Fears for victims as parliament sleaze probes take up to two years

Exclusive: One investigation by body set up in the wake of ‘Pestminster’ scandal took 572 working days

Simon Murphy
Chief Reporter
Sunday 03 July 2022 22:06 BST
<p>Conduct within Westminster has come under the spotlight again </p>

Conduct within Westminster has come under the spotlight again

Investigations by parliament’s misconduct watchdog are taking up to two years to reach their conclusions, prompting fears victims may be deterred from making complaints.

The Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) was set up in the wake of the Pestminster scandal to deal with complaints relating to bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct by MPs, peers and parliamentary staff.

But figures show that the average length of investigation closed in 2020/21 lasted 196 working days, while the longest inquiry took 572 working days to conclude - representing more than two years.

It comes as Chris Pincher – the MP who quit as the Conservatives’ deputy chief whip and was suspended by the party following allegations he groped two men in Westminster – faces six further sexual misconduct claims.

One Tory MP told The Independent that he was groped on two occasions by Mr Pincher, while the Mail on Sunday carried claims that he made unwanted advances against an individual a decade ago.

The Sunday Times reported allegations that Mr Pincher had groped a male Tory MP in 2017, made unwanted advances towards a different Tory MP in 2018, and did the same towards a Tory activist in Tamworth in 2019. Mr Pincher denies all allegations of sexual harassment.

Boris Johnson is also under growing pressure over the decision to give Mr Pincher his role in the whips’ office, amid claims he referred to the MP as “Pincher by name, pincher by nature”.

Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey defended the PM on Sunday, but conceded that she had only been told by the No 10 press office that Mr Johnson had been unaware of any “specific claims” against Mr Pincher.

It follows bruising defeats for the Tories in two by-elections last month, each triggered by the resignation of a disgraced MP. Tory MP Imran Ahmad Khan, who represented Wakefield, formally quit the Commons in early May after being convicted in April of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy. On 23 May, Khan was jailed for 18 months.

Neil Parish, the former Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton in Devon, stood down after admitting watching pornography in the Commons.

One union, Prospect, which represents hundreds of parliamentary staff, described a two-year time frame to conclude a case as “beyond the pale”, adding that “taking a long time adds hugely and unnecessarily to the stress suffered by the complainant”.

The ICGS’s annual report – which included the figures showing the average length of investigation closed in 2020/21, as well as that of the longest – noted: “Of the 48 investigations completed this year, 37 were cases carried over from preceding years (some of which were complex, non-recent cases).

“Every effort is being taken to reduce the length of time of investigations – through greater efficiencies, extra resources in the team, streamlining the processes, better training and guidance for investigators – while not compromising the rigour and robustness of investigations.

“However, the complexity of some ICGS cases inevitably means that such cases will take a great deal of time to investigate.”

The body upheld 46 per cent of investigations completed in 2020/21, the report noted. The longest time taken by an investigation that was closed in 2019/20 was 244 working days, with the figure standing at 198 in 2018/19.

The average length of investigation increased from 121 working days in 2018/19 to 127 in 2019/20, before hitting 196 in 2020/21.

Tory MP Imran Ahmad Khan was convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy

Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of Prospect, said: “Complaints of this nature are highly sensitive and it is in the interests of all parties to get through them properly, but in a timely manner.

“Taking a long time adds hugely and unnecessarily to the stress suffered by the complainant and could be a factor in deterring other complainants [from] coming forward.

“Prospect continues to support and encourage union members to use the ICGS, and it is a huge step forward to have an independent complaints process and any new body is going to have teething problems but a two year wait to conclude a case of this nature is beyond the pale.

“Many cases are handled properly and in an acceptable timeframe so one has to ask what the hold up is on these other cases. It is the case that some parties, including MPs, have in some cases got in the way of a timely resolution through failure to engage and indeed active obstruction.

“People who have been bullied or harassed cannot be left in employment limbo for this length of time. ICGS must identify the hold ups  and put processes in place to ensure they can’t happen again.”

Jenny Symmons, chair of the GMB Branch for MPs’ and Lords’ staff, said: “The creation of the ICGS was a huge breakthrough in addressing the problems with bullying and harassment in parliament.

“However, it is a work in progress – and a major issue that needs addressing is the length of time it currently takes to resolve cases. At present, there are no targets set by the ICGS team to investigate and resolve cases.”

She added: “There are multiple opportunities during the process for respondents, typically MPs, to delay the proceedings by not responding to emails, failing to provide evidence, or appealing decisions to buy more time.

“During the lengthy process, victims of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct have to go through traumatic interviews and relive their experiences again and again. Out of respect for their health and their need to move on – either in the same job with the same boss, or in a different workplace – the ICGS must impose time targets for resolving cases.”

An 18-month review into the ICGS by lawyer Alison Stanley, published in February last year, recommended a series of measures to tackle “slow and lengthy investigations”.

The review also highlighted concerns raised over the “quality of some investigations”. The review stated: “A small number of contributors expressed concern as to the professional experience of the investigator, which had adversely impacted both the quality of the investigation and the respondent’s confidence in it. It also increased the stress experienced during the process.

“The concern included lack of confidence that the investigator was sufficiently aware of the additional challenges encountered by individuals on account of race, gender, disability, or other factors, or listened to and understood their lived experience in this particular work environment.

“Some decision-making bodies and contributors also expressed concern about the quality of investigations for a number of reasons, including not all the relevant evidence having been considered. The majority of the concerns about quality related to cases in 2019 or the first half of 2020.”

Ms Stanley also noted that she had “heard positive feedback from several contributors, both complainants and respondents, as to the professionalism and quality of the investigator, regardless of the length of time the investigation took”.

National officer at the FDA union, Jawad Raza, said: “There are usually genuine reasons for these delays, which include the capacity of the ICGS team but can also be issues such as pauses requested by the complainant or respondent, witnesses being unavailable, or delays in obtaining evidence. All of these cases are complex, which means it takes time to investigate and get it right. However, steps should always be taken to ensure there is no unnecessary delay, which could lead to added stress for complainants.”

A UK Parliament spokesperson, who did not provide further details about the investigation that lasted 572 working days, said: “Bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have absolutely no place in Parliament. We work hard to ensure the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) is a fair, thorough, independent and efficient process and that support is available to all parties involved in each case.

“We remain committed to streamlining the ICGS process in the coming months and significant work has already been undertaken to reduce delays, including procuring new investigation providers and expanding capacity to deal with casework.”

They added that 30 of the recommendations made in Ms Stanley’s 18-month review “have now been implemented”.

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