Sexual Harassment and Inappropriate Conduct Inquiry
Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate
14 June 2018
I advise members that I, too, am a member of the joint working group on sexual harassment. I put on record my thanks to the officers who are working on that group and to Emma Ritch from Engender, who is supporting and giving advice to it.
Initially, I was disappointed with the committee’s report, because I expected to see some leadership from it.
It feels to me like an interim report to instigate a debate that might shine a light on the more difficult issues, rather than a finished piece of work.
Many of the recommendations refer issues back to the joint working group, and I am sure that we will take on those challenges and work with the committee.
We need to recognise that the Scottish Parliament is not an ordinary workplace.
Within the administration of Parliament, there is a workplace with normal hierarchies.
However, MSPs are elected by the people and answer to them only every five years. MSPs employ their own staff, and there is no parliamentary or party locus in the management of those staff.
Just because someone is a good politician and is able to win votes does not mean that they are a good manager.
Any human resources issue could be problematic, but that is particularly true with something as sensitive as sexual harassment.
If a member of an MSP’s staff is being sexually harassed by their employer, they have nowhere to turn.
Making a complaint to their employer is impossible if that employer is already abusing the balance of power in their relationship.
If they make a complaint to their MSP’s party, again, there is no recourse for them and no alternative employment—there is only a disciplinary process for their employer.
People need to work so, because no alternative employment is available, they will keep quiet.
When the behaviour becomes too bad, they will try to find another job.
We are talking about people’s livelihoods, and few people are financially secure enough to risk that.
I was therefore disappointed that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee did not make recommendations on those issues.
We need to look at how an MSP can be brought to book for unacceptable behaviour.
I know that that is challenging and that there have to be checks and balances in any system to ensure that it is not abused for party advantage.
However, it is untenable that there is not a system that can hold MSPs to account and address unacceptable behaviour.
That cannot simply be left to a party because, when such allegations are made, normal practice would be to suspend a member from the party, pending investigation.
However, they cannot be suspended from Parliament, so we need a system that can remove an MSP from Parliament in extreme circumstances.
Currently, that can happen only if they are given a custodial sentence.
Any system needs to be balanced with our democracy.
The people elect a representative and therefore they need to have a role in deselecting that person.
Somewhere between the MSP and the electorate, there needs to be an investigatory process that is above party politics and cannot be used as a vendetta—a process that the electorate can trust and use as its basis for decision making.
Sadly, the committee shied away from that, which is a decision that needs to be made by politicians.
We are all vulnerable to personal attack.
Although the public do not believe that we have reputations to protect, we all know that reputational damage can be devastating.
Therefore, we need a system that protects elected members from spurious attack while holding them to account when they do wrong.
We also need a system to support our staff.
Within Parliament, staff can be moved around and offered a different workplace when an investigation is on-going and the perpetrator is not suspended.
That cannot happen with MSP staff if the offender is their boss.
The MSP can be suspended from their party, pending investigation, but they cannot be suspended from Parliament.
Therefore, the staff member is likely to have to continue to work with them.
It is likely that the stress of that will lead to long-term sick leave but, again, that is not acceptable treatment of a victim.
We need a mechanism whereby a staff member can be transferred to another employer if a problem occurs.
Worry for their livelihood should not be the driving factor in a person’s decision on whether to make a complaint.
Being abused should not spell the end of a career.
We need to protect the people who are often the first point of contact for our constituents.
Added to that, we need to encourage all staff to join a trade union, so that they have an organisation behind them that will support and guide them if they are subject to abuse.
Within parties, we also have a responsibility to protect staff.
We need to understand that party structures can also bring their own issues.
There can be feelings of loyalty and allegiance.
Therefore, concerns about feelings of betrayal from reporting one of their own might put off MSP staff from making formal complaints about members of their own party.
They might also be worried that they will be excluded from not only parliamentary working but local party events and campaigns outwith Parliament.
Those things have to be into account when reporting frameworks are being created in the Parliament.
We need to reassure staff that their complaints will be taken seriously and that we will do everything in our power to protect them.
The working group can now look at those issues and, indeed, the many more issues that we are currently working on to change the culture and build a zero tolerance approach to harassment in the Parliament