ICGS Director Wants To Reduce Bullying Complaints Threshold
Thea Walton (Credit: UK Parliament/Maria Unger)
Parliamentary authorities want to lower the threshold for launching bullying investigations at Westminster to deal with the “horror stories” of persistent offenders.
In an interview with The House magazine, director of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) Thea Walton said: “Sometimes there is gossip and rumour about an individual from one incident that everybody's heard [about] and got a slightly different take on it. Sometimes there are multiple instances – and you hear these absolute horror stories, don't you – of people starting work and saying, ‘don't go there, don't go there, don't go near this person’, and all that sort of stuff.”
Walton wants the organisation to escalate action against individuals if they are the subject of three allegations of bullying and harassment even if they fall short of a formal complaint. At the moment the trigger is five.
Walton said that by current standards, if the same person is mentioned to the ICGS five times for bullying, their case is escalated – and from her experience, would trigger a risk assessment that would potentially go back to the party. However, Walton says she wants to reduce that to three, as “five seems quite a high bar”.
While she says that complainants should retain the right of whether to approach their party or the ICGS with a complaint, she said the ICGS was better placed to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct, harassment, and bullying themselves.
The ICGS was set up in 2018 in response to a rash of allegations dubbed the ‘Pestminster’ scandal. In her first interview since taking over the role as its head, Walton defended it against claims it is too slow – warning some have unrealistic expectations about what it can achieve.
Despite criticisms that ICGS investigations have taken too long – and that complainants have found the process traumatising – recent improvements have been made.
According to its fifth annual report, between June 2022 and June 2023 the ICGS recruited 27 new investigators, rolled out behaviour code training to 677 new Members and staff, and reduced the average time taken for a case to conclude by 26 working days.
Walton said she is now trying to “be more on the front foot” to improve the ICGS’ reputation. This means bringing in confidential drop-in sessions, sharing advice with the police and conducting training with bar staff to make sure they know what to do if they spot inappropriate behaviour.
However, when asked whether women – especially younger women – can feel safe in Parliament, Walton said: “I don’t know, is the honest answer.”
She added: “I wouldn't say that nobody feels safe, but I have heard lots of things where women don't, from some of the engagement activity that I've done. So, I think all the time that there is a section of people that are saying they don't feel safe, then people have to listen and do something about it.”
Speaking in the wake of Nadine Dorries’ claims the Conservative Party failed to address allegations of rape against an MP, Walton made clear that – while complainants should retain the right to decide whether to approach their party or the ICGS – only her body offers accountability in the event a claim is proven.
“Bullying and harassment and sexual misconduct is so serious if proven,” she said. “That is one reason why I am much more comfortable with the ICGS dealing with it than I am parties, just because of the independence, the transparency if proven, and the rigour of the process.”
But Walton also said that there are limits to what the ICGS can do – and expectations are sometimes unrealistic.
She explained: “We are an investigative body investigating bullying, harassment, and sexual misconduct. We're not an employer of any of these people… I can add my voice to others where I can see that there is an issue with how easy it is for people to complain or come forward because of their situation, but I can't fix that… and I'm not saying that I think it's right, because I don't. But equally lots of people have looked at this, and there are no easy answers to it.”
Parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) was set up in 2018 to investigate allegations of bullying, harassment, and sexual misconduct. Walton joined the ICGS in March 2023 from the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC), where she was the director for the North East and the strategic lead on Violence against Women and Girls. Before this, she was deputy ombudsman at the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.
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