John Bercow has written to the party leaders to demand to see their policies for handling sexual harassment allegations, in a move that will force the Conservatives to make their process public.
The Speaker sent a letter to Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and other party leaders on Thursday asking them to formally publish their policies so that they can be displayed on parliament’s website.
It follows more than a week of allegations about sexual misconduct in Westminster, which has led to the resignation of Michael Fallon as defence secretary, investigations into two senior ministers, Damian Green and Mark Garnier, and the suspension of the whip from Labour backbencher Jared O’Mara.
May has called for the establishment of a support team in parliament to handle allegations of sexual harassment or abuse by MPs and the right of referral to an independent body that can examine unresolved complaints.
However, Bercow made clear that he expected the parties themselves to have robust processes for dealing with sexual misconduct complaints internally after a meeting of the House of Commons commission.
“As a result of that meeting, I am now asking you formally to publish the policies and processes your party currently operates, and to forward a copy to the commission’s staff. They can then be published on the parliamentary website,” he said.
Bercow said the commission would look at widening the “respect policy” protecting House of Commons staff and consult with the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Hudson, to see if her office might play an enhanced role in cases of sexual misconduct.
His request for publication of the policies will force the Conservatives to make their processes public. The party did not respond to repeated requests for details of their sexual harassment policies on Thursday.
It appears to have published an online policy covering complaints by volunteers and established a voluntary code of conduct for MPs and their employees in 2014, which said they should comply with an organisation called the Conservative pastoral care team in the event of a grievance procedure.
The Evening Standard reported that the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers blocked an attempt by David Cameron bring in a mandatory code of conduct for MPs and their employees in 2016. But a source on the committee said the plan was rejected because it would have handed even more power over discipline to the party whips.
In her letter to Bercow this week, May said the Conservatives were “determined to protect those staff who work for MPs” but she believed a House of Commons mediation service plus a contractually binding grievance procedure was the best way of doing so.
Replying in the house, Bercow said he would look at the options but suggested the party should have its own processes for dealing with sexual misconduct complaints.
“The prime minister’s letter to me, written as leader of the Conservative party, very candidly admits the difficulties the Conservative party has had in introducing the sort of mandatory grievance scheme that some other parties have introduced in recent years,” he said. “It does not require my intervention for the party to adopt an effective grievance scheme.
“I hope that all parties will rapidly and thoroughly review the arrangements they have in place to ensure that those arrangements are credible, enforceable, accessible, transparent, and comprise an independent element. The latter notion, that any complaints system and grievance procedure must satisfy constituents as well as colleagues, strikes me as important.”
Labour recently published its sexual harassment policy, giving contact details for its head of complaints and the process for hearings through a special sexual harassment panel of the national executive committee.
However, some Labour women are pushing for more support to be available to complainants. Jess Phillips, the chair of the women’s parliamentary Labour party, said she and others were calling for an independent specialist sexual violence abuse adviser to be available so victims could come forward without fear.
The Liberal Democrats have published guidelines for making a complaint which covers sexual misconduct as well as many other misdemeanours.
The House of Commons itself set up a hotline in 2014 for people to report complaints of bullying, harassment or other abuse but it can only give advice and does not take any action against alleged perpetrators or offer redress.
Bercow was forced to deny claims on Thursday by Rachael Maskell, a Labour MP, that he once dismissed her concerns about bullying behaviour by MPs in prime minister’s questions as “women’s issues”.
Bercow had told the MP last year that he had written to the leaders of the three main political parties to appeal for better behaviour in the Commons but added: “You might also wish to raise your concerns with Dr Sarah Childs, who is currently undertaking a secondment from the University of Bristol looking at how parliament can become a more gender sensitive institution.”
Writing to Maskell on Thursday, he said: “You told the leader that you had raised this with me and that I had dismissed this ‘terming it to be a women’s issue’. This is totally and utterly wrong.
“I would never use, and have never used, that form of words. Indeed, for the whole of my speakership, I have been tireless in working to get more women elected to parliament and also for more women to be promoted to senior positions in the House Service