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Sun, 27 September 2020

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Commons Speaker warned Parliament “risks failing in its duty of care” to staff over Tory MP accused of rape

Commons Speaker warned Parliament “risks failing in its duty of care” to staff over Tory MP accused of rape

Speaker of the House of Commons Lindsay Hoyle at the State Opening of Parliament, December 2019 | PA Images

5 min read

Prospect trade union said an initial meeting with the Speaker “went nowhere near close to addressing [our] concerns”

The House of Commons Speaker has been warned by trade unions that Parliament “risks failing in its duty of care to its own employees” if the Conservative MP arrested on suspicion of rape is allowed to return to the parliamentary estate after Summer recess. 

The House understands an initial meeting has taken place between the Speaker Lindsay Hoyle and union representatives on the issue – however Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect trade union, described the meeting as “hugely disappointing” and said it “went nowhere near close to addressing Prospect’s concerns”. 

It is understood that there is disagreement over whether the Speaker and the House of Commons Commission has the legal authority to prevent a Member from accessing the estate. 

In a letter sent to Hoyle prior to the meeting, the Trade Union Side (TUS) president Ken Gall said media reports the MP in question had merely “volunteered” not to attend Parliament were “wholly unsatisfactory”, and could be seen as “allowing Parliament to avoid taking responsibility for its own duty towards its employees”.

Gall represents parliamentary workers across different unions. In the letter, dated 17 August and seen by The House, he warns Hoyle and the House of Commons Commission that they “may undo so much of the good work done” in tackling bullying and harassment in Westminster, putting staff at risk and undermining confidence that allegations are being handled appropriately. 

Gall has called for the Speaker instead to temporarily revoke the MP in question’s parliamentary pass “as an entirely legitimate and necessary step to take as part of [Parliament’s] duty of care as the employer” of House staff.

Hoyle has not yet formally responded to the letter ahead of Parliament’s return next Tuesday, when MPs and parliamentary staff will be returning to Westminster – a delay that union officials have deemed as being “fundamentally wrong”. 

A spokesperson for the Speaker said: “The Speaker cannot comment on individual cases or allegations. Sexual harassment has no place in the House of Commons. We take the safety of our staff seriously and are ensuring that any necessary measures are taken in respect of our employees.”

The Conservative Party announced earlier this month that the MP in question had agreed not to return to work at Westminster after his bail was extended to November. The accused MP, who has not been named, was arrested on 1 August 2020 before being released on conditional bail. He has not had the Conservative whip suspended, and will continue to represent constituents from home.

The MP is under investigation for four alleged incidents, including assault and rape, that took place between July 2019 and January 2020 in Westminster, Lambeth and Hackney. The complainant, a former parliamentary aide, alleges that she was left so traumatised that she had to go to hospital.

In his letter, Gall says rather than a punishment, suspending the MP from Parliament would be a “neutral” act, meant to “protect staff” rather than “prejudge the outcome of any investigation". The letter also questions whether the House of Commons Authorities were doing enough “to mitigate or eliminate potential risk” to staff from MPs accused of serious offences.

The allegations against the unnamed Conservative MP are the latest in a series of revelations about bullying and sexual harassment in Westminster since allegations first came to light in October 2017 as part of the #MeToo movement. No MP has been formally suspended from Parliament for any allegations against them.

One section of the letter from Gall to Hoyle reads:

“Over the last two years, we have seen a number of cases in which allegations against MPs (including sexual misconduct and domestic abuse) were deemed sufficiently serious to merit investigation by the PCS and/or police, or suspension by or the removal of the Whip from their party.  However, despite this, each of the MPs concerned was still permitted to attend Parliament, interact with staff and utilise the services provided by the House.

“The TUS believes that this is fundamentally wrong, and that exclusion from the estate for the accused MP during the period of an investigation is the most appropriate means of minimising risk to the people the [House of Commons] Commission employs, of safeguarding the integrity of any investigation and protecting the rights of both parties to it.

“In any other employment context, the employer would have the option of suspending an employee in these circumstances.”

Mike Clancy, Prospect general secretary added: 

“The agreement that the MP shouldn’t come into Westminster, reached with the MP himself, is no replacement for a policy. The unions definitely think that the House needs to set an example in this. We need a policy. 

“The Commission employs up to 3,000 people. It has duties to Parliament, it has duties to MPs but it also has duties to its employees. A failure to have a policy that at least permits the exclusion of an MP facing sexual misconduct charges is a failure in their responsibilities to particular their female employees but all staff, and it sends entirely the wrong message outside.”

In June 2020, MPs agreed to transfer the power to determine and impose sanctions on their colleagues to an Independent Expert Panel. Under this, suspending or even expelling an MP from Parliament is reserved as a punishment for an MP that has been found guilty of wrongdoing under Parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievances Scheme, and requires the formal authorisation of the House of Commons.

If an MP is convicted in the UK of an offence and sentenced or ordered to be imprisoned or detained, then their constituents can trigger a recall process to force a by-election.

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