Andrea Leadsom: “For the 15,000 staff who work here, there will be a route through to removing them - whoever they are”
As Commons Leader at a time of great upheaval in Westminster, people looked to Andrea Leadsom for answers to Parliament’s harassment and bullying scandal. With a new grievance procedure unveiled, can she win over the sceptics? The Brexiteer talks to Sebastian Whale
“Speaking of votes,” says Andrea Leadsom. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
It is well past nine o’clock on Monday evening and while the rest of the country settles into Love Island, politicians are dashing back and forth to the voting lobbies. Luckily for the Commons Leader, she doesn’t have far to travel. Her office is a stone’s throw from the floor of the House behind Speaker’s Chair, where forlorn looking Conservative MPs gather to swap stories of their respective anger about the day’s events.
Such is the fluidity of British politics that the context of our interview changes as the votes take place. The Government narrowly avoids defeat on an amendment demanding reciprocity from EU member states on collecting tariffs post-Brexit. We learn, as I wait on a sofa outside Leadsom’s office, of plans (later withdrawn) to bring forward the summer recess by five days in a move that screams of a government running scared.
Leadsom does her best to put a different spin on it. “No, I don’t think so at all. I think it just recognises that it’s been a very lengthy session, we’ve achieved a huge amount and people need to have a break, they need to get back to their constituencies and to spend some time with their families.”
Setting aside the rigmarole of Brexit for now, we’ve actually convened for a discussion about the new behaviour code and complaints procedure for bullying and harassment at Westminster, which has been spearheaded by Leadsom since the tail end of last year.
The proposals would see the establishment of two helplines for parliament’s staff – one for bullying and harassment, the second for victims of sexual harassment or sexual violence. Mediation will, if requested, be offered as a first step for dealing with an accusation, before moving to a confidential, independent investigation involving the Commissioner for Standards, or for more serious cases, the Committee on Standards (made up of seven MPs and lay members). MPs could end up voting to expel their colleagues.
“What we’re hoping we’ll achieve with this complaints procedure is a place you can go in confidence to have somebody who will listen to you, properly investigate what’s upset you, and then there’ll be proper sanctions at the end of it,” she says.
“That’s going to range from an apology, compulsory training, perhaps a behaviour agreement at the lower level. At the more worrying level, it would include, if it was an MP, going via the Standards Committee for an apology to the House, for a suspension and even a suspension that invokes the Recall of MPs Act.”
For the avoidance of doubt, she adds: “For the 15,000 staff who work in this place, there will be a route through to removing them from here, whoever they are.”
The working group was set up last year after Westminster was engulfed by a sexual harassment scandal. Parliament’s arcane system for dealing with complaints meant that often victims felt they could only speak out to the press. Given MPs effectively run their own HR department, there were few other choices available.
Leadsom was caught up in the storm after allegations emerged that Sir Michael Fallon (one of two Cabinet colleagues to leave the Government during the scandal), made lewd comments to her in the past. While she does not wish to talk about the incident (which he denies), Leadsom gives praise to those who came forward.
“It’s been a really bad experience for people who’ve come forward and I really do pay tribute to them for their courage in being willing to tell their story that has resulted in this complaints procedure being set up,” she adds.
An internal survey found that 19% of parliamentary staff had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour in the previous year. Leadsom says it was “really depressing” to hear the evidence from people discussing some of the “horrible experiences” they have endured. Was she shocked at the prevalence?
“Considering that there are so many Members of Parliament and peers, I would say I still come out believing that the vast majority of politicians who work here genuinely want to do the right thing, to treat people well. They’re here to make the world a better place,” she says.
“I wasn’t surprised in the sense that everybody seems to be behaving badly. But I was really disappointed to see how common it seems to be that members of staff here, who’ve had nowhere to complain before, they literally came to us and said, ‘I knew I could either keep quiet, leave or talk to the press’. Those aren’t good choices.”
Though the new grievance procedure is expected to get the backing of the Commons, critics have raised concerns that allegations predating June 2017 will not be subject to the same processes. Leadsom insists that the group took Queen’s Counsel advice that said because these are internal issues relating to misconduct, there is a limit to how far back you can go in carrying out an investigation due to evidence gathering. She also notes that the new behaviour code will apply from the start of the parliament. But many have highlighted that MPs would have been aware of what constituted inappropriate behaviour long before 2017.
Regardless, Leadsom says that complainants will be “signposted” for where they can go to get justice as part of a historic allegations review which will be established for a six-month period. This could include being referred to the police if it’s a criminal issue, the relevant party’s complaints procedure or the Commissioner for Standards.
“The reason why it’s not more historic is because of the difficulty of making something truly retrospective in terms of getting the evidence together for a proper investigation and then having a sanction that you can make retrospective. Normal rules of justice must apply,” she says.
“There will be the opportunity for people to go back through, in historic allegations, to be given signposting, advice and support to go to pre-existing sanctions arrangements. We’re hoping that this going forward is going to be much, much better than anything we’ve had in the past.”
Amid the backlash to the 2011 Respect policy, how can Leadsom assuage concerns about the new procedure? “Key to this is we’ve put the complainant at the heart of the procedure in everything we do to enable them to come forward in confidence and in confidentiality to be able to make a complaint and to know that that will be taken seriously and have real repercussions.
“My message to staff would be, ‘give it a go. Bring forward your complaints, trust in the system and just give it a go.’”
Leadsom returns from the second vote on the Government’s Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Bill looking somewhat dejected. The atmosphere in her party, as captured during a fiery debate in the Commons, is febrile at best.
Earlier in the day, the Government accepted four amendments laid by the European Research Group, one of which was thought to undermine or completely rip-up Theresa May’s plans for a Facilitated Customs Arrangement, as set out in her Chequers agreement.
“The Chequers white paper is the negotiating position. Essentially, the Government feels that the amendments put forward by a group of backbenchers are compatible with the white paper proposals. And so, that’s why the Government’s accepting them,” Leadsom explains.
The white paper, she continues, meets Brexiteers’ red lines, including ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, leaving the single market, customs union, Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policies.
“What this proposal does, is it also addresses the EU’s red lines. So, it’s very clever,” she says, before taking aim at Brussels. The EU has not been negotiating properly with Britain, Leadsom argues, saying they have “dictated” the timeline of talks and refused to engage in discussions about the bigger picture.
“The EU has simply not taken us seriously so far in terms of the future agreement. What this deal does is it says to them, right, now we can have a free trading area where there won’t be the need for border checks and controls,” she continues.
“It’s saying to the EU, ‘you better take this seriously’. In my view, it’s take this seriously or we are heading for no deal. The message to the EU has to be, ‘this is the final offer’. So, when you say, ‘is it flexible?’, it’s not in the sense that they’re going to wriggle away at it and we’re going to accept it. It is a very hard and fast offer to the EU that makes sense for them. But if they don’t accept it, we’re also ramping up our no deal preparations. That’s where we will be heading and they will have forced us to do that.”
Is that her message to parliamentarians too – back Chequers or face no deal Brexit? “With parliamentarians, each individual has to look themselves in the mirror,” she replies. “If people genuinely think that this is not in line with what they find acceptable, then they won’t support it.
“I would consider myself to be one of the most passionate, ardent Brexiteers in the country. I genuinely, having looked very carefully at the white paper, I do believe that if we do this deal we are still leaving the EU. There is no question about that.”
But many of her fellow Brexiteers see Chequers as Brexit in name only – two of her Cabinet colleagues resigned over the agreement. “Different people have a different slant on it. For some people, they’re not happy with any sort of preferential close trading relationship. For me, I’m a pragmatist. I’m looking at what are the red lines,” replies Leadsom. Instead, the prize of becoming a “globally free trading nation again” remains within reach, she argues.
With MPs from different sides of the EU debate unconvinced, the Government has its work cut out to convince MPs to back a deal with Chequers at the heart of it. Leadsom says winning over the House (and her fellow Leavers) is nothing new for a minority government that has already passed key Brexit legislation.
“It’s incumbent on the Government to make the case and to explain exactly why the Chequers deal can work for us as Brexiteers, sticking to our red lines but at the same time can offer something to the EU that deals with what they’ve set out as their red lines,” she continues.
But as Leadsom returns from the voting lobbies once more, the deep schism over Europe in her own party widens. Guto Bebb, the Defence Minister, resigns to vote against the Government.
Could the party split over the issue that has plagued it for so many years? Leadsom takes a breath.
“I genuinely hope not. The Conservative party has a broad range of views and has a lot of very principled members within it and people who will genuinely vote with what they believe is the right thing to do,” she says.
“But at the same time, we’re also a pragmatic party. So, I do think that we will come back together again.
“This is a very difficult time. The issue of the EU is something that people feel very, very strongly about. So, I’m not surprised to see the anxiety and upset that is apparent in recent days.
“I do genuinely hope and think that the party will come back together again.”