Our Solution to Change the Culture in Westminster

This article was originally written towards the start of the working group and published on Politics Home on the 9th November.

There can never be enough reminders that sexual abuse, harassment and bullying are unacceptable in our society. The last two weeks are proof enough that we should never become complacent, and we must always take claims of misconduct seriously. My view, as I set out at the despatch box two weeks ago [on Monday 30 October], is that it is a right, not a privilege, to work in a safe and respectful environment. To all those affected by the claims of sexual abuse, harassment and bullying in Parliament, I have a simple message: I am so sorry for what you have experienced. You deserve better. All parties have agreed they must get a grip on this terrible issue so we can change the culture in Westminster. We all feel for both victims and those unfairly accused - and we have a solution we believe can help.

The Prime Minister has taken decisive action to stop abuses of power in Westminster, however subtle or egregious they may be. Her proposals for an independent grievance procedure have been embraced by party leaders who accept action is needed. The parties will do all we can to ensure the concerns of anyone working in Parliament can always be heard, investigated and acted upon.

The vital first step in this is guaranteeing that those who feel someone has acted inappropriately towards them have an opportunity to raise this confidentially, and have their grievance sensitively handled, without fear of it being made public. Politicians who face the glare of public scrutiny accept they will sometimes find themselves facing hostile press coverage - that is a part of public life - but others in Westminster may have been deterred from coming forwards precisely because of the hostile press they may receive.

Interim measures are being brought forward which we hope will address these fears. There is agreement to upgrade the existing phone line for staff to enable face-to-face HR support, which will be in place by the end of the month. Wherever a grievance is raised which suggests criminality may have taken place it must be dealt with by the police, not Parliament.

Permanent measures are also now being developed. The parties have already published codes of conduct which make clear how complaints will be dealt with. And by early 2018, a new independent grievance procedure for everybody working in Parliament will come into effect.

It is as chair of the cross-party working group set up to take this work forwards that I hope to contribute. The Prime Minister has spoken with a group of parliamentary staff chosen by the Unite union and the Members and Peers’ Staff Association We will hear from a range of further stakeholders in a series of informal sessions.  Our goal is to agree on a final system which can be established and managed by the House authorities.

To this end, with the Leader of the House of Lords, we have written to the Clerk of the House of Commons, David Natzler, and the Clerk of the Parliaments, Ed Ollard. Our request is that they develop an initial proposal for the working group’s consideration. Working together, the parties and the parliamentary authorities will get this right.

We now have an opportunity to do better in the future. If one thing has been made very clear, both in the headlines and in conversations across Westminster, it is the importance of treating all our colleagues with respect. Discussion will itself help change the culture, but to consolidate this progress we need action as well as words. Establishing a new system which provides a clear route for those with complaints will help end abuses of power which have been a source of shame for us all.