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12 June 2023

Is meaningful action finally being taken against Pestminster?

A House of Commons Commission has proposed to exclude MPs accused of sexual and violent crimes from parliament.

By Zoë Grünewald

Last week, the House of Commons Commission published a paper that recommended members under investigation by the police for sexual assault or violent crime be banned from entering the parliamentary estate.

The report, released by a cross-party committee of MPs, suggests that where officials are presented with “credible allegations of sexual or violent offending by the police at any point in the criminal justice process”, a risk assessment should be drawn up to help decide whether the MP retains their access.

It would be an extraordinary step – there is currently no formal mechanism to prevent parliamentarians, elected to represent their constituents, from the estate if they are under investigation for serious crimes. Although parties have long argued that informal agreements are set up when appropriate, staff, unions and members have voiced concern that the informality of these arrangements leaves many people who work in parliament at risk.

In 2021, the former Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan attended the House of Commons while under investigation for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy. He was given an 18-month jail sentence. Khan was not the first MP to have been under criminal investigation for sexual assault. More recent cases include another Tory MP, Julian Knight, who was reported to the police over a sexual assault allegation, and an unnamed Conservative MP, who is under investigation by the police for rape. Both deny the allegations.

The proposal comes as parliament is once again clouded by “Pestminster” allegations. The MP for Swansea West, Geraint Davies has recently been suspended from the Labour Party after being accused of subjecting several women to unwanted sexual attention. Though no criminal action has been taken against him, MPs and staff refer to it as an example of the difficulty of balancing the safety of staff in Westminster with the rights of MPs’ constituents to representation when allegations are as yet unproved.

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Staff unions feel the risks of the current unofficial system are understated. If, for example, incidents are dealt with informally, or indeed if there is no official action taken, staff may be left vulnerable. There are also concerns that political parties could have an interest in burying less serious allegations so as not to harm their reputation. Much of the bad behaviour that has emerged over the past few years has been uncovered by journalists, forcing parties to make cases public.

One union official involved in the process has said they were pleased that “parliament is finally taking steps in the right direction with this proposal, which follows the line pushed by unions and others consistently over the past year”. But the next step, the official continued, is to improve liaisons between the political parties and parliament when a potential risk emerges: “Too often whips and other MPs are aware of potential risks posed by potentially misbehaving MPs and do not pass that knowledge on to the parliamentary authorities.”

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Why has it taken parliament so long to act?

It’s six years since the #MeToo movement swept into Westminster. Since then, several MPs have been subject to serious complaints of sexual misconduct, including the former Conservative MP Andrew Griffiths, who in 2021 was found by a judge to have raped and coercively controlled his wife. And the MP for Dover, Charlie Elphicke, who was jailed in 2020 for sexually assaulting two women, including one who worked in parliament.

Elphicke’s was the first conviction of an MP for a sex crime in decades, though multiple complaints have been made to parliamentary authorities. A list of around 30 members to “avoid” – the exact number is unknown – has long been quietly circling among female parliamentary staff. One recipient of the list is the Labour MP Charlotte Nichols, who told BBC Radio 4’s World at One last week: “When I first came into parliament, literally within my first week, there was a list of names – about 30 MPs on it, people that I was told to do everything I could to make sure I wasn’t alone with, to never accept a drink from, to not get in a lift with.”

The House of Commons authorities say they have taken decisive action since the initial wave of Pestminster allegations in 2017, setting up the Independent Complaints and Grievances Service (ICGS) to tackle “inappropriate behaviour” in the parliamentary workplace.

But harassment and bullying still haunt the corridors of power. Many young men and women working there report that they or someone close to them have been a victim of misconduct. As I reported last year, parliamentary staff are still not confident that the systems in place now can protect them, in part due to parliament’s inability to keep MPs accused of misconduct away from staff.

This is where many consider the commission’s proposal to be a welcome move. The plans would formalise the process of complaint to ensure that MPs cannot contact those working on the estate during an investigation. Mike Clancy, general secretary of the Prospect union, called the proposals “an important step in protecting staff in parliament and bringing the Palace of Westminster’s working practices into the 21st century”.

“Prospect,” he continued, “has long been calling for MPs accused of sexual or violent misconduct to be excluded from the parliamentary estate and these proposals allow for that to happen at any point in the criminal justice process. MPs must approve these proposals to protect staff and restore confidence in a system which has been badly damaged in recent years.”

However, one MP told me they still have concerns. With the burden of proof for a criminal conviction so high, parliament may absolve itself of responsibility over an MP who has complaints against them but against whom conviction is not possible. “The only real issue I have is that [a police] charge means ‘there is a strong likelihood that a jury, properly instructed, would find the defendant guilty beyond all reasonable doubt’ and there’s a question as to what this means for the ICGS, which is on civil burden of proof, not criminal.” The risk is that those who do not take their complaint to the police, or do but are unable to secure a conviction, may not be protected.

[See also: Another “Pestminster” scandal: a Tory MP arrested on suspicion of rape]

Union sources told me this is the benefit of a risk assessment. In such a case, officials can take into account both information provided by the police and other relevant matters, which include: “Whether the allegation concerns a relevant offence (ie, is it violent or sexual in nature); the nature of the alleged misconduct; whether there is any safeguarding concern relating to sexual abuse.”

The Commons commission’s proposals indicate that MPs will no longer be protected by informal procedures or by their status in Britain’s constitution. Advice originally provided to parliament officials cited concerns about exclusion over the possibility of vexatious complaints and a potential loss of an MP’s representation of their constituents: “It is a fundamental constitutional right for members who have been elected by their constituents to represent them here, and no one outside the House itself has power to curtail that right.” Staff unions were very concerned by this. Garry Graham, Prospect’s deputy general secretary said that “maintaining a system where, purely by virtue of the power they wield as an elected representative, MPs are immune from normal workplace standards is at best anachronistic and at worse actively contributing to a toxic and unacceptable working culture. It’s time parliament stopped crying ‘constitution’ and got its house in order.”

Since suspension from the estate could easily reveal the identity of MPs under investigation, some politicians have suggested that complaints could be made simply to damage an MP or their party. There are also democratic concerns over how a constituency would be represented should their MP be unable to attend parliamentary proceedings. Some criminal investigations can take months, even years to complete, which could mean whole constituencies are forgotten. However, the commission’s proposal has suggested that MPs could get a proxy vote, and there is no suggestion, given how well staffed MPs’ offices are, that constituency surgeries would cease. Further, union sources have rejected the suggestion of vexatious complaints, stating that parliament is “in danger of peddling outdated and discredited myths about questioning the motivations of rape and sexual assault survivors”. Officials also point out that taking a complaint to the police can be “life changing” for victims, and is not a decision taken lightly by any complainant.

The proposals will be debated in the Commons today (12 June), and could eventually be voted on. “It will be important for MPs of all parties who care about the reputation of parliament to turn up… to ensure the forces of the reaction do not block this positive step,” a union insider told me. Many are positive that the Commons will vote this through, in part due to public pressure to straighten up the institution, and a feeling that it is time to take meaningful action to curb the toxic culture. “It’ll go a long way towards improving things, particularly on redress where misconduct has occurred,” one MP told me. But “there’s still a lot more to do on the underlying culture. This should be considered step one, not job done.”

[See also: How Rishi Sunak can solve parliament’s Pestminster problem]