When the Damian Green scandal erupted in Autumn last year, the procedures for dealing with bullying, harassment and sexual harassment by politicians came under intense scrutiny. As further complaints against MPs from their staff, journalists and members of the public came to light, criticism focused on the process in the House of Commons and within political parties. The FDA have been vocal throughout the development of the House of Commons’ new policy, and have been making the case for an independent process when it comes to dealing with complaints against Ministers across the UK government.
Last week saw a significant amount of coverage of the Alex Salmond case. Salmond is under investigation because of two complaints of sexual harassment from his time as first minister, a claim he denies. The Scottish Government have an independent policy for dealing with complaints against ministers, which has been in place since 2010. Last year it was updated to include former ministers.
The policy has the public support of the current first minister Nicola Sturgeon. Leslie Evans, the permanent secretary to the Scottish Government, is duty bound to investigate those complaints. Evans’ composure under intense political pressure has been commendable and a true testament to integrity of civil servants, who are responsible for implementing policies.
Yet, if the same type of complaint were raised against a minister in a UK government department no such investigation would take place as, unlike the Scottish Government, no such policy is in place. Whether a complainant’s concerns are taken seriously, investigated and (if upheld) acted upon will all be subject to whether the prime minister (a) views it as a breach of the ministerial code and (b) has the political will and capital to act. Let’s be honest: how many times have we seen ministers get away with clear errors and questionable judgement in the past few years, because party politics always comes first?
Despite initial positive signs in the aftermath of the ministerial resignations last year, little progress has been made in developing a fully independent process that civil servants could have confidence in.
The House of Commons has designed a new procedure for dealing with complaints against MPs, but it is still a far cry from the process our members want to see. When it comes to deciding on any sanction more serious than an apology it will be MPs that make the decisions – meaning that MPs still get to mark their own homework. The FDA has made no secret of the fact that we do not believe the new policy is fit for purpose. It needs to be fully independent, and that includes independence on decisions regarding sanctions.
Moreover, the House of Commons policy only deals with complaints against MPs that are made by staff in the House of Commons or staff employed directly by the MP. It doesn’t extend to civil servants working in government departments where the MP is a minister. If a minister harasses or bullies a civil servant in their department there is no formal process for that civil servant to make a complaint, have it investigated and have sanctions applied if the complaint is upheld.
It is clear, from our experience representing leaders and managers in the civil service, our time acting on behalf of House of Commons staff, and the recent revelations in Scotland, that party politics needs to be separated from the complaints process. The FDA continues to call for an independent process for dealing with complaints against ministers, and this must include an independent process for the investigation of the complaint and independent decision-making on sanctions if the complaint is upheld.
Whilst the media spotlight has been on Alex Salmond, his legal action to challenge the process and his controversial way of funding it, scant regard has been given to those who have brought the complaints in the first place. It takes tremendous courage to bring a complaint against those who hold powerful positions. Knowing that your complaint will be dealt with seriously and in the case of ministers, independently, is critical.
The Scottish Government has led the way in implementing an independent process to deal with complaints of sexual harassment. The UK government needs to stop dragging their heels and do the same. The FDA and other civil service unions have persistently made our case for why independence is critical to fairness – and ultimately, everybody deserves to treated with dignity and respect at work. Urgent action, not warm words, is what we now need if #TimesUp and #MeToo are to have meaning when it comes to those who hold some of the most powerful positions in the country.