As Westminster’s sexual harassment scandal continues to unfold, numerous MPs and party figures are “under investigation”. But what does this actually mean?
It can actually refer to a number of processes. An investigation can be by the police, if the case has been referred to the police, or by the party, which will use its internal processes to investigate the case, or by the government if it involves a sitting minister.
So, for example, allegations against the Tory MP Charlie Elphicke have been referred to the police (he denies wrongdoing), the Labour party suspended and is investigating Kelvin Hopkins MP over a sexual harassment claim (he denies acting inappropriately), and the First Secretary of State Damian Green is being investigated by the Cabinet Office for alleged misconduct, such as having porn on his Commons computer (he’s denied all claims).
It’s up to the person accusing the politician of wrongdoing to decide whether to press charges to the police. Some parties are accused of using this as an excuse not to act in the past – basically dismissing claims if the victim is not willing to go to the police.
But submitting yourself and your alleged abuser to a police investigation is daunting for anyone, let alone those who work in Parliament, who could fear press attention. “You’re working for someone in the public eye,” a Labour staffer familiar with this dilemma tells me. “You don’t want to end up in the papers if you go to the police.”
Usually, once the party has advised the person making the accusation on what to do, it can take a statement from and investigate the case. Different parties have different procedures.
After Labour women condemned its non-independent investigation process, which I reported last week, Labour is appointing an independent specialist organisation to offer confidential advice to individuals affected by sexual harassment in the party – this is to be a neutral voice to guide the person through the party’s procedures.
Under the current complaints procedure, the first thing a complainant can do is call a dedicated sexual harassment hotline, where they can talk through their case and be given advice on what action to take.
If they wish to formally pursue the complaint, they face a sexual harassment panel on the party’s National Executive Committee. It ensures the complainant won’t come face-to-face with the accused (who also has to be interviewed), but they could still be working in the same office as that person. It assures that its investigation takes place in confidence (though sources I spoke to in my report on this process didn’t feel they could trust this).
The grievance procedure called the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party Respect Policy is for staff, interns and volunteers, and advises that “employees should aim to settle most grievances informally with their line manager” (who, of course, could be the MP who has harassed you). It “strongly encourage[s]” anyone who has been subject to possible criminal behaviour to complain to the police. “The chief whip is required by standing orders to take action regarding allegations or criminal activities,” it says.
But if the person making the accusation wishes to make a formal complaint to the party, they are advised to raise the matter with the chief whip (or the deputy leader, if the chief whip is the subject of your grievance) with details of your grievance in writing. Then all parties are called on to attend a grievance meeting, led by the chief whip or deputy leader, who is designated as the grievance manager. It is then decided what to do about the accused.
Like Labour, the Conservatives’ procedure for alleged breaches of their code of conduct begins with a call to a confidential hotline or a message to a complaints email address. Like the Lib Dems, it also advises bringing up the grievance informally at first and to “explain clearly to them that their behaviour is not welcome or makes them uncomfortable”.
If informal steps are “not appropriate”, however, then the person making the accusation can start the formal procedure – taking a statement from the complainant and notifying the MP, or whoever’s accused, in question, taking their statement and interviewing witnesses.
This evidence is then examined by a panel appointed by the party’s chairman, which must include one independent individual. If an MP’s being investigated, this panel has to include someone nominated by the chair of the 1992 Committee of backbench MPs. This panel advises whether the matter should go to the police (sometimes it has a duty to report it), and whether or not the party’s code of conduct has been breached.
MPs don’t have to be suspended (ie. have the whip withdrawn so they sit temporarily as an independent) while they are being investigated. This usually depends on the severity of the allegations, or, unfortunately, how politically tricky it would be for the party to suspend the MP in question.
For example, Damian Green is in the cabinet and is May’s right-hand man, so is less likely to be suspended while being investigated. And Labour was far quicker to suspend former MP Simon Danczuk (a big critic of the leadership) after accusations were made about him than others who are closer to the leadership (eg. the now suspended Kelvin Hopkins was promoted to the shadow cabinet after a complaint was made).
But this isn’t necessarily a slight on the current party regimes. It’s Westminster’s weird employment set-up – and lack of proper safeguarding – that needs to change, along with making the parties’ grievance procedures truly independent.