Valerie responds to backbench business debate on the Cox report

I responded to a backbench business debate on the implementation of the Cox report on bullying and harassment in Parliament on Tuesday 19 June 2019.

You can read my speech in full below:

The Commission appointed Dame Laura Cox to do the report as a result of the “Newsnight” allegations. Because it was very clear that the Commission did not want to be involved as elected members—as you will recall, Madam Deputy Speaker—we tasked the non-execs, Dame Janet Gaymer and Jane McCall, to draw up the terms of reference for the report and to find someone of the stature of Dame Laura Cox who was willing to produce it. It was a completely independent process both in terms of the report and picking the person—it was not interfered with at all by the Commission.

Dame Laura Cox published her report on 15 October. She made three fundamental recommendations that we on the Commission felt merited urgent consideration. We did that at our 24 October meeting and issued a statement on the same day agreeing to all the recommendations. Dame Laura Cox chose not to come to the Commission—not to answer questions, because we did not want that, but just to say what she wanted to say. She said that she had written her report and that was the end of it. I was therefore pleased when the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) said that when Dame Laura came to her APPG, she was able to talk about details of the report. The Commission confirmed that it was then up to the House to take forward these recommendations, to which we were all fully committed. Part of our statement said that we would expect to see them progress as quickly as possible.

The Clerk of the House then worked with members of staff to ensure that the recommendations were put in place. Dame Laura did not say in her report how she ​wanted the various strands set up—that had to be done from scratch. It was down to the Clerk and the staff he worked with to work on how the three recommendations would be implemented. The House of Commons debated the report in the Chamber on 5 November and agreed to the Committee on Standards report, “Implications of the Dame Laura Cox report for the House’s standards system: Initial proposals”, on 7 January 2019.

We all take this seriously and we all take responsibility for it. Every Commission meeting—the minutes are available on the parliamentary intranet—has been dominated by the deliberations that we have had on this. We appreciate that these are complex matters. Progress has at times been slower than we would wish, but I consider that we are now making good progress. It could be faster, and we will monitor that.

The first recommendation was that the valuing others policy and the revised respect policy should both be abandoned as soon as possible. That decision was taken immediately and they were suspended immediately.

The second recommendation was that the new independent complaints and grievance scheme be amended to ensure that House employees with complaints involving non-recent allegations can access the new scheme. That is because the Commission had made the clear recommendation that, for simplicity and consistency, recent and non-recent cases should have exactly the same process. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley made that point. We were advised by Speaker’s Counsel, the Commissioner for Standards and the trade union side. The public consultation closed last Friday. The responses will be reviewed, and there is an excellent prospect that this will be in place very soon. Dame Laura Cox said that she wished that we had waited until the publication of her report before the ICGS was in place because she had some recommendations to make about that. She felt that it was important that everything should be taken together.

The third recommendation was that steps should be taken, in consultation with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and others, to consider 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 will be an entirely independent process in which Members of Parliament play no part.

In paragraph 379 of Dame Laura’s report, she said that there was a “general reluctance of Members to judge the misconduct of other Members, or even to assist in the investigations”.

The Commission considered how to take that forward, and the previous Clerk, David Natzler, came up with a form of consultation that included Members. Her Majesty’s Opposition agreed which of our Members would serve on that group. A general agreement was required among all parties through the usual channels that the people on that group should, as we say in equity, have clean hands —they should have no involvement whatsoever with the Commissioner for Standards or the Committee on Standards or any other involvement; that was the sticking point.

As a result, on 10 June, the new Clerk announced that a staff team would be created to take the lead on producing options on implementation. That team will ​include people with procedural and legal knowledge, as well as expertise on the operation of the ICGS. I, too, want to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), who will know that all the groups in which we were involved had a wider spread, as alluded to by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). The trade unions, the Members and Peers Staff Association, and lay members all made an important contribution. Different voices were heard. It was hard work, but it was good that we could produce a report that we all agreed and signed up to.

The group that will take forward the third recommendation will talk to the union side, lay members of the Committee on Standards, party whips, Dame Laura Cox and the Chairs of the Select Committees on Standards and on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, as well as the Chairs of the Women and Equalities, Liaison and Procedure Committees. There will be a wide view, and a wide consultation. I know Members feel that the Commission or individuals have to drive things forward, but it is important to consult staff, Members and anyone who wants to make a contribution, so we should widen it out and hear those voices. Consultations do not take place quickly. People have to be given time to be consulted, but there is a way to push things forward.

The options will be presented to the Commission, then a consultation will be opened. The House authorities were quick to appoint Julie Harding, who took up her post as Independent Director for Cultural Transformation on 18 February 2019, and has been appointed for a one-year fixed term. Her new role was established to set a transformation strategy for change. She has met many of us. I do not know whether she has met the Women and Equalities Committee, but it would be worth her while doing so, as well as meeting other Committees.

Steps have been taken to change the culture. The House Service launched a new diversity and inclusion strategy on 26 March 2019. Responding to the recommendations of the Cox report is a key element of that strategy. As the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire said, over 1,000 staff from the House of Commons and the Parliamentary Digital Service have attended or booked to attend the valuing everyone training, including 49% of managers. The aim is that all staff and Members should complete the training by June 2020. Thirty-three Members, and 147 of their staff have attended or booked to attend the training sessions. I agree with the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington that the training should be compulsory. As a lawyer, I had to undertake continuous professional development. The Bar Council did it as well, so I would see venerable, elderly QCs attending those training sessions. When I first became a councillor in Ealing in 1986, we had to undertake equalities training. Whenever I conducted an interview as a member of the civil service, I went through training, so it is really important that training is compulsory.

Sarah Davies, our new Clerk Assistant, is also now Managing Director of the Chamber and Committees Team. It has adopted standards of service for all Select Committees, ensuring that all Select Committee members know what they can and cannot expect from staff. A staff member now sits on the Strategic Estates Team board, ensuring that staff issues are heard at the highest level. The Commons Executive Board—the board just ​below the Commission that manages the House—has undertaken a 360 degree feedback exercise and coaching from Julie Harding on behaviour as part of its broader commitment to cultural change.

The ICGS is supported by two helplines—the independent bullying and harassment helpline and the Independent Sexual Misconduct Advisory Service—and all their details are published on Parliament’s website. The most recent figures show that, between 1 January and 31 March, there were 293 calls and 10 investigations were launched. I suppose it would be a tribute to our success if behaviours change and there are fewer and fewer investigations, and we hope that will happen with changes in all behaviours.

As has been reported, Alison Stanley was absolutely remarkable in the way she conducted her six-month review, which was very important for us to have. That review was put in place, and there is also an 18-month review of the processes. We need to have these reviews because we must constantly monitor and improve our processes. The Commons Executive Board and the Commission will consider the review.

Dame Laura highlighted the gendered and racist dimension to bullying and harassment. Paragraph 123 states: “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. We know there will be other reports that will steer future decisions and change. We are awaiting the report from Gemma White QC, who I am sure will make further recommendations, and it is right that the House has time to debate them.

I have only two minor asks of the new Leader of the House, who I know has a very big in-tray. May we have a debate on the forthcoming report and Alison Stanley’s recent six-month review before the House rises? During the debate on the Cox report on 5 November, I asked the then Leader of the House what discussion she had had with Government “to ensure the allocation of proper resources and extra staff to make this work”. Will the Leader of the House say whether further resources will be available for the further recommendations of the Cox report and the other important reports?

Every time we talk about delay, we must remember that, down below, staff have been working incredibly hard. In the last eight months, they have made some major moves forward, and we should always remember that. I know that when we first set up the review of the ICGS, staff were actually doing other jobs as well as doing the job of ensuring that we came to our proper conclusions. I particularly want to thank everybody who has worked on producing those reports and those—whether House staff or in the special unit—who are continuing to do that work. I also thank Dame Laura Cox for her report, and Alison Stanley.

Everyone who works here, in whatever capacity, knows that they play a vital role in ensuring that our Parliament and our democracy thrive. It is essential that everyone who works in a modern Parliament knows the boundaries of acceptable behaviour in a safe and secure workplace. Her Majesty’s Opposition’s position is very clear: we ​will work with the Leader of the House and the House of Commons Commissions to push forward all the key recommendations in full.