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Fri, 4 December 2020

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Exclusive: MPs urged to reject ‘dangerous’ part of new plan to tackle Westminster bullying as vote looms

Exclusive: MPs urged to reject ‘dangerous’ part of new plan to tackle Westminster bullying as vote looms

Jacob Rees-Mogg is expected to announce on Thursday plans to debate the new independent panel

6 min read

MPs are being urged to reject a “dangerous” part of proposals to tackle bullying and harassment in Westminster ahead of a looming vote on a new independent complaints panel.

The House Live understands that Jacob Rees-Mogg will on Thursday outline the timetable for debating the changes to the complaints system at Westminster.

But unions have hit out at proposals which would grant MPs a debate over the proposed suspension or expulsion of members, a move they claim gives politicians the final say and the "ultimate right of appeal”.

In February the House of Commons Commission - the internal group responsible for administration and services of the Commons - backed plans for an independent panel to determine bullying and harassment complaints against MPs by parliamentary staff.

Currently such 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. 

The new independent system - which was out for consultation earlier this year - is the third key recommendation of Dame Laura Cox’s landmark 2018 inquiry into bullying and harassment in Parliament.

The high court judge also called for existing complaints procedures to be removed and for historical allegations to be included. In her report, she criticised a culture of “deference and silence” that “actively sought to cover up abusive conduct” by MPs. 

The Commission agreed in April that the new panel would be comprised of experts; would not include a former or current MP; and would adopt the same appeals framework and confidentiality processes as the Standards Committee.

Members of the Commission - which includes Speaker Lindsay Hoyle and represenatives from the main parties in the Commons - in conjunction with the Commons executive board, will finalise the person specification and conduct the recruitment process.

"The proposals... will need to be considered in the Chamber of the House of Commons. And, if approved by the House, this will see the recruitment of an independent chair and seven expert panel members, none of whom will be MPs," the Commission said in a statement.

'MANIFEST INJUSTICE'

But while campaigners welcome the new independent body - which they say is crucial to gaining the support of Commons staff - disquiet has been growing about one element of the changes that MPs could debate next week.

Unless there was something that was utterly absurd and a manifest injustice, the inclination of the Commons would be to err on the side of the investigator

During the consultation, the Commision heard evidence on why MPs should be able to debate a proposed suspension or expulsion of a member by the independent panel.

This, some MPs argue, upholds an important constitutional principle that the Commons should have the last word on measures that temporarily disenfranchises the constituents of an accused MP.

They insist that the Commons would not seek to go against the ruling of the panel, given the negative optics of such a move.

“Unless there was something that was utterly absurd and a manifest injustice, the inclination of the Commons would be to err on the side of the investigator,” says one MP. “I can’t remember any instance where the House of Commons has overruled the recommendations of the Commission.”

In October 2019, MPs backed calls by the Standards Committee to suspend former Labour MP Keith Vaz for six months after its investigation into claims he offered to buy drugs for sex workers. The measure was endorsed without a vote.

But the FDA union, which represents parliamentary staff, fears a repeat of what took place with Lord Lester in late 2018.

Despite three inquiries concluding that the former Lib Dem peer had sexually harassed a member of staff - accusations he denies - a vote was forced to effectively block his recommended four-year suspension.

Peers supported the move by 101 to 78. One Tory backbencher in favour of MPs being allowed a debate says: “What we saw with the House of Lords was an unelected House which doesn’t feel that it’s got to account for itself to the electorate.”

And Labour MP Chris Bryant argues: "I haven't seen the precise proposals so it's difficult to be clear, but my broad feeling is that if the independent panel were to recommend suspension or expulsion after a fair and independent process, then the House would be duty bound to follow a self-denying ordinance. The last thing we want is something as unedifying as what happened in the Lords."

The FDA also believes it could lead to a situation where MPs identify victims and discuss specifics of the allegations in the Chamber, meaning staff will not bring forward complaints (to avoid such a scenario, MPs say the House could sit in private). The union argues that the proposals breach Dame Laura Cox’s recommendation for a fully independent system.

'DANGEROUS PROPOSAL'

Amy Leversidge, assistant general secretary of the FDA, is calling on MPs to support the proposed implementation of a Parliamentary tribunal, describing it as an “immense achievement for all those that never lost faith that Parliament can and should be a better place to work”.

This would clearly be an abuse of power and risks a repeat of the debacle of the Lord Lester case

“However, allowing MPs to debate the findings and sanction of a complaint completely undermines the principle that the procedure should be entirely independent of MPs and MPs should vote against this dangerous proposal,” she says.

She continues: “This would clearly be an abuse of power and risks a repeat of the debacle of the Lord Lester case. Most worryingly, as the debate would only be in the circumstances of an upheld complaint where the MP will be expelled from the House this power would only be used to protect the worst offenders in the most serious cases.”

Leversidge urges MPs to vote against “giving themselves a final and ultimate right of appeal.”

'HIGH EXPECTATIONS'

A source in the Leader’s Office refused to confirm that the plans will be debated by MPs next week, saying any such proceedings would be announced in the usual way at Business Statement on a Thursday morning.

However, The House understands that Rees-Mogg is due to meet members of the Tory backbench 1922 committee executive on Wednesday evening, where the plans could form part of the discussions.

On whether the new approach meets the requirements set out by Dame Laura Cox, Rees-Mogg said: “Placing decisions of this kind in the hands of an independent expert panel is a fundamental break with the past that reflects our continuing efforts to make parliament a better place to work.

"We should always aim to meet the public's high expectations of our working culture and adopting Dame Laura Cox's recommendation in this way will help us do so."

Responding in February to the creation of the panel, Dame Laura said: "I am very happy to see that the Commission has agreed with the preferred option of an independent expert panel, subject to consultation and to a sensible agreement as to a broad range of sanctions.

"I am extremely pleased to see that this option has commanded the most widespread support. It also meets the requirements of independence and expertise, which are so crucial to the success of any scheme."

Westminster was rocked by accusations of sexual harassment and bullying from MPs towards parliamentary staff. Among those accused was John Bercow, the former Speaker, who faced allegations of bullying two former private secretaries. He denies all claims against him.

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