- Posted by: Valerie Vaz MP
- Category: News
I replied to the Leader of the House’s statement on the progress of the working group looking into Parliament’s independent complaints and grievance policy, of which I am a member.
My response to the statement is in full below:
I thank the Leader of the House for her leadership of the working group, and I thank all hon. Members for their hard work. I thank everyone who took time to submit evidence, and everyone who gave oral evidence—including you, Mr Speaker, who gave up your time to attend the hearings—and Lord McFall, who attended on behalf of the Lord Speaker. I am grateful for the commitment of the Speakers of both Houses, and I thank the senior Clerks of both Houses, who were on hand for discussion. I thank those who staffed the secretariat, who responded magnificently, trying to make sense of all our discussions in addition to their other work. They truly represented what is good about the work ethic in the House.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), and the hon. Members for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly), for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), and, in the other place, Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Hope of Craighead. I also thank staff representatives Emily Cunningham, Max Freedman and Georgina Kester, who attended in addition to doing all their work for Members.
The working party was set up by the Government and leaders of other parties in the wake of reports of sexual harassment in a variety of situations. I want to make the Opposition’s position very clear. I do not think it acceptable that it was misrepresented in the press at the weekend. There is a report, but it is still a draft report, and it should go out to consultation. Normally, the report is agreed and after that the summary can be published.
The group sat for more than four hours on one day, and came up with good, creative solutions, or heads of agreement, which, to some extent, the Leader of the House set out in her statement. Suggestions are still coming in, including some from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee yesterday. The issue affects both Houses, and I should like my counterpart, Baroness Smith of Basildon, to be fully informed as she pursues it in the other place. The working group does not come from the House by motion. If we are to see real change it must have the confidence of the House. We need to consult and reflect on the proposals and ensure that they are workable, because we do not want to have to unpick them later. It is vital for members of the party hierarchy—and trade unions that represent staff and may not have had a place in the group—to be consulted.
The Leader of the House suggested a number of ways of protecting people now, in the medium term, and in the longer term. The Leader of the Opposition has made it clear to me—and, in a letter, to the Prime Minister—what the Opposition want. First, we want a separate independent sexual harassment adviser and support. We suggest that the sexual adviser should be appointed immediately—they should be independent and qualified to take complainants through the process until the tender is out, which could be at the end of January—and that a separate helpline should be set up now. In that way, if there are existing cases, people will not feel that they have nowhere to go with their complaints. There must not be a vacuum, and this can easily be done immediately. Will the Leader of the House agree to do it now?
Secondly, we want an independent human resources service for staff. Some Members and staff belong to trade unions, while others say that they do not want to, but joining a union has benefits: unions have expertise and are familiar with employment rights. Given the possible erosion of rights as we leave the EU, there is already concern about the possibility that the working-time directive will be removed, and it is vital for those who are not in a management position to have access to advice and assistance. I know staff representatives have said that they would like such a service, and that they cannot deal with the cases that they currently have. The service should be offered on an equivalent basis to staff of the House.
Thirdly, the current HR support service should be expanded to help Members and senior members of staff understand how to interview and how to ensure good practice in respect of management issues. That would be separate from the service offered to other staff.
There are existing policies, such as the Respect policy, and some of the evidence that we heard suggested that we should build on what we already have. It took the staff of the House 18 months to put the Respect policy together, and we need to use that expertise. There are many other policies and examples of best practice. ACAS says that it is working with a media organisation to produce a policy on sexual harassment. We can use its expertise and adapt it for the House. A working party cannot do that, but it can commission the work.
Mr Speaker, with your swift action Health Assured is now open to all. It has been expanded, so that there is a route in for those who need it and they can be signposted to different areas of expertise. Longer term, there should be mandatory equalities training for all that includes familiarity with the codes of behaviour. The Leader of the House mentions a new behaviour code, but this is where more work needs to be done; there is a code, and, as the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), said, it could be amended to serve as a reminder of the Nolan principles in public life and what constituents sexist or racist harassment and behaviour.
This mandatory training for every person in the House need not be long—just two hours, which could include fire safety and even cyber-security. It is necessary for all those who work here, and not only to protect themselves on what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour—it is the right thing to do. As for sanctions, if it is for Members, there must be a further discussion with the parties. As for the parties, the Labour party is constantly refining its sexual harassment process. Our process on sexual harassment has been looked at by a leading QC. We are in a much better place. Any process needs to be tested through the experience of a complainant. Only that way will we know if it works.
This is too important an issue. There needs to be expert help or consultants. Whether through a Select Committee or a parliamentary forum, it will be set up to monitor outcomes, take forward further work and refine our policies. As you said, Mr Speaker, on Monday when referring to Members, the majority of people working here
“are dedicated, hard-working, committed public servants doing what you believe to be right for this country.”—[Official Report, 18 December 2017; Vol. 633, c. 805.]
I hope that the work we have done on the working group will have given power to the powerless and a voice to the voiceless, as we protect those vulnerable people and enable them to work here in this centre of democracy.