A crackdown on sexual harassment and bullying in Westminster under which MPs and peers could face recall or expulsion is a “game-changer for parliament”, the Commons leader, Andrea Leadsom, has said.
A cross-party report on Thursday said urgent reform was needed to tackle a culture of harassment and bullying at Westminster, including a new complaints procedure and an investigation mechanism independent of parties.
It found that one in five people working at Westminster had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour in the past year.
Leadsom, who chairs the working group behind the report, said MPs found to have bullied or abused staff would face “real sanctions” for breaching a proposed code of conduct. The code recommends that the names of those accused of sexual harassment and bullying should remain confidential while allegations are investigated, but disclosed if abuse is proved.
Leadsom said MPs, peers and staff representatives who had devised the code had reached unanimity. “The ambition is that we become one of the best parliaments in the world, if not the best, for dealing with this,” she told reporters. “This is by no means a window-dressing exercise. It will have real teeth.”
She said they hoped to have the new system up and running within months, and would report back to MPs within six months and 18 months about its progress in tackling harassment and bullying. “We will be able to measure how successful we have been. I should hope we’ll see some real change happening,” she said.
Leadsom said confidentiality was key to their proposal. “I’ve met a number of people who have come to talk to me about their own experiences, saying they had people camped on their doorsteps, trolled on Twitter by people who say: ‘You should be flattered, you’re ugly,’” she said.
Under the proposed system, complaints would trigger a confidential inquiry by the parliamentary commissioner for standards, with a tougher range of sanctions for those found to have behaved inappropriately.
On receiving the commissioner’s report, standards committees in the Commons and Lords would be able to recommend the suspension of an MP or peer for a specified period. This could trigger proceedings for the recall of an MP, resulting in an election in their constituency, or the expulsion of a peer.
The survey of 1,377 workers found that 39% of staff, MPs and peers had experienced non-sexual bullying and harassment of some sort while on the parliamentary estate.Further recommendations include a dedicated helpline for complaints about sexual misconduct and a separate line for reporting bullying and non-sexual harassment.
Though the report was broadly welcomed, some victims raised concerns that the committee had not heard evidence from people who had been sexually assaulted or harassed.
Leadsom said the group had agreed to exclude individual cases within the terms of reference and victims would have risked an invasion of privacy, given that the proceedings were subject to freedom of information requests. “There was not a great deal of demand from individual victims to want to come and talk to us,” she said.
“But as individuals on the working group, I myself as leader of the House of Commons have met a number of individuals who have wanted to speak to me. So our knowledge of these cases has certainly informed our thinking.”
Launching the report, Leadsom told the Commons that decisions over whether to publish the names of those accused would be taken on a case-by-case basis after with “very careful assessment” by the independent investigator. She said protecting the interests of complainants would be “at the heart” of the process.
Labour called for the urgent implementation of the report. Valerie Vaz, the shadow Commons leader, said: “When the working group formed, Labour called for the immediate establishment of an independent specialist adviser on sexual harassment. Although we would like this to have been put in place sooner, we are pleased it is included in the report and hope it will be implemented as quickly as possible.
“Labour will be advocating that relevant bodies do their utmost to ensure the group’s recommendations are put into place as a matter of urgency.”
The writer and Conservative activist Kate Maltby, whose allegations against Damian Green contributed to his resignation in December, welcomed the report as a “step in the right direction”. But she raised doubts about the recommendation to preserve the anonymity of those accused of harassment.
“I’m seriously concerned about efforts to muzzle the media on this, because if there are cases where things are swept under the carpet and people are given anonymity, it is the media’s job to hold parliament accountable,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Every public-facing institution has to deal with the possibility of a malicious complaint; they all have systems in place to deal with it, they all have strong due processes which don’t stop the 95% of people making serious complaints being treated seriously. I don’t see why parliament shouldn’t be able to handle this problem too.”
Jo Swinson, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats and a member of the working group, said anonymity would give complainants more confidence to report because their identity would not be revealed. “This is about a workplace investigation, and it’s pretty common if at the stage when an investigation is happening, then it wouldn’t necessarily be public knowledge to everybody,” she told Today.
The Unite union’s parliamentary staff branch, which represents more than 500 staff working for MPs, said the report was a “significant step forward”. But it said the lack of formal recognition of the union was deeply concerning. Its chair, Max Freedman, said: “The best guarantee of moving away from this toxic culture is proper respect for staff and formal recognition of their trade union.”