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A better system is needed to investigate misconduct in Parliament

4 min read

In order to investigate allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct in the House of Lords and across parliament, a more robust and independent system must be introduced, says Lord McFall of Alcluith 

It has become increasingly clear over recent years that parliament needed a stronger process for dealing with complaints of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct. Last week the House of Lords Privileges and Conduct Committee, which I chair, set out proposals that represent an important step forward in improving our processes and delivering appropriate independence for dealing with complaints of this nature, which will keep the House of Lords in step with the new approach taken across parliament. 

Since media stories emerged in the autumn of 2017 of a culture of bullying and harassment in parliament, a great deal of work has been done by politicians, officials and employee organisations, on a cross-party and bicameral basis, on how to respond. As a result, the new independent complaints and grievance scheme has been agreed, with at its heart a new behaviour code setting out the standards of behaviour expected of all those on the parliamentary estate as well as in carrying out parliamentary duties elsewhere.

Our report sets out changes to the House of Lords codes of conduct for members and members’ staff to incorporate the parliamentary behaviour code. This determines that behaviour which constitutes bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct is a breach of the codes. For the first time the behaviour code applies to everyone in parliament, establishing a uniform set of principles of behaviour for staff, members’ staff and members of both Houses. 

Overseeing the codes will be a new House of Lords Conduct Committee, taking on the existing role of the Privileges and Conduct Committee in regard to members’ conduct. Importantly, the committee will include external members, whose experience will provide a new, independent perspective. We are proposing that the committee will comprise nine members – five members of the House and four external members, all with equal voting rights. Under our proposals we will no longer have a system based solely on members judging their colleagues. This committee will act as the appeal body for both a complainant and for a member who was the subject of a complaint.

Under our proposals we will no longer have a system based solely on members judging their colleagues

Under the scheme, the existing independent House of Lords commissioner for standards would continue to investigate complaints to establish whether there had been a breach of the codes of conduct. In future, however, the commissioner will have the option of being assisted by independent investigators, and she – rather than the committee – will propose an appropriate sanction in cases of a breach. This is another step forward in making the process more independent of members.

The committee also recommends that reports from the Conduct Committee relating to the behaviour of individual members, including those imposing sanctions, should be decided by the House without debate, and we recommend a new standing order to make that clear.

The committee’s report will soon be put to the House for its agreement, and I am confident that colleagues will agree that it delivers a much more robust and independent system, and one that provides appropriate support and safeguards for both those reporting complaints and those complained against. 

We are aware that there is more work to do. We will keep the codes and processes under review, particularly once we have the report from Naomi Ellenbogen QC on bullying and harassment in the House of Lords. But the package of changes recommended in our report represents a significant step forward in the way the House deals with allegations of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct against members and their staff. It will ensure we have an appropriate system to respond to such complaints in which everyone can feel confident.

Lord McFall of Alcluith is a non-affiliated peer and senior deputy speaker of the House of Lords

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