Union sources representing House of Commons staff have told the New Statesman they fear parliament may adopt a policy that could be considered “sceptical about women and men who report violent or sexual offences to the authorities, and which raises questions about their veracity and motivations”.
FDA, Prospect, GMB and PCS, representing around 1,500 members of staff, have provided a joint submission to the House of Commons Commission’s consultation on excluding MPs from the parliamentary estate when they have been charged with violent or sexual offences.
The unions say: “Parliament must not – unintentionally or otherwise – feed into that culture by resisting calls for exclusion on the grounds of institutional scepticism about the credibility of allegations of rape or violence.”
The unions have told the Commission that parliament should have the ability to “exclude from its premises any person whom it reasonably believes might pose a risk to its employees and other users of the premises”, and that the decision should be taken at the point of arrest, rather than when an individual is charged.
They argue: “We believe that if it’s reasonable for the police to arrest an individual on suspicion of a violent or sexual violence, it is equally reasonable – and indeed entirely appropriate – that the House Service should have the ability to conduct a risk assessment to determine whether it is safe for that person to access the estate.”
The Commission is responsible for the administration and services of the House of Commons and is composed of MPs and lay members, including the Speaker Lindsay Hoyle and Clerk of the House John Benger.
Though the commission is yet to make public any conclusion on how to deal with MPs accused of criminal misconduct, MPs and staff members fear it may use the possibility of vexatious or false complaints to decide against excluding those charged with sexual assault from the estate.
Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, said: “Parliament is virtually unique as a UK workplace in not having a policy which excludes people after allegations of sexual misconduct. Prospect believes this results in inadequate protection for staff and a culture where people may feel less likely to come forward with an allegation.
“Of course, there must be safeguards to protect anonymity and ensure constituents continue to enjoy their constitutional right to representation. But parliament’s approach must begin with protecting people from potential predators and giving credence to accusers. Basing a policy primarily around preventing damage from vexatious complaints is entirely the wrong way to go about things.”
The FDA’s national officer Jawad Raza added: “We know from our experience of dealing with cases of serious sexual misconduct that it takes a lot to raise a complaint, and these are made in good faith. There should be no scepticism or any obstacles which may prevent someone from reporting a serious sexual offence to the relevant authority.”
A Westminster union source commented: “How can the political heart of UK public life adopt a formal position that is sceptical about women and men who report rape to the police? Recent research suggests that genuinely false allegations of rape are made in a very small minority of cases, perhaps as low as 3 per cent.
“Yet parliament – in its attempt to address the crucial issue of the ability to access Westminster by MPs being investigated for serious sexual or violent offences – is in danger of peddling outdated and discredited myths about questioning the motivations of rape and sexual assault survivors.
“Such an approach suggests that Westminster’s instinct remains to put the immediate interests of MPs first and the rights of its staff and others very much second.”
Charlotte Nichols, the Labour MP for Warrington North, told the New Statesman that she would also provide a submission to the commission in support of exclusion and said that any counter-argument concerning the possibility of false allegations was “bollocks”.
“It totally underestimates how much it takes for someone to actually come forward and report someone, particularly for staff where doing so could pretty much end their career.
“I think it’s insulting to suggest that people would be motivated to come forward with these sorts of [false] complaints, because people rarely even complain when they have legitimate grounds for a complaint.”
A recent House of Commons staff survey showed that bullying and sexual harassment is still endemic in parliament, with 1 per cent of staff reporting that they had experienced sexual misconduct in the last year alone, and 51 per cent saying they had been made to feel uncomfortable as a result of a colleague’s behaviour. In April 2021 it was reported that 56 MPs were under investigation for sexual misconduct allegations. The Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) have since disputed these numbers, stating “that figure was incorrect. The correct number of sexual misconduct cases brought forward against MPs for this reporting year was six. The total number of sexual misconduct cases brought forward against MPs since the start of the Scheme (July 2018) to the end of this reporting year was 14.”
A House of Commons spokesperson said: “The commission launched a consultation on excluding members charged with violent or sexual offences from the parliamentary estate until any such cases are concluded. Ultimately, it will be for the whole House to decide on any such power. Details of the consultation were announced on 5 December and the commission will be considering responses in due course.”
[See also: “Toxic” culture in parliament as 162 staff report bullying]