Full Account: The Thea Walton interview
Thea Walton (Credit: UK Parliament/Maria Unger)
Parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) was set up in 2018 to investigate allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct. Sophie Church speaks to director Thea Walton about how the scheme is performing, and whether Parliament is a safe place to work
In the course of this Parliament more than 20 MPs have been suspended – around half for bullying and sexual misconduct. Two peers have left the House of Lords for sexual misconduct since 2018, and an unnamed Conservative MP is currently under investigation for multiple rape allegations.
It’s a total that has led some to brand this “the worst Parliament in history” for misconduct. Others argue that it reflects the efficacy of the new Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS), set up in 2018. Complainants alleging bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct of any passholder, be that MP, peer or member of staff, are being heard, say supporters.
But the question remains: is Westminster a place where women, especially younger women, can feel safe?
“I don’t know,” says director of the ICGS Thea Walton, after a long pause and sigh. “I don’t know, is the honest answer.”
“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.”
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.
Speaking in the wake of Nadine Dorries’ claims that the Conservative Party failed to address allegations of rape against an MP, Walton says that while complainants should retain the right of 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 [are] so serious if proven,” she explains. “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.”
Going forward, she would like stricter protocols over the common knowledge “horror stories” one hears around Westminster about certain individuals, which rarely result in a full investigation. By current standards, if the same person is mentioned to the ICGS five times for bullying, their case is escalated. However, Walton wants to “bring that down to three” as “five seems quite a high bar”.
In her police roles she grew used to dealing with very serious cases – sexual assaults, murder even – but Parliament’s cases are different, she says. They are far more complicated.
“There’s a simplicity, I suppose, about both of those roles, because it is very clear who the employer is, and what their responsibilities are to the people in their care,” she explains. “That’s much harder here, because you’ve got so many different types of employers, and of course, MPs obviously don’t have employers.”
Walton sees a “perfect storm” whipping through Westminster: where younger, inexperienced staff collide with much older people occupying powerful positions – often working late into the night, or socialising in pubs, bars and offices.
Was she shocked by Westminster’s drinking culture?
Another pause, then: “It was different to what I’m used to, yes. I’m not sure that I was entirely shocked, but it is different to different environments I’ve worked in.”
While she believes she is not well-placed to compare Parliament’s culture to years gone by, Walton says: “I know what I see. And what I see is actually a relatively low number of sexual misconduct type cases – but they are horrible.”
The ICGS was recently criticised by one complainant. “It wasn’t the sexual harassment I found most traumatic,” said one staffer, “it was the process I was going through”. Others agree: the ICGS investigation was traumatising and lengthy, and the result unsatisfying.
When Walton was brought into the ICGS, she was tasked with decreasing the time taken for a case to progress, and to improve the quality of the experience for all parties involved.
It absolutely is a theme that people don’t tend to come forward while they’re still employed by the individual
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.
Still, the biggest cause of delay – perhaps the one most difficult to overcome – is a failure on respondents’ and complainants’ part to engage with the ICGS. “It goes both sides, but it’s more a problem with respondents than complainants,” Walton says. “But… the lack of engagement, whether that be through genuine poor health or whether that be a deliberate thing from both sides is our biggest cause of delay.”
Walton makes clear that the ICGS receives “just as many mental health concerns [and] wellbeing concerns about respondents as we do about complainants”, and says it has not been uncommon for MPs to break down mid-conversation, confronted by the accusation of what they had or had not done. In this process, she says, there are “no winners”.
However, she says “only a small proportion” of complainants feel able to make a claim while they are still in the job.
“We don’t have many cases where people wait until they’ve left the employment with that MP before they make their complaint in general. So I couldn’t… give you absolutes, because I don’t know. But it absolutely is a theme that people don’t tend to come forward while they’re still employed by the individual.”
How, then, can the ICGS negotiate this power dynamic: where complainants largely feel unable to speak while they are still employed within the Palace of Westminster?
“I think it’s really hard,” Walton says. “The first thing you want to do when someone comes forward is make them feel safe, and it’s one of the hardest things to be able to do, hand on heart, in Parliament.”
Herein lies the limits of the ICGS’s power. And sometimes, she says, expectations of what the service can deliver are such that it can only ever fail.
“I think this goes to the heart of what people think the ICGS is and isn’t,” Walton says. “Because 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.”
As a confidential service, Walton thinks the ICGS has allowed the negative feedback to become too dominant, and overly definitive. Now, she is trying to “be more on the front foot”.
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.
Looking ahead, Walton is excited by the ICGS review being done by civil service commissioner and former standards commissioner in the Lords Paul Kernaghan, as “every review we’ve had has led to improvements”. She leaves the interview to head straight into a training session on trauma.
While the ICGS may be limited in its power to change Westminster’s culture, Walton seems determined: that when cases arise, her service is best-placed to respond.
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