Pete Wishart – 2020 Speech on Independent Complaints

Below is the text of the speech made by Pete Wishart, the SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire, in the House of Commons on 23 June 2020.

It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate. I have had the great privilege of having served in all the various ICGS working groups since their inception, and it is particularly good to be here today to say a few remarks on behalf of the House of Commons Commission on what hopefully will be the conclusion and the implementation of all the recommendations that have been made to the ICGS.

As I look around the Chamber today, I can see several colleagues who have served on the various incarnations of the working group, and I pay tribute to them for their contribution and dedication. In particular, I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), whose vision, leadership and guidance at the inception of all this helped to guide us through this process, so I thank her for her contribution today.

Today, we are here to bring the ICGS in line with the third recommendation of Dame Laura Cox. It is worth briefly reminding ourselves of what Dame Laura Cox actually said about this House in her most damning report and the litany of issues that she uncovered. She talked of an

“excessively hierarchical, ‘command and control’ and deferential culture, which has no place in any organisation in the 21st century.”

That is what Dame Laura said.

It is two years since Dame Laura Cox presented her report to the House. It was in October 2018 that the Commission overwhelmingly agreed to all three of her recommendations. We have heard that the first two have been implemented. One was, of course, the behaviour code, which has been put in place. The second was looking at historical cases, and today we are considering the third recommendation. Let us just remind ourselves what that is. It is to put in place the mechanism whereby complaints of bullying, harassment or sexual harassment brought by House staff against Members of Parliament would be an entirely independent process in which Members of Parliament will play no part. For this to happen, the Commission set up a working group to put together how we should respond to this and to bring this House in line with that recommendation. That was met with the Commission’s unanimous agreement to establish the independent expert panel to replace the Committee on Standards in considering cases brought under the ICGS.

At our last meeting of the Commission, we confirmed our support for the implementation of the independent expert panel, and we asked for this matter to be brought before the House. The new panel will determine sanction in cases where the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards does not have the power to invoke sanctions. As we have heard, this could include the suspension or expulsion of a Member of Parliament. These serious cases will be referred to the panel and will be considered ​by a sub-panel of three independent experts, supported by specialist advice. When decided and concluded, a Member of the House of Commons Commission, probably me, will move a motion to allow the House to implement the sanction determined by the IEP. Lastly, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will know that the Commission agreed that the House would be asked to consider whether there should be a time-limited debate in these circumstances, and that is where we are today, with the motions in the name of the Leader of the House.

The motions accurately reflect the considerations of the House of Commons Commission, and its members are pretty much in line and in step with what Dame Laura Cox expects in the implementation of her third recommendation. That is, of course, until we get to paragraph D(1) in motion 5, where the Leader of the House makes that provision for the debate. If it is helpful to the House, what the Commission decided in our consideration of this issue was that we would let the House decide whether it wanted a debate. I think the expectation was that a couple of motions would be brought by the Leader of the House, which would give us flexibility in our options. Instead, we have this one determination of the Leader of the House, which is that we are now invited to a yes or no. I do not think that I am giving away any secrets, Madam Deputy Speaker, when I say that the Commission was almost split down the middle when we were considering this matter, and that was why we felt it was appropriate that the House should decide and determine this.

My view as a Member of the House who has been involved in the ICGS for the past two and a half years is that what the Leader of the House suggests in paragraph D(1) breaks practically every principle and the whole spirit of the third Cox recommendation. It is little wonder that there is profound disappointment among House staff today. Such are the concerns that Dame Laura herself has felt the need to respond to some of the representations from staff. She notes the fears that a debate could result in a complainant’s confidentiality being compromised and speaks of

“the chilling effect that this will undoubtedly have on complainants reporting cases of harassment or bullying”.

There are real concerns that MPs will debate the findings of an independent judgment on one of their colleagues while protected by privilege, with staff having no equivalent platform. That cannot be right.

The Leader of the House seeks to assure us with motion 6, but we cannot escape the overwhelming conclusion that Members and complainants could be identified inadvertently in a debate. Colleagues and friends of somebody who has been complained against will feel the temptation to get up there and defend them.

Mr Carmichael

The hon. Gentleman is drilling down into an important part of the issue, which is about procedural fairness. It goes to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). Once we got into a debate, it is inevitable that we would get into the merits of the issue; how, procedurally, could we expect not to?

Pete Wishart

I think that concern has been expressed by the House staff after looking at the motions presented by the Leader of the House today.​

As was mentioned by the Leader of the House and shadow Leader of the House, the House should make the ultimate determination about the expulsion or suspension of a Member of Parliament. That is right, but it should not be done through a debate. That is why I will be supporting the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), and I really hope that the rest of the House will too.

It is disappointing that this little issue has presented itself after we have come all this way with full agreement, full consensus and the involvement of the House staff, and are just at the point of doing this. I say to the House: stick with the principles of Laura Cox and support the amendment this evening.