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Parliament misconduct calls for professional HR system

UK parliament needs a professional HR system to deal with misconduct allegations fairly and equally, according to former senior party whips.

Speaking to the BBC, several senior and former MPs, who have served as whips for different parties, argued parliament needed a formal HR system to stop allegations being dealt with in different ways, or on a case-by-case basis. 

The news came on Monday (12 June) as parliament debated measures which could bar MPs parliament if they are being probed by police for violent or sexual offences. 

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Sexual misconduct cases against MPs are not dealt with through a dedicated, single process, the MPs said. 

Allegations could be reported to parliament's Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, to parties or whips, the Commons Speaker, leader of the House, or the police. 

Former deputy chief whip, Anne Milton, was involved in dealing with allegations against Charlie Elphicke, a Conservative MP who was subsequently convicted for sexual assault in 2020. 

She told BBC News: "In the short period of time I was involved with the allegations against Charlie Elphicke, I was clear that the whips' office was not the place to consider issues such as this. 

"You can help people through difficult periods in their life - but the whips' offices are not equipped and don't have the expertise to deal with complaints of this nature." 

Paula Leach, former chief people officer of the Home Office, said all organisations benefit from a structured and independent approach to dealing with complaints.  

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “Fundamentally this is about objectivity, fairness and independence.   

“This is important not only to ensure the outcome is as considered as possible, but for both parties to feel that they have a fully unbiased and comprehensive analysis of the facts of the case.” 

Government has been subject to several inquiries into the treatment of its staff, particularly special advisors working in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office.

In 2022, the Sue Grey report into alleged lockdown breaches found "failures of leadership and judgment in No 10 and the Cabinet Office”.

Angela O’Connor, founder of HR consultancy, the HR Lounge said the political nature of parliament as a workplace makes a dedicated HR function particularly important. 

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “Organisations full of powerful people and strong personalities are in very dangerous terrain without professional HR advice.

“We have seen what happens when complaints are made and are not investigated properly or where patterns of negative behaviour are not identified swiftly enough. 

“Independent, strong ethically driven HR support can make a very positive difference.” 

Handling complaints and allegations internally, for example by party whips, risks unconscious bias, Leach added.

She said: “Internal individuals and systems will have an inherent set of assumptions, language and knowledge which will be applied even unconsciously." 

However, in less severe cases, Leach said there can be value in early intervention by management. 

She added: “There is huge value in the opportunity to be ‘upstream’ of any issues before they become situations which lead to formal complaints.   
“This does not replace a formal complaints process for instances which absolutely require it, but at times relationships can be managed, behaviours can be addressed and modified without either party having to go through a formal process in many instances.” 

A parliamentary spokesperson told HR magazine: “The House has set up a Speaker's Conference to review working practices in Parliament, including whether or not it is right that individual MPs are the direct employers of their own staff, or whether staff should be employed by an outside body. Further submissions from Members, Member’s staff and others continue to be welcomed, with the report due to be published before the Summer recess.

“Members’ staff can access information, signposting to key resources, including the ICGS and pastoral care and a wide range of support from the Members’ Services Team. The Team also supplies a separate, confidential and extremely well used HR service for Members as the employers of their staff, which is provided by qualified HR professionals”