The White report highlights some appalling practices – we must act to restore trust
The White report makes clear once again that we in Parliament must bring about long-lasting and positive institutional change without delay, writes Andrea Leadsom
I very much welcome the publication of the report by Gemma White QC, Bullying and Harassment of MPs’ Parliamentary Staff.
I met Gemma when, as Leader of the House, I chaired the cross-party working group producing Parliament’s new independent grievance procedure. Our goal was to ensure that everyone working in or visiting Parliament is treated with dignity and respect.
Her report demonstrates our desire to achieve that goal, but also highlights some appalling employment practices and makes clear once again that we in Parliament must bring about long-lasting and positive institutional change without delay. Only then can we truly restore confidence in the way we work in Parliament.
The report acknowledges that the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) provides MPs’ staff, for the first time, with a mechanism for having complaints of bullying and harassment independently investigated. While it notes staff have concerns about making a complaint under the new procedure for a variety of reasons, the scheme is still developing, and we need to allow it to become embedded into the fabric of Westminster.
Though the White report agrees that employment relationships should continue to sit with individual MPs, the report does recommend the establishment of a centralised human resources function for MPs’ staff. The question of who would have responsibility for a new HR function needs to be considered further, although the two obvious candidates would be either IPSA or the House Authorities. The former, I’m sorry to say, currently suffers from a widespread lack of confidence from Members’ Staff and an often-combative relationship with Members and their staff in general.
On the other hand, while the House Authorities raised a concern during the working group about how taking on a HR role themselves could create an unhelpful secondary employment relationship, I believe it would be worth looking again at whether that could be the best way forward.
White asserts that only complaints which took place after June 2017 can be investigated under the ICGS, which is a common misconception. Complaints about historic matters, i.e. pre-June 2017, are still dealt with via the ICGS; the only difference is that the sanctions themselves, where applicable, would be applied under whatever procedure was in place at the time of the incident, such as the RESPECT policy. This was agreed following legal advice that suggested dealing with historic allegations under the new sanctions’ regime would potentially leave the scheme open to legal challenge.
A key aspect of the report is that many current staff still feel uncomfortable about making complaints. What I want to assure them is that the working group was focused entirely on ensuring that, as far as possible, an individual’s career is not affected if they make a complaint. The whole purpose of the ICGS is that it is confidential, and I do encourage anyone with a complaint to come forward.
The report suggests making some of the original proposals that aim to bring about institutional behaviour change mandatory, and I totally agree. I firmly believe that all MPs, and all staff working for MPs, should now be required to undertake the Valuing Others training that was implemented as part of the ICGS, and I would call on all Whips Offices to ensure that their MPs have completed the training within six months of the publication of this report. The training has only been available for the last couple of months; I myself was a “beta tester” for the course in May.
Training should also be extended to all staff working for MPs, whether in Westminster or the constituency. Allowing for the challenge of capacity, I believe it should be possible for all staff to have undertaken the training within twelve months of this publication.
With so many people working for MPs, a proper induction course should be mandatory for all new starters, completed within three months of joining an MP’s office. No other major organisation would allow a new starter to come into such a huge and complex institution and not be compulsorily provided with training on health and safety, cyber security, fire safety, let alone on the Behaviour Code and how to raise a complaint.
It is vital that we continue to make progress on restoring trust and confidence in our working practices here in Parliament and enabling everyone here to be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.
Andrea Leadsom is Conservative MP for South Northamptonshire and a former Leader of the Commons