Processes must improve if harassment is to end, May tells business leaders

Prime minister promises specific HR support at Westminster as allegations mount; MPs urged to stop directly employing staff and improve managerial skills

Theresa May has pledged to increase the amount of HR support available to employees at Westminster and promised to promote a ‘culture of respect’, as attention focuses on potential solutions to the wave of sexual harassment allegations that have engulfed political parties in recent days.

Speaking at the CBI conference in London, the prime minister said she would agree a “common, robust and independent grievance procedure for parliament” following a scandal that has seen a number of parliamentarians accused of misdemeanours including inappropriate advances, offensive comments and sexual assault. Several politicians have been suspended, multiple investigations are underway and at least one allegation has been referred to the police.

“Parliament and Whitehall are special places in our democracy, but they are also places of work, and exactly the same standards and norms should govern them as govern any other workplace,” May told business leaders yesterday.

“Women and men should be able to able to work free from the threat or fear of harassment. We need to establish a new culture of respect at the centre of our public life.”

At a subsequent cross-party summit, May and other leaders agreed a new grievance procedure governing staff working directly for politicians in Westminster. This will be in place by 2018, with guaranteed access to an HR professional – as opposed to the current system of telephone-first support – by the end of this month.

May said the new procedures did not amount to a ban on personal relationships, adding: “Of course people can be friendly with colleagues and consensual relationships can develop at work. This isn’t about prying… it’s about abuse.” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, pledged support for new grievance measures, and said all employers had a key role to play in ending harassment and abuse at work.

But even as the leaders were agreeing on procedures, there was ongoing disquiet about structural issues some politicians fear have helped propagate a culture of discrimination and made it harder to root out wrongdoing. Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas told the cross-party meeting that MPs’ staff should be directly employed by Westminster rather than by individual politicians’ offices, but told the Guardian her proposals had not been well-received.

“At the moment, there is not support for that, which I did feel was disappointing. I think it’s really clear that 650 MPs are not qualified employers,” said Lucas, though she added there was support for MPs to be given management training.

Others said the current role of the whips’ office as unofficial arbiter of complaints created additional problems. “The whips are both enforcers of party discipline and a supportive ear for MPs,” Labour MP Lisa Nandy told The Guardian. “It’s very common for MPs to approach their whips for help, especially when there is very little in the way of HR support, and the conflict of interest that creates urgently needs to be considered.” 

The Scottish parliament, where two separate complaints are being investigated by the SNP, is to launch a confidential survey of all employees as well as a helpline for staff at Holyrood.

Elsewhere at the CBI Conference, the agenda was dominated by discussion of the effects of AI and automation on employment and future skills, as well as Brexit. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said political uncertainty around the UK’s withdrawal from the EU was beginning to bite, and suggested a new wave of infrastructure investment was required to safeguard jobs and raise productivity.

“Britain’s record on investment in productivity is not great, and our shop floor representatives are telling us Brexit is making a difference to companies’ investment decisions,” said O’Grady. “Government needs to give a lead. At this time, more than ever, it’s important to invest.”