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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 9, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 09 November 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Global Entrepreneurship Week, Business Motion, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Writers to the Signet Dependants’ Annuity Fund Amendment (Scotland) Bill: Preliminary Stage, Seat Belts on School Transport (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Seat Belts on School Transport (Scotland) Bill, Decision Time


Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time

Sexual Harassment (Definition)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, in light of the recent reports on the issue, how it defines sexual harassment. (S5O-01451)

Sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. The law says that behaviour is sexual harassment if it is either meant to violate, or has the effect of violating, someone’s dignity or

“creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.

The corporate body’s dignity at work policy defines harassment as

“any unwelcome behaviour or conduct which has no legitimate workplace function and which makes you feel: offended, humiliated, intimidated, frightened and/or uncomfortable at work. Harassment can occur as an isolated incident or as persistent behaviour and is essentially about what the recipient deems to be offensive, not about what was intended.”

Further, I reiterate what the Presiding Officer said in his letter last week. He said:

“Parliament has a zero-tolerance approach to harassment and sexual misconduct”.

I have spoken to women who have told me that different levels of harassment and inappropriate behaviour have made them feel uncomfortable. As David Stewart says, it is not just unlawful but is about how they feel. I am glad that that has been included.

What support is given to people who come forward with allegations of abuse, harassment or inappropriate behaviour?

Gail Ross makes some excellent points. Harassment and sexual misconduct are never warranted, and those who are harassed are never to blame. As the First Minister said today, we need a change in culture.

We have launched our helpline, which we want to be a single source that people can go to for advice on what procedure might be available to them. Today, we circulated posters throughout the Parliament, and I am delighted that the helpline is up and running. If the helpline gets referrals that require more specialist and detailed follow-on counselling, our trained human resources staff will refer them on to specialist organisations that can provide advice, counselling and assistance.

Given that sexual harassment and violence against women are a cause and a consequence of wider women’s inequality, does the corporate body agree that we have to tackle the wider issues, including representation?

The member makes an excellent point. As the First Minister said earlier, the key thing is that we have a change in culture. That is an issue not only for the corporate body but for political parties and society at large.

Harassment and sexual misconduct are never warranted in any walk of life, and I am glad that we can take a leadership position on the matter with an excellent suite of policies. If any member of the corporate body’s staff, any MSP, any member of MSP staff or any intern feels that there is any form of harassment or sexual misconduct going on, they should contact our helpline, which is now up and running. The phone number is 0800 519 0023.

Corporate Body and Parliamentary Bureau (Gender Composition)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, in light of recent reports regarding sexual harassment, how it intends to influence the gender composition of the corporate body and the Parliamentary Bureau. (S5O-01435)

It is probably worth clarifying the way in which the members of the corporate body are appointed. As the member is aware, they are elected by the Parliament, and that happened in May last year. By convention, the nominations for those positions are made by the political parties of the Parliament.

The Presiding Officer and individual corporate body members have previously raised concerns about the issue. With the agreement of the corporate body and the Parliamentary Bureau, the Presiding Officer sought and secured changes to the Parliament’s standing orders earlier this year to require political parties to

“consult each other and have regard to gender balance”

when putting forward names for either of those bodies. However, as the member will be aware, the standing order change has not yet translated into gender balance on either the corporate body or the Parliamentary Bureau. That remains a matter of regret.

I emphasise that we all need to work together on the issue and that, given their role in nominating candidates, political parties are key to the changes being made. That is why the Presiding Officer will today write to all party leaders, asking them collectively to sit down with him and look at how we can address the issue quickly to achieve change.

The gender balance of committees, shadow cabinets, the Cabinet and backroom teams is equally important, but this is an opportunity to talk about the composition of the Parliament’s governing body and I pay tribute to its members, not least David Stewart from my party, for their work, which is often a thankless and time-consuming task.

We have, at various times, heard members of the corporate body talk about the importance of advancing gender equality. I hope that those same members understand that, for women to have access to power and decision making, it sometimes requires men to give that power away. On that basis, I invite members of the corporate body to resign their roles so that we can achieve gender balance in this place before demanding it from the world beyond it.

I am sure that my colleagues agree with the sentiment behind that question. Obviously, it is not for the corporate body to take a view on the future of any of its members—that is a matter for the individual members. However, as I indicated, as a body, we stand ready to work with political parties in this place and with the Parliament as a whole to achieve gender balance in the corporate body. I cannot speak for committees or the Parliamentary Bureau, whose members are selected on slightly different grounds.

I understand that Gordon MacDonald MSP resigned from the corporate body earlier today for health reasons. I am sure that all members will join me in wishing him a speedy recovery. On behalf of the corporate body, I put on record our thanks for the valuable service that he has given to the body. Kezia Dugdale says that it is a thankless task, but it is actually quite enjoyable some of the time. It plays an important role in setting standards, practices, culture, policies and procedures for the Parliament.

Andy Wightman says that it is an enjoyable task, but I can comment for the female members who are here: none of us would know.

I do.

Except Linda Fabiani.

What is the SPCB’s view on mandating committee conveners to gender balance witness panels?

That would be a matter for the Parliamentary Bureau and the Parliament as a whole. It is perhaps an issue for the standing orders. At this stage, the corporate body does not have a view on matters relating to the gender balance of witness panels and so on. Some responsibilities are for committee members, conveners, clerks and other people in this place.

Nevertheless, the member raises the important point that we should all be striving to achieve gender balance and gender equality in all walks of life, in every workplace and in every process. There are good historical reasons why we continue to suffer from patriarchy, and I agree that we need to challenge it wherever and whenever it arises in the processes and procedures of all aspects of public life.

Reporting Procedures and Parliamentary Culture (Review)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, in light of recent reports regarding sexual harassment, whether it will initiate an independent review of reporting procedures and parliamentary culture. (S5O-01441)

I thank the member for her question. The Parliament’s commitment to diversity was underlined by the publication of its diversity and inclusion strategy in February this year, and a diversity and inclusion board will oversee the implementation of the strategy.

That board has been asked to review the procedures for reporting and investigating harassment. It is co-chaired by two members of the Parliament’s leadership group and is made up of representatives from the Parliament’s six equality networks and the Parliament’s trade unions, and an external board member, Professor Sir Geoff Palmer, a prominent academic who is currently honorary president of the Edinburgh and Lothians Regional Equality Council. In addition, we are pleased to report today that Emma Ritch, from Engender, will provide advice to the board on this work.

We will also issue a survey to all who work at Holyrood and in members’ local offices, to help us to understand the issues and barriers that exist and to build up a picture of the overall culture in the Parliament and across the political parties. We will seek external expert advice in drawing up the survey, analysing the results and looking at our next steps.

Reporting sexual assault or speaking about sexual harassment is never easy. What we are all discussing today is not a sex scandal, as some parts of the media have inaccurately reported it, but the abuse of power, usually by senior men, over women. Our Parliament and our parties have been rocked by serious allegations. No politician can dare to try to score points.

I welcome the steps that the Scottish Parliament is taking. The anonymous phone line, confidential survey, posters and 24-hour counselling service are all practical and welcome steps.

Last Tuesday, during topical questions, I said:

“Unless we understand how difficult it is for women”—

and I include myself—

“to come forward with complaints, given their fear that they will not be believed or supported, and unless we recognise that we are talking about a cultural problem ... we will never fully resolve the issue”

of the abuse of power that we are talking about. I went on to say:

“nothing short of an independent review ... is required”.—[Official Report, 31 October 2017; c 6.]

I welcome some of the progress towards that, including today’s news that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee will launch an inquiry into how the Parliament deals with incidents of sexual harassment and what procedures, rules and support are available in that regard. However, that on its own will not be sufficient.

I appreciate that experts, including Emma Ritch—of whom I am a big fan, by the way—will take part in the work. However, does the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body agree that we need to make it very clear that what we are doing is independent of members of the Scottish Parliament? I mentioned the SPPA committee, and I admire its work; but it is made up of five men and two women. Can we do everything possible to show that we are taking independent steps to look at every part of the issue, including the culture, the procedures and policies and the support?

I understand and sympathise with the sentiments that underpin Monica Lennon’s supplementary question.

The purpose of the survey, in the first instance, is to try to ascertain in some detail the scope and range of the issues that the Parliament might have to face. When we see the analysis, we will have an opportunity to be able to understand what next steps we might take.

It is important—or at least useful—to say at this stage that we are working on the structure of the survey at the moment. We want to get it out before the end of the month, so members’ ideas about what and how questions might be included will be welcomed by the corporate body as we take that work forward.

I understand that the Parliament confirmed to The Guardian newspaper this morning that the hotline is not a reporting mechanism for victims of sexual harassment. Given that the leaflet says, “Speak up and speak out”, will Jackson Carlaw clarify that?

Given that the hotline is operating only between 9 am and 5 pm, people will have to use it during the working day. Does Jackson Carlaw understand that that is an additional complication?

People who have concerns can also represent them through the confidential website, because we recognise not only that the hotline is available only during certain hours of the day but that it might be difficult for someone to access a secure area in which to make a confidential phone call. The website link will allow a conversation to be facilitated at a time and in a place that is suitable for the individual who wants to make the call.

Sexual Harassment (Audit of Female MSP and Staff Experiences)

Quite a lot of what I wanted to bring up has probably been covered already.

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, in light of recent reports regarding sexual harassment, whether it will consider a confidential and independent audit of the experiences of female MSPs and staff of sexual harassment to inform any decisions on how to protect them in the future. (S5O-01439)

As I said in response to the previous question, we will be issuing an anonymised survey to understand more about the extent of the problem and how we can further promote and underpin a positive working environment for everyone. We have a wide range of employers on the parliamentary campus, including MSPs, political parties, the Scottish Government and others, and the survey will be sent to everyone who works in and for the Parliament, including MSPs, MSP staff and parliamentary staff.

You mentioned that you have engaged Emma Ritch. Are you reaching out to any other women’s groups to inform your progress as you take these things forward?

We are still considering the various individuals and bodies who might be able to assist. If the member has any suggestions of other bodies with which we might engage in drafting the survey, the corporate body would be very happy to consider them.

Operation of Bars and Receptions (Procedures and Policies)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what changes it plans to make to its procedures and policies regarding the operation of bars and receptions in the Parliament, in light of the role that such contexts and alcohol had in recent reports regarding sexual harassment. (S5O-01449)

As I have said, our diversity and inclusion board will review our processes and procedures. Our survey is intended to give us a better understanding of all the issues. If the survey’s findings suggest to us that further reviews need to take place, we will consider the best way to take that forward.

We have only one bar that is open in the evening. It serves bistro-style meals, snacks, teas, coffee and home baking, and additionally serves alcohol between 4 pm and 11 pm on sitting days.

There is no excuse or satisfactory justification for the behaviour in the instances of sexual harassment that have come to light in recent weeks—full stop. To tackle it, we must consider the culture of politics and Parliament.

I have been struck by the observation of many people outside this place that it is odd that we have a bar in what is meant to be a place of work. The consumption of alcohol is not an excuse for harassment, but bars and free alcohol at receptions make a drinking culture part of this job. Does the corporate body agree that if we are to tackle the culture that has given rise to these incidents, we must question what role alcohol has played and, by extension, the policies and practices of Parliament with regard to it?

I understand the point that the member is making. I suppose that it may apply to the broader political world, but we do not have the same sitting pattern here as there is at Westminster, where many of these things are reported, and we do not have as many bars. As I said, we have one evening bar, which on sitting days serves alcohol between 4 pm and 11 pm and also serves a variety of meals and snacks. We also must remember that events and receptions have a key objective of creating opportunities for public participation and engagement, and they inform the work of Parliament and its members.

As I said a moment ago, if this is an issue of concern, the anonymised survey that we are issuing will allow all those who receive it to make representations in that regard. My experience, which I know is the experience of many other members, is that the bar that we have is an asset to the Parliament. As far as I have been able to determine, we can regard its use as responsible.

Five members want to ask supplementaries—I wonder why. I will take them all, but I ask members to be brief.

The context or setting for sexual harassment, whether at receptions, in bars or following the consumption of alcohol, is no excuse for such behaviour. I am deeply concerned that a question such as Daniel Johnson’s might give the impression that women should avoid such settings in order to protect themselves. Indeed, in the worst-case scenario, it could in some way be viewed as victim blaming.

Does the SPCB agree that it is the perpetrators of sexual harassment who are responsible for their actions, and that women who have been harassed are in no way to blame for what has happened to them?

I agree entirely with that. It is absolutely fundamental to say that alcohol is not an excuse and should not be used as evidence of a reason why people might excuse behaviour that is totally unacceptable. The member put the point very well.

Will the SPCB reiterate that alcohol does not cause sexual harassment? It is often used as a self-justification by perpetrators; that is the point that we should be aware of.

Again, I agree with the sentiments that have been expressed. It is important to say that, in the view of many, we have responsible use of alcohol in the Scottish Parliament. Alcohol is not something that people should be allowed to point to to excuse behaviour that is completely unacceptable and which could take place anywhere in the Parliament. Wherever such behaviour takes place, it is completely unacceptable.

I reiterate that alcohol is never an excuse or a justification for the behaviour that we are talking about, and the vast majority of people drink responsibly. What we are not hearing enough about today is the behaviour of men and of the perpetrators. I ask members and the corporate body to reflect on that point and to take it seriously because, quite frankly, the current discussion is a distraction from the point that we are trying to make today.

The events team that serves alcohol at events in the Parliament—which are packaged on the basis of 2.5 drinks per person attending an event, not on the basis of the use that members make of the bar—knows many of the customers and monitors what has been consumed; it is not that it simply allows alcohol to be consumed without reference to how much has been drunk. However, there are other issues that are of more fundamental concern—I agree with that.

Having served on the Justice Committee, I have heard on many occasions about offenders using alcohol as an excuse for abuse. Does the member agree with me that alcohol is never an excuse for abuse and that, as has been said, it is the perpetrator who must look at his responsibilities?

I agree with that unreservedly, and not simply in relation to this Parliament; that unreserved agreement is without qualification. Alcohol is not an acceptable reason for behaviour of that character anywhere, never mind in this Parliament.

I simply wish to reiterate other members’ point that alcohol is not an excuse. Alcohol is not the issue; abuse of power is. I hope that the member agrees with me on that point. That is what we must go forward together to address and what the general tone of our discussions must drive towards.

It is important to note that the anonymised survey is not about the consumption of alcohol in the Parliament—if people want to raise alcohol as an issue in any response that they make, they can do so; rather the survey is about precisely the very issues that Claudia Beamish raises.

The scope of the questions that we put must manage to address all the points and give people every opportunity to express the concerns that they might have, so that we can then decide on an informed basis what further action needs to be taken, with whom and how.

Sexual Harassment (Action)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body what action it is taking to address sexual harassment in the Parliament. (S5O-01443)

As David Stewart said earlier, the Presiding Officers and, indeed, all the party leaders, have made it emphatically clear that the Parliament takes a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment.

We have a number of policies and processes in place to deal with complaints, and the number of reported cases of sexual harassment is low. As Jackie Baillie helpfully reminded us at today’s First Minister’s question time, that does not necessarily mean that sexual harassment is not taking place. Therefore, we are taking steps to ensure that people who experience harassment feel able to talk about it and are aware of the right route for reporting their concerns.

We have set up our helpline to offer information and guidance on the routes that are available and to encourage reporting. We are looking at whether any of our procedures need to be strengthened and, as Jackson Carlaw said, we will issue a survey to all building users. It is important that we look at all our policies and procedures, but it is equally important that those who harass others realise that they need to change their behaviour.

I am concerned that there is not a common grievance procedure. MSP staff do not have the same equality of treatment as Parliament staff, because they are not covered by the dignity at work policy. It is confusing and potentially intimidating for an MSP staff member to make a complaint, and I imagine that it is difficult for an MSP to raise a complaint against a colleague. I am concerned about how those concerns are dealt with. If a complaint concerns MSPs and their staff, it will be the parties that deal with it, and I am a bit unclear about the role of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body in that. I am also concerned that we do not have the same level of confidence with regard to the robustness of the procedures that the political parties might have in place. Does the SPCB have a role in co-ordinating the way in which the parties might deal with this type of complaint?

I understand some of the concerns that arise around possible confusion about the arrangements that are in place in each of the political parties. A helpful feature of the discussion of this issue in recent weeks is the amount of discussion that has taken place between parties as well as within parties about the procedures that are in place.

It is probably important or necessary to acknowledge the role of MSPs as employers. That presents a challenge. The SPCB has sought to enable that dialogue within and between parties and to provide—not least through the helpline and the publicity that we are putting in place around the complex—reassurance that that source of guidance and support is available to whoever wants to raise a complaint.

Given that the Parliament is an employer, the Scottish Government is an employer and MSPs are individual employers—as well as the fact that, in addition, parties will have their own policies and codes of conduct—is the SPCB concerned about the need for a consistency of approach in terms of procedures and policies for everyone who works here, and does it have any observations with regard to how that consistency can be achieved?

It is helpful that there has been a discussion within and between parties, and I hope that there is common learning to be done. None of us has a monopoly on wisdom here. Through our experience, we will be aware of things that have worked and things that have not worked, and there are lessons to be learned in that regard. It is up to political parties to look to their own procedures and see where they could be strengthened. The SPCB can perhaps help to facilitate that but, ultimately, it is an issue for political parties.

Donald Cameron is right to remind us of the range of employers in the complex, and I would add to that list media organisations and the contractors who work here in large numbers. Providing total consistency across the board might be difficult, but I accept that there is common learning to be done about what works.

Underlying all of what we are talking about are not only processes but the need to convey the message that, as colleagues have said, there is zero tolerance of this behaviour, not only in the Parliament—where we should be taking a lead—but across society.

Sexual Harassment (Code of Conduct for MSPs and Staff)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body whether it will consider producing a code of conduct for MSPs and staff regarding their behaviour in relation to sexual harassment. (S5O-01437)

Section 7 of the code of conduct for members sets out the rules for general conduct that members must follow. Under the code, members must abide by policies that are adopted by the SPCB, and that includes the dignity at work policy. In practice, that means that members are expected to abide by the spirit of the policy, while the separate code of conduct for members sets out the procedure that is to be followed if a complaint is made against a member.

The dignity at work policy sets out the definition of harassment, the type of behaviour that is likely to constitute harassment and the responsibilities that people have to create a safe working environment where people are treated with respect.

The Parliament’s diversity and inclusion board is going to review our procedures for reporting and investigating harassment and, as we have heard, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee is going to review the code of conduct to ensure that it remains fit for purpose.

Would the corporate body consider producing a stand-alone handbook-style publication on sexual harassment? Ideally, that would be drawn up with input from organisations that specialise in that area. It might be helpful if the publication were to include some examples to assist individuals in recognising inappropriate behaviour.

That is an excellent idea. I will contact the clerks to the diversity and inclusion board to pass on that advice. I will ask them to contact Ms Denham directly so that we can pick up that best practice.

Harassment (Protection for MSP Staff and Interns)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, in light of recent reports regarding harassment, what provisions are in place to protect staff and interns employed by MSPs. (S5O-01447)

As I said in response to Ash Denham’s question, the members’ code of conduct sets out the rules on general conduct that members must follow and the routes that should be followed if someone has a complaint. That would include complaints from interns. The code does not cover the conduct of members towards their own staff, which is covered by employment law.

The contract of employment under which all staff are employed comes under the auspices of the members’ expenses scheme, including the diversity and inclusion policy. It is important to emphasise that that policy states that members, in their role as employers, must have a zero-tolerance approach to any form of discrimination, harassment, bullying or victimisation. The policy directs staff to raise grievances on such matters using the established grievance procedure. Although, technically, those complaints can be investigated by the employing member or someone appointed by them, I strongly point to the human resources advice that, in the interests of fairness, members should always appoint someone else to investigate. Harassment of any kind is cited as gross misconduct under the established disciplinary procedure.

I sometimes wonder whether it would be better for MSPs not to employ staff and for those staff to be employed directly by Parliament. That might give greater protection to staff and interns. That is another story, and I might come back to Parliament with a question on that.

I welcome the action that has been taken in setting up the confidential phone line and the dedicated room where staff and interns can go for advice. I also welcome the fact that posters, which we all received today, have been produced. They have the heading—in very large print—“Sexual harassment”, but as has been said before, harassment can come in many guises, such as bullying and intimidation, and need not just be sexual. Will David Stewart confirm that the measures put in place will cover all forms of harassment?

Forgive me, Presiding Officer, but I will not address the issue of whether the corporate body should employ members’ staff. That is perhaps a question for Sandra White to put at a future meeting—whether I am here to deal with it is another question.

I emphasise that harassment is a general and broad term. Given our zero-tolerance position, anyone who feels harassed, bullied or subjected to sexual misconduct should contact the Parliament. The advice line is one way of doing that; other ways of doing so are available through the code. The key point is that we have zero tolerance. I encourage anyone, irrespective of the job that they do in the Parliament, to contact the helpline if they feel that they are being subjected to harassment in any way.

Sexual Harassment Hotline (Calls from Bystanders)

To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body whether its new sexual harassment hotline will accept calls from bystanders who witness inappropriate language and behaviour. (S5O-01445)

I can say unequivocally that it will. We have set up a dedicated web page with details about the helpline. We are also distributing posters and cards around the building, on all of which we make it clear that if people have seen, heard or experienced sexual harassment, they should phone the helpline for information about the appropriate reporting channels.

I thank Liam McArthur for his positive response. As he will know, it is widely acknowledged that it is difficult for people to report harassment, so we need to ensure that the phone line is open to as wide a group as possible. It is not altogether clear from the posters that bystanders are encouraged to report, too. I hope that the SPCB will reflect on that, because there are occasions when MSPs or staff witness inappropriate behaviour or it is reported to them and we need to encourage reporting of that, too.

What will the process be if a third party makes use of the helpline? How will their complaint be progressed?

Jackie Baillie has made a fair point. It is the first print run of the posters. If there are suggestions about how we might improve their profile around the Parliament complex, we will certainly look to take them on board.

On bystanders reporting, it is very clear that the zero-tolerance approach will work only if all of us take responsibility, whether we are directly affected by an incident or see it happening to a colleague, a member of staff or a building user. That point was very well made.

On bystanders making use of the helpline, advice is available on how the complaint or concern can best be triaged. As David Stewart mentioned in response to an earlier question, quite specialist support and a more specialist response might often need to be provided. The helpline will provide a portal for onward dissemination of the complaint in an appropriate fashion. Obviously, that would depend on whether it was made by a bystander or somebody who had been directly affected.