1 in 10 Complaints to UK Parliament’s Bullying Watchdog Are Withdrawn

The figures, obtained via Freedom of Information requests, suggest that the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme is not supporting victims, people working in Westminster told VICE World News.
uk parliament bullying complaints
Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

One in ten complaints to the UK Parliament’s misconduct watchdog are withdrawn by the complainant, figures obtained by VICE World News show.

People working in Westminster said that the figures, obtained via Freedom of Information requests, suggest that the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) was not supporting victims well enough.

The ICGS was set up with cross-party backing in 2018 for people working in the House of Commons and the House of Lords to report bullying and sexual harassment in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the so-called “Pestminster” scandal spotlighting sexual harassment in Parliament. 

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Figures released under FOI laws show that 47 of the 248 complaints made to the watchdog up to the 24th of May this year did not proceed to the final assessment stage, where a case would be fully assessed. Of these 47 cases, 27 were not assessed because the complainant withdrew their complaint.

Other reasons for a case not reaching the final stage can vary; it could be because the allegations have already been considered in a different forum or because there is no known respondent for the case. It could also be because the alleged behaviour doesn’t break any of its policies on bullying and sexual misconduct or because the person was not a member of the Parliamentary community.

The scheme has been brought under scrutiny after numerous cases of sexual misconduct in Parliament were brought to public attention.

In April it was reported that 56 MPs were being investigated by the scheme for sexual misconduct, prompting calls to better investigate inappropriate behaviour by politicians. In May, the director of the ICGS, Jo Willows, said that this figure was incorrect.

That same month, senior Tory MP Andrea Leadsom said the scheme was not fit for purpose, while House of Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle said the culture and working practices of Westminster needed reform.

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Nadia Whittome, Labour MP for Nottingham East, told VICE World News: “We know that bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct is rife in Parliament, so it’s extremely concerning that one in ten cases are dropped due to the complainant withdrawing. 

“The reasons behind this must be urgently investigated and more support needs to be put in place to help complainants throughout the process.”

“In terms of complainants pulling out, it sounds about right,” says Becky Paton, a former parliamentary staffer who now helps current members report sexual misconduct through processes like the ICGS. “The process takes so long – I know one that took two years. In one case within that time there was a general election - so the MP was standing in an election despite an investigation into sexual assault going on. It’s such a long process that hangs over you and your career.”

She added: “248 I’d say is only scratching the surface from the amount of people I’ve spoken to that are making allegations but haven’t gone to the ICGS.”

Paton said that the ICGS’ lack of formal power meant that victims often feel like the investigation isn’t worth the final decision, referring to the Scottish National Party MP Patrick Grady who was given a two-day suspension by the scheme after he was found to have made an “unwanted sexual advance” to a member of party staff.

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“Two days? That’s pathetic. They can suspend people for 30 days and that brings a recall election but that’s really traumatic for a victim watching a by-election with their abuser. I can’t imagine having to deal with that.”

Jenny Symmons, Labour staffer and chair of the trade union GMB, said: “We're concerned to see that 1 in 10 cases are withdrawn by the complainants before reaching the final stage of the ICGS process.”

She said that while some complaints may be dismissed for genuine reasons, the worry is that “complainants may be withdrawing their complaints due to pressures experienced during the ICGS process, or fears that justice won't be served. MPs' staff in particular put their careers and reputation at risk by coming forward, and they need reassurance it will be worthwhile.”

Symmons added: “Trust in the system must be improved, with time targets for completion of cases implemented and appropriate sanctions given to respondents when complaints are upheld.” 

A House of Commons spokesperson said: “Bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have absolutely no place in Parliament. The Behaviour Code makes clear the standards of behaviour expected of everyone in Parliament - whether staff, Members’ staff, members of the House of Lords, MPs or visitors.

“Parliament's Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme was set up to enable anybody in the parliamentary community to report bullying, harassment, and sexual misconduct in confidence. We want to ensure that everyone working here feels able to report such instances, and we know that at present there are still barriers to this happening.  

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