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Welcome first steps to address bullying and harassment in Westminster – but the real test is yet to come

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Last week’s publication of Parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance policy is an important step forward to help deal with the damaging allegations that have been surfacing since last November. We’ve been keeping a close eye on developments in Parliament, to support those who have responsibility in this area to do the right thing for those who experience bullying and harassment in Parliament.

The new system proposed by the implementation group and agreed in Parliament must be seen as good news generally.  It’s an important change that offers the 15,000 or so people who work in Parliament a greater degree of confidence that any concerns and complaints will be dealt with fairly and justly.

We welcome that the cross-party group has been able to reach agreement on the process for investigating allegations of bullying and sexual harassment, bringing more much-needed independence into the system.  In particular, we were very pleased to see the change in the procedure and practice of the Committee on Standards to give the seven lay members a greater voice. Training on these issues will also be available to MPs, and that there will be more HR support to staff.  All these changes are welcome steps forward.

We do, however, have concerns about two particular areas of the policy - some of which have already been voiced by others  - and these will need to be tested in practice.

First, under the new system, ongoing investigations by the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards will no longer be made public. The new policy states that the Commissioner will be able to decide whether or not to disclose an ongoing investigation. We recognise that there are live debates around how the privacy of those who make an allegation can be balanced with ensuring a fair process for those who are being investigated. The new process here is not clear yet - and there is a fine line that will require careful judgement by the Commissioner. We look forward to meeting with the Commissioner to better understand how she will balance the important principles at play.

Nevertheless, like the Commons Committee on Standards, we have concerns that a welcome step forwards in drawing together a policy on bullying and harassment could have the effect of reducing transparency in investigations about declarations or registration of interests, for example. As became clear as part of our recent report on MPs’ outside interests - transparency is an important part of promoting public trust.

While the policy does increase the independence of the system to deal with complaints within Parliament, it would remain the case that where the Commissioner finds against an MP and the Standards Committee recommends a more serious sanction, the final decision will still be made by MPs themselves voting to approve the sanction. We will have to see how this works in practice, and we understand the difficulties relating to the constitutional position of Parliament  - but the system must give everyone in Parliament confidence that there is a fair system they can go to if they need to and that those who commit wrong doing will be appropriately sanctioned.  Public trust is at risk if political or party considerations outweigh properly addressing unacceptable conduct in public life. The culture and behaviour of the whole House is key.

We intend to maintain our close watch of these issues and welcome the 6-month review of the system, at which point we will see how the new system matches up to the findings of the independent investigation being led by Dame Laura Cox DBE QC and the new review of historic cases.

Most importantly, this is one area where Parliament can work together - with the parties, House authorities, MPs, Peers and their staff - to address an issue, which will make a difference for those who work in Parliament, and impacts on trust in Parliament more broadly. We don’t want to see positive steps in this area crowded out by concerns about reduced transparency or MPs marking their own homework.

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