The Independent Expert Panel has the expertise to improve behaviour in Parliament
A diverse and experienced group, the Independent Expert Panel on complaints in the Commons is ready to get to work.
It has been a most interesting time since 25 November, when the House of Commons appointed us as, in effect, the final tribunal addressing allegations of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct in the House of Commons. During the debate before the resolution there was some suggestion that we were all elite lawyers, with no broad experience of life, with perhaps a hint that we knew each other at public school. That is wide of the mark, and I am happy to introduce the panel and hopefully provide some reassurance.
I come from Northern Ireland. My primary school had three rooms and 120 children. From there I went to a very good state school in Belfast, and then to Cambridge on a scholarship. I admit to becoming a barrister, a QC, and then a judge. But that is not a sheltered life. I was counsel in many murder trials and was the barrister for all of the families in the BSE scandal. I represented hundreds of children brain injured by medical negligence, and often visited the family homes. As a judge I had special responsibility for extradition and for cases involving national security. I believe the experience of a long life in the law will help in leading this new endeavour.
My colleagues also have interesting backgrounds. We are three men and five women. We have two BAME members. We have someone Scottish living in England, and someone English living in Scotland. Members have a wide and varied experience of sitting in different tribunals, and one has leading responsibility for the ombudsman service. We have a former Old Bailey judge who was the first ever chief coroner. Another member is a senior academic with a special interest in sexual offending and the impact on victims. Covid-19 means we have only met remotely, but that has not inhibited lively discussion.
I have conducted a trial protected by 12 armed police officers, to keep me and the jury safe
I am writing this on 13 January. From a standing start at the end of November, we have already agreed most of the important aspects of how we will proceed: practical matters, essential procedures, ensuring confidentiality, and the most important principles we will apply. I am in the middle of widespread and useful consultations about the House of Commons and those who work there. We are gaining a good understanding of what is wanted from the ICGS and I am confident that we will begin dealing with individual cases by the end of January.
It is important to stress that we are independent of the House authorities, as indeed it is clear the House of Commons wishes us to be. Any kind of political engagement is incompatible with membership of the Panel.
We are keen to understand the pressures on Members, and those who work with them. Some of those pressures – urgent decision-making, the impact on others’ lives, sheer relentlessness of work and very long hours – have real parallels with judicial life. Judges deal with families in agonising emotional turmoil. I have conducted a trial protected by 12 armed police officers, to keep me and the jury safe. Coroners deal with death in every case. I readily recognise that stress and responsibility can have an impact, and cause people to behave in a way they otherwise might not.
Of course, none of that is an excuse for bad behaviour towards others. Neither the important notion of the independence of the judge, nor the sense of legitimacy given by election to Parliament, excuse bad behaviour. I am already struck by how the dominant idea behind the ICGS is to improve the culture and behaviour in and around Parliament. I look forward to playing a part in that.
Sir Stephen Irwin is Chair of the Independent Expert Panel