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I know what’s needed to build confidence in Parliament’s complaints system

(Alamy)

5 min read

The working culture in Parliament – and Westminster more generally – has been in the news a lot over the past year.

We’ve seen several high-profile cases of individuals facing repercussions for workplace behaviours that we would not expect of anyone, let alone our elected officials.

Despite this, we also know that unacceptable behaviour still exists. In recent weeks, we’ve heard through the media of difficult and traumatic experiences from individuals, many of whom are MPs staff, as well as criticism of the systems in place for the investigation and sanctioning of unacceptable behaviour. Parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) is one of the avenues that members of the parliamentary community can use, and it is one that has seen its share of criticism in the past few weeks.

No one should feel that the process of raising a complaint is more damaging than the experience they are coming forward about

I became director of the ICGS in March of this year and as the director of the scheme I want to be very clear: No one should feel that the process of raising a complaint is more damaging than the experience they are coming forward about. 

I have watched and listened to the experiences that individuals have raised. I, along with the rest of my colleagues in the ICGS, take these criticisms and concerns extremely seriously and want to commend the bravery of individuals who have spoken out. It is a difficult and painful thing to do so, and it is important that we acknowledge that and think and how we can improve.

As I wrote to MPs staff, MPs and staff in the House of Commons Administration last week, I am committed, alongside the parliamentary commissioner for standards Daniel Greenberg, and the chair of the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) Sir Stephen Irwin, to improving the ICGS’ processes and the experience of those within it. I know that we must do this if we are to ensure lasting confidence in the independent systems that we now have in place.

My background is in investigations, both in conducting, assuring and overseeing – I joined from the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC), where I was the director for the North East and the strategic lead on Violence against Women and Girls. I also ran the quality and service improvement function, where I ran a programme to improve the experience of those involved in investigations. Before this I was deputy ombudsman at the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.

I know what we need to do to build trust in the scheme and cement the work that has already been achieved. Improving timeliness of investigations has been a priority for us since the scheme was established, but the feedback we’ve seen over the past few weeks shows there is clearly more to be done.

It is improving, this year already, investigations are, on average, taking over a month less to complete than the year before – 25 working days. I know we can go further, and faster, and I’m confident that we will. 

Given the complexity of some cases we know that some will, inevitably, take time. We also have to ensure that we’re not compromising on the quality of our investigations – we have to be rigorous, not only to ensure fairness, but also to maintain confidence in the scheme itself. We have put in additional assurance measures that will support the independent investigators to deliver robust investigations.

The requirement, as mandated by both Houses, to ensure a robust appeals process, can also add additional time pressures. And, inevitably, there is a time lag between cases now being reported on, and those we have improved measures against.

To deliver lasting cultural change in Parliament, all parts of the system – including individuals – need to work together to ensure that Parliament is a workplace where everyone feels safe and valued. The ICGS alone cannot prevent unacceptable behaviour from taking place, so all of us – whether MPs or staff – need to be constantly thinking about how our behaviour may affect others, and what constitutes unacceptable conduct in a modern workplace. Parliament’s Behaviour Code outlines this clearly, and it applies to every single person on the Estate, as well as those working in constituency offices across the country. 

The ICGS was established by both Houses and continues to work within the parameters that were set by Members at that time. Part of that is a built-in oversight function – an example of which is the requirement for regular external reviews into the scheme. The next scheduled review of the ICGS is due to begin this autumn. The terms of reference have now been published and the reviewer will be appointed following agreement from the commissions of both Houses after summer recess.

Members will, by now, have headed back to their constituencies, and for many the recess provides an opportunity to take stock. Over recess, we will be preparing for the forthcoming review. But we’ll also be continuing to listen to our community – and of course, investigating and supporting those who are using the scheme. We have an ambitious outreach programme that is currently underway. We meet regularly with our partners and colleagues in the trade unions, the administrations of both Houses and the Whips offices. Our outreach programme also includes MPs staff – the latter we’re particularly focused on supporting and building relationships with, and I welcome the opportunity to talk to and listen to their experiences.

I want everyone in the parliamentary community to know that if you need advice or want to make a complaint, the ICGS is there for you, and you will be supported.

 

Thea Walton, director of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS)

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