Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme — [Sir Robert Syms in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall am 1:30 pm ar 30 Tachwedd 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Ceidwadwyr, Basingstoke 1:30, 30 Tachwedd 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the work of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I am here today because the reputation of Parliament matters, and how we conduct ourselves here matters. Like many workplaces, we are grappling with issues around bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct, and we are looking for ways to not only give people routes to redress but change the culture of our organisation to ensure that such issues do not find any solace in our midst.

I stand here today representing a number of colleagues who, through the establishment of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, have become Ministers but still have very strong opinions on this issue and want to see it dealt with in the right way. I refer in particular to the pivotal role played by my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom, who introduced the ICGS in July 2018. She has recently taken up a ministerial position and is unable to take part in the debate, but I note that she is here in body as well as in spirit.

I also note that I was a member of the recent Speaker’s Conference on the employment conditions of Members’ staff, and the excellent report which came from that underlines the importance of the changes recommended for the ICGS, some of which have not yet been carried through in full but were part of the recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference.

This is a timely debate, because there is an independent review under way into how the ICGS has developed over the last five years. The review issued a call for evidence on 22 November, and I know that a number of colleagues will want to provide feedback through that. Because we are midway through a review, the Minister responding to the debate will inevitably be somewhat curtailed in what she is able to say. I hope that this debate gives some individuals the opportunity to recognise that they can contribute through the review and to hear from the Minister the Government’s support for this important programme of work within Parliament.

The vision of the ICGS, introduced in the wake of the #MeToo scandal, was to ensure that everybody who works in or visits Parliament is treated with dignity and respect and to underline that there is absolutely no place for bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct in any workplace, including Parliament. The scheme is there for all current and former members of the parliamentary community, not just MPs, and it is the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

The initial working group, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire, was made up of Members of all parties in this place, noble peers from the other place, members of staff of both Houses and trade union representation for House staff. It was a thorough piece of work, embracing a huge range of views, and it demonstrated the importance of not only enshrining those views in the process that was developed but getting their support for the recommendations.

The research into the problem and the possible solutions was incredibly detailed, taking advice from legal experts and employment advisers. A number of hearings were held, to hear the sometimes shocking stories of colleagues who work here. The result was widely consulted on with Members right across the House and was agreed on the nod; there was no dissent to what was put forward. It is important to note that the House chose to vote on the specific processes to be followed because of the possible serious sanctions involved and the nature of the allegations. When we come to review this, it is important that we also look at the fact that the process needs to closely echo what this House agreed to and ensure that there has not been any mission creep along the way.

The ICGS proposals took a holistic view, looking at change processes, and, importantly, changing the culture of the organisation—as I say, as many other organisations are doing across the country. The key features of the scheme as it was originally envisaged were: the development of a behaviour code that would apply to everyone; the development of new training to support continuous professional development; the maintenance of respectful behaviour, proper induction courses and exit interviews to identify bad practice wherever it occurs; and, of course, the independent scheme itself. Again, that is very much what other organisations are doing to try to address these sorts of problems.

The scheme was designed to enable any complainant to call a strictly confidential helpline with their grievance and have it assessed in a timely fashion by an independent case examiner, who would also invite the complainant and respondent to give their sides of the case, with witnesses if necessary, and provide for the appropriate mental health support for all parties. The issues are difficult.

Should the independent case examiner find that there was no case to answer, the matter would be dropped with no publicity or consequences. Should, however, the case be upheld, the findings would be escalated to the employer or manager of the person accused and the ICGS would identify appropriate sanctions, which would include written or oral apologies, training, a requirement to prohibit contact, and, in serious cases, dismissal of the respondent.

In instances where an MP was the respondent, an escalation through the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to the Committee on Standards, which could recommend perhaps a suspension, including potentially allowing for a recall vote if that was triggered. The House had to agree the scheme and the process to be followed because of the implications of the sanctions. More recently, for sanctions against MPs the Independent Expert Panel was introduced as an extra layer in the process. That was not originally considered necessary by the working group, but has been put in place subsequently.

Were the complainant to report an issue that could break the law, the ICGS case examiner offers support and guidance to the complainant to go to the appropriate police force. Should the complainant not wish to do that, the ICGS has a protocol with the Met police to enable anonymised reporting to take place to ensure safeguarding of the wider public.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The right hon. Lady has put forward a very detailed and constructive case that needs to be looked at. Over the years, lots of constituents have come to tell me about issues to do with workforce bullying in the constituency. They tell me that their biggest concern is the time it takes for things to happen. Frustratingly, it means that sometimes they almost give up. Can the right hon. Lady confirm for all of us here, but for me especially, that the timescale will be sufficiently fast to ensure that the complaint, if upheld, can be dealt with within a 28-day timescale? Is that possible?

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Ceidwadwyr, Basingstoke

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his timely intervention. I will come to the specifics of that point later in my remarks. One reason for calling the debate today is that there is not that surety. The cases go on for months, not weeks, because of the number of cases that are being referred to the ICGS. There needs to be a review of how the organisation operates to address the very remarks that the hon. Gentleman has made. He is absolutely right to say that if there are allegations of serious bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct, they need to be dealt with in a timely manner. Delay helps no one—not the accused or the victim.

One working group recommendation was that Members’ staff should have access to proper human resources support and advice, which is not routinely available in Parliament at the moment. That recommendation has not been implemented, despite it being one of the important recommendations from the working group. That means that Members’ staff with a complaint have nowhere to go other than the ICGS, which is unsuitable if their complaint does not relate to harassment, bullying or sexual misconduct.

The report from the recent Speaker’s Conference has also highlighted that issue. Its recommendations recognise that if staff have concerns about their employment or if their relationship with their Member of Parliament starts to break down, there are few routes through which they can seek support. The ICGS may be the only route they are aware of, even though it may not be appropriate for their complaint. Unfortunately, that means that a significantly higher number of general complaints on issues such as working conditions or contractual disputes are being reported to the ICGS helpline, because staff have nowhere else to go.

The fifth annual report of the ICGS was published last month. It stated that only 31 of the 479 contacts to the helpline—under 10%—were about bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct. Any complaints are distressing and unacceptable in a modern workplace, but the ICGS helpline is getting clogged up by the many complaints that are outside the remit of the ICGS.

With that in mind, the Speaker’s Conference recommended that the budget of the Members’ Services Team be expanded to hire more HR professionals to deliver an HR service to Members’ staff. The ICGS was set up to deal with bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. The lack of a clear pathway for issues that would normally be dealt with by an HR department has inundated the ICGS throughout its life so far. As Jim Shannon said, that means that the grievances of many complainants are not tackled swiftly enough, which results in further distress.

The 31 serious cases in the ICGS report show that the average time taken for a serious case to conclude is not a matter of weeks, as the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned in his intervention, but 184 working days. That is far too long for someone who has been subject to bullying or sexual harassment in the workplace. For the benefit of both sides, these things need to be dealt with swiftly.

The new director of the ICGS, Thea Walton, is committed to reducing that time, but the system has been working in that way for the past few years. We should fully implement the initial proposals that Parliament agreed when it established the ICGS. The Speaker’s Conference supported many of those recommendations, particularly the creation of an HR department for Members’ staff. That will provide a swift and timely service, and lead to the sort of culture change we all want to see—whereby people who work in this place feel valued, heard and supported if need be.

First, the review must prioritise the improvement of the timeliness of investigations through ensuring that cases are dealt with in the appropriate way and that the ICGS is not inundated; secondly, we must set up the HR department; and, thirdly, we must implement the other elements of the ICGS programme that was agreed in this place, including the establishment of induction courses for new joiners. To reiterate, I am not talking only about Members of Parliament, but the whole parliamentary community. There should also be exit interviews for those who leave abruptly, and we should promote the take-up of training courses to upskill team managers and staff more generally.

The review must consider the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in the ICGS. The commissioner was specifically identified as the individual to whom MPs could appeal should they be subject to allegations and the case find against them. That was to ensure the possibility of an independent review of the case, and therefore to take into account the level of public of scrutiny when an accusation of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct by an MP is made public. That appeal process meant that there was an additional check, which was capable of ensuring that decisions had been taken fairly and correctly, and had been based on evidence not bias. Should the PCS uphold a case against an MP, the process is now that the case is sent to the Independent Expert Panel, which investigates the findings and makes a recommendation. That then goes to the Committee on Standards, which will bring a recommendation to the House. That process is different from other investigations by the PCS—such as those in relation to the misuse of stationery or other more day-to-day matters—and reflects the sensitivity of these complaints about bullying and sexual harassment.

The nature of the sanctions also needs to be considered, particularly given the possibility of further appeals and the complexity of what we are talking about. The Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme deals with some of the most difficult complaints. It does matter not only to those complainants who are reporting abuse, but also to the reputation of Parliament, that we have an effective system by which to deal with those sorts of allegations. In having an effective system, we do not only have sanctions in place; we create an environment that will enable the culture of our organisation to evolve. Too often, the ICGS is seen as being there just to punish MPs, but it is actually there for the whole parliamentary community, and there are around 14,000 non-MPs working in and around Parliament and across the country who rightly want an effective process by which to tackle bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct when it occurs.

I urge hon. Members and right hon. Members to have a look at and take part in the review, because it matters not only to our staff and ourselves that we get it right; it matters for the way that our Parliament is perceived across the country and the world.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (COP26), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Commons Business) 1:47, 30 Tachwedd 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. The SNP welcomes the progress made on the work of the ICGS. We support all efforts to improve the system and to stamp out all bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct, in this place and beyond. Everyone has a right to a safe workplace and to live their lives without fear or intimidation. All employers have a duty of care to protect the health, safety and welfare of their workers, and that means having robust processes for reporting and dealing with harassment, bullying and sexual misconduct. At a time when trust in politicians is, unfortunately, at an all-time low, it is more important than ever that we treat those who work in this place with dignity, courtesy and respect, and that we ensure that those who do not treat people in that way are held to account.

The SNP very much appreciates the work of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme team in providing confidential guidance, advice and support to anyone who has experienced bullying, harassment and/or sexual misconduct. We welcome the ICGS’s fifth annual report and pay tribute to all those who have helped to drive improvements across the work of the ICGS.

I very much appreciate the comments made by Dame Maria Miller, who I know is standing in, extremely capably, for another Member, and I know that that Member— Dame Andrea Leadsom—has a particular and very close interest in the debate. The right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire will also be aware that my hon. Friend Pete Wishart is very sorry that he could not make it today, but I am sure that he will be watching closely.

The report found that the ICGS team has responded to criticisms and made improvements that have—it must be acknowledged—reduced the time taken to carry out investigations. That improvement was due in part to the welcome addition of extra investigators to the team. It has been a big source of concern for many in this place that some of these investigations have taken so long, and I certainly look forward to further improvement in the time taken.

The team has also provided extra guidance resources for service users to support them through the process, and it has implemented 32 out of 33 of Alison Stanley’s 18-month review’s recommendations. We welcome the fact that the remaining recommendation, on governance, will be considered in the upcoming review and that an interim governance arrangement has been established.

However, there are still shortcomings in the system that need to be addressed. It is vital that complaints are dealt with confidentially, but through a transparent process. The scheme was set up to shed a light on matters that had been shrouded in darkness previously and that reflected badly on the House and its Members. It is important that we are clear about the processes the different complaints go through, while of course making every effort to make those processes confidential for the individuals involved. It is also important that we do things in a timely manner, as I mentioned, and that we improve the process so that complainants feel listened to and receive the support they need.

The report highlights key trends, including a

“power imbalance between the complainant and the respondent…In a number of cases, the blurring of personal and professional boundaries” and

“the presence of alcohol and the culture of drinking in Westminster.”

We agree with the ICGS director, Thea Walton, that the organisation should escalate action against individuals if they are the subject of three allegations of bullying and harassment—the current trigger is five—even if those fall short of a formal complaint. Although the ICGS is well placed to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct, harassment and bullying, it is incumbent on all of us in this place to improve the working culture and to ensure that everyone who works here feels safe and is treated with dignity and respect.

We are very much in favour of the proposed expansion of the Members’ Services Team, which has come to provide a really invaluable and professional service over such a short time, as I am sure other Members will appreciate. The recommendation that the team should evolve into a Members’ and Members’ staff service is commendable. As small employers, MPs should have access to better human resources support, but staff should also have access to guidance and advice independent of their employing MP.

The Speaker’s Conference report, published a couple of weeks ago, describes Members’ staff as “uniquely vulnerable” and found the current Members’ support service to be “under-resourced”. It recommended creating a new “restorative practice” for workplace dispute resolution. That welcome recommendation would help to create uniform procedures for MPs’ staff across the House. Inadequate provision of employee support, employer guidance and qualified HR experts directly impacts on the experience of staff. We are highly supportive of recommendations to improve those and the great work of the current Members’ Services Team.

In closing, I acknowledge the cross-party group of MPs—the initial working group—who worked so diligently in the initial stages to arrive at various recommendations, which were acted on. In particular, I acknowledge my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire, who was the SNP shadow Leader of the House at the time, and the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire. They made what some might say was an unlikely couple, but they were able to put aside political differences to take that important work forward—with the assistance, of course, of other members of that working group, and I pay tribute to them.

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 1:53, 30 Tachwedd 2023

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to the debate, Sir Robert. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank Dame Maria Miller for providing leadership on this key issue, and I acknowledge the work of Dame Andrea Leadsom in helping develop the ICGS in the first instance.

This topic is important, and I touched on it recently in the Speaker’s Conference debate. Although it is by no means an issue for every MP—or indeed everyone who works in Parliament—there have been too many instances where MPs, or sometimes staff members, have abused their power. The issue goes to the heart of our culture and working conditions in Parliament. The past few years have been damaging to the reputation of the Houses of Parliament, with serious allegations against, and sometimes convictions of, Members. It is essential that we get our own house in order and ensure that we have an inclusive and respectful working environment.

We welcome the role of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme in dealing with instances of poor behaviour by Members. The ICGS is a hard-won system, its origins rooted in too many reviews of Parliament’s failures. We fully support this new way of working. Investigations of misconduct are independent and impartial, with victims’ anonymity respected—that is important.

The ICGS has proved an effective method for MPs’ staff to raise incidents of poor conduct. After concerns that the process can be lengthy, timescales for completing cases are coming down. The most recent report published by the ICGS, in October, said that the time taken to resolve complaints had fallen by 26 working days. It used to take up to a year to resolve cases, but they are now completed, on average, within six months. That is an important step in the right direction, but the time taken is still too long.

It is welcome that the ICGS has held roadshow events across the country. Constituency office staff and those working remotely should be aware of the advice and support open to them. I also welcome the new HR system proposed by the Members’ Services Team. Earlier intervention can prevent the escalation of problems in the long term. The MST, acting as a mediator where appropriate, could help to prevent incidents from escalating and to ensure that we have proper inductions, training and ongoing welfare checks, as others have said. Early intervention by the human resources team will reduce complaints to the ICGS. As covered in the Speaker’s Conference debate, it is essential that such important HR issues are introduced as soon as possible.

At the coming general election, there might be a high turnover of Members, and it would be good to see the measures ready to go at that point. Importantly, the implementation of a risk-based exclusion process is urgently needed. There are safeguarding issues if an MP who is arrested for a serious violent or sexual offence is allowed to continue attending their workplace and going on parliamentary visits. Labour has been working with Mr Speaker and the Leader of the House on the issue, and we want the exclusion process to be brought forward as quickly as possible.

I therefore have some questions for the Minister. Can the ICGS investigation process please be speeded up still further? Will the proposed action on exclusions be introduced before Christmas of this year? How will the ICGS work with the new Members’ Services Team? It is vital that we continue to make progress on this important issue. Parliament should be a safe and respectful workplace.

Photo of Amanda Milling Amanda Milling Government Whip, Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury 1:58, 30 Tachwedd 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Dame Maria Miller on securing the debate and on her excellent speech, which set out the details around the ICGS and how it was set up.

The Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme was a fundamental step towards safeguarding everyone on the parliamentary estate, in the wake of disturbing allegations of bullying and harassment in Westminster back in 2017. As Members have mentioned, it was set up at pace and on a cross-party basis, and I too pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom for all her work when she was Leader of the House, as well as for her work over the past few years in ensuring that the House authorities continue to look at this important issue.

The ICGS now provides a dedicated independent mechanism for handling complaints of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct in both Houses, and it forms an important part of the parliamentary standards system and of efforts to effect culture change in Westminster. To pick up on some of the words mentioned in each of the speeches this afternoon, reputation matters, trust in politics matters and culture matters. That is why it is so important to have this system in place, and I will come on to talk about the review and its importance. The safety of the parliamentary community is paramount, and the Government have made it clear that there is no place for bullying, harassment or sexual harassment in Parliament. By working cross-party, we can ensure that everyone who works in Parliament is treated with dignity and respect.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke outlined in her excellent opening speech, an independent review of the ICGS was launched on 23 October to assess the performance of the ICGS and identify areas for further improvement. This is something that has been evolving over time, and there was a previous review, which I will touch on in a moment. The current review is an important piece of work, and I remember having a conversation with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire last year. It is five years since the ICGS was first developed and launched, so it is an ideal time to review how it is working. The review will look at the operation of the ICGS, as well as at understanding the investigatory process and the complexities involved.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Ceidwadwyr, Basingstoke

The Minister said a phrase a few moments ago that I think is important: the ICGS is a system. It is not a thing, but a system; it is a number of different elements. The concern that I expressed, and that has come from elsewhere, is that although we may be having this review at the moment, not all of the system has actually been implemented—many elements of it were never implemented. Will she join me in urging the review to particularly focus on that point?

Photo of Amanda Milling Amanda Milling Government Whip, Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her intervention. The terms of reference have been set for this review, but there are a number of different mechanisms relating to standards in the House. The Standards Committee is actually undertaking an inquiry itself, and I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend has put evidence to that inquiry, but I would urge her to look at that as well.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke mentioned in her opening remarks, the independent reviewer will soon launch a call for written evidence, and I encourage members of the parliamentary community to submit evidence. The review is expected to conclude and to be published in early 2024. I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will continue to champion improvements to the ICGS as a member of the House of Commons Commission—indeed, many Members present are members of the Commission, including the SNP spokesperson, Deidre Brock. One of the Commission’s recommendations from earlier in the year was the need for a new resolution service to support Members and staff to resolve issues and repair relationships.

I will turn now to the terms of reference of the current review. There have been a number of mentions of timeliness today, and quality and timeliness is one of seven points in the review’s terms of reference. The review will be an opportunity to address concerns about timeliness and the quality of investigations. Fundamentally, we need to ensure that people have confidence in the ICGS. I know that the Leader of the House and Commission members look forward to working with the director, the chair of the Independent Expert Panel and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to ensure that the system operates as effectively as possible. All colleagues mentioned timeliness in their speeches, and Alison Stanley’s 18-month review of the ICGS, which was published in February 2021, stated:

“Its operation and processes have become over complex and there is a perception amongst the Parliamentary community that it is a stressful, isolated and lengthy process.”

I very much welcome the fact that timeliness is part of the current review, because it is one of the things that cause concern.

Nick Smith mentioned risk-based exclusion, and the Commission continues to consider the matter—as hon. Members will appreciate, there is a need to treat it with due care and attention. On 12 June, there was a debate about the proposals for risk-based exclusion that the Commission published in late May. It was a general debate because the commissioners were conscious that the publication of the report was the first opportunity for hon. Members to consider the Commission’s final proposals. It was an important opportunity for Members to express their views—ultimately, this is House business. The Commission has reiterated its strong commitment to proceed with this matter while taking on board the useful practical suggestions that emerged from that debate. It is of course paramount that everyone working on the estate feels safe. We all have a responsibility to improve the culture and working environment across Parliament.

The ICGS has been an integral part of efforts to change the culture in Parliament. We must remember that we probably would not be having this debate if it were not for the bravery of those men and women who chose to speak about their personal experiences. We thank them for taking that step on behalf of everyone. It is vital that we continue to take steps in the right direction and to listen to feedback. The review is under way, and I am sure the independent reviewer will listen to this debate. I will ensure that a copy of Hansard is provided with the points that have been made this afternoon.

It is important that the system has the confidence of all those involved. Our Parliament must lead by example in how it tackles these issues. The Government and the Leader of the House look forward to seeing the review’s recommendations. I sincerely thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke for securing the debate, as well as all those who have worked so hard in this area.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Ceidwadwyr, Basingstoke 2:08, 30 Tachwedd 2023

I thank everybody who has taken part in the debate, and I hope our comments will be listened to carefully. The ICGS is a system of well thought-through procedures and processes that provide an avenue for redress and for changing culture and behaviour in this place. Not all the original proposals have been implemented or adhered to, so I urge the review to consider how many of the current issues could have been avoided if they had been put in place as designed. There is a list of things, including training and HR, that have not yet come to fruition. Let us get the full package in place and give the ICGS the opportunity to work as originally envisaged.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the work of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme.

Sitting suspended.