Bullying and Harassment Cox Report debate

On Monday 5 November 2018, I responded to the Leader of the House at the debate on the Dame Laura Cox report on the bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff.

You can read my speech in full below:

Valerie Vaz: I thank the Leader of the House for opening the debate. I hope that she will join me in sending good wishes to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who is not very well. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) who is taking his place. Once again, I, too, thank Dame Laura Cox QC OBE for her diligence in carrying out this inquiry. As the Leader of the House said, the report is important. The Opposition accept the recommendations in full, immediately. It is vital that victims of abuse have their voices heard and that we get it right now.

Andrew Bridgen: Does the shadow Leader of the House agree that the crux of the problem is that, until we have a culture in this place whereby a member of staff who makes a complaint about a senior manager or a Member is confident that they are not ending their career, nothing will happen?

Valerie Vaz: The Leader of the House has set out the new process, so people should feel confident. The Opposition are grateful to all those who contributed to the report. I say to those members of staff: I acknowledge the hurt that you have suffered and the courage of those who have spoken up. Those who work in the canteens and throughout the House, you undertake your work professionally and with integrity. You are helpful, creative, and supportive of Members. There is a very high standard of work here, which is appreciated. This place simply would not function without you.

I hope that the debate will do justice to the responses and the work that was put into the report, and I will highlight just a few areas. The report notes that a cultural change needs to happen. In paragraph 67, Dame Laura Cox says that, “structural and governance arrangements have changed several times over the years, while the organisational culture has remained firmly in place.”

I know that the Leader of the House agrees that a culture change is needed and has previously said in the House that it will “not happen overnight”. However, will she update the House on how a cultural change will be measured so we know we are making progress? Dame Laura Cox highlighted the gender and racist dimension to bullying and harassment. Paragraph 123 states that, “some areas of the House were described as having a particularly bad reputation for sexist or racist attitudes”.

Of the 200 people who came forward to give information to the inquiry, the majority, nearly 70%, were women. The House of Commons and Parliamentary Digital Service diversity and inclusion strategy 2019 to 2022 is evidence of the House service’s commitment to ensuring that this place is a positive and inclusive environment to work in. Jennifer Crook is head of diversity and inclusion, and work is already under way. She has produced a very good report highlighting successes in, for example, talent management, and rolled out unconscious bias training.

According to the recent staff survey, staff with disabilities have the highest rates of experiencing discrimination, bullying and harassment and are less likely to agree that the House service provides an inclusive environment. That is followed by black, Asian and minority ethnic staff, particularly black British staff. The Cox report, taken together with results from the staff survey, which suggested that 18% of staff had experienced bullying or harassment in the past 12 months, most of it at the hands of other staff, and that 3% had experienced sexual harassment, shows we clearly have a long way to go before we can claim we have an inclusive workplace.

Dame Laura Cox raises the need for training. In paragraph 311, she states: “Even those Members most implacably opposed will gain from it, despite any current intransigence.”​ At the urgent question on 16 October, the Leader of the House said:“available is a wide range of optional, voluntary training in how to carry out appraisals, how to lead an office and so on.” She went on to say: “Compulsory training for new Members will be introduced after the next election. It was decided that there was no consensus in favour of compulsory training for those who were already Members”. In my view, if we want cultural change everyone should have training and it should be compulsory. Will the Leader of the House please reconsider, in the light of the Cox report, that compulsory training should be discussed again?

Chris Bryant: My personal suspicion is that if we made training very available so it was easy for Members to attend, the vast majority of Members would sign up to it without us having to get to the compulsory stage. I am up for making it compulsory if we have to do that, but I am sure the vast majority of Members would not be intransigent. Most of us would not even know whether we had been inappropriate because we have not had proper training and we would be delighted to do it, but it needs somebody to get on the phone and persuade us all to turn up.

Valerie Vaz: I think my hon. Friend is saying two slightly different things: that someone has to get on the phone and that Members will do it. We could say to people that training is available and that everyone has to undertake it. For example, people in the civil service have to go through training before they can interview anyone. I think it is perfectly reasonable to say to Members that they should undergo some training.

Bernard Jenkin: This point about training is very contentious. I am afraid that Members of Parliament are not civil servants. It is only recently in the history of the House of Commons that Members of Parliament were considered even to be employed in legal terms. Until the mid ’60s we were self-employed. The idea that we should be treated as civil servants is not right. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is completely right. If training were available and those in leadership positions in this House set the right example, by taking the training themselves and telling junior Members that they are expected to be trained in these matters, training would become part of our culture. It depends on the leadership, not compulsion.

Valerie Vaz: I was not suggesting that this is like the civil service. I was just saying that if you are going through a process you need to be trained in it. I think that some people do not understand what sexism or racism is. They do not understand certain behaviours. If people at the top are expected to do it, everyone should do it. There is not an issue; half a day should be acceptable.

Maria Miller: May I suggest that the hon. Lady takes a leaf out of the Canadian Government’s book? They put in place training for every Minister within weeks of the #MeToo campaign kicking off. Everybody did it and they actually thought it was a good thing to do.

Valerie Vaz: I thank the right hon. Lady. I will come on to that later. That is a very good point.​

The House of Commons Commission met on Wednesday 24 October 2018 to discuss the report’s recommendations and consider a way forward. The meeting was chaired by Jane McCall, the senior external member of the Commission. The task is falling to Jane McCall and Rima Makarem to oversee the work. Quite rightly, there will be no Member involvement. At this point, I want to thank Dame Janet Gaymer for her involvement and for all her work on the Commission. The Opposition welcome the decision by the Commission to accept the recommendations of the Cox report. The Commission is terminating the Valuing Others policy and has suspended operation of the Respect policy, recommending that the House terminate it as soon as possible.

Dame Laura’s report was critical of the independent complaints and grievance policy. The Commission recommends that the House amends the new independent complaints and grievance scheme to ensure that those House employees with complaints involving historical allegations can access the new scheme. The Commission rightly recommends that the House considers the most effective way to ensure that the process for determining complaints of bullying, harassment or sexual harassment brought by House staff against Members of Parliament is an entirely independent process in which Members of Parliament play no part. The Commission agreed not to wait for the six-month review of the independent complaints and grievance scheme, due to start in January 2019, but to identify a way to give those with historical complaints access to the scheme. Could the Leader provide the House with details on what work is already under way? She said that she will report quarterly. When will we get the first report?

Andrea Leadsom: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene. I fear she is in danger of perpetuating the mistake that currently people do not have access to the complaints scheme for historical allegations. They absolutely do and I urge anybody with any complaint to come forward to the complaints scheme now—they do have access to it.

Valerie Vaz: I am not perpetuating a myth. I am reporting factually what the Commission decided. That is exactly what the Commission decided: to look at the scheme to ensure that people can do that. The Leader of the House did not answer my question, but maybe she will answer it at the end.

In respect of historical allegations, there should be a fair process. In paragraph 401, Dame Laura Cox suggests that “Distinguished senior lawyers or retired judges, highly experienced in handling these sensitive cases and in analysing evidence and finding facts, would ensure that the investigations…were treated with respect.”

She also suggests that everyone will have confidence in such a process. Investigators currently in place do not have that experience. Will the Leader of the House ensure that investigators with sufficient experience will handle those cases? In paragraph 379, Dame Laura Cox highlights the general reluctance of Members to judge the misconduct of other Members or even to assist in investigations. She makes reference, as the Leader of the House did, to the Nolan principle of leadership, which​ “requires all holders of public office to be willing to challenge misconduct or inappropriate behaviour, wherever it occurs.” That includes Member on Member, which we should remind ourselves of. Cox states: “There is now an institutional responsibility to act to restore public confidence in the central institution of our representative democracy.”

I hope that is respected with the widest consultation on any new process with a broad range of the trade unions that operate in this workplace and other stakeholders, and, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), that the current and new system have sufficient resources. What discussions has the Leader of the House had with the Government to ensure the allocation of proper resources and extra staff to make this work?

There should be time to look at best practice around the world—the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) suggested looking at Canada—and in other public organisations. Democracy is stronger when it is inclusive and reflects all the people it seeks to serve irrespective of age, disability, ethnicity, faith, gender identity, sex, sexuality or socio-economic background. It is vital that everyone working in a modern Parliament knows the boundaries of acceptable behaviour in a safe and secure workplace, and that we all play a vital role in ensuring that our Parliament and our democracy thrive.