Independent determination of complaints of bullying and harassment in the Commons
23 June 2020
On 23 June, MPs approved motions to establish an Independent Expert Panel (IEP) to determine complaints of bullying or harassment under the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS).
The IEP will be entirely independent of MPs, with no MPs taking part in its decisions. This decision means that all three of Dame Laura Cox's main recommendations have now been implemented.
The IEP will have the power to determine sanctions against MPs should a case of bullying or harassment be upheld. In cases where the IEP recommends the most extreme sanctions, such as suspension or expulsion of an MP, the House must approve the recommendation via a motion in the Chamber.
MPs also approved a motion by Chris Bryant MP, Chair of the Standards Committee. This amendment means that any sanction recommended by the IEP will not be debated.
The House of Commons Commission published an explanatory paper ahead of the debate:
Background on the Dame Laura Cox recommendations
The Bullying and Harassment of House of Commons Staff – Independent Inquiry Report by Dame Laura Cox was published on 15 October 2018.
The report made three fundamental recommendations for change in the House of Commons, two of which have been implemented:
- The Valuing Others and Respect policies have been permanently suspended.
- The ICGS is now open to non-recent cases and to former members of the parliamentary community, following a vote in the House of Commons on 17 July 2019.
The third recommendation, which the motion on Tuesday relates to, is:
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 will play no part.
Currently, sanctions in relation to ICGS cases would be determined by the Committee on Standards, which is made up of seven MPs and seven lay members. To fulfil the recommendation, the determination must be carried out by an independent body.
In February 2020, a team appointed by the House of Commons Commission presented five options for the implementation of the third recommendation. The Commission unanimously agreed that its preferred option was to establish an Independent Expert Panel, removing that responsibility from the Committee on Standards.
The Commission invited a public consultation on this option in March which received 41 responses – the majority of which strongly agreed with the preferred option.
On 27 April 2020 the Commission confirmed its support for the implementation of the Independent Expert Panel and asked that the matter be brought to the House.
Dame Laura Cox has issued a statement ahead of the debate on Tuesday 23 June:
The function of the Independent Expert Panel as to be agreed on the 23 June
The panel will consist of eight members who will be independent of Parliament and will be recruited for their proven ability to assess evidence and reach impartial conclusions (eg former judges).
The core function of the Panel will be to determine the final assessment of ICGS cases referred to it by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (PCS).
The PCS will retain her role in investigating and determining cases, and she will continue to rectify cases and impose sanctions up to a certain level of severity.
The Panel will determine sanctions in cases referred by the PCS where she is not able to rectify the case using the sanctions available to her.
The sanctions determined by the Panel could include the suspension or expulsion of an MP, which requires action by the House. In these cases, the House will consider a motion to impose the sanction.
A member of the House of Commons Commission will put forward a motion in the Chamber to allow the House to implement the sanction recommended by the Panel. The Commission agreed that the House would be asked to consider whether or not there should be a time-limited debate in these circumstances.
Less severe sanctions will be imposed directly by the Panel.
In addition to considering cases referred by the PCS, the Panel will also be required to hear appeals from either party against the PCS's conclusions in ICGS cases involving Members of this House. It will also provide an appeals mechanism against its own determination in cases referred by the PCS.
The Panel will be created by Standing Orders of the House and will create an effective means for complaints against Members made under the ICGS to be determined independently, meeting the third recommendation of the Dame Laura Cox report.
Confidentiality in the Standards system
The Committee on Standards has also recommended that the rules of confidentiality, which were introduced in July 2018 when the House adopted the ICGS and Behaviour Code and apply to both ICGS and non-ICGS cases, be updated.
The Commissioner on Standards has published a paper which argues that in certain specific respects, the current rules on confidentiality have impeded her work and undermined the effective operation of the standards system.
She has put forward four recommendations for improving matters, which are supported by the Committee, focusing on:
- Deterrents to unauthorised disclosure
- The power to set the record straight
- Authority to publish a quarterly report about completed ICGS investigations
- Publishing information about ongoing non-ICGS investigations
Confidentiality in the House's standards system