Dame Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the work of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I am here today because the reputation of Parliament matters, and how we conduct ourselves here matters. Like many workplaces, we are grappling with issues around bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct, and we are looking for ways to not only give people routes to redress but change the culture of our organisation to ensure that such issues do not find any solace in our midst.
I stand here today representing a number of colleagues who, through the establishment of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, have become Ministers but still have very strong opinions on this issue and want to see it dealt with in the right way. I refer in particular to the pivotal role played by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), who introduced the ICGS in July 2018. She has recently taken up a ministerial position and is unable to take part in the debate, but I note that she is here in body as well as in spirit.
I also note that I was a member of the recent Speaker’s Conference on the employment conditions of Members’ staff, and the excellent report which came from that underlines the importance of the changes recommended for the ICGS, some of which have not yet been carried through in full but were part of the recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference.
This is a timely debate, because there is an independent review under way into how the ICGS has developed over the last five years. The review issued a call for evidence on 22 November, and I know that a number of colleagues will want to provide feedback through that. Because we are midway through a review, the Minister responding to the debate will inevitably be somewhat curtailed in what she is able to say. I hope that this debate gives some individuals the opportunity to recognise that they can contribute through the review and to hear from the Minister the Government’s support for this important programme of work within Parliament.
The vision of the ICGS, introduced in the wake of the #MeToo scandal, was to ensure that everybody who works in or visits Parliament is treated with dignity and respect and to underline that there is absolutely no place for bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct in any workplace, including Parliament. The scheme is there for all current and former members of the parliamentary community, not just MPs, and it is the first of its kind anywhere in the world.
The initial working group, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire, was made up of Members of all parties in this place, noble peers from the other place, members of staff of both Houses and trade union representation for House staff. It was a thorough piece of work, embracing a huge range of views, and it demonstrated the importance of not only enshrining those views in the process that was developed but getting their support for the recommendations.
The research into the problem and the possible solutions was incredibly detailed, taking advice from legal experts and employment advisers. A number of hearings were held, to hear the sometimes shocking stories of colleagues who work here. The result was widely consulted on with Members right across the House and was agreed on the nod; there was no dissent to what was put forward. It is important to note that the House chose to vote on the specific processes to be followed because of the possible serious sanctions involved and the nature of the allegations. When we come to review this, it is important that we also look at the fact that the process needs to closely echo what this House agreed to and ensure that there has not been any mission creep along the way.
The ICGS proposals took a holistic view, looking at change processes, and, importantly, changing the culture of the organisation—as I say, as many other organisations are doing across the country. The key features of the scheme as it was originally envisaged were: the development of a behaviour code that would apply to everyone; the development of new training to support continuous professional development; the maintenance of respectful behaviour, proper induction courses and exit interviews to identify bad practice wherever it occurs; and, of course, the independent scheme itself. Again, that is very much what other organisations are doing to try to address these sorts of problems.
The scheme was designed to enable any complainant to call a strictly confidential helpline with their grievance and have it assessed in a timely fashion by an independent case examiner, who would also invite the complainant and respondent to give their sides of the case, with witnesses if necessary, and provide for the appropriate mental health support for all parties. The issues are difficult.
Should the independent case examiner find that there was no case to answer, the matter would be dropped with no publicity or consequences. Should, however, the case be upheld, the findings would be escalated to the employer or manager of the person accused and the ICGS would identify appropriate sanctions, which would include written or oral apologies, training, a requirement to prohibit contact, and, in serious cases, dismissal of the respondent.
In instances where an MP was the respondent, an escalation through the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to the Committee on Standards, which could recommend perhaps a suspension, including potentially allowing for a recall vote if that was triggered. The House had to agree the scheme and the process to be followed because of the implications of the sanctions. More recently, for sanctions against MPs the Independent Expert Panel was introduced as an extra layer in the process. That was not originally considered necessary by the working group, but has been put in place subsequently.
Were the complainant to report an issue that could break the law, the ICGS case examiner offers support and guidance to the complainant to go to the appropriate police force. Should the complainant not wish to do that, the ICGS has a protocol with the Met police to enable anonymised reporting to take place to ensure safeguarding of the wider public.