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Tue, 7 July 2020

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Revealed: The warnings to the House of Commons Commission on new plans to tackle Westminster bullying and harassment

Revealed: The warnings to the House of Commons Commission on new plans to tackle Westminster bullying and harassment
8 min read

In February, the House of Commons Commission announced plans for an independent expert panel to determine bullying and harassment complaints against MPs, thereby removing members from the process.

This was an essential ask of Dame Laura Cox’s landmark 2018 inquiry into bullying and harassment in Westminster. 

On Tuesday afternoon, the Commons will have the opportunity to vote on the initiative, which senior parliamentary figures say meets the third and final key recommendation of the high court judge.

But, just as Westminster looked set to move on from a scandal that has plagued its reputation, a row has broken out that threatens to derail the faith of Commons staff in the new system. 

The proposals, which were put out for consultation earlier this year, will replace the existing process whereby allegations are sent to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who can refer them to the Standards Committee, which is made up of MPs and lay members. 

Among other areas, respondents to the consultation were asked for their views on whether MPs should debate a sanction of suspension or expulsion of a member following a panel determination.

After submitting an FOI request, The House Live has gained access to the responses.

The notion for plaintiffs that the matters of their complaint may then become matters of debate on the floor of the HoC would have an absolute chilling effect

Overwhelmingly, the Commission was warned against allowing MPs a debate on sanctions, citing areas around fairness, procedural justice and confidentiality. Many felt it would undermine the independence of the new system. 

In a response by the Prospect Union, the Commission was told: “The notion for plaintiffs that the matters of their complaint may then become matters of debate on the floor of the HoC would have an absolute chilling effect and would take place in a context where that individual has no redress.

"Both in terms of respecting confidentiality and principles of natural justice... the matter must be decided without debate."

A submission by a member of staff read: “We have seen previously how members have not been able to stop themselves defending other members, even without the full facts of a case before them.”

Another response warned: “To have a decision made at that stage, only for it to be overturned by MPs for political reasons, however disguised, could easily be the breaking point for those involved.”

An ex-clerk said: “Any procedure on the floor, debate or no debate, gives a member an opportunity to reopen a complaint investigation and attempt to politicise it.”

Knowing that some of the information provided could result in a debate on the floor of the House may deter targets of bullying coming forward.”

A joint contribution from Parliament's own Cultural Transformation Group said: "A debate would wholly undermine fair trial principles, both for complainants and respondents, potentially breaching Article 6 of the Human Rights Act, and could contribute to further harm and a complainant being revictimised.”

They added: “To put this in practical terms, it could mean a person who has been bullied or sexually assaulted (for example) having their distressing experience debated by politicians, who might split along party political lines, in the public glare.

"This would not only cause further distress and humiliation, but would likely increase the media interest and risk of identification of the complainant.”

And the British Psychological Society argued: “Knowing that some of the information provided could result in a debate on the floor of the House may deter targets of bullying coming forward.”

According to the Commission’s summary of the responses, around thirty argued that suspension or expulsion sanctions should be put to the House without a debate. Just three spoke in favour, while several more failed to give a clear indication either way.

'UNDERMINES TRUST'

Despite the majority view of those who responded, the Commission nevertheless said MPs should decide whether they should be allowed to debate the sanctions.

A motion put down by Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg on Thursday evening said a complainant cannot be named, details of the investigation cannot be discussed, and the findings and determination of the independent expert panel cannot be called into question. Debates would also be time-limited.

MPs in favour of debating a suspension or expulsion of another member insist it upholds an important constitutional principle that the Commons should have the last word on measures that temporarily disenfranchises the constituents of an accused member. 

They also argue that MPs would not seek to overturn the rulings of the panel, and suggest the House could sit in private to avoid complainants being identified.

But the news that MPs would hold a debate has been met with incredulity by parliamentary staff, campaign groups and unions, as reported by The House Live.

Speaking to The House Live before the motion was tabled, Nicki Eyre, the founder of Conduct Change, a campaign group on workplace bullying who took part in the consultation, said the decision “completely undermines trust in both the process and the consultation”, and “flies in the face” of Dame Laura’s recommendation of an independent complaints system.

“Bullying and harassment claims are extremely traumatic for all involved, and by refusing to listen to the voices of those brave enough to speak up during the independent investigations and the consultation process, the Commission is at risk of destroying all trust in the process by including this as an option,” she said.

“We implore MPs to vote against the option for any kind of debate. The panel judgement must be final, otherwise how is it truly purposeful? It is time for bold changes with people, not politics, at the heart.”

I think that the parliamentary community, and the electorate at large, is tired of Westminster closing ranks instead of holding its members to account.

Amy Leversidge, assistant general secretary of the FDA union, who also contributed, said: “It is cowardly of the House Commission to defer the decision about debates to MPs especially after the Commission’s own consultation showed the vast majority are against allowing MPs the right to overturn sanctions. It is clear that the House Commission are not considering their duty of care as an employer."

Kate Ellis, a solicitor at the Centre for Women's Justice, which represents a group of former House of Commons employees, told us: “It is extremely frustrating that a small committee of senior MPs may succeed in pushing these proposals through, despite overwhelming opposition from those who responded to the consultation. 

“To the group of former House of Commons employees we represent, this feels like a complete betrayal. We do not know why the Commission consulted on this issue at all if it did not intend to listen to the views of current and former Westminster staff."

She added: "I think that the parliamentary community, and the electorate at large, is tired of Westminster closing ranks instead of holding its members to account.” 

'CAREFULLY CONSIDERED'

A spokeswoman for the House of Commons Commission said: “The Commission carefully considered the responses to the consultation paper and felt this was an issue on which Members would hold a range of views. It therefore decided it should be for the House to decide this particular aspect of the proposals."

They added: “However, the motion before the House has been drafted in such a way that it would ensure that the integrity and independence of the decision of any Independent Panel or Sub-Panel is not questioned."

In the consultation, a contributor whose details were redacted argued a debate should be led by a representative of the Commission and that the accused MP should not be allowed to take part. 

"Any naming of the complainant should be ruled as disorderly by the speaker and erased from the record," they said.

Another argued: “It should be decided without debate but with a Commission member present to speak to the report.”

The Commission also received a submission from the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs. In its conclusion, the ’22 argued: “Whatever the composition of the panel tasked with a finding of fact, the Committee believes that following the publication of that determination, the appropriate body to determine sanction should be the Committee on Standards and Privileges. 

“The existence of a public finding of serious misconduct against a Member would place an expectation on the Committee on Standards and Privileges to recommend a serious sanction to the House. Experience suggests that once a sanction has been recommended in this way, the House normally accepts that recommendation.”

In its summary response in April, the Commission noted there was “strong support” from House staff, MPs’ staff and unions for a suspension or expulsion of a member to be put without a debate.  

Members of the Commission include Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, deputy speaker Rosie Winterton, Tory member of the 1922 committee Sir Charles Walker, Clerk of the Commons John Benger, Labour's Valerie Vaz and the SNP's Pete Wishart.

On Tuesday afternoon, MPs will vote on the new independent expert panel, which will consider cases raised under the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme.

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