Politicians could face expulsion or recall in bullying and abuse crackdown
Almost one in five parliamentary workers who took part in a survey said they had witnessed or experienced sexual harassment.
MPs and peers could face recall or expulsion under new sanctions for bullying and abuse recommended in a report which found evidence of widespread allegations of sexual harassment within Parliament.
A survey of 1,377 parliamentary workers found that almost one in five (19%) said they had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour over the past year – with twice as many female as male complainants.
And 39% of respondents reported experience of non-sexual harassment or bullying over the same period, including 45% of women and 35% of men.
The report, by a cross-party working group chaired by Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom, recommended the establishment of a binding Parliament-wide Behaviour Code as well as an independent complaints procedure and confidential helplines to report abuse.
MPs, peers and staff will have compulsory training sessions in understanding and preventing harassment. And a new Independent Sexual Violence Adviser will be appointed to support anyone making a complaint involving inappropriate sexual behaviour.
Former Tory activist Kate Maltby, whose complaint about Damian Green touching her knee led to an inquiry resulting in his removal as deputy prime minister, welcomed the report as a “step in the right direction”, but voiced concern about proposals to grant anonymity to the subjects of sexual harassment complaints.
“What we know in all of these cases is it is almost always the case that someone accused, plausibly, of sexual harassment is a serial offender, and that when one woman makes a complaint, others are finally emboldened to do so,” Ms Maltby told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Under the proposed system, complaints against MPs, peers or members of staff would spark a confidential inquiry, with a tougher range of sanctions for those found to have behaved inappropriately.
Following a report from the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, standards committees in the Commons and Lords would be able to recommend the suspension of an MP or peer for a specified period.
This could trigger proceedings for recall of an MP – resulting in a new election in his or her constituency – or the expulsion of a peer.
The survey found that a quarter (24%) of those who had experienced inappropriate behaviour in the past 12 months spoke to their MP or line manager.
But only half of staff had confidence in the system for managing complaints of bullying and harassment.
“The evidence, particularly from staff, was that a change in workplace culture is both urgent and essential, and is ultimately the best guarantor of a change in behaviour,” said the report.
“It is unacceptable that inappropriate behaviours, including bullying and harassment and sexual harassment, take place across what we have called ‘the parliamentary community’.”
Thread: Shocking figures are evidence of a toxic political culture. Westminster reeks of deference and privilege. New rules and culture change desperately needed. https://t.co/gv4Kk6vd1p— Caroline Lucas (@CarolineLucas) February 8, 2018
The report warned that care must be taken to ensure that MPs do not have their reputations destroyed by false complaints.
“It is recognised that parliamentarians are under a constant media spotlight and that, due to the nature of political discourse, there is a risk of malicious and/or vexatious complaints against those who work in the Palace of Westminster either as MPs, peers or staff,” it said.
“The new procedures must ensure checks and balances are in place to guard against such complaints.
“At the same time, the new scheme must put arrangements in place to minimise the well-documented risk of under-reporting by those experiencing sexual or other forms of harassment or bullying.”
Ms Leadsom said the new procedures would “demonstrate that we want to be the best parliament in the world when it comes to treating everyone who works here with dignity and respect”.
“This is a major step in bringing about the culture change that Parliament needs,” she said.
Georgina Kester, who represented the Members and Peers’ Staff Association on the Working Group, said the proposals “will go a long way to combating the bullying and harassment that staff have experienced”.
Shadow leader of the Commons Valerie Vaz – who sat on the working group – welcomed the report as “an important first step to putting procedures and safeguards in place to deal with bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment in Westminster”.
But the Unite union, which represents hundreds of MPs’ staff, said that formal union recognition was needed to ensure there is support for employees isolated in small offices where power relationships are “frequently unhealthy and unequal”.
Unite national officer Siobhan Endean said: “The working group has made real progress into starting to tackle the widespread bullying and harassment of parliamentary staff.
“However, we cannot stand still and believe that everything in the garden will be rosy. We need root-and-branch reforms, and Parliament must modernise its procedures so that its employment practices become fit for the 21st century.”
The working group’s report will be considered by both Houses, with a debate due to take place in the two weeks after MPs return from their half-term recess on February 20.