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Independent Complaints and Grievance Policy

Volume 787: debated on Thursday 21 December 2017


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

“On 6 November, the Prime Minister convened a meeting of all party leaders, to address reports of bullying, harassment and sexual assault in Parliament. All parties agreed to implement robust procedures to try to change the culture in Parliament, recognising that Parliament can, and must, set a good example.

In her letter to you, Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister made clear the need for a new grievance procedure. A cross-party working group on an independent complaints and grievance policy has been working hard over the last six weeks to consider evidence and draw up recommendations for new procedures. Excellent progress has been made, and during Recess there will be further discussion and consultation within the parties and among the staff bodies in order for a report to be made in the new year.

There are many examples of good employers and professional working practices right across Parliament; we seek to make sure that this is the case for all. The working group, chaired by myself on behalf of the Prime Minister, has been made up of two colleagues from Labour and one each from the SNP, Liberal Democrats, DUP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party, plus the Leader of the House of Lords and the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers from the other place. We also have three staff members on the working party representing MAPSA, Unite and the NUJ. They have led widespread consultation with staff to ensure that staff voices have been loudly heard. We are supported by a secretariat made up of Cabinet Office and parliamentary staff, including the tireless work of Alix Langley, Justine How and Dr Helen Mott—a leading specialist in sexual assault—each of whom deserves our enormous thanks for their dedication.

I am also very aware of the active interest that a number of colleagues from across the House take in this matter. For them, it is a personal campaign to improve the experience of those working here. I thank them for discussing their thoughts and concerns with me, particularly the honourable Members for Birmingham Yardley and Luton South, and my honourable and right honourable friends the Members for Eastleigh and Basingstoke.

The working group has so far met on 11 occasions and has heard from a wide range of experienced professionals, both in person and through written submissions. These include the Speakers of both Houses, Professor Sarah Childs, Rape Crisis, the clerks of both Houses, ACAS, the Parliamentary Commissioners for Standards and the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Unite, legal experts from the business world and Health Assured. Importantly, the working group has also heard from a number of staff on their views of the culture of Parliament. We are grateful to those who spoke to the group about their experiences or provided anonymous submissions.

The working group identified three guiding principles for this work. First, Parliament requires an independent process, separate from the political channels. Secondly, much evidence was taken that claims of sexual harassment must be dealt with separately from those of bullying and other harassment. Thirdly, structures alone will not change the culture in Parliament. Other steps are also needed—including, crucially, an HR service for the staff employed by Members and an expansion of training provision.

As a result of the work of the group, with the support of the Speaker and the Commission, there are a number of immediate measures that have been put in place to increase the level of support available to staff across the Estate. First, there will be a new, interim provision of HR support and guidance for the staff of Members— beginning after the Recess—while consideration is given to the need for a broader HR service. Appropriate provision that acknowledges the employment circumstances of Peers’ staff will also be put in place. HR support will be accessible to Members’ staff working on the Parliamentary Estate and in constituency offices, and those who are collectively employed by the parties. In addition, new training will be available, addressing the range of needs identified by the working group. This is in addition to the expanded Health Assured helpline, which will be made available to the staff of Members across both Houses and a number of other passholders across the Estate. Mr Speaker, as you yourself requested, the individual political party policies and procedures for dealing with bullying and harassment have been published online and are accessible on the parliamentary website.

A great deal has been achieved, but we also have a programme of work planned into the new year. The working group has clearly identified the need for new policies and procedures to tackle bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, which should be available to staff and Members across the Estate and which must be independent of the political parties. These proposals are the outcome of substantial evidence taken by the working group, and there is strong support from its members. It is the case, however, that further work, evidence gathering and consultation will be required before we put new processes in place. These processes must attract the full support and confidence of MPs, Peers and staff across Parliament.

Some of the new policies under consideration by the working group include a new behaviour code, to be consulted on, which will apply to all those who work in, or for, Parliament, including Members, Peers, and all staff, wherever they work. This behaviour code would sit alongside the existing parliamentary codes of conduct, which may also require amendment. They also include procurement of a new independent sexual violence advocate specialist service to provide a confidential helpline, and counselling support and advice to those making disclosures. This service would provide support to complainants in cases of sexual assault, including rape. The service would provide support for complainants to pursue a criminal justice route or alternative, strictly confidential support where the claimant does not wish to go to the police. The working group has also taken significant evidence on the need for an independent mediation service to provide a helpline, counselling and investigation into incidents of bullying and intimidation.

Finally, we discussed sanctions. These will of course differ according to the severity of the grievance and for different individuals across the estate. For lower-level complaints the range of possible sanctions could include training covering harassment and bullying, a full apology, as well as review, where appropriate, of the parliamentary pass. In serious cases, further work needs to be carried out to ensure that sanctions are appropriate, fair and enforceable.

The functions of both the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Standards Committee may need to be strengthened and reviewed to ensure fair representation and confidentiality. Considerable further work needs to be carried out before conclusions can be drawn and, of course, any changes to the relevant Standing Orders and to the code of conduct would require decisions by the House.

The working group’s discussions have been underpinned by a persistent theme—that while there are many examples of excellent employers and working relationships, there is a real need to improve the overall workplace culture of Parliament. One of the routes to this is proper independent HR support for Members’ staff to minimise the problem of contractual disputes, as identified as one of our principles. We need to work with the House authorities and staff to consider the best and most appropriate way of delivering this in the long term.

We also received a great deal of evidence on the need for voluntary and mandatory training for the staff and their employers. This would include proper induction courses for staff employed by Members. While this is not within the terms of the working group, it was made clear to us that enabling better support for employer/employee relationships could significantly improve the working atmosphere and engender a more professional culture. The working group will consider the evidence further.

Mr Speaker, we were grateful for your own contribution to the working group, where you made it clear that the House of Commons Commission stands ready to do what it needs to do to respond to any proposal from the working group, providing that the proposal combines independence and transparency. We recognise the need for both swift progress and careful consideration before taking action. Our next steps are therefore crucial. The working group will reconvene after Recess to agree how the work will progress. We will look closely at the policies we have identified as needing further work and consultation and begin to take further evidence and advice. There have been a number of proposals about how to take our work forward. These range from appointing a special bicameral Select Committee to maintaining a Member and staff cross-party committee. We will consider all these ideas carefully, but I make clear that the work of the existing group is ongoing. We will continue to involve staff, Peers and MPs collectively each step of the way. Excellent progress has been made in a short space of time and I express my gratitude for the strong commitment shown by members of the working group and for the expertise provided by our specialist advisers.

Finally, I will say this: this working group was formed to bring about change and I recognise that change is not always easy, particularly somewhere with such long-standing traditions and customs, where we live and work in the full glare of the media spotlight. But this cannot be an excuse. We should not rest until everyone working in Parliament can feel safe, valued and respected. We have a chance now to get this right for everyone on the Parliamentary Estate, including staff, MPs and Peers, and I hope to bring the working group’s final proposals here in the new year”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for bringing forward the Statement. I realise that it has been an intensive work programme for members of the working party and we are grateful to them for the work they have undertaken. However, it is important that the deliberations of the working party are confidential. Obviously there is a great deal of public and press interest in the outcomes, but that is not necessarily the same as the interest in getting things right. They need space to be able to do that. The task that has been set is to ensure that good policies and practice are in place so that problems can be deterred and a proper course of action is available where something goes wrong and deterrence fails. Wide consultation on this is important. I understand that there are still those who are being consulted, which I welcome.

Your Lordships’ House is less well represented on the committee than is the other place—that is a comment not on the quality of the representation but on its number, I hasten to add—with the noble Baroness and the Convenor of the Cross Benches, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, representing us. I hope that that can be taken into account, with wider consultation of your Lordships’ House as the working party progresses.

I reiterate the point—I made it when we discussed this matter previously—that there is a need for this work to proceed without any undue delay, but there is that responsibility to consult, to engage and to ensure the workability of the proposals. We also need to be able to monitor the effectiveness of what the working party comes up with and seeks to implement. I also reiterate how essential it is that an independent and qualified sexual harassment adviser is in place as soon as possible—I think that everybody would agree with that; it does not need to wait for the outcome of the working party.

Someone who makes a complaint needs support in doing so. I noticed the comments in the report about rape and about advice being given, including if somebody chooses not to go to the police. It is worth noting that very few women who are subjected to rape have as a first point of call gone to the police. They need an adviser and support to be able to do that. Harassment in any form is not something that people come across very often. When they do, they need advice and support to be able to report it and the confidence to do so.

I also welcome the independent HR service for staff. I would advise all staff to be in a trade union. I hope that there will be consultation with all the trade unions which represent staff across the parliamentary estate. I appreciate that one trade union and a staff association are on the working party, but many other staff are represented by other trade unions and they should be consulted as well. Can the noble Baroness confirm that HR advice will be available also to those who are employers, ensuring that best practice is available to them?

Can the noble Baroness say something more about “voluntary and mandatory training”? If training is to be voluntary, I am not sure how we can be confident that we have in place people who are trained in the process and understand it. How will such training be delivered? I have heard a reference to e-training. Those of us who have had any responsibility in this House for fire training will know that it is not always as easy as it sounds to ensure that Members undertake appropriate training. How can that be done?

On the code of conduct, I hope that our own commissioner and committee on standards will be consulted on this policy prior to it going forward. The position of Peers is somewhat different from that of MPs. We would want to ensure that we were fully engaged. Can I have an assurance that our commissioner and committee will be consulted, particularly with reference to sanctions?

As a party, we have found that policies cannot be static on an issue such as this; they can always be refined and improved in light of experience. We have sought that confidence by taking the advice of an independent QC with experience in these issues. Will the working party ensure that Parliament does the same?

Getting this right is very important for the confidence of everybody on the Parliamentary Estate and those who wish to work here in the future, as well as for the confidence of the public in the institutions of Parliament. A flawed policy would be the worst possible outcome. There has to be a policy in place that has the confidence of those who may be thinking of making a complaint and those who may be complained against. It has to have the confidence of everybody to ensure that it is workable.

I welcome this interim Statement. We want to support the committee in its further work and engage in further consultation to ensure that we have a policy that is fit for purpose, a policy that will inspire the confidence not just of Parliament but of the public as well.

I too thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement, but more significantly for the work she is undertaking, along with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, on the committee. I gather that the group has met 11 times so far and not all the meetings have been short. The members of the group have taken on a very significant commitment and we are very grateful for their work. I think they are finding that it is a lot more complicated than it looks, because of the plethora of employers and the different sorts of case that might arise. At one level it is relatively straightforward, although not totally straightforward, dealing with complaints that take place with a single employer, whether it is members of staff or members of an individual political party. The problem that arises here is when you have people involved from different areas—members of House staff and members of parties. This is why we are going to need a twin-track system in place under which the parties will retain disciplinary procedures but there is also an independent route for when a potential case of harassment involves a perpetrator and a victim from different parties. Getting that right is going to be extremely important.

I stress the importance in all of this of changing the culture of Parliament. It is vital, of course, that we put procedures in place to deal with cases that have occurred, but the main benefit of this whole process, we hope, will be to help to change the culture of Parliament. A number of proposals which are being worked up will help to achieve this: the behavioural code will help; the mandatory training will help, although I echo the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that this must not be just e-training. I have tried three times this morning to complete the fire training, only to have the system block me. My response now is to question whether I am going to do it at all. In any event, there is inadequate assurance, in my mind, that people have got the message if they are just doing a cursory bit of e-training.

People need to understand that coming to work here requires a particular standard of behaviour, which at the moment, they clearly do not. The decision, for example, to close the sports and social club sends something of a message about the way we want people to behave, but that is only one of a range of things. My main plea to the noble Baroness as she and her colleagues continue their work into the new year is that we must put as much stress on the culture of the place, so that we have fewer of these incidents to worry about in future, as we do to making sure that the procedures for dealing with them are as good as they can be.

I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments. I shall keep my comments relatively brief because I am not sure how much longer my voice is going to hold out. Certainly, we want wide consultation. It is critical that we have everyone on the parliamentary estate brought into the new procedures, so I hope I can reassure the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that there will be further consultation. I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and I have been giving a strong voice to your Lordships’ House in the committee. I accept that we are smaller in number than our colleagues in the other place, but of course we want to make sure that Peers are properly represented. There will be much further consultation to be done and quite a lot of this will be done in stages: some things can be done quite quickly but some things will take longer. There will be a lot of opportunity for other people to get involved as and when they can.

I certainly agree with the noble Baroness’s comments about the need for a new independent sexual violence advocate. Certainly, the majority of the evidence we have had from the experts is that many victims do not want to go to the police initially and they really do need support and help. That is absolutely critical and we are mindful of that. We are very keen to get that up and running as quickly as possible.

I want to stress how extremely valuable the staff representation on the group has been. We have had two unions represented—Unite and the NUJ, which is linked to the SNP—as well as MAPSA. They have been excellent in representing staff views and bringing them to us. They have undertaken surveys of members—

I am sorry to interrupt the Leader but has she made an error? She said that the NUJ was linked to the SNP.

I am sorry, I meant that the SNP’s staff tend to be members of the NUJ. That union came in because the SNP staff in the other place are largely represented by it. The unions have been extremely helpful. They have undertaken surveys and have also brought staff members to give evidence to the committee. Their voice has been very strong. Of course, it is absolutely critical that the staff are brought into this process and will be consulted going forward.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness both mentioned training. Indeed, there has been a range of views on this. They are right: it is how we encourage people to take up training and determine what kind of training is most appropriate. That is why that is something that we will be returning to. No doubt we will seek wider views to try to ensure that we get that training package absolutely right.

I can confirm that the commission will indeed be consulted. I think the hope is that I might be able to do a further update to the commission when we meet in January but certainly we will consult the commission. Obviously, if there are any changes to the code or any other procedures, the relevant committees in this House will be involved, as will all Peers where we need collective agreement.

Finally, it has proved extremely complicated, as the noble Lord said, but we have made good progress. But I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that a flawed policy would be the worst outcome. That is why we have been working hard. We will continue to work hard and we really hope to see some real changes being made in short order.

My Lords, while fully supporting the work of the working group and not wishing in any way to excuse those guilty of wrongful behaviour, I have some concern that the definitions of terms such as “bullying” and “harassment” in the survey that was recently circulated by the working group rely on a degree of subjectivity which makes them difficult to apply with precision; for example, in its use of expressions such as “unwanted” and “unwelcome” to describe conduct that is considered unacceptable. What is considered unwanted or unwelcome by one person may not be by another. Some people may be excessively thin-skinned. Does the Leader not agree that definitions of what is unacceptable need to be subject to some kind of test of reasonableness, and will the working group please take this on board in its ongoing work?

I thank the noble Lord and certainly take on board his comments. The definitions we used in the survey are official definitions. I am afraid I cannot remember if they were from ACAS or elsewhere. We used definitions of bullying, harassment and sexual violence that are accepted in practice.

My Lords, I, too, welcome the Leader repeating the Statement and all the work that is going on. I will make a couple of points. First, some of the women who are victims have come forward and quite bravely put their head above the parapet and said what has happened to them. Unfortunately and disappointingly, that has been picked up by sections of the media and they have been vilified; their lives have been picked over in an attempt to discredit them. What can be done and is the committee considering this? It will only act as a deterrent to women and other victims who want to come forward to report anything serious if they are going to find themselves in the media spotlight or on social media.

On the behavioural code, if it is a new code everyone must sign up to and is it a new code that everyone must sign up to and is it key to being a Member of Parliament, whether of this place or the other place? The Leader mentioned sanctions. Obviously, in the most serious cases, there will have to be an ultimate sanction—I suspect, suspension from either House. Will the committee be considering legislation to enable that? As I understand it, at the moment there are no grounds to suspend somebody permanently for that kind of misdemeanour. To change the culture, there have to be sanctions that will act as deterrents, and the ultimate deterrent would be suspension from this place. I should be grateful for answers to those questions.

Confidentiality is one of the key things we have been concerned about. Getting better processes and structures in place to make sure that when people have complaints they are treated confidentially—both the victim and the person being accused—has been at the centre of what we are thinking about. We want to make sure that this works for both parties to reach a good outcome.

On the new behaviour code, the noble Baroness is right about sanctions. That is why in the Statement I talked about whether we need to look at the functions of the parliamentary commissioner. Obviously that would need changes to the code, and they would be brought forward to the House. If it was decided that the ultimate sanction was needed, as the noble Baroness suggests, we would need to change our code of conduct et cetera to achieve that, but that would be for this House as well as the other place to decide.

My Lords, I, too, very much welcome the Statement and I am grateful for it. Does my noble friend agree that we must ensure that all complaints are dealt with speedily and that the turnaround time for any arbitration is quick, because justice delayed is justice denied? One of the problems I found as Legal Services Ombudsman was that complaints took far too long to deal with and redress needed to come a lot quicker.

I thank my noble friend, and I entirely agree with her. That is something that has come through quite clearly in the evidence. We need to deal with these things absolutely fairly but speedily so that all parties can see that the end is in sight.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for her clear personal commitment on this. As the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said, it is clear that a lot of time is being spent. We all appreciate how much the Leader of the House is doing. It is important to have a dedicated HR function. When I was chair of the now defunct information committee, I raised this issue, which is incredibly important, not least because of the outlying staff we have here who are not part of the career structure of the clerks. I felt that was a neglected area. Unfortunately I did not get anywhere, but it is important. That brings me to my last point, which is that all this will cost and I want some assurance that consideration is being given to that. Which budget will it come from? We all know that it is all very well to have agreements but we need a framework and an idea of the budget. I hope that the working group will at least give some consideration to this.

I thank the noble Baroness for her kind words. She is right about HR. In fact, that was one of the main issues raised by staff representatives on behalf of the staff they deal with, so we are extremely mindful of it. That is why we are trying to bring that in very quickly as an interim measure and then we will look at having a much more effective service going forward. The noble Baroness is right about cost, but the Government are committed to ensuring that we have proper processes. There will obviously be costs for this House as well as for the Commons, but I do not think any of us think that money should stand in the way of what needs to be done to make sure that all staff, Peers, MPs and everyone working on the Parliamentary Estate has access to the kind of support and services that they need.

My Lords, forgive me if this has already been covered, but can the Leader say whether the language being used will reflect the Henriques recommendations in relation to safeguarding by speaking about complainants and respondents rather than victims and perpetrators, so that justice is seen to be done all the way through?

I can certainly take that on board. We are being advised by a number of specialists in this area, so I am confident that we will get the right language. But I take on board the right reverend Prelate’s comments and will take them back to the group drafting of the final report.