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Parliament harassment plans fall short of staff hopes

Chris Cook
Policy editor, Newsnight
@xtophercookon Twitter

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image captionParliament under scaffolding

Is the Westminster harassment and bullying scandal nearing its endpoint? Is there a plan out there that will bring Parliament out of the stone age as a workplace? A working group is about to report on the proposed new scheme that will govern what happens when staff make HR complaints. Having reviewed their proposals, my answer would be: no.

This new system, which MPs and peers will need to vote on, is intended to apply to staff in Parliament, with the exception of the House of Commons Service (the "clerks"). This group, whose concerns about bullying and harassment Lucinda Day and I reported on extensively this year, may be made part of this new plan but, for now, are now being investigated separately.

This report, which will be presented by Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House, later this week proposes new support mechanisms for staff. These will be widely supported. The problem with the report is what happens when concerns about MPs, in particular, are serious enough to merit some kind of sanction.

Under these plans, concerns about an MP would, if necessary, be investigated by an independent investigator, overseen by the parliamentary commissioner for standards. The commissioner would still be involved and - because they would supervise these processes - they would be able to see patterns.

This change is important: it would allow the commissioner to take on cases which, at the moment, are not within her remit.

These investigations would also be backed up with a limited set of remedies - things such as requesting apologies, training or insisting on behaviour agreements. If an MP resists that, or a stronger sanction is required, the commissioner will ask the Committee on Standards - which contains "lay" members (non-MPs) to make a judgment. That sanction could even be expulsion from the House.

This is a stronger process for staff than what went before - and the plan proposes reviews on how it all works, to make sure it is well calibrated. Some of these problems could be sanded off.

To start with, however, there are, however, several major issues with this report which will either be practical problems, or which will undermine confidence in the system among staff members who wish to complain about MPs - especially when their concerns are at the serious end of the spectrum.

The major problems

First, in serious cases, the role of the standards committee will be regarded as problematic. The committee's lay members have no voting rights. So MPs will make judgments on other MPs. We have uncovered several occasions where MPs have proved to be very loyal to one another - even at the expense of the staff upon whose work they are so often so very reliant.

Under this new plan, the lay members of the committee will be allowed an "indicative vote," so we will know how they would have voted. The idea is that MPs would surely not have the chutzpah to ignore their verdict - but brass neck is not something that MPs tend to lack.

Earlier this year, this committee voted not to permit an investigation into the conduct of John Bercow, the Speaker of the House. The views of the lay members of the committee regarding Mr Bercow were made public by its chair. The lay members wanted investigation - but MPs on the committee did not care, and voted by three votes to two to block an investigation.

Second, this paper does not permit pre-2017 cases to be reviewed under the new process - despite the fact that the working group received legal advice explaining that older cases could, indeed, be reviewed. This means that, in practise, Parliament will largely be operating a "let bygones be bygones" HR policy.

It is important to note that this is not introducing any new rules that a reasonable person might trip over. There are no things this code rules out which have not always been unacceptable. The principles are ones that have always existed: no-one should be "mocked, undermined, shouted at or belittled", have "personal comments made about [their] appearance", "be coerced into physical contact" or "touched inappropriately". Was any of that acceptable in 2016?

image copyrightEuropean Photopress Agency
image captionParliament is currently fixated on European questions, but time will be made soon for a vote on this report

The Respect problem

Third, the report proposes to introduce something for non-clerks that is similar to the system for clerks - the so-called Respect policy, which has similar features. Serious complaints lead to an investigation by the commissioner followed by a vote of the Standards Committee.

But the Respect policy is acknowledged by the House management to have failed; there is an inquiry into it happening right now, following on from the reporting that we did earlier this year on the mistreatment of clerks.

Dame Laura Cox is reporting on this topic in the autumn, and is expected to comment on the Respect policy and the House as a workplace. She had intended to write an interim report in the summer, but has cancelled it because of the volume of evidence she has collected. I am not expecting her to suggest Respect is a seaworthy policy. Pressing ahead with Respect Mk II for everyone else when Respect Mk I is being prepared to be scuttled seems a slightly peculiar decision.

Fourth, this report needs to pass parliament - and the vote is not going to be whipped. There is going to be a free vote. This is a proposal that will create limited powers that, in principle, could lead to MPs being disciplined. It also consciously reduces the power of the whips.

Do not take it for granted that MPs will vote for this until the votes have been cast and counted.

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  • Bullying and harassment at the House of Commons