, we hope, mean that we will not get complaints years later. If people have sufficient confidence, they will not store this up for 20 years or more.

That brings me to my third point: legacy issues. We may have to acknowledge that issues that are current may not be appropriate for any new procedure: we may have to just draw the line, deal with the mess as best we can, and say, “Right, from now on, this is how it is going to be”. My final point—and I hope this will be maintained throughout the discussion—is that this should be independent of the individual political parties. That will go a long way to help with any factional fighting that might take place in the future—I am not saying that it does take place.

I thank the noble Baroness, I agree with all her points, which were very well made, and I can confirm that we are all committed to an independent process. As we all outlined, there are processes through the parties which people can choose to use if they wish, but we are very well aware that we are focused on an independent process to give staff that opportunity if that is what they wish. The noble Baroness may also be pleased to know, understanding the concern for staff and the support that they need, that from Monday, in addition to the helpline that is already available to staff, a new face-to-face counselling service will be available. We have been able to introduce it relatively quickly and it will be available from Monday.