After #MeToo, the work to change Parliament’s culture continues
Change is happening – but altering the culture of Parliament will only happen in a meaningful way if we keep up this momentum for years to come, writes Andrea Leadsom
Every day in Parliament I meet people who have come to Westminster to make a difference – and do their best to make the UK a great place to live and work. Our parliamentary democracy is admired around the world, not least for our collective commitment to its ongoing improvement. So when the #MeToo scandal shocked us in 2017, I’m proud of how all parties came together to address the problem. We have begun the journey to change our working culture with a shared determination that everyone who works in or visits Parliament should be treated with courtesy and respect.
The process has not been a straightforward one. We learned the hard way that Westminster is just as susceptible to abuses of power resulting in sexual harassment, bullying and abuse as other sectors like Hollywood and the City. We have been forced to accept uncomfortable truths about our parliament, which has for too long been dominated by a culture of deference, subservience and silence. Yet we have also recognised that through patience and tenacity we can improve and change - not only because it’s morally the right thing to do, but also because our democracy will suffer if we do not. I believe the cross-party changes agreed and implemented last year will, in time, transform the culture in Westminster, and give us the opportunity to be a role model for parliaments around the world.
We have introduced a new Behaviour Code for Parliament which makes clear that everyone - whether an MP, Peer, member of staff, contractor or visitor - should be respected and valued. It’s now clear to all that we will take a zero-tolerance approach to bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. Proper HR advice and training has been introduced to support this. So have procedures to deal with reports of sexual harassment where there had previously been none, including the appointment of a new Independent Sexual Violence Advocate.
For the Behaviour Code to truly have teeth, it needed to be underpinned by an independent procedure that operates separately from the political parties’ internal processes. We have achieved this by establishing the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme. It aims to give everyone confidence that any complaint they make will be treated confidentially, and that the perpetrator will be sanctioned appropriately. The evidence shows it is working: in the final three months of 2018 it received 250 complaints, a significant increase from the 50 complaints received from July to September. I believe that demonstrates an increasing level of trust and support for the process, but I am by no means complacent.
While taking evidence as chair of the Working Group developing these processes, it became clear that achieving the culture change we need to see was not going to happen overnight. Since the launch of the complaints scheme further troubling evidence of the cultural problem has emerged through the work of Dame Laura Cox. Her report into the treatment of House of Commons staff has highlighted how much further we have to go to stamp out all forms of bullying or harassment. It highlighted why we cannot afford to simply dust our hands off and say ‘job done’. That is not the way we should do things in Parliament. Our work continues apace.
The Respect and Valuing Others policies have been abandoned. The first six-month review of the complaints procedure has begun. Gemma White QC is conducting her own independent inquiry into the nature and extent of bullying and harassment of past and present staff of MPs, and of MPs themselves. Naomi Ellenbogen QC is conducting a similar inquiry in the House of Lords. The Standards Committee has been reformed to ensure MPs are not perceived to be marking their own homework, and a further review of this is underway.
Change is happening - but changing the culture will only happen in a meaningful way if we keep up this momentum for years to come. A recent Fawcett Society poll showed that over one in four respondents continue to be put off entering politics because of allegations of sexual assault and harassment, while almost one in a quarter were less likely to vote. That is simply not good enough.
So as I walk through the corridors of Westminster, passing the many different people who work on the parliamentary estate, I remember the testimony I have heard from some incredibly brave individuals, and my commitment to protecting all in Parliament is redoubled. I hope everyone in Westminster will join me in making it their ambition to continue this progress - and create a better Parliament with a positive culture that will be admired around the world.
Andrea Leadsom is Conservative MP for South Northamptonshire and Leader of the Commons