Orcadian 07/11/17

Politics across the UK continues to be consumed by the fall-out from a wave of allegations about sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour that shows no signs of abating. Already it has accounted for Ministers from three separate parties in Westminster, Holyrood and the Welsh Assembly. Tragically, in the case of Carl Sergeant, the former Welsh Communities Secretary, it also appears to have led him to take his own life.

At this stage, the precise nature of the allegations in all three of these cases remains unclear, though more details may yet emerge. Meantime, while the assumption must be that the concerns raised about their behaviour are both serious and reasonably-founded, it does feel a little unsatisfactory that Ministers can be removed from office with so little transparency around the circumstances.

Overall, however, there is a recognition across the political spectrum and amongst those with experience of working in the various parliaments that an overhaul of working practices and culture is long overdue. Whether the need is most acute in relation to Westminster is up for debate, but no-one seriously disputes that there is work to be done in the Scottish Parliament as well.

During the course of last week, that work began in earnest and on a genuinely cross-party basis. While one MSP or MP and one political party may capture the headlines on any given day, history tells us that no party is immune from the sort of attitudes and actions that have given rise to the concerns that are now being aired. We all have a duty, therefore, to encourage and support those in bringing forward complaints, to the police where appropriate. More than that, however, we must strive to create an environment and culture within our parliament that is respectful of all and intolerant of behaviour that falls short.

The same aspirations ought to apply in every workplace and organisation, of course. Parliament, though, should be leading by example. To date, that has not been the case. Similarly, individual political parties, notwithstanding some improvements in some areas, have been found seriously wanting.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the recent allegations is the extent of the imbalance in power between alleged perpetrator and victim. That dynamic needs to be properly acknowledged, not least in understanding why so often victims have been reluctant to come forward with complaints in the past and why they will need help in doing so now and in future.

At Holyrood, with the strong backing of all party leaders, it has been the Corporate Body taking the lead. I sit on the Corporate Body, which is elected by the parliament as a whole and includes members of each of the parties. We are responsible for running parliament on behalf of all building users, including MSPs and their staff, parliamentary staff, media, contractors and, of course, thousands of visitors.

After considering the complaints procedures that the different parties currently have in place, and which are being reviewed, the Corporate Body approved the establishment of a dedicated helpline. This will enable any individual in the parliament to make a complaint or seek advice anonymously. It is independent of the parties, though not of parliament, and it may be that this is revisited in due course.

I believe the Corporate Body has discharged its duties sensibly, but it has not helped that all its MSP members are male, including the Presiding Officer. Steps have already been taken to avoid this situation arising in future, but the position is now untenable and needs a more urgent remedy.

Former Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale has been particularly vocal on this and while she is right, Kezia conveniently ignores her own culpability in having nominated a man to both the Corporate Body and parliamentary bureau when given the chance last year.

Ultimately though, the make-up of the Corporate Body, the existence of a helpline and more general awareness-raising are all very well. The real test is whether we can use this moment, and these events, to help achieve a change in culture and attitudes not just in parliament and politics but more widely across society. At present, that seems some way off.

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