Wednesday 22nd June 2022

(1 week, 5 days ago)

Commons Chamber
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17:03
Mark Spencer Portrait The Leader of the House of Commons (Mark Spencer)
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I beg to move,

That this House considers that it is desirable to consider the employment conditions of Members’ staff in order to ensure a more inclusive and respectful working environment, and accordingly agrees that the following Order be made:

(1) There shall be a committee to be known as the Speaker’s Conference which shall consist of the Speaker, who shall be Chair, and up to 14 other Members appointed by the Speaker.

(2) The Speaker shall appoint one or more of the members of the Conference to act as vice-Chair in his absence.

(3) The Conference shall consider and make recommendations upon the contractual arrangements for the employment of Members’ staff.

(4) Notwithstanding any Standing Order of this House, the Conference shall conduct its proceedings in such manner as the Speaker shall determine.

(5) The Conference, and any sub committees thereof that the Speaker shall appoint, shall have power—

(a) to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House and to adjourn from place to place;

(b) to report from time to time;

(c) to appoint legal advisers, and to appoint specialist advisers either to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the committee’s order of reference.

(6) The Conference shall produce its first report to the House, which shall include a description of the principles underpinning its work, no later than 31 October 2022.

(7) The quorum of the Conference shall be five.

(8) This Order shall have effect until the end of the current Parliament.

I bring forward the motion on behalf of Mr Speaker to establish a Speaker’s Conference to consider and make recommendations on the employment conditions of members of staff in order to ensure a more inclusive and respectful working environment. The treatment and safety of those who work on the estate is paramount, and I pay tribute to Mr Speaker for bringing this matter to the forefront of our attention today. I commend him for working across parties and across the House to make sure that this motion was brought before us in the House today.

As all Members will be aware, under our current system, individual MPs are responsible for the employment of their own staff. This is a long-standing practice. The Speaker’s Conference will be able to consider whether this remains appropriate. I do not seek to answer that question today, and I do not think this is the moment to debate it, but, should the House agree to today’s motion and the accompanying memorandum from the Clerk of the House, the conference will approach this task without any preconceptions.

Greg Knight Portrait Sir Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con)
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Paragraph 6 stipulates:

“The conference shall produce its first report to the House…no later than 31 October 2022.”

In view of the fact that there are two scheduled parliamentary recesses between now and that date, does my right hon. Friend not think that that is rather ambitious?

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. That would be an interim report. It is my understanding that Mr Speaker would draw the Committee together, and establish a narrative and what it is looking at. I think the report would be an early opportunity for Members to get a sense of the Committee’s direction of travel.

Hon. Members will be aware that Speaker’s Conferences are not common. I think the most recent one was in 2008, which is before I and many other Members were elected to this place. It was established to look at the representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in this place. It proved to make progress in that direction. I hope that this Speaker’s Conference will be as effective as the 2008 conference. It will be a Committee of the House of Commons, so it will have the powers and legal protections that that entails. That will ensure that it can secure any evidence it needs and that evidence will be given to it freely.

Angela Richardson Portrait Angela Richardson (Guildford) (Con)
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On paragraph 5(a), which talks about powers, is it my right hon. Friend’s understanding that Members of Parliament and current members of staff will be fully consulted in that process?

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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I would fully expect that the Speaker’s Conference will take representations from Members. Once we are aware of which Members are on the Committee—I encourage my hon. Friend to make representations to the Whips Office if she wants to be considered—all Members will be able to feed into the process.

The Speaker’s Conference will include Mr Speaker and 14 other Members. Mr Speaker will appoint those Members with regard to party representation. He will have full discussions with party representatives to give them the opportunity to feed those names in. As the motion sets out, the Speaker’s Conference will have the powers enjoyed by all other Select Committees. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), it will report its preliminary findings no later than 31 October. As was the case with the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, which was set up for the employment of Members and staff, it is ultimately a matter for this House to decide how we progress.

I pay tribute to my predecessors, my right hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) and for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), who made great strides in establishing the ICGS. It provided a dedicated independent mechanism for the handling of complaints of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct.

The Speaker’s Conference will be an opportunity to improve the working culture and to continue to make progress in that direction. The Government have made it clear that there is no place in this building or in this Parliament for bullying, harassment or sexual harassment. As Leader of the House, I am determined that we do all we can to ensure that that does not happen. With cross-party support, working together in this House, I think we can make great progress.

Should the House agree to establish the Speaker’s Conference, I would like to take this opportunity to wish Mr Speaker well in his endeavours. It will be a beneficial change, promoting positive working environments. I offer the House my full support in its progress.

17:08
Thangam Debbonaire Portrait Thangam Debbonaire (Bristol West) (Lab)
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I, too, very much welcome the motion on the Speaker’s Conference and thank Mr Speaker for his leadership on this matter. It offers us all an opportunity to consider the employment conditions of Members’ staff. This is the right time to be doing that, following another damaging few months for the reputation of this House when we have had serious allegations and convictions against some Members. It is not a very large number, but it is important that we ensure we are providing good working practices for all Members’ staff. This is a really important step forward.

Since Gemma White’s report into the bullying and harassment of MPs’ staff, the House has made a lot of progress in how we employ, manage and treat our staff, providing them with a form of redress, complaint and assessment of those complaints, but we now need to take further steps. For instance, we have had the establishment of the Members’ Services Team, to whom I pay great tribute. I have always found them to be extremely helpful and approachable, and they are a fount of knowledge. I urge colleagues who may not have come across the team to make use of the fact that they are camped out in the Portcullis House atrium every day. They offer a friendly face, and help awaits. Members now have access to a range of best practice employment guides, and the opportunity to attend regular workshops. Again, all Members are encouraged to use the service, but we need to build on it and strengthen our structures and processes.

I want to place on record the fact that some Members have expressed concern that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority will be the body that ends up employing Members’ staff. The point of the conference is to look at all reasonable options, but it is important to put on record that my understanding—I am not speaking on behalf of IPSA—is that IPSA has expressed reservations about whether that would be appropriate. I certainly feel that, at the moment, we have other options to consider, which is what the conference is for.

In response to the question from the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) and the Leader of the House’s answer, I reiterate that the motion specifies the date of the first report—not the second, third or final report—as 31 October, but it is important that the House is able to debate the reports at regular intervals and to scrutinise the work being done. As the Leader of the House mentioned, the Speaker’s Conference will have cross-party membership. It will take on Select Committee powers and will have the power to require evidence, witness statements and information to be prepared for it in the same way as a Select Committee, which I think is right. The Leader of the House also mentioned—I would echo this—that the previous Speaker’s Conference marked a point on which we have made much progress, because having a Speaker’s Conference on increasing diversity in ethnic and gender representation in this place has been followed by a marked increase in all of the above. I feel that this bodes well for the next Speaker’s Conference.

The House of Commons is a beacon for democracy around the world. I feel that we have in our hands the opportunity to make it also a model workplace that is at the forefront of workers’ rights, with strong protections in place for all our staff, because future generations should inherit a safer and more inclusive Parliament where everyone has somewhere to turn, and where staff are able to fulfil their potential in every single team across this House.

17:12
Maria Miller Portrait Dame Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con)
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I welcome my right hon. Friend’s motion and his support for the Speaker’s Conference. By definition, organisations are completely dependent on the individuals who comprise them, so having good employment conditions and a respectful working environment is essential to make sure that we attract the best people to this place. We need to get this right not only because it is important for our staff in constituency offices, but—going to the point raised by the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire)—because it is important for the way Parliament is viewed. It is really important that we are viewed as being the best place in the world for democratic freedoms and rights, and for putting in place the best legislation possible. Having the best people here, and treating them well, has to be part of that.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will wholeheartedly agree that issues to do with employment law are incredibly complex and difficult, which is why I was particularly pleased to see that paragraph 5(c) of the motion states that there is a power to appoint legal advisers. I hope that the Committee does that and gets the best legal advice, because it is very easy for all of us to think that we know how to change things, but we have to make sure that there are no unintended consequences as a result of any lack of expertise. Although a number of Members are experts in employment law in their own right, independent advice will be important.

The other important factor to consider is that things have changed hugely in the past two years: not only did an enormous number of new Members of Parliament come to the House in 2019, but covid has resulted in a huge spike in the constituency work that our offices undertake. In recognition of that, IPSA has increased the funding for constituency work, but my office staff have drawn it to my attention that there is not necessarily more space for them, particularly if they are located in London. It will be important for the conference to look more broadly at the conditions in which our staff work, as well as at anything to do with their employment contracts.

Most importantly, these are matters for Members, and Mr Speaker is absolutely right to constitute a committee of Members to look at it. I would argue that we should be looking at many other issues, and perhaps a little more regularly; the last Speaker’s Conference came together in 2008. Employment practices in the outside world change regularly, and hon. Members have to ensure that we stay abreast of those changes. We are in control of how this place is run, as we are often told, but we do not always have the methods to bring in the necessary changes. House Committees meet, but they do not necessarily cover all the issues—they certainly do not cover issues relating to Members’ staff—and there is no way for those Committees to co-ordinate and work together. I hope that the Speaker’s Conference will look at that.

I have a few comments for the Leader of the House, one of which my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) has already covered. First, we must ensure that there is consultation with Members and staff; that is not explicit in the motion, but it must be implicit. Secondly, IPSA must be required to work with the conference, because it is essential that it has a central role in providing, in an accurate and timely manner, the information that members of the conference need.

Thirdly, the Leader of the House may not be aware that the Administration Committee, under the extremely expert chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker), is undertaking an inquiry into, among other things, the issues for Members who leave this place, voluntarily or otherwise. In the evidence that we have so far taken, we have all been struck by how often the treatment of staff has come up as a real, deep concern among Members leaving this place. That includes the treatment of staff by IPSA, I have to say, and even the treatment of staff more generally in the House.

I hope that the Leader of the House will therefore use his good offices to ensure that the conference looks carefully at the findings in the Administration Committee’s report, as well as at other matters that have been set out. We would be letting our staff down if we did not try to ensure that the two things complement each other and that there is a read-across.

17:17
Pete Wishart Portrait Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP)
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I thank the Leader of the House for moving the motion. I congratulate Mr Speaker on considering the issue and ensuring that we all have the opportunity to consider the environment and working arrangements for staff members in this House. This is a key time for that, for many reasons that have already been given—not least that there are 650 Members and we are all pretty different in how we arrange our offices and our staff complements.

It has always struck me that many of us—I include myself—came to the House with no experience whatever of managing staff or making sure that we have a staff complement who are available and ready to do very complex and demanding work. That work has only got more demanding over the past two years, so a service that could take account of everybody across the House would be welcome, not just for Members of Parliament but for staff.

I welcome the fact that the conference will take the form of a Select Committee, a format that is very familiar to the House. In the Members’ survey, I think the Select Committee process came second for satisfaction because of how Members relate to the Select Committee structure. I am glad that the conference will be able to work on that basis, which will give it the opportunity to get a whole range of evidence; I am sure that it will consider many requests to give evidence and will hear from the widest range of voices.

The motion reads:

“That this House considers that it is desirable to consider the employment conditions of Members’ staff”.

The key word is “consider”—so important that it is clumsily included twice in one sentence—but this is what it is about. No decision has been made. The conference is a Committee that will consider all the different aspects of the issue. It is incumbent on all Members to ensure that their views are heard, so I urge them to get in touch with the Whips and the Members who will be serving on the Committee.

The conference is a good innovation, which the whole House will welcome. There is a huge opportunity for whoever is on the Committee and all the political parties of the House to design and craft the type of working arrangements that best suit the unique environment in which we all work.

I welcome the conference, and look forward to working with it as a member of the House of Commons Commission and to looking at its considered work when we see its first report in October.

17:20
Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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I will respond briefly. I thank hon. Members for taking the trouble to turn up today and for contributing. I also respond on behalf of Mr Speaker in saying that, yes, the conference will have the powers of a Select Committee, so of course it will consult with Members. I am sure that Mr Speaker will read the debate in Hansard and take on board many of the comments made by hon. Members.

I specifically pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller), who has done a great deal of work in this area and has a lot of expertise to offer. Whether she is a member of the Committee or a witness appearing before it, I am sure that the Speaker’s Conference will take note of her expertise, which will be of huge benefit.

On the remit of the Committee, I do not want to box Mr Speaker in. I want to allow the Committee to establish what it looks at and in what order, and I am sure that will be brought forward and agreed in due course. I am delighted to commend the motion to the House and am grateful to Members who have contributed to the debate.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I am certain that Mr Speaker will be paying extreme attention to all that has been said in this short debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee on standards

Ordered,

That, in accordance with Standing Order No. 149A, Victoria Smith be appointed as a lay member of the Committee on Standards for a period of six years, with immediate effect.—(Mark Spencer.)

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