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Fri, 4 December 2020

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The House of Commons has made a fundamental break with the past. But there is so much more to do

The House of Commons has made a fundamental break with the past. But there is so much more to do

MPs tonight voted against holding a debate over sanctions passed down by an independent panel on bullying and harassment

4 min read

Changing the culture in Parliament means ensuring that those in positions of power do not feel they can act without consequences. We have taken a big step towards doing that, but there is more to be done.

Today the House of Commons has made a fundamental break with the past. It has voted to end the historic practice of MPs adjudicating on the actions of their peers.

The fact that this step is necessary is deeply regrettable but the behaviour of a small number of Members of Parliament over years and decades has disgraced our parliamentary system of which I am so proud.

Such was the need to restore the trust of those working in Parliament - and the British people more generally - that Members of Parliament have sacrificed our ancient right to look after our own affairs. 

How we treat each other matters at all times, in all places, but particularly in Parliament. Since becoming Leader of the House I have heard from many of those affected. It goes without saying that many of these cases are distressing in the extreme. People who have worked in the parliamentary estate have suffered and are continuing to suffer because they have not been given the resolution they deserve. 

This is why we have acted so decisively. Allowing MPs to be judged by their peers has undermined the trust of those affected by bullying and harassment who felt the system was open to abuse by those trying to protect their fellow members of Parliament.

It was imperative to remove the ability of those in positions of power to determine what should happen to those who abuse that power.

People who have worked in the parliamentary estate have suffered and are continuing to suffer because they have not been given the resolution they deserve

In place of that committee of MPs, the House has today voted to establish an independent panel, made up of eight legal and procedural experts - none of whom will be MPs - to decide the right sanction.

In the most severe cases, suspension or expulsion of an MP is necessary - a decision of great magnitude. It means, albeit temporarily, disenfranchising tens of thousands of voters and undoing the democratic choice they made at the last election. 

Therefore it must come to the House of Commons for a vote. Usually in such cases, there is the opportunity for the House to briefly consider a matter of such gravity. 

But I felt it crucial that no Member of Parliament should have been able to use the occasion to discuss publicly the details of the allegation. 

Therefore I took steps to prevent parliamentary privilege being abused and barring MPs from naming the complainant, discussing details of the case or questioning in any way the findings of the independent body’s report.

In the end, the House of Commons voted to curtail the opportunity for limited remarks and an apology and I completely respect its decision to curb its own powers in this regard. 

If this means more complainants will feel confident in the system, then so much the better. Of greatest importance is the fact that the independent panel has been established. 

Today’s decision means all the recommendations from Dame Laura Cox’s thorough report into the treatment of House staff have at last been put into place.

Those who wish to take forward historical complaints are able to do so. The Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme is backed by a Behaviour Code and staffed by experts who will treat complainants with the sensitivity and professionalism they deserve.

The Valuing Everyone training is proving useful and instructive and the Members Services team are working towards full HR support for MPs’ staff.

We are seeking to tackle a problem of power dynamics which can occur whenever those in a position of influence assume they are able to act without consequences

But there is much more we can do. It will only be when all potential complainants have the confidence they need to come forward that we will know we have succeeded. 

To that end I will continue to engage with those who have made complaints or wish to in the coming weeks. 

It matters wherever people work together, for everyone should be able to perform their roles in an atmosphere of courtesy and respect.

Ultimately in Parliament, we are seeking to tackle a problem of power dynamics which can occur whenever those in a position of influence assume they are able to act without consequences. 

Changing the culture means challenging that assumption. We have taken a big step towards doing that, but there is so much more to do.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is the Leader of the House of Commons

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