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Fri, 27 November 2020

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If MPs debate sanctions, the new bullying and harassment process will be fundamentally undermined

If MPs debate sanctions, the new bullying and harassment process will be fundamentally undermined

MPs will tomorrow vote on a new independent expert panel for dealing with harassment and bullying claims

4 min read

If MPs vote to allow themselves a debate on the most serious bullying and harassment cases, it will be a sad confirmation that the 'deferential' culture described by Dame Laura Cox remains firmly in place

The completion of the new bullying and harassment complaints process in Parliament is long overdue. 

On Tuesday, the final elements of the new Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) will be debated by the Commons - or at least by the fifty MPs who are able to get into the Chamber under social distancing restrictions.

It has much to recommend it. But it risks being fundamentally undermined by the government’s insistence that MPs should get an opportunity to debate the most serious cases. 

Under the proposals, a new independent expert panel will consider cases referred to it by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and hear appeals against her decisions. 

The panel will also determine the most appropriate sanction for the gravest misdemeanours, before MPs vote on their recommendation. 

Commons staff are aghast that the supposedly reformed process they have fought so hard for will now end up giving the last word to MPs

So far, so appropriate. The sanctions that the expert panel will have at their disposal include suspension or expulsion of an MP, which would mean temporarily or permanently depriving electors of their chosen representative. 

It’s right that that should not happen without the agreement of the Commons - although it’s worth noting that – after the Lord Lester debacle - the Lords now accepts reports from its Standards Commissioner without a vote.

But the government wants to go further than simply allowing MPs a vote – it wants MPs to be able to debate the recommendation of the expert panel before they vote. 

This is clearly contrary to the 2018 recommendations made by Dame Laura Cox - the former High Court judge whose review found a ‘disturbing’ level of bullying in the Commons. She said that MPs should ‘play no part’ in a reformed bullying and harassment process. 

Respondents to a Commission consultation on the new proposals were overwhelmingly against allowing a debate [as The House Live reported last week]. 

Commons staff are aghast that the supposedly reformed process they have fought so hard for will now end up giving the last word to MPs, including - potentially – MPs who have been found guilty of serious abuse.

The Leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees Mogg, has tried to assuage concerns by proposing safeguards around any debate on a recommendation from the expert panel. Members will be forbidden from naming the complainant or disputing the facts of the case. 

But unfortunately that won’t stop the prospect of such a debate being a serious deterrent to staff, or indeed MPs, considering making a complaint.

Earlier stages of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme introduced by Andrea Leadsom were designed to maximise confidentiality for complainants and those accused. 

This was done on the understanding of just how difficult it can be for victims of bullying and harassment to report the behaviour to which they have been subject. Rees Mogg seems unbothered by the deterrent effect.

It takes only seconds for an MP to say something inappropriate before the Chair can intervene, by which time their words are on the record and protected by privilege.

The Leader’s office has argued that remarks made in any debate will have to be short and factual. 

But staff fear that the effectiveness of the self-denying ordinance Rees Mogg is proposing will depend greatly on the activism of the chair and the compliance of MPs participating in the debate. 

Past experience, including with the House’s sub judice rule (which theoretically prevents references in the Chamber to matters that are live in the courts) is not encouraging. 

It takes only seconds for an MP to say something inappropriate before the Chair can intervene, by which time their words are on the record and protected by privilege. 

Debates on Standards Committee reports under the old system often saw MPs protesting the injustice of findings and bemoaning the impact of proven allegations on their lives. 

Meanwhile their victims sat mute on the sidelines, aware that – although they had not been named – their identity was obvious to their colleagues. 

The prospect of such an experience will weigh heavily in the minds of staff and MPs deciding whether to pursue a complaint. 

If MPs vote to allow themselves a debate on the most serious ICGS cases against the wishes of the staff who support them in their work, it will be a sad confirmation that the ‘excessively hierarchical… and deferential culture’ described by Dame Laura remains firmly in place. 

Dr Hannah White is the deputy director of the Institute for Government

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